You’ve probably seen it on a few cars: a deep blue flag with one silver star. In today’s day and age, you have to wonder if it is some sort of white nationalist nod to the Confederate flag? A b-team Confederate battle flag, perhaps? Not quite. It’s the flag of “The West Florida Republic” from 1810.
Most of us have to then ask, what’s West Florida? Well, after what we call “The French & Indian War,” which Europeans call “The Seven Years’ War,” Britain got from France what Britain came to call “British West Florida,” which the U.S. Supreme Court called “between the Iberville and the Perdido.” It was a tract of land bound at the top by the 31st parallel, which ran east to west from the Perdido River down through our Gulf coast and west to what they call “the Iberville.” The Bayou Manchac waterway near Lake Ponchartrain in Louisiana was first called the “River d’Iberville” on a French map from 1702, but you won’t see the name nowadays.
Iberville entered this waterway off the Mississippi in canoes on March 24, 1699, a lovely time of year, and in his journal called it “one of the prettiest spots I have seen, fine level ground, beautiful woods, clear and bare of canes . . .”
In 1780, Spain took Mobile, and as a part of the Treaty of Paris ending our Revolutionary War among other wars, Spain got West Florida and then became “Spanish West Florida.”
By 1810 Spain was falling apart. Napoleon had conquered Spain and put his brother Philip on the throne as king, and Spain was also broke. Americans living in Spanish West Florida, from Louisiana to Baldwin County, decided to start a revolution and set up a new government that they called “the Republic of West Florida,” with its capital in Louisiana. Period documents show it to have been a well-designed government. They formed a small army and even captured Baton Rouge from the Spanish.
Alabama played a major role in all this, too. For one thing, the head of the small Navy of the Republic was Joseph Collins, deputy surveyor of Mobile, who also owned a 1-mile square tract in what is now Magnolia Springs, and was captain of a Spanish militia unit called “The Fish River Dragoons.” Its Creole descendants still live in that area. For another, a Baldwin and Mobile County Ivy League-educated lawyer named Joseph P. Kennedy headed up “the Mobile Society” and tried to capture Mobile. The mission ended in failure when Kennedy sent his troops not only the one-starred flag, but also a barrel of whiskey; they got drunk and started shooting each other about when the Spanish Army showed up and whipped them, sending Cyrus Sibley — later founder of Montrose — off to prison in Morro Castle in Havana. This is why the flag of the West Florida Republic flies in St. Louis Cathedral — it successfully flew over Louisiana — but it does not fly in Mobile, since it never successfully flew over Mobile. About then, the United States simply took West Florida, on the highly technical theory that it was included in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
So, in that manner, the West Florida Revolution died. But its flag, sometimes called the “Star of the West” (people then thought anything west of Georgia was the West), lived on, as Texas adopted it (with a gold star instead of silver) for the Republic of Texas.
When Mississippi seceded from the Union in 1861 to become a free Republic, it adopted the flag of the Republic of West Florida. An Irish troubadour named Harry MaCarthy was there, and to the tune of the old Irish song “Irish Jaunting Car,” wrote the song “The Bonnie Blue Flag (that Bears a Single Star),” which made the flag famous. People sang that song in the Civil War, and some flew the flag. It became the sort-of unofficial second-string Confederate flag, especially since the Confederate government kept changing its mind about just what its flag was.
Perhaps today some people are flying that flag or have the sticker on their bumper, thinking it is a more sophisticated (less redneck) version of a Confederate flag, but that is wrong. It is the flag of the West Florida Republic, a brief (and mostly forgotten) stop in the foundation of our little part of the world.
David Bagwell is a retired attorney and amateur historian living on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay.