ST. FRANCISVILLE, La. — I spent part of my rest day doing a leisurely bike ride through this picturesque town perched on high ground on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River. On homes and B&Bs in the historic district and on several businesses, I saw dark blue flags with a single white star.
Therein lies a tale about a little known episode of American history. St. Francisville, in West Feliciana Parish, enjoyed a brief moment of glory in 1810 as the capital of a country: the Republic of West Florida.
Austin was the capital of the Republic of Texas from 1839 to 1845, when Texas became a state. But St. Francisville’s time as a capital was much shorter — less than three months.
The Republic of West Florida included land that is part of the present states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. It was one of those parcels of land that changed hands frequently among the European powers in their scramble for a foothold in the New World.
By 1810, when Spain governed the territory, American settlers had made inroads in West Florida and didn’t take kindly to Spanish rule.
On Sept. 23, 1810, rebels under the command of Col. Philemon Thomas captured the Spanish garrison at Baton Rouge and raised a blue flag with a single five-pointed star, called the Bonnie Blue Flag.
They declared independence for the Republic of West Florida and established the capital at St. Francisville, in the southeastern portion of Louisiana that juts out to the east, sometimes called the instep of the Louisiana boot.
The flag had been made only a few days before by Melissa Johnson, wife of Maj. Isaac Johnson, commander of the West Florida Dragoons.
But the Republic of West Florida soon passed into history. The government of the relatively new United States of America asserted a claim to West Florida, and on Oct. 27, 1810, President James Madison issued a proclamation declaring West Florida under the jurisdiction of the governor of the recently acquired Louisiana Territory.
On Dec. 10, 1810, the flag of the United States replaced the Bonnie Blue Flag. The republic’s first and only governor was Fulwar Skipwith, a former American diplomat who helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase.
The Republic of West Florida, according to Wikipedia, “included Baldwin and Mobile counties in what is now Alabama; the Mississippi counties of Hancock, Pearl River, Harrison, Stone, Jackson, and George, as well as the southernmost portions of Lamar, Forrest, Perry, and Wayne counties; and the Louisiana parishes of East Baton Rouge, East and West Feliciana, Livingston, St. Helena, Tangipahoa, St. Tammany and Washington. Despite its name, none of present-day Florida lay within its borders.”