The West Florida Expedition

American history is quite fascinating —I would say even more so than the revisionist accounts offered in our public schools and universities over the past sixty years.  Two of my interests are the colonial and early founding periods of the United States.  History isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but there is so much we can learn from it —lessons that would positively contribute to modern society.  Ut est rerum omnium magister usus[1], and if true, if experience is the teacher of all things, then our learning from past mistakes can only aid us in the future.

One of the things I find interesting about the American Revolutionary War is how little attention historians have paid to the British loyalists.  After all, they too were part of that story.

1763 was a banner year for the British because, in that year, England finally triumphed over France after fighting one another to a standstill since 1689.  In the Treaty of Paris of 1763, England acquired Spanish Florida and French Canada.  British divided Florida into two provinces: West and East Florida.  West Florida included the southern half of present-day Mississippi, a rectangular region straddling the Gulf of Mexico from Lake Pontchartrain and Maurepas and the Mississippi River in the west, to the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola rivers on the east.  It extended northward to an imaginary line running east from the confluence of the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, including the old Spanish port of Pensacola and the former French settlements of Mobile, Biloxi, and Natchez.

In the late 1760s, West Florida was sparsely settled because, except for a narrow strip of land along the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, the soil was unsuitable for agriculture, which led settlers to rely on raising livestock.  The British anticipated settling West Florida effortlessly and for reasons of security, they reserved the area west of the Appalachian Mountains for Indians.  British policy at that time intended to avoid confrontations with the Indians by channeling white settlers either to Canada or to one of the two Florida settlements.  The British also decided to offer land to members of the British court as a reward for faithful military service.  As an example, 40,000 acres were set aside for the Earl of Eglinton near the Natchez and Pensacola settlements.  An untended consequence of land grants to noblemen was that they almost immediately began selling these lands, and by every measure, they were quite successful in doing so.

The British accorded settlers of lesser rank, 100 acres to the head of household and 50 acres for each member of his family, including slaves.  The head of a family could also purchase an additional 1,000 acres for a reasonable price —but clear title to this land was withheld until the settlers had cultivated their land for three to five years.  The settlement of West Florida increased steadily, especially in the Natchez area, until in 1773 when the foreign office inexplicably canceled the governor’s authority to grant land.

In 1775, with the outbreak of the American Revolution, the situation in West Florida changed rapidly.  Both Florida provinces were converted into sanctuaries for British loyalists escaping from colonial terrorists.  After 1775, West Florida enjoyed its greatest period of growth, an attraction among sturdy pioneers of Englishmen and Scotsmen.

Who were the loyalists, and why weren’t they interested in freedom from Great Britain?  They were generally older people, conservative by nature, well-established in the colonies with long-standing business interests in England.  Older people tend to resist change and the Revolutionary War period was nothing at all if not an era of momentous changes.  In the minds of British loyalists, a rebellion was not only morally wrong but also unwarranted.

Taxation without representation was a key issue at the outset of the American Revolution.  Parliamentary taxation affected everyone, including loyalists.  There was no overwhelming repudiation of taxes among the loyalists because, in the first instance, Parliament had the right to tax colonists.  Second, the colonists had long benefitted from the security provided by the British Army.  Among loyalists, it was entirely reasonable that Parliament expected colonists to help pay for the costs of maintaining these forces.  The loyalists also had no objection to “quartering soldiers in private homes.”  These were young men from back home who had come to America to protect British citizens from the ravages of the French and Indian attacks, why not give them a nice place to sleep?  Besides, which would be cheaper (tax-wise)?  Quartering soldiers in the homes of citizens, or constructing barracks for the same purpose?  Since everyone benefitted from these tax levies, why object to them? Of course, the British Parliament could have addressed this issue with greater sophistication, but the British people (especially those living in England) were used to an authoritarian legislature.

When the so-called “American patriots” resorted to violence against the Crown and those who remained loyal to Great Britain, the older, conservative, well-settled colonists felt alienated —and with good reason.  The patriots burned down their homes, torched their businesses, and physically and verbally assaulted them.  In many ways, patriot behavior was more like that of  hooligans and domestic terrorists than of good neighbors with interesting ideas about government and society[2].

Many loyalists, at least initially, were fence-sitters.  Among those, optimists who believed that if there was to be a separation from the mother country, it should take place naturally and amicably, under circumstances mutually beneficial to both sides of the Atlantic.  Some pessimists believed that the only possible result of revolutionary thought and action would be chaos, corruption, and mob rule[3].  In either case, when patriots began terrorizing them, they either became apathetic to the cause, or they moved even further to the right.  Some returned to England, others decided to stay in the colonies and fight for their King.  In New York, many loyalists were part of influential families, some of these with unmistakable ties to the French Huguenot-Dutch De Lancey[4] faction supporting the British Crown.  There were also “black” loyalists —slaves who had been promised freedom from slavery by the British government.  Colonial patriots made no such promises, from any quarter —north or south.

There were many prominent families among American patriots[5].  One of these was the family of a man named James Willing … a wealthy Philadelphia family.  His father Charles twice served as Philadelphia’s mayor; his mother was Anne Shippen, the granddaughter of Philadelphia’s second mayor.  James’ older brother was a merchant, a business partner with Robert Morris[6], and a delegate to the Continental Congress from Pennsylvania.  In his younger years, James sought his fortune in British West Florida operating a general store within the Natchez settlement.  The folks of Natchez were happy to live in America, but they were loyalists —and intensely so.  Willing, not being able to share those sentiments, and being rudely vocal about it, soon decided to return to Philadelphia[7].

In 1777, serving as a congressional spokesman, Willing returned to Natchez to convince the residents there to join the American independence movement.  His proposals rebuffed, he returned to Philadelphia with greatly exaggerated claims that the people of West Florida posed a serious threat to the cause of American independence, although he was probably right in thinking that loyalists would interrupt trade on the Mississippi River, a major source of colonial resupply.

Oliver Pollock, meanwhile (an Irish-born colonist with many years devoted to trading with the Spaniards in the West Indies), established a close working relationship with Alejandro O’Reilly[8] and other Spanish-Louisiana officials.  Granted the privilege of free trade with New Orleans, Pollock became a successful businessman, married, and raised his family there.  In 1777, Pollock was appointed Commercial Agent of the United States in New Orleans.  He used his influence and wealth to help finance American operations in the west, including the campaign by Major General (militia) George Rogers Clark[9].  In September 1778, Pollock introduced Colonel David Rogers and Captain Robert Benham to Louisiana Governor Bernardo de Gálvez.  Rogers delivered a letter to Governor Gálvez from Virginia patriot Patrick Henry —a letter that led to Spain to join the war against England.  In the British view, there could be no better example of treason than that.

In 1778, James Willing was calling himself a naval captain[10] in the service of the United Independent States of America[11]  Pollock received a letter from Robert Morris stating that Willing would be leading an expedition against loyalist settlements above New Orleans.  In his capacity as a naval captain, Willing led 29 men of the 13th Virginia Regiment from Fort Pitt and sailed down the Ohio River[12].  Willing’s mission may have been more on the order of moving supplies from New Orleans to Fort Pitt than it was conquering West Florida, but the correspondence Willing carried with him to Florida could be construed as authorization to punish British loyalists.  With his desire for adventure and a somewhat reckless nature, Willing boarded the gunboat Rattletrap[13] with his Virginians, now dubbed “marines.”

Willing and his marines departed Fort Pitt early on the night of 10 January.  A short distance from where the Wabash empties into the Ohio River, the Willing Expedition seized the large bateau[14] belonging to the Becquet Brothers, which was laden with pelts.  They also arrested a man named  La Chance and impounded his cargo of brandy —which Willing and his crew subjected to extensive tests for impurities.  Willing’s notoriety thus established, off they went into the Ohio River and southward.  The commander at Fort Kaskaskia, a Frenchman named Rocheblave, suspected that the Willing Expedition was moving toward Illinois and believed that the sort of insults offered to Becquet and La Chance was the sort of thing frontier settlers could expect from colonial hoodlums should they ever achieve a foothold into the western (French) colonies.

Painting by Charles Waterhouse

By the time the expedition reached the Mississippi River, Willing had added two canoes and ten recruits to his entourage.  One of these was a youngster named George Girty, whom Willing commissioned a second lieutenant.  George was the youngest of four brothers, a family whose only claim to history was that they all became British loyalists.  Historians know that Willing stopped at a Spanish post at the mouth of the Arkansas River, where, having warned the few American settlers living there that their lives were in peril from British loyalists, proceeded on his journey.  The then-petrified settlers ended up petitioning Spanish officials for their protection.

Willing arrived at the Natchez plantation of Colonel Anthony Hutchins[15], a loyalist, on 19 February, promptly arrested him and seized his property —including his slaves.  Willing then divided his force by sending two canoes on a scouting mission further south to the Natchez settlement —a farming community populated by American, English, and French settlers (all of whom lived together in harmony) —and until recent times, the home of James Willing.  The scouting party, well-armed and dressed as hunters, arrested all settlement inhabitants and secured their property.

Willing and his main body arrived the following morning.  According to later testimony, captive townspeople sent a delegation of four citizens to parlay with Willing.  They agreed to surrender and promised their neutrality if Willing restored their property.  Willing agreed, adding these stipulations: (a) that the settlers must agree to re-provision his expeditionary force, (b) that single men join the expedition, and (c) that all married persons relocate to Spanish territory within fifteen days.  From among the single men who joined the expedition, Willing appointed Richard Harrison a lieutenant of marines.

South of Natchez, Willing carried out a campaign of destruction to crops, livestock, and the homes of Loyalist settlers and carried off their slaves (likely sold in New Orleans).  William Dunbar and Frederick Spell, who witnessed Willing’s behavior, suggested in their later testimony that Willing was more interested in enriching himself than he was in any patriotic endeavor (which, by every account, seems to have been the case).  Willing, however, did not molest any “patriotic” Americans.

By this time, the British were aware of Willing’s marauders —which given the expanse of the territory and poor communications back then, is quite amazing.  In any case, the British dispatched their sloop Rebecca (well-armed with sixteen 4-pound and six swivel guns) up the Mississippi to interdict Willing’s campaign.  On 23 February, 18 marines under lieutenants McIntyre and Harrison captured Rebecca, which for a time ended Great Britain’s control of the Mississippi River.  McIntyre and Harrison sailed the vessel to New Orleans as a prize of war.  The ship would be renamed, Morris.

Oliver Pollock established and maintained a close relationship with Governor Bernardo de Gálvez.  During a future Spanish campaign against the British, Pollock would serve as Gálvez’ aide-de-camp.  When Pollock received word that Willing was approaching New Orleans, he recruited an additional 40 men to join the expedition and assisted him in transporting “British” property to New Orleans.  Of these 40 men, 26 men took it upon themselves to float downriver to join McIntyre and Harrison.  McIntyre’s group soon came upon the British Brig Neptune and seized her.  Neptune was laden with lumber and a handful of passengers bound for Jamaica.  McIntyre off-loaded the passengers, retained the cargo, and sailed her to New Orleans —the expedition’s second prize.

News of Willing’s expedition quickly spread throughout British West Florida and caused some panic among the loyalists.  They abandoned their large plantations, loaded their slaves, livestock, and valuables on boats and barges, and headed toward New Orleans where they petitioned Spanish officials for protection.  For their part, at least initially, Spanish officials were intent on remaining neutral in the conflict between the British and Americans, so they graciously received these refugees and accorded them Spanish hospitality.  Governor Gálvez similarly welcomed James Willing, which in large measure as a result of Oliver Pollock’s efforts.

Willing and his men were granted freedom of the city, provided with housing, and they were allowed to auction the property taken from loyalists, including their slaves[16].  The precise amount of the profits gained by Willing’s auction is unknown, but some estimates ranged as high as £60,000.00.  While appreciative of the courtesy and hospitality accorded to their subjects, British officials strongly protested the fact that Gálvez extended those same courtesies to James Willing, who in their view was nothing more than a pirate.  Neither were the British pleased about Willing’s auctioning British property.

Gov. Gálvez ignored British protests, and the longer he did so, the louder their protests became.  Within a short time, British petitions for redress were filed almost every day.  Finally, Gálvez appointed a commission to consider the merits of British complaints.  Until mid-March, Gálvez remained unconcerned with British protests.  But then came the arrival of the British sloop Sylph under the command of Captain John Ferguson.  In addressing the problem, Ferguson was simple and direct:

Having the honor to command one of His Britannic Majesty’s ships in this river, and having information that your excellency has received into your government a body of armed men, enemies to my Sovereign and that you have suffered them from the Spanish Territory to commit depredations on this River by forcibly seizing upon the vessels, property, and persons of British subjects, in violation of the Treatise of Peace, the Law of Nations, and the Rights of Men.  I cannot help looking at such conduct on your part, as a tacit if not an open declaration of war against the King, my master.

Governor Gálvez answered Ferguson with equal fervor[17].  He had no obligation (he said) to protect British citizens residing on British soil but (pending the report by his commission), Gálvez offered to return British goods and property seized by Willing.  This decision came as a blow to the Willing/Pollock clique.  They offered a stout defense of their activities, particularly as it related to the capture of the two British ships.  Neptune, argued Willing, having been seized on open water in British territory, was a  lawful prize of war.  Gálvez remained inflexible; Neptune must be returned.  When it appeared that Morris (formerly Rebecca) seemed more secure, Oliver Pollock proceeded to refit and man her.  William Pickles was selected to serve as Morris’ Captain, and Robert Elliott was chosen to serve as Commanding Officer of Marines (Daniel Longstreet was appointed to serve as Marine First Lieutenant)[18].

In April, Captain Ferguson and Sylph was relieved by Captain Joseph Nunn, commanding HMS Hound.  Nunn continued to press Gálvez on the issues raised by Ferguson; Gálvez continued to resist all British suppositions and remained firm with the Americans.  Nevertheless, believing that the British would initiate military action, Governor Gálvez requested reinforcements from the Viceroy of New Spain and began working on New Orleans defenses.  He also demanded that every British/American person living in New Orleans take an oath of neutrality or leave the city.  A few British departed the city, but most remained.  Americans were unanimous in their acceptance.

Gov. Gálvez felt better once the American and British had offered their oaths respecting Spanish neutrality.  Captain Nunn, on the other hand, did not feel better.  In his view, Gálvez had openly demonstrated his support for the colonial rebellion, and this placed Spain in opposition to the British Crown.  It wasn’t enough to cause Captain Nunn to initiate war with Spain, of course, but Gálvez’s cozy relationship with the colonists did prompt the British into reasserting their authority on the Mississippi River.

Before dawn on 19 April, Nunn sent a force of fifty men to recapture Fort Bute at Manchac (115 miles north of New Orleans) which had been seized by Willing’s expedition.  British riflemen killed two men and a woman and wounded ten others.  Fourteen Americans were taken, prisoner.  Willing was, by this time, concerned about retaining control of Natchez, which led him to dispatch a force of marines under Lieutenant Harrison to observe whether Natchez loyalists were keeping their oaths of neutrality.

Meanwhile, Colonel Hutchins had violated his parole by returning to his plantation.  In Natchez, Hutchins agitated among the citizens and urged them to take up arms against American colonists.  We do not know what Hutchins told these people, but we do know that he alarmed them to the point of organizing a stout defense at a location known as White Cliffs.

En route to Natchez, Lieutenant Harrison was forewarned by a man named John Talley of Colonel Hutchins’ mischief.  Harrison sent Talley ahead to offer assurances that his intentions were peaceful.  Hutchins’ work was well done, however, and upon Harrison’s approach, loyalist gunfire inflicted a heavy toll on the marines.  Harrison lost five men killed with several more wounded and captured; Harrison returned to New Orleans with only a few of his remaining force.

British West Florida Governor Peter Chester (—1799), with service between 1770-81, encouraged British settlers to return to their homes and “restore yourselves to that full allegiance and fidelity which you owe to your sovereign and country.”  And, he added, that should these citizens not comply with Chester’s advice, then they would be judged guilty of criminal neglect of their solemn duty.  With a British army garrison of  110 men from Pensacola guarding Fort Bute at Manchac, a British ship with a crew of 150 men, and 200 British militia protecting Natchez, loyalist settlers finally felt secure.  Thus renewed, British presence also stopped the flow of goods between New Orleans and Fort Pitt.

The Willing Expedition had aroused British loyalists along the river to such extent that Willing could no longer return to Philadelphia via the Mississippi.  And, the longer Willing remained in New Orleans, the less Gálvez and Pollock wanted to deal with him.  Gálvez was highly incensed when Willing circumvented the governor’s prerogatives by issuing a proclamation to Americans living in New Orleans.  The proclamation not only violated Willing’s oath, a condition of his being allowed to remain in New Orleans, it was also a violation of Spanish sovereignty.  But if the rift between Willing and Gálvez was significant, the break with Pollock was even worse.  With some justification, Willing criticized Pollock for his poor administration and questionable financial accounting[19].  Willing’s unpaid marauders were displeased to the point of deserting in large numbers.  It was only the consistent discipline and fair treatment of Lieutenant Harrison and Lieutenant George that kept most (not all) marines on duty.  In any case, Pollock was anxious to be rid of Willing and did not hesitate to express his annoyance with Willing in his reports to Congress.

Hoping for James Willing’s departure from New Orleans was one thing; witnessing his departure was another.  Effectively, Captain Willing had become a prisoner in New Orleans, but he had no one to blame but himself.  It was his actions that caused the British to block the Mississippi.  Willing had but two options for returning to Philadelphia: an overland march, or by sea.  Willing had no interest in walking back to Pennsylvania.

By mid-June, Oliver Pollock decided he’d had enough of James Willing and formally petitioned Governor Gálvez to allow work to proceed on Morris so that it might carry Willing and his men back to Philadelphia.  Without much consideration, Gálvez consented and the ship’s refit was soon started.  Unhappily for both Gálvez and Willing, the refit project experienced several delays.

Fed up with life in New Orleans, Lieutenant George and Lieutenant Harrison requested the governor’s permission to leave New Orleans via the overland route.  Governor Gálvez gave his consent conditionally: George and Harrison had to give their oath not to cause further dismay to any British subject.  Having offered their oaths, the officers soon departed.  After a year of overland travel, the marines finally returned to Fort Pitt.  After the marine detachment was officially disbanded, George accepted an appointment as a captain of an artillery in the Continental Army.

Accompanied by Lieutenant McIntyre, James Willing finally departed New Orleans in mid-November carrying dispatches for the Continental Congress.  The ship, however, was captured by a British privateer off the coast of Delaware and Willing was taken as a prisoner to New York where he remained until exchanged for British Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton.  Some historians contend that Willing spent two years as a prisoner of war.  If this is true, when one considers his many depredations imposed on Mississippi River settlements, then a reasonable man might conclude that his internment was warranted.

James Willing died at his home in Haverford Township, Pennsylvania in 1801.  He was 51 years old.  For additional insight into the corruption of early-American officials, see also:  James Wilkinson, Image of Respectability.  The amount of dishonesty during the Revolutionary and early founding periods of the United States could lead one to conclude that as despicable as James Willing was, he had much in common with more than a few of our founding fathers.

Sources:

  1. DuVal, K. Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution.  Random House, 2016.
  2. Eron, R. Peter Chester, Third Governor of the Province of West Florida Under British Domination 1770-1781.  Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1925.
  3. Haynes, R. V. The Natchez District, and the American Revolution. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2011.
  4. James, A. J. Oliver Pollock, Financier of the Revolution in the West.  Mississippi Historical Review, 1929.
  5. Smith, C. R. Marines in the Revolution: A History of the Continental Marines in the American Revolution.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1975. 

Endnotes:

[1] Attributed to Julius Caesar, De Bello Civille.

[2] The same thing is happening today within the so-called Progressive Movement; modern conservatives (the classic liberals of the colonial era) are being regularly attacked because of their values.  Progressivism, as it turns out, is not very enlightened.

[3] It is impossible to say the pessimists were completely wrong about the level of political corruption in America.

[4] Followers of Oliver and James De Lancey.  Oliver was a wealthy merchant, politician, and British Provincial soldier; James was his nephew.

[5] Modern leftists define “patriotism” as an anti-government “far right” movement.  In 1775, it was a far-left movement.

[6] Robert Morris, Jr., (1734-1806) was an English-born financier who served in the Pennsylvania legislature, the Second Continental Congress, and the United States Senate.  He was a signer to the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and the U. S. Constitution.

[7] According to his “friends and neighbors” in Natchez, Mr. Willing drank too much, talked too much, and thought too little.  This may be a fair assessment.

[8] O’Reilly (1723-1794) was born in Ireland became the Inspector-General of Infantry in the Spanish Empire, served as Captain-General and the second Spanish governor of Louisiana, and the first official to exercise power in Louisiana after France ceded it to Spain.  He was later made a count of Spain but known to creoles as “Bloody O’Reilly.”

[9] The older brother of William Rogers Clark.  A surveyor and militia officer who became the highest-ranking officer of the Revolution in the western frontier.  Most of his accomplishments occurred before his 40th birthday; subsequently, his drinking and indebtedness destroyed his reputation.  When Virginia refused to pay him for his Revolutionary war  expenses, he turned his attention toward the Spanish as a source of income, but mostly through questionable land speculation schemes.  His is not one of the great American stories of our founding years.

[10] James Willing is not listed as a commissioned officer of the Continental Navy.

[11] The title claimed was something Willing made up.  There is an organization today with a similar title claiming to consist of ten states, five provinces of Canada, and Guam.  ISA announced its independence in 2007 where its officials all wear tin foil hats.

[12] What the Continental Congress did not want was a sizeable expedition to West Florida to attack Pensacola and Mobile, an ambitious plan that had the support of Benedict Arnold.  Congress decided instead on a more modest expedition and placed Willing in charge of it.

[13] I’m not sure how to respond to questions about the naming convention involve with this vessel, but Rattletrap was purchased from John Gibson for 300 pounds in Pennsylvania currency.  It was a galley-type vessel with ten oars, and she/it was armed with two ¾-pound swivel guns.

[14] A long, light, flat bottom boat with a sharply pointed bow and stern.

[15] Colonel Hutchins was a retired British Army officer whose grant of land for military  service was 250,000 acres.  His home was located at White Apple Acres, which he occupied in 1773.  He served as a representative representing the Natchez district in the provincial assembly in Pensacola in 1778.  At times during the Willing Expedition, Hutchins was the de facto governor of the Natchez district.  He remained active in political and military affairs in present-day Mississippi for many years.

[16] Despite Spanish law, which forbade commerce with foreigners.

[17] The British were hardly in a position of strength in West Florida.  Eventually, Gálvez would seize both Pensacola and Natchez (1779).

[18] Both Robert Elliott and Daniel Longstreet’s names appear in the lineal list of officers of the Continental Navy and Marine Corps.

[19] Pollock was, as previously stated, a businessman whose every action was motivated by profit.  He is not remembered as a man having an abundance of scruples.

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Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

3 thoughts on “The West Florida Expedition”

  1. Oh my, that first sentence hooked me 😂. It’s funny how little real history resembles the tidy accounts in textbooks- thanks for sharing this fascinating excerpt.

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