Davis (History/Virginia Tech; The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf, 2005, etc.), presents a significant study of an obscure but highly revealing moment in American history—the declaration of independence by American settlers of the oft-disputed Territory of West Florida in 1804.
So much of the political conflict during the Federalist period involved territorial control. Nowhere was this more overt than the first American “Southwest,” which at the time included what is now Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and the westernmost parts of Florida. The fluctuation of colonial ownership throughout the region reflected the larger geopolitics of European power struggles, even as the Louisiana Purchase should have settled any remaining disputes. Regardless of who controlled this vast wilderness, it was home to a pragmatic population of settlers, speculators and frontier opportunists, who lived equally comfortably live under Spanish, French or American jurisdiction—until it became uncomfortable. Thus was the case with the brothers Kemper—Nathan, Reuben and Samuel—who became involved in a failed business arrangement with an Ohio politician John Smith. When Smith ended his arrangement with the Kempers, whom he had hired to manage his mercantile endeavors in Spanish West Florida, a Spanish court ordered the surrendering of the Kemper property and their removal from the territory. The Kempers contemptuously defied the order, in part because they believed the finalization of the Louisiana Purchase would render the decision moot. A series of standoffs with militia eventually led to a full-on insurgency of American settlers against the Spanish rule, resulting in a very brief period of nationhood.
Not only does Davis cast a bright light into these murky corners of our national past, he does so with a grace and clarity equal to the best historical writing today.