A couple of days ago, I drove over to West Florida to take care of some paperwork on the ancestral family seat. No, I don’t mean I travelled all the way across southern Mississippi and Alabama to the Florida panhandle. I made the much shorter jaunt across the Ponchartrain Causeway to the West Florida part of Louisiana.
It may surprise many outsiders to find that there is a West Florida in Louisiana (and also in Mississippi and Alabama). Last year, while serving on an academic committee, I happened to mention that my family came from West Florida. “Oh, West Florida is a really nasty place,” exclaimed one of my colleagues, “filled with redneck bigots living in trailers.” I’m pretty sure she was confusing us with those other redneck bigots to the east, but it might just be that as an advocate for diversity and inclusiveness she despises all white southern rural people.
The area of West Florida, better known as the West Florida Parishes (since Louisiana calls its counties “parishes”) include most of the “foot” part of Louisiana’s boot, to the west and north of Lake Ponchartrain. When the United States purchased Louisiana from France in 1803, the boundaries of the territory were ill-defined. The French minister Talleyrand, who would get my vote for the most slippery figure in world history, remarked to the Americans, “you have made a noble bargain and I suppose you will make the most of it.” The purchasers did manage to define their new acquisition fairly broadly, but were unable to convince the Spanish, who still held what is now the state of Florida and the Gulf Coast all the way to the Mississippi, that any of those lands came with Louisiana. But occupation is often a better way to establish ownership than treaty.
Americans had been relentlessly moving west and south and settlers had migrated into the Gulf Coast region, sometimes with and sometimes without the permission of the Spanish authorities. Unlike the territory to the west that became part of Mexico when that nation won its independence from Spain, few Spanish speaking natives or colonists actually lived in the West Florida region. Following the West Florida Rebellion in 1810, the Americans created the West Florida Republic, which last a little under three months before annexation by the United States. This history is one of the reasons that I have difficulty with the idea of an open border with Mexico today, despite my sympathy for undocumented as well as documented immigrants and my recognition of the economic value of immigration.
Initially, many of the West Floridians wanted to enter the U.S. as a distinct territory. The westernmost among them did not want to become part of Louisiana, which was largely French-speaking and Catholic, while they spoke English and were mainly Baptist or Methodist. But Washington had other plans, and divided the new territory among the three adjoining ones, giving part to Louisiana, part to Mississippi, and a little sliver to Alabama. Two years later, in 1812, Louisiana became a state with its present form, although to this day it retains distinctive cultural regions. By 1815, the West Floridians felt sufficiently connected to Louisiana to form volunteer companies and cross the straits south of Lake Ponchartrain to join Andrew Jackson’s forces at the Battle of New Orleans.
I come into this story because my ancestors were among the early pioneering rednecks to move into Spanish West Florida. It was the destination of a multigenerational journey. According the story I heard from my grandfather from the time I was old enough to understand, the name “Bankston” is an Anglicization of “Bengtssen,” the name of a colonist from Scandinavia who arrived in New Sweden, along the Delaware River, in the first half of the seventeenth century. The colony fell first under Dutch New Netherland and then under the British. I don’t know whether it was anti-British sentiment, but colonists began moving south looking for new lands and opportunities. I have a Scandinavian first name because the names continued to be passed down over the years of wandering.
Some of the family ended up in Georgia, where we still have distant relatives. But in the late seventeenth century, the Bankstons reached the West Florida part of Louisiana. There being no trailers available in that era, they built wooden cabins, as did the other new arrivals. The one-room cabin that became our family home was built by someone else and, and gradually extended with new rooms over the years, was acquired by my great-great grandfather in the nineteenth century. My great-grandfather was born in that house in 1869, as was my grandfather in 1900. When the last of my grandfather’s ten siblings died this past year at age 103, we lost the last member of our family to first see light of day in the old West Florida farmhouse.