The Floridian Peninsula is arguably the most recognizable part of this entire country. The state juts down like an arrow pointing straight towards the Caribbean, making it easily distinguishable even to those with a limited knowledge of geography. What many people don’t realize, however, is that Florida’s oft-forgotten panhandle rivals its peninsula in terms of sheer size. Here’s a fun fact: the drive from Jacksonville to Pensacola is 10 miles longer than the drive from Jacksonville to Miami. That should give you an idea of how long the panhandle really is.
Click on place marks to see mileage
Despite the panhandle’s long reach – or perhaps because of it – this part of Florida doesn’t really conform to the rest of the Sunshine State. It feels more like a part of Georgia or Alabama, and certainly doesn’t show many similarities to, say, Tampa or Orlando. And looking at a map, it really does seem like Alabama missed out. The panhandle undercuts it from the south, stealing beautiful and revenue-generating areas like Destin and Panama City. So why doesn’t this part of the country belong to Alabama? Doesn’t Florida already have enough beaches to go around? To find the answer, we’ll look at the history of the region.
The history reveals a complicated series of land transfers among Old World powers. Florida began its life in the possession of the Spanish, who had colonized it (in fact, the Floridian city of St. Augustine is the oldest permanent settlement in the country). The Spanish, of course, sought to expand their territory in the New World as much as possible. As a result, they colonized along the Gulf Coast in addition to the Floridian peninsula. They held unquestionable control over all of the coastal land up to Pensacola Bay, at which point they faced resistance from the neighboring French territory centered at New Orleans. The two nations squabbled over an area stretching from Pensacola to Mobile for years, both believing the land was theirs. In 1719, the French and Spanish commanders finally reached an agreement, setting the tentative border between the territories at the Perdido River.
This arrangement worked until the end of the French and Indian War in 1763. At that time, Britain agreed to trade control of Havana to Spain in exchange for Florida. Since the British had taken all French land east of the Mississippi during the war, British-controlled Florida was expanded to include most of present-day Mississippi and Alabama. The massive size of this territory forced the British to divide Florida in two – East Florida covered the peninsula, while West Florida covered the panhandle and new acquisitions.
Then, Britain lost the Revolutionary War, throwing everything into chaos once again. Following the war, Spain retook Florida, while the US took the rest of Britain’s American holdings. However, the peace treaty signed by the US dictated that their holdings ended at the 31st parallel. This actually gave the US the northern parts of West Florida, including most of present-day Alabama and Mississippi. The Spanish objected, but the US was able to station their military there to put a firm end to the dispute. This left Florida with a panhandle that stretched all the way to the current Louisiana/Mississippi border! Now Florida was beginning to take shape, but there were still political moves to be made.
Florida after the Revolutionary War. Via Wikimedia Commons.
In 1803, Thomas Jefferson famously bought the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon Bonaparte. This gave the USA control over the key port city of New Orleans. However, the Spanish still owned the land immediately east of the city. Without ownership of that land, New Orleans would be impossible to effectively defend. Jefferson looked at the history of the region, and found records of the old border between French and Spanish territory at the Perdido River. So, in a brash move, Jefferson simply stated that the Louisiana Purchase had set the border back at the Perdido. This was ridiculous; there was no way Jefferson could have purchased Spanish land from the French. The maps and written agreements contradicted Jefferson, as did Napoleon himself, but Jefferson stood firm.
This border dispute remained tense until 1810, when the USA decided to end the dispute by sending troops to occupy the area they claimed to be theirs in West Florida. By this time, Spain was embroiled in several unsuccessful campaigns and was paying little attention to Florida. The occupation met no opposition, and by 1819 the US solidified the border by creating the state of Alabama. This left Spanish Florida with the distinct shape we see today.
Only two and a half years later, the Spanish gave up on Florida and sold it to the US. Alabama attempted to annex the panhandle, using the old line between East and West Florida as a reference. However, the annexation movement never garnered enough support to be successful, and Florida became its own state several decades later, panhandle and all. If Alabama had waited only two and a half more years before becoming a state, the Florida panhandle would have already belonged to the US. Had this been the case it is likely that all of the land west of the Apalachicola River would have gone to Alabama. Alas, the Redneck Riviera remains firmly attached to the Sunshine State, a result of good politics on the part of the US and bad timing on the part of Alabama.
Other entries in the Panhandle Series:
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