England’s defeat of France in the seven Years’ War brought an end to French rule in North America. As a result of the peace treaty signed by George III and France in 1763, the Gulf Coast became a part of the newly-created province of British West Florida. The Fleur de Lis was lowered and replaced by the flag of the British empire. By royal appointment, the first governor was George Johnstone.
Governor Johnstone, a Scotsman by birth and a distinguished naval officer by achievement, arrived at Pensacola in 1764 and wasted no time sending garrisons to the various forts under his command. He sent them to Fort Conde at Mobile, which he called Fort Charlotte after the British queen; to Manchac, which was called Fort Bute; and to Fort Rosalie at Natchez. He appointed civil magistrates and organized a superior court at Pensacola, the jurisdiction of which extended over the whole province. It administered justice under the common law of England.
One would think that such an explanation would be sufficient to illustrate how the present-day Mississippi Gulf Coast developed its English language and traditional English customs. However, such is not the case. The language of the people was French with Spanish being second. In fact, English was not used between the Pearl River and the Perdido until after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
Indeed, Governor Johnstone’s extensive plans for the territory were never very effective. He did, nonetheless, begin the practice of giving large tracts of land to former soldiers and settlers. While this stratagem was excellent in attracting settlers to the territory, Governor Johnstone was a harsh man and became so unpopular with the people that he was forced to resign in 1768.
Even after three quarters of a century and the gifts of large tracts of land, the number of Europeans in the Gulf Coast area was small, and they were widely scattered. In fact, there were only about twelve hundred Europeans in the whole territory from Lake Pontchartrain’s most westerly side to east of Pensacola in present-day Florida. Of these twelve hundred, only six families lived on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain. Moreover, there were but forty-eight families, about twenty of whom lived along the east bank of the Pearl River in the Pearlington, Gainesville, and Logtown regions. In addition, there were about ten families at Bay Saint Louis and twelve families at Biloxi Bay, most of whom had been driven off Cat Island in the hurricane of 1772. They consisted largely of people named Cuevas and Ladner. Farther east there were six families on the Pascagoula River.
Accordingly, because the settlers were widely scattered, one may conclude that reading and writing were probably relatively unknown as there were not enough people congregated in communities to warrant church buildings or school houses with teachers.
At any rate the French speaking coastal people had little interest in the arrival of the British, and politics definitely did not concern them. Thus, when control was switched after sixty-four years from France to Britain, the British directives had little actual effect on them. However, Spanish money was recognized as good since it was in hard coins.
Earlier in 1702 French explorer Jean-Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur de Bienville, had established the original seat of French government at Mobile, but he moved it from Mobile to New Orleans in 1723. As a result of this move, ships from Europe sailed around the Chandeleur Islands south of the Mississippi Coast because there was little of commercial value to be traded with the local people.
Apparently these local people did not dress with any concern for style. A Mr. Romans, who traveled through the area in the 1770’s, later wrote that they did not wear shoes except in winter and then only Indian style moccasins, leggings, or boots. They made their own cloth and dressed neatly in the style of the fishermen and hunters they were. The men wore cotton trousers and no-sleeve shirts without coats. If it was cold, a short cover type vest was worn, or in extreme cold, a blanket. Women were similarly neatly, but simply, clad as the climate permitted—usually in cloth dresses woven locally. Their manners and conversation were reported as being easy, moral, and entertaining.
Because immigration into the area had been very limited, these people, with Indian inclusion, were the descendants of the original settlers from 1699 to 1725. Written reports from the time characterize them as industrious and happy and content with their lot. Life was simple, though perhaps difficult. Agriculturally the residents raised corn, indigo, potatoes, beans, peas, cotton, tobacco, and fruits such as pears, peaches, grapes, and plums. Poultry and eggs as well as herds of “black cattle” were reported around Mobile and Biloxi. The tar which they produced from pine trees was under British governmental control, so they smuggled it across Lake Pontchartrain to New Orleans where there was a ready market. Skins from cattle or from deer and other pelts were among the few marketable items that the settlers had for trading.
Without barbers or hairdressers or even mirrors for that matter, long hair was apparently the custom but worn with a headband to keep it from interfering with their vigorous labor when swinging an ax, building boats, hunting, fishing, cooking, milking, gathering pitch and turpentine, etc.
Since neither school nor church buildings existed, social gatherings were usually held in taverns, and alcoholic beverages were consumed. Any decisions made, if remembered, were never recorded.
Travel along the coast had traditionally been “along the coast,” that is by water in an east-west direction between Pensacola and New Orleans. It was difficult to go north through the dense piney woods, crossing innumerable streams with few reliable trails.
Also, trade and economic benefits for the coast’s lumber, tar, charcoal, hides, pelts, cattle, and seafood lay exclusively in the large, nearby cities of New Orleans and, to a lesser degree, Mobile. There were no communications north and south such as mail, telegraph, or travel except by such rivers as the Pascagoula and Pearl and smaller streams leading into the Bay of Saint Louis or Biloxi Bay. These comparatively shallow waterways were good for rafting down , but difficult to canoe up.
The settlers to the north of the coast were mostly English-speaking and had emigrated from the Atlantic colony area. They sought British land grants to escape the coming turmoil they could foresee in the American Revolution. As farmers of English-Irish-Scotch ancestry, they also wanted good farm land which was mainly up the Mississippi River on the high bluffs in the Natchez region. Also most of these people came downriver via the Cumberland or Ohio and Mississippi rather than by sea, so few were interested in the barren pine-covered sandy soil of the Mississippi coastal region.
After Governor Johnston resigned in 1768, he was followed by Governor Montford Browne, who abandoned his position in 1770. He was followed by Governor Peter Chester, who did not call a meeting of the Assembly (a governing committee selected from among the settlers) during his first six years in office. Finally called, the Assembly argued for thirty-four days, accomplishing nothing. They disbanded and never met again.
The Second Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War, and England was forced to surrender both East and West Florida to Spain, thus ending a relatively dormant period in the history of the Gulf Coast.