Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Florida Under Five Flags

Florida Under Five Flags
© 1945 Rembert Patrick
160 pages


Note: I read from the 1st edition. This cover is from the 5th edition,  which has been updated and presumably revised.

The State of Florida entered the Union in 1845; in 1945, presumably as a centennial celebration, Florida Under Five Flags was published to provide an outline history of the state, from its beginnings as a Spanish frontier post through to the 'present day'. It is a history which can be enjoyed in a single evening, and is amply illustrated with historical art depicting cities like St. Augustine and Jacksonville; photographs of street scenes and prominent personalities are also included.

Florida titular historical accomplishment is having been an object of contention between virtually every European power with an eye toward American colonization. (Fernandina Beach cheekily claims to be the city of eight flags.)  The Spanish arrived first, though Ponce de Leon perished amid his explorations. The French were the first to plant a settlement, though the Spanish bloodily drove them out and began establishing a fuller colony, one with several towns and a network of missions. While Florida was expensive for the Spanish to maintain, its forts were crucial in protecting access to Mexico and the rest of "New Spain". The English quickly took an interest in Florida, but despite capturing the city of St. Augustine, were unable to triumph over its fortress, the Castille de San Marcos. What eluded them in combat was won in treaties, however, and Spanish Florida became British-controlled West and East Florida -- governed from Pensacola and St. Augustine, respectively. Florida flourished under British rule, but would be ceded back to Spain following the American Revolution. Amid the turmoil of the Napoleonic years, Louisiana and Florida were both juggled by France and Spain, and the aggressive interest of the nearby United States made selling the land more feasible than defending it into the poorhouse.

Florida, having been depopulated virtually every time it switched hands, began attracting settlement from the Southern coast; the multitude of planters from Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas who took a part in creating a new American state meant that despite Florida's radically different climate, in culture it was part of the South, and would follow where the southern states led. That meant secession only twenty years after becoming formal members of the Union. Florida's ports were immediately targeted by the Union navy, falling before the war was even a year old, but Florida itself was spared most of the devestation of the conflict. Only a few minor skirmishes occured within the state, mostly over the control of salt-works. Florida was still subjected to Reconstruction, but plagued by corruption that set back genuine progress for decades. Florida soon recovered, and as railroads unified the state and linked it more firmly to the rest of the county, its cities began growing all the more. A once economically-sleepy peninsula home only to rude huts and subsistence agriculture had been transformed into a prosperous State, one which played an important role in the Spanish American war and which was poised to participate even more fully in American life.

I read this principally interested in colonial Florida. While it is only an outline history, the narrative is perfectly enjoyable as a story. I suspect parts of it would be rendered differently were it published in the modern era, particularly the author's mere mild condemnation of slavery. I didn't realize how long Florida took to become fully "settled"; the author writes that Florida's frontier wasn't closed until 1920. A book published so long ago is arguably irrelevant for understanding modern Florida, considering how radically it has changed in demographics, culture, and in its standing with the rest of the Union -- but as a survey of Florida's early history, it is perfectly enjoyable and helpful.

Original cover:



A scene from colonial St. Augustine.




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