July 10, 1821: Spain Transfers Florida to the United States

For more than two hundred years the Spanish flag had waved over East and West Florida. St. Augustine, the first lasting settlement in what is now the United States, was established. Later Pensacola on the western coast was founded, and the fort of St. Marks was built. Except in the neighborhood of the few towns, the Indians were the real owners and rulers of the land. They roamed at will through the great forests, hunting and fishing, clearing land and raising their crops, undisturbed by the Spaniards.

But there was still trouble between the Indians and their American neighbors, and Spain could not or would not end these troubles; it was believed that for the sake of peace and safety the United States must acquire possession of Florida.

General Andrew Jackson’s rapid marches and the punishment he dealt the Indians and their allies for injuries to American settlements proved to Spain that she could not rule her territory or keep the Indians under control without a large army and heavy expense.

Finally, after much discussion, a treaty was signed on Feb. 22, 1819, by which Spain agreed to transfer Florida to the United States for the sum of five million dollars, and the payment of certain claims. General Jackson was appointed military governor of the two Floridas until a regular government should be formed.



The exchange of flags took place on July 10, 1821, at St. Augustine. At 4 P.M. the transfer of authority took place at the Government House, and the city keys were delivered. The Spanish flag was withdrawn under a salute from the fort, and the Spanish guard marched out. When they approached the American troops they exchanged salutes with them. Then the Americans marched into the fortress and fired a salute to their flag.

The Indians were by no means pleased with the exchange of government, and said that it was not lawful, because the land was a gift from the Great Spirit to the red men and not to the Spaniards. So, with heavy hearts, the principal chiefs went to Pensacola to have a “talk” with the new governor.

General Jackson spoke kindly to them. He said he was glad to meet them as a friend, for the hatchet was buried and the Great Father did not wish to see it raised again. He told them that the Creek Indians, who did not belong to Florida, must return to their own nation and chiefs; runaway slaves must return to their owners; and the Indians who belonged in Florida must be gathered together in one part of the Territory, where the President would give them the same rights as the white men.

To all of this one of the chiefs replied: “White people live in towns where many thousands work together on small grounds; but the Seminole is a wild and scattered people. The Seminole swims the streams and leaps over the logs of the forest in pursuit of game, and is like the whooping crane that makes its nest at night far from the spot where it dashed the dew from the grass and flowers in the morning. For a hundred summers the Seminole warrior has rested under the shade of his live oaks, and the suns of a hundred winters have risen upon his ardent pursuit of the buck and bear, with none to question or dispute his claims.”

Although the chiefs were not satisfied, they agreed to “carry the talk,” to their people, and gather them together for a council. It was plain that American government was to be very different from any they had known, and they remembered with longing the time when Spanish governors had left them to live as they would.

General Jackson’s ambition as governor of Florida seems to have been soon satisfied. His health was poor, having suffered from the hardships of his campaigns, and he longed for the quiet and rest of his Tennessee home. In October, leaving Colonel George Walton as acting governor in his absence, he left Pensacola, to begin his slow journey homeward. He had certainly filled the people of Florida with a dread of his severity; but it is pleasant to know also of the devotion of his soldiers and staff officers to him.

They had reason to know that the stern soldier had a kind heart. He was indeed a terrible enemy, but the best of friends; quick tempered and hasty, but brave and patriotic, and as honest as he was brave. Alone in the world at the age of fourteen, poor and friendless, he had fought his way through life, step by step, always brave, always honest. He was now a great soldier and had received honors. But greater honors still were in store for him; for ten years later he became President of the United States. His name is written more than once on the map of Florida, for Jackson County, the city of Jacksonville, and Lake Jackson are named for him.

Source: A History of Florida, by Caroline Mays Brevard, American Book Company, 1904.

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