This is one of the reasons we love writing and working for StyleBlueprint: one day we’re learning about a house renovation, the next about how an eyebrow makeover can dramatically change your look, another day we’re highlighting a great woman in the area, then we’re spotlighting a new restaurant and a health tip and then, we’re here, with a history lesson. I’m not sure about you, but this mimics the way my conversations converge around a dinner table when connecting with good friends. It’s that conversation that we’re always trying to emulate here at SB … conversations that connect on a variety of levels.
For example, spring break has us thinking about travel, oftentimes to places south, which led us to the topic of the Alabama coastline and Florida Panhandle. Have you ever wondered why Alabama has only 60 miles of coastline, while Florida enjoys this big stretch of beaches, known as the panhandle, as part of its 1,000+ miles of coastline? It’s odd isn’t it? The panhandle geographically looks like it should belong to Alabama, right? For almost a century, after this part of Florida was in American hands, the population continued to ask to be annexed by Alabama. Yep. It’s true. Look at the area in question below. How did this part of the country stay with Florida, where it is obviously separated from the rest of the Sunshine State?
Today, we’re giving a quick history lesson, as it’s the time of year when 30A is teaming with spring breakers, and you need to know how and why you are actually in Florida, especially if you just spent seven hours driving through Alabama. And if you’re staying put for spring break or traveling to other parts, well, it’s just plain interesting!
BRIEF OVERVIEW (for everyone who doesn’t want to deal with the details …)
- Alabama and Mississippi were carved out of land that was once a part of the state of Georgia. Georgia’s governor and legislature were involved in a massive, fraudulent land deal, which resulted in these lands being turned over to the federal government. The land was split evenly to make the territories of Mississippi and Alabama of equal size to Georgia. At this point, both Alabama and Mississippi were landlocked, with no coastal shoreline.
- In 1812, our federal government secretly sent the military to drive south and claim the Mobile District as United States land from the Spanish (as it was highly disputed who owned the land anyway). The Spanish officer in charge made no attempt to resist, and so this land became U.S. soil. It was divided, giving basically equal parts to Mississippi and Alabama, thus providing approximately 60 miles of coastal land for both.
- Starting right before Florida became a part of the union, there was almost a century of negotiations between Alabama and Florida to annex the land known as the panhandle, and its 200 miles of coastline. Throughout the 1800s, both Florida and Alabama residents desired this. However, each attempt failed for various reasons. Therefore, Alabama’s chance at owning the future Destin, Rosemary Beach, Seaside and more faded away.
Intrigued? Want more details? Here you go (Although really, there is enough information on this subject for a college course. But we’ve edited it down to about 1,000 words … ):
When Alabama and Mississippi were a part of Georgia:
Look at the map above (source). See the part shaded in olive green? It’s between the 31˚N and 32.28˚N latitude lines. This land had been the subject of much dispute between Spain and England, and in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, the dispute fell to the United States. The boundary fight ended with Pinckney’s Treaty in 1795, when Spain ceded these lands east of the Mississippi River, guaranteeing the United States navigation rights to the Mississippi. Georgia’s territory occupied all the land north to 35˚N, thus this new land (both gray and olive green above) became part of the state of Georgia.
Yes, the land that constitutes modern-day Mississippi and Alabama at one time belonged to Georgia, making the Peach State once triple the size that it is today. But the Georgia governor, George Mathews, and many state legislators were caught up in a massive bribery and fraud case selling land in the western part of their state for lower-than-market costs to speculators who turned around and sold the land for a huge profit, lining both their pockets and state politicians’ pockets as well. A mess of scandal and politics ensued. To avoid the litigation that was swirling around them, Georgia sold all this land to the federal government in return for the national leaders settling all the land disputes. This is known as the Yazoo Land Fraud. It was from this land that the national government created two more territories, equal in size to Georgia: Mississippi and Alabama. (Did SEC football fans just have a brief thought about what this could have meant if the Georgia Legislature had not been corrupt and this was all one state today?!)
The Louisiana Purchase
The first step in acquiring this coastal property for Alabama and Mississippi was when the United States purchased a large territory from the French in 1803, known as the Louisiana Purchase. It’s part of what is now 15 states. The green on the map below shows how large the Louisiana Purchase was. Note that there still isn’t any coastal land for Mississippi or Alabama. Stay with me … it’s coming.
Immediately after the Louisiana Purchase, Spain disputed the boundary lines for what defined the lands of Louisiana, as the United States claimed the definition to be far more broad than did the Spanish. This boundary line had not been made clear in several previous treaties between France and Spain concerning this same area, making the dispute especially confusing. France held the territory from 1699 to 1762. Then they ceded it to Spain from 1762 to 1800. France got the land back during the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte. But with France preparing for war against Great Britain and a slave revolt in Haiti, they offered up the entire territory when the Thomas Jefferson administration met to negotiate the purchase in New Orleans. When Spain claimed it held all territories surrounding New Orleans, the Americans claimed that they actually owned this land through the Louisiana Purchase. By 1819, most of this disputed land with Spain was in the hands of the United States, by way of the Adams-Onis Treaty, which put all of Florida in U.S. hands.
But that coastal land for Mississippi and Alabama had already been secured by the United States in 1812. Yes, before the treaty of 1819 with Spain, the United States annexed the Mobile District, an area from the Pearl River in Mississippi to the Perdido River in Alabama, by military force with no resistance from Spain. Thus both territories gained access to the Gulf of Mexico. And each state now has about 60 miles of coastline.
So Alabama didn’t get that pretty coastal land known as the Florida Panhandle. BUT if the Mobile District had not been annexed seven years prior to the treaty that gave the United States most of Florida, then who knows? Perhaps Mississippi and Alabama would have had no coastline at all!
A Century of Failed Annexation Attempts
There’s more, as Alabama still almost got that panhandle land. At least 11 attempts from 1811 to 1901 were made by both the residents in western Florida and in Alabama to connect these two areas into one state (yes, even while Florida was still in the hands of Spain). The residents of the Florida Panhandle identified themselves with Alabama far more than they did the rest of the state of Florida. For them, accessing the peninsula was difficult with swamps and dense forest hampering the trip east. Getting to the capital in Montgomery was far easier than getting to the Florida territorial capitol of Tallahassee. They repeatedly asked to be annexed by Alabama. Different things put this request on the back burner, including the Civil War. However, in 1869, the people of the Florida Panhandle voted 2:1 on a referendum in favor of having Alabama buy their land for $1 million. But the population of Alabama put up a fight, saying it was too much money. The last attempt was made in 1901. (For full details on all the annexation attempts, see here.)
So now we all know why Alabama does not lay claim to all the pretty beaches of Florida’s Emerald Coast and beyond. But if this had happened, there would be no Florabama, the history of which requires another article altogether!
Special thanks to Leah Atkins of Birmingham, AL for pointing me in the right direction on where to start researching all this information! (Click that link … she’s pretty amazing.)