May 24, 2022

Andrew Jackson Conquers Spanish Florida

Andrew Jackson Conquers Spanish Florida

May 24, 1818. Determined to expand the US empire by any means necessary, Andrew Jackson invades Pensacola to complete his conquest of Spanish Florida.


Cold Open

It’s January 8th, 1815 on the bank of the Mississippi River in New Orleans, Louisiana; in the final weeks of the War of 1812.

A young Creek Indian peers over the mound of earth in front of him.

He sees thousands of British soldiers marching along the river in perfect formation. They’re clearly a well-trained outfit, not at all like the one he’s been forced into.

He looks around at the rag-tag group of white militia, enslaved Black men, and fellow Indians on all sides of him. He’s heard there are even some pirates among this motley fighting crew. He doesn’t want to be here. He knows many other members of the Creek nation are fighting with the British, in hopes of protecting their land and their way of life from the colonial settlers. But when American General Andrew Jackson took him prisoner and forced him into service, the man they call “Old Hickory” made it clear the penalty for desertion is death.

The young man winces nervously as the Americans unleash their cannons on the British soldiers.

And then, he sees General Jackson himself approaching on horseback. Jackson has a wild look in his eye as he orders his men to attack.

With no choice, the young man grips his rifle and joins the others as they charge forward.

Within 30 minutes, the battle is over. And when the smoke clears, hundreds of British soldiers are dead, and more than a thousand are wounded. The young Creek Indian watches as the remaining British retreat and his fellow soldiers raise their voices in raucous cheers of victory. 

The Battle of New Orleans, as it will come to be known, is the final battle of the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain. Jackson’s victory seems to prove that the young country is a legitimate contender against larger empires like Britain and Spain. Jackson becomes famous in the new United States, and his popularity earns him a different nickname: the Hero of New Orleans. Songs are written in his honor, and January 8th becomes a national holiday.

After the War of 1812, Jackson forces Indians who fought on both sides of the war to sign treaties that hand over the majority of their land to the United States. But this enormous expansion of the new country’s territory does not satisfy Jackson. His desire for land and glory will eventually lead him to invade Pensacola, the center of power in Spanish Florida on May 24th, 1818.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is May 24th, 1818: Andrew Jackson conquers Spanish Florida.

Act One

It’s April 8th, 1816, a little more than a year after the Battle of New Orleans at General Andrew Jackson’s home; a plantation called the Hermitage near Nashville, Tennessee.

Jackson sits at his desk, a pen and paper in hand, writing a letter to a colleague about an issue that’s happening just across the Southeastern US border in Spanish Florida.

Spain has controlled the territory of Florida since 1565. But in recent years, the poorly governed region has become a haven for escaped slaves as well as displaced Native Americans, who call themselves Seminoles, the Spanish word for runaway. Since the war’s end, these so-called “runaways” have established a free community at an abandoned military fort in Spanish Florida right across the US border. This “Negro Fort”, as Jackson calls it, is a serious problem for Old Hickory.

Jackson’s a military man, but he’s made his fortune off of slave labor on land that once belonged to Native American tribes. In Jackson’s mind, the existence of a free Black community in Florida threatens the stability of the institution of slavery and the wealth of slaveowners all across the south; not to mention the safety and security of the US’ southeastern border.

So today, Jackson pens a letter to his second in command, General Edmund Pendleton Gaines.

In it, Jackson writes:

I have little doubt of the fact that this fort has been established by some villains for rapine and plunder, and that it ought to be blown up, regardless of the land on which it stands…”

Jackson urges Gaines to destroy the Fort, capture the Black people living there, and bring them back to the United States to be enslaved.

But Jackson faces an obstacle. He is under explicit orders from President James Madison not to enter Spanish territory. Instead, he is told to request assistance from the Spanish government.

So, two weeks after writing to General Gaines, Jackson pens another fiery letter to the Spanish Governor of Florida. He makes it clear that if the Spanish do not take action against the so-called Negro Fort, the United States will. But Spain refuses to meet Jackson’s demands. Finally, he decides to take matters into his own hands. But Jackson knows he cannot attack the Fort without provocation, somehow he needs to bait them into attacking first. 

So Jackson orders General Gaines to construct a U.S. military outpost just north of the Negro Fort. Jackson realizes he needs to keep this new outpost properly supplied. So he also sends naval ships to a nearby port. During one of their resupply missions, a small group of American sailors stop along a river to refill their canteens. And there, they are attacked by a group of black and Seminole men from the Negro Fort. The Watering Party Massacre, as this event is known, gives Jackson all the pretext he feels he needs to make a move. Soon, Jackson orders General Gaines to launch an attack.


On July 27th, 1816, Gaines leads an assault on the Free Fort which is guarded only by a small force of escaped slaves and Seminole Indians. Early in the melee, Gaines’ men fire a round of red hot cannonballs into the fort. One of them flies over the walls and lands directly on the storage of ammunition. The resulting explosion is so loud it’s heard 100 miles away. In the aftermath, hundreds of men, women, and children lie dead or wounded.

After the battle, the black commander of the Fort is executed by the firing squad. The Native American Chief who fought by his side is turned over to rival tribesmen who kill and scalp him.

And with the so-called Negro Fort destroyed, the U.S. army withdraws from Spanish territory. In Washington, many condemn Jackson’s decision to order the attack on the Fort as an unconstitutional act of war. But Jackson has powerful allies who come to his defense, including the US Secretary of State, and future president, James Monroe.

Still, Jackson knows the problems in Florida are just beginning. Because after mourning their losses at Negro Fort, the Seminole Indians there will mobilize, determined to seek vengeance. Jackson believes there’s only one solution to the ongoing problem on the southeastern border: to bring Florida under the control of the United States by any means necessary.

Act Two

It’s early January 1818, at Andrew Jackson’s hermitage near Nashville; over a year since the destruction of the so-called Negro Fort.

Jackson sits at his desk. He’s just received an infuriating letter from his friend, James Monroe. The former secretary of state is now President of the United States. And Monroe needs Jackson’s help with the ongoing situation in Spanish Florida.

In recent months, the hostilities there between the United States and the Seminole Indians have broken out into a full-on war. In his letter, Monroe instructs Jackson to go to Florida and put down the Seminole threat.

Monroe also intimates that a broader victory of territorial conquest in Florida would not be unwelcome. He writes, “This is not a time for you to think of repose. Great interests are at issue, and until our course is carried through triumphantly… you ought not to withdraw your active support from it.”

Jackson knows that, according to the US Constitution, only Congress can declare war, not the president. Still, for Jackson, this letter is all the permission he needs. On January 22nd, 1818, Jackson and his soldiers leave Nashville. They march through heavy rains for 46 days before reaching Fort Scott, just across the southeastern border. From there, Jackson marches his men further, deep into Florida territory.

On April 6th, Jackson and his troops arrive at the Spanish town of St. Mark’s, about 60 miles east of the so-called Negro Fort. Jackson believes that the Seminoles are using St. Mark’s as a base to plan and carry out attacks. But when Jackson arrives, the Seminoles have already fled. And he encounters no resistance from the Spanish soldiers guarding the town. So later that day, Jackson orders the Spanish flag lowered, and the Stars and Stripes raised in its place.

With St. Mark’s won, Jackson is determined to make the United States’ presence known throughout the territory. Over the next few weeks, he uses St. Mark’s as a staging ground to lead raids against Seminole and free Black villages in the region. During this time, the American troops capture two Native American chiefs and bring them to Jackson. Rather than keeping them as prisoners, Jackson convenes a court. To make example of them, Jackson finds the chiefs guilty of torture, murder, and mutilation and sentences them to death.

Soon after, Jackson pushes east to a Seminole stronghold on the Suwannee River. As Jackson leads his men through the swampy wilderness, he suddenly realizes they’re not alone. He hears the crack of musket fire from the surrounding trees and sees arrows whizzing through the air. But Jackson’s men are better armed and greatly outnumber their Seminole attackers. The skirmish is over almost as quickly as it started, and the few surviving Seminoles disappear into the forest. 

When Jackson arrives at the Seminole stronghold, it is eerily quiet. He expected to meet resistance, but instead, he learns the Seminole warriors have already escaped across the river. But the town is not entirely deserted. Jackson scans the faces of the women and children who’ve been left behind. Without hesitation, Jackson gives the order to burn the village to the ground. He watches stoically as smoke fills the air. When Jackson is done, more than 300 homes have been torched.

From there, Jackson returns to St. Mark’s, burning more Seminole and free Black villages along the way. He’s defeated any signs of Seminole resistance he’s encountered, but there’s another matter at hand. His men have captured two white settlers accused of aiding and abetting the Seminoles. After Jackson convenes another swift trial, both men are found guilty and both are put to death.

Within a month, most of the Seminoles have been killed, captured, or have fled. But in Jackson’s mind, the only way to truly secure the US border and protect America’s interests is to push the Spanish out of the territory altogether. It’s a risky move. Officially, Jackson knows he only has permission to attack the Seminoles. But he also believes he has Monroe’s tacit approval to go even further. So before long, Jackson sets out west to take the crucial port city of Pensacola and drive the Spanish out of Florida once and for all.

Act Three

It’s May 24th, 1818, just outside Pensacola.

Andrew Jackson rides on horseback as he leads his troops toward the Spanish city.

Jackson and more than a thousand men have just completed a 200-mile march. But he isn’t weary from the journey. As he sees the outline of the city ahead, Jackson feels a swell of energy. He’s finally on the verge of putting an end to Spanish rule in the territory. As he and his troops approach Pensacola, the Spanish retreat to a fort just outside the city. They are outnumbered by the Americans 10 to 1.

That night, under the cover of darkness, Jackson orders his men to set up artillery on all sides of the fort. At first light, Jackson gives the Spanish governor an ultimatum: surrender or die. When the governor refuses, Jackson gives the order to fire. His men unleash a storm of cannonballs and light explosives on the fort. The air fills with fire and the sound of Jackson’s artillery. When the smoke clears, Jackson sees a white flag waving above the walls of the fort.

Jackson has vanquished yet another European power, just like he did to the British at the Battle of New Orleans. But his victory in Florida receives mixed responses back in Washington. Some politicians are furious that Jackson essentially declared war on his own, a power solely given to Congress by the Constitution. But in the eyes of many Americans, Jackson’s conquest of Florida only adds to his already growing legend.

Jackson’s victory in Florida makes an immediate impact, clearly demonstrating that Spain no longer has any dominion over the territory. And soon, the US Secretary of State, and another future president, John Quincy Adams, presses Spain to relinquish their claim. After prolonged negotiations, the two countries eventually sign the Adams-Onîs treaty. As part of the agreement, Spain hands over Florida to the United States in exchange for $5 million.

Jackson’s desire to expand U.S. territory does not stop with Florida though. Eventually, he’ll be elected to the highest office in the country himself, and he’ll use his newfound power as president to seize the final remnants of Native American lands throughout the South.

In 1830, two years after he is elected, President Jackson signs the Indian Removal Act, which opens up millions of acres of land to white settlers and further expands the reach of slavery. The Indian Removal Act helps the United States, as well as white citizens like Jackson, grow richer and more powerful, but at the expense and on the backs of displaced Native Americans and enslaved Africans. This was always Andrew Jackson’s objective, and the same zeal for U.S. expansion that pushed Jackson to risk his life and reputation when he conquered Spanish Florida on May 24th, 1818.


Next on History Daily. May 25th, 1977. After a production plagued by mishap and doubt, the first Star Wars film is released and becomes a global sensation.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Ruben Abrahams Brosbe.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.