When I was growing up, I would occasionally hear the following observations: 1) Central and South Florida are suburbs of New York (and sometimes Cuba), and 2) the Florida panhandle is lower Alabama (L.A.). Usually, it was folks from the opposite area taking a pot shot at the other part. Folks in the panhandle, to this day, like to smile and refer to the panhandle as L.A. And there is a really good reason for that. We have so many connections to south Alabama that in reality we have more in common with them, and they with us, as either side has with the rest of their individual state. I am going to point out a few that you may, or may not, have thought about or know; and hopefully give you a different perspective on northwest Florida history.
A Common History, Topography & Culture
Let’s start by remembering that the various Native tribes that lived in this area for thousands of years before Europeans arrived did not distinguish between what we now consider two states. The rivers connected the two areas and the Natives who lived along those rivers had similar life-ways. The rivers were a main source of transportation, as they were for the early Europeans. They were a means to travel down to the Gulf during the winter and use the bounty from the Gulf before returning north. The panhandle is a huge watershed area for multiple rivers flowing out of Alabama.
As with water, so with early settlers. Those adventurous souls who were always at the edge of the frontier generally arrived in Alabama, and sometimes Georgia, before they made the final push south into the panhandle. And because Alabama became a state in 1819, at about the time that Florida was becoming a territory; the areas in Alabama were generally more populous than in Florida in the early days of the Florida territory. That provides a clue for family historians that I’ve noticed is often missed. If your ancestor was just below the Florida/Alabama line in the earliest days of the territory of Florida, marriages may have occurred in Alabama and not in Florida. Another place where that was reinforced for me was the church records for Yellow River Baptist Church in its earliest days. In researching the members, I’ve found a number of them were Alabama residents, not Florida residents, at the time they were members. If church is once a month and maybe most of a day, then traveling a bit further may make sense if it is the only available church in the preferred denomination.
Which brings me to another connection between the two states. If you’ve ever tried to get some sense of the early churches in Florida, you might notice that some of the state associations for various denominations don’t seem to have much in the way of history for panhandle churches. In the case of the Baptist churches in the northwestern panhandle, that’s because they were started by the Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Association out of Alabama. They were instrumental in the formation of Yellow River Baptist Church, the Baptist Church in Milton that would become First Baptist, a Baptist church in northern Escambia County that I’ve not been able to connect to a current church and possibly a few others because not all of Bethlehem’s records are readily accessible. Bethlehem Association not only sent missionaries down to the panhandle to help establish churches but provided the circuit-riding preachers until the church joined another association.
Power and Economics Push Annexation
Most Florida born folks know that there was a push by Alabama to acquire the panhandle area of Florida. But not everyone knows there were multiple efforts to really make the panhandle lower Alabama. When the Spanish “settled” sporadic areas of Florida, the agreements they had with a number of the Native tribes in the Alabama and Florida areas was that the Spanish would stay to the coastal areas (about 20 miles inland) and the rest of the areas would be governed by the Native tribes. This didn’t stop Spain from claiming all of the southeastern areas west of Georgia but in reality, their hold was tenuous at best and challenged regularly by the newly minted United States. The Creek War/1st Seminole War sealed the fate of much of Alabama and made it clear to Spain, along with their financial issues, that selling Florida to the United States would be in their best interest. Hence we had two separate territories, and as mentioned above, Alabama became a state just as Florida was being made into a U.S. territory.
But that didn’t keep Alabama from making its first attempt in 1819 at the Alabama Constitutional Convention when they requested Congress fold the West Florida area into Alabama. They repeated that effort in 1821 in a petition to have all of the areas west of the Apalachicola annexed to Alabama. Not to be outdone, Georgia asked for the rest of Florida. In 1822, the U.S. Senator from Alabama introduced an amendment to the bill establishing the Florida territorial government for the annexation of the territory west of Apalachicola into Alabama. Thankfully, it failed.
The next effort came from Florida. Almost as sure as death and taxes, it can be counted on that politicians will always be looking to gain power. So, in the early years of Florida, conflict and power dynamics broke out between St. Augustine and Pensacola. The good men of St. Augustine thought if they could get rid of West Florida they could have the territorial capital in St. Augustine and proposed an annexation of West Florida to Alabama. The good men of Pensacola were opposed and Andrew Jackson was inclined to keep Florida as it was. The jealousy and political wrangling encouraged William Duval, the second territorial governor, to pick the capital midway between the two rivals and therefore, we have Tallahassee as the capital.
In 1838, in St. Joseph, as the Florida Constitutional Convention was underway, an Alabama legislative resolution was presented asking for annexation of West Florida. It didn’t get anywhere but by this point West Florida was feeling a bit neglected by the rest of the state. Business in Pensacola and Milton was driven more by relations with Alabama than with the rest of Florida. In May 1840, over 250 folks from Escambia County (an area at the time that included today’s Santa Rosa and parts of Okaloosa Co.) petitioned Congress for the annexation of West Florida to Alabama. Opposition arose though and instead Santa Rosa County was formed. One cause for opposition was Alabama’s indebtedness for which the folks in West Florida weren’t interested in being taxed to help pay it off.
Alabama just kept trying, however. In 1845 and again in 1858 the Alabama Legislature passed a joint resolution proposing Florida cede all of Florida west of the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers. The 1858 resolution was followed by both sides appointing commissioners but nothing came of the meetings. In December 1868, the issue was revived. This time the commissioners came to an agreement and it was put to a vote in the affected Florida counties. The only county that rejected the annexation was Santa Rosa. The Florida Legislature adjourned without making a decision, though it seems the governor and at least some of the Legislature wasn’t all that keen on the negotiated terms. In 1873, it was discussed by both sides again but it once again faded away. Until 1900, when Alabama appointed a commission to meet with commissioners from Florida to discuss annexation. Nothing came of the commission. The last effort was in 1963. One thing that turned the tide of sentiment toward the panhandle staying in Florida was the railroad across the state built by Colonel W. D. Chipley in 1881-1882. Roads and interstates finished those communication and transportation connections and ensured the panhandle would remain Floridian, but still connected to Alabama by DNA.
The Intimate Ties That Bind
Those of us with deep connections to the panhandle know the intimate threads that bind the two areas of these states. Most of us have multiple ancestors who lived in Alabama for a generation or more before coming to Florida. During the War for Southern Independence (aka Civil War, War Between the States), more than one regiment formed in these areas had men from the other side of the border. That included both Confederate Regiments (the 11th Florida Infantry and the 15th Confederate Cavalry) and the Union Regiment (the 1st Florida Union Cavalry). Sometimes men chose that by returning to what was considered their family home to join with relatives and sometimes it was done by the Confederate government to try and make a full regiment. In the case of the 1st Florida Union Cavalry (see Questions of Honor and Courage: Individual Decisions During the Civil War), a majority of the men who served with them were from the upper Yellow River and Pea and Conecuh River areas of the two states.
Doing a good and complete family history means casting a wide net when gathering information on your ancestors, their relatives and the families that lived hereby. Families moved together and they were often related, at least by marriage. Find a map of the period you are researching, locate your ancestor’s home on the map and travel the roads and visit the towns in the surrounding area. There were no walls on the borders so don’t be afraid to visit adjoining states in your search. Just as family historians in north(east) Florida need to look north to Georgia and South Carolina, those of us in northwest Florida need to look there and in Alabama.
Until Next Time
- The 1st Florida Union Cavalry Volunteers: The Men and Regimental History and What That Tells Us About The Area During the War by Sharon D. Marsh
- American Libraries: Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Association annual minutes (the link will get you to a search page. Just scroll through looking for Bethlehem’s records. Not all years are available but they are an interesting read.)
- Wikipedia, Pensacola and Atlantic Railroad, website
- The State of Alabama Wiki website