When a group of white anti-government militants occupied the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Western Oregon in January of 2016, they claimed to be acting under a divine message from God. While the occupation appeared at first to be a protest against the imminent imprisonment of two ranchers who were charged with committing arson on federal land, the demands went far beyond exoneration. They called for the land to be returned to the original owners, who they consider to be the white ranchers who settled the region in the 1870s. The demand, which ignored the Paiute tribe who were there long before the ranchers, was absurd because it was anachronistic, a throwback to an era when it was acceptable for armed white men to aggressively stake claim to land. Their emphasis on the holy divinity of private property rights is the defining ideological characteristic of the United States, and their arguments can be traced back to the era in which private property as a concept first came to the West.
The United States in the 19th century spread across the North American continent like a virus. In 1845, while writing about an ongoing border conflict with Great Britain in Oregon, journalist John O’Sullivan introduced the term “manifest destiny” into the American lexicon. The United States had the right to annex Oregon simply because it was between the U.S. and the Pacific Ocean. It was the United States’ “manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us,” O’Sullivan argued. The term was used as a divine permission slip from God to wage territorial war and commit genocide against indigenous people. While manifest destiny reached its brutal conclusions in the western expanses, its wellspring began in an obscure conflict generated by the Louisiana Purchase—the U.S. annexation of the independent Republic of West Florida.
The Republic of West Florida was a geographic area comprised of what are now known as the Florida Parishes: East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, Livingston, St. Helena, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, Washington, and West Feliciana, as well as the Gulf coasts of Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. When President Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon in 1803—instantly doubling the land mass of the United States— the boundaries of the territory were unclear. Vast swaths of the North American continent had been warred over and traded between various colonial powers for decades, and untangling the confusing treaties regarding who owned what and where was a difficult and contentious task.
West Florida was a prime example of this confusion. Following the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, much of the Louisiana Territory passed from France’s hands to Spain’s. West Florida, however, went to Great Britain. Great Britain then lost both East and West Florida during the American Revolution, and the territory became part of the Spanish empire following the Treaty of Versailles in 1783. In 1800, Spain gave the Louisiana Territory back to France in an attempt to keep Napoleon from invading Spain. What was being returned to France, though, was never clearly delineated with official boundaries. Although France and the U.S. both believed that West Florida was part of the deal, Spain adamantly argued that the region was still a part of their empire, and continued to treat it as such.
By 1810, West Florida was a weak satellite of the Spanish empire, with only one administrator, Don Carlos Dehault de Lassus, and a garrison of some 40 soldiers. The tiny government and small policing capacity meant that much of West Florida was lawless, home to runaway slaves, bandits, defectors from various militaries, and small farmers who were squatting land. Also present were members of the Tangipahoa tribe of Native Americans, and reports indicate that members of the tribe raided farms and plantations throughout the region.
Plantations were the locus of power through which the elite of the Republic of West Florida began to organize. There were essentially three main political blocs in this relatively small geographic area. First, there were wealthy planters, merchants and poor folks who enjoyed the current regime of non- existent policing and lax taxes, and wanted to remain part of Spain. Another faction was composed of planters and recent settlers from the United States who favored annexation by the US in order to bring about the benefits of becoming part of a strong state, and maintain their rights as U.S. citizens. Finally, there was a group of planters who believed that seeking territorial independence was the best way to preserve their power and increase their profits.
The Republic of West Florida seems to have accidentally become an independent country. During the spring of 1810, Napoleon appeared to be on the verge of conquering Spain. This potential vacuum of power spurred the plantation elite to set up a parallel government to the Spanish administration, called the Convention. Through the Convention, they were supposedly advising de Lassus on how to keep the peace in the territory. However, certain members secretly began reaching out to the U.S. government, pleading for annexation. The U.S. was slow to respond to the requests, mostly due to confusion around whether or not the Constitution allowed for occupation and annexation of foreign territory. As the political uncertainty dragged throughout the summer and into September, some of the elite decided to throw a revolution instead.
Lead by Philemon Thomas, a wealthy planter who owned vast holdings in what is now Baton Rouge, a contingent of armed men advanced on the Spanish garrison outside of Baton Rouge on September 23. Two Spanish soldiers were killed in the battle. After three days, and no word from Spain or the U.S. regarding the matter, the Convention declared themselves an independent republic and began organizing a constitution and legal system. Their main concerns were protecting property rights—ensuring that all land claims were honored—and maintaining the legality of slavery. One of the new government’s first calls to action was requesting planters send enslaved men to help rebuild the damaged fort.
However, not everyone wanted to become a new nation. Planters in St. Helena and Tangipahoa remained loyal to the Spanish, and were raising an army. Thomas was granted the authority to march with his growing army into the areas that supported the Spanish empire. Thomas was mostly able to convince the holdouts to lay down their arms and support the new country. But in one instance, the encounter was violent. Thomas and his troops burned the plantation of William Cooper, slaughtered his animals, and murdered him. Dissent quickly collapsed.
In the end, the Republic of West Florida only lasted for 74 days. The surrender of West Florida to the U.S. went smoothly. President Madison annexed the territory without Congressional approval or an official treaty with Spain, marking the first instance in which a U.S. president unilaterally acquired territory—an action that defines manifest destiny and that would become more and more common as the 19th century progressed and U.S. territory strained to reach the Pacific Ocean.
It is here where the questions surrounding the actions and treatment of the Malheur occupiers run into another historical parallel. Many critics of the government’s relatively hands-off approach to Malheur argued that such lax treatment would never be the case if the occupiers were persons of color making similar claims to territory.
A clear comparison regarding the different response given to liberation movements based on race and political status emerged right as the U.S. was annexing West Florida. In January of 1811, the largest uprising of enslaved men and women in the U.S. occurred along the German Coast, west of New Orleans. On January 6, enslaved Black men and women revolted on the sugar plantation of Manuel Andry. They killed his son and began to gather weapons and comrades to advance through the rich plantation lands on to New Orleans. Along the way, they accumulated between 200 to 500 enslaved men and women, and killed another plantation owner.
This was terrifying to the plantation power structure, who were aware that a similar slave revolt had proved successful in Haiti in 1803. They were terrified that the large numbers of the enslaved, as well as free people of color, would support the rebellion if it reached New Orleans. Three days later, the liberation force was met on the River Road by a militia of plantation owners. The battle was swift. 40 to 45 Black liberation fighters were killed.
By January 11, leaders were captured. One, Charles Deslondes, was killed without a trial, “His hands chopped off then shot in one thigh and then the other, until they were both broken—then shot in the body and before he had expired was put into a bundle of straw and roasted.” 95 other leaders and participants in the uprising were executed; some of the participants were publicly hung in what is now Jackson Square. Some of the revolutionaries’ heads were posted on spikes on the River Road to serve as a warning to others who may wish to rebel.
Compare this treatment to the West Florida Republic, a successful “revolution” by a wealthy elite who were able to maneuver quite unharmed through various empires to get what they wanted: protection of their land rights (stolen from indigenous people), and protection of their right to own slaves. Compare the treatment of Charles Deslondes to Philemon Thomas, who was also complicit in the murder of a white planter. Thomas was later elected twice to represent Louisiana in the U.S. House of Representatives, and passed away at 84 a very wealthy man.
Perhaps none of this is surprising, since the differences of treatment between who owns property and who was property is one of the defining injustices that are smeared across the centuries of America’s shared history. But when a group of white people occupy federal buildings, screeching about their oppression at the hands of the government, basing their arguments in complaints about taxes and upholding centuries-old property rights, it is worth exploring how our culture’s commitment to the fetishization of property ownership lends authority to such claims, and how lack of access to land has affected the legitimacy of political movements of more oppressed populations. After all, if we as a nation are to begin the process of returning land to “original owners,” we have a lot of reckoning to do.
There is a Museum of the Republic of West Florida in Jackson, Louisiana (3317 College St.). Despite the name, there is almost nothing in the Museum pertaining to the revolution or the short-lived republic. There is, however, a hearse featured in the film Interview with the Vampire, a massive miniature recreation of a Civil War battle that took place near the town, and a lock of hair that supposedly belonged to Jefferson Davis. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays, and 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Sundays.