Feb 222019

On this date in 1819, the Adams–Onís Treaty, also known as the Transcontinental Treaty, the Florida Purchase Treaty, or the Florida Treaty, was signed. It ceded Florida to the U.S. and defined the boundary between the U.S. and New Spain. It settled a standing border dispute between the two countries and was considered a triumph of U.S. diplomacy. It came in the midst of increasing tensions related to Spain’s territorial boundaries in North America against the United States and Great Britain in the aftermath of the American Revolution. It also came during the Latin American wars of independence. The Adams-Onis Treaty was negotiated by John Quincy Adams, the Secretary of State under U.S. President James Monroe, and the Spanish “minister plenipotentiary” (diplomatic envoy) Luis de Onís y González-Vara, during the reign of Ferdinand VII.

Florida had become a burden to Spain, which could not afford to send settlers or garrisons, so the Spanish government decided to cede the territory to the United States in exchange for settling the boundary dispute along the Sabine River in Spanish Texas. The treaty established the boundary of U.S. territory and claims through the Rocky Mountains and west to the Pacific Ocean, in exchange for the U.S. paying residents’ claims against the Spanish government up to a total of $5,000,000 and relinquishing the U.S. claims on parts of Spanish Texas west of the Sabine River and other Spanish areas, under the terms of the Louisiana Purchase.

Let’s pause for a moment, to take stock of the area now covered by the 48 states of the continental United States, and I make no apology for this being a post dominated by maps. Contemporary US nationalists like to imagine that the US has always existed as it is now, and that somehow it’s always been English-speaking territory (perhaps since the dawn of time). Even leaving aside the fact that for millennia the land was occupied by indigenous peoples speaking a kaleidoscope of languages, in colonial times the territory was loosely split into three zones: an eastern section that was mostly colonized from Britain, a western section that was mostly colonized from Mexico, and a middle section that was largely unsettled by colonists in the interior but was claimed by France and Spain at different times and was of primary importance because it controlled the Mississippi delta at New Orleans. Florida and parts of Louisiana were the main territories on the eastern and Gulf seaboard in the early nineteenth century that had not been British at one time.

Spain had long rejected repeated U.S. efforts to purchase Florida. But by 1818, Spain was facing a troubling colonial situation in which the cession of Florida made sense. Spain had been exhausted by the Peninsular War (1807–1814) against Napoleon in Europe and needed to rebuild its credibility and presence in its colonies. Revolutionaries in Central and South America were beginning to demand independence. Spain was unwilling to invest further in Florida, encroached on by U.S. settlers (affectionately known as Florida Crackers), and it worried about the border between New Spain (a large area including today’s Mexico, Central America, and much of the current US Western States) and the United States. With minor military presence in Florida, Spain was not able to restrain the Seminole warriors who routinely crossed the border and raided US villages and farms, as well as protected slave refugees from slave owners and traders of the southern United States.

By 1819, Spain was forced to negotiate, as it was losing hold on its American empire, with its western territories primed to revolt. While fighting escaped African-American slaves, outlaws, and Native Americans in U.S.-controlled Georgia during the First Seminole War, U.S. General Andrew Jackson had pursued them into Spanish Florida. He built Fort Scott, at the southern border of Georgia (i.e., the U.S.), and used it to destroy the Negro Fort in northwest Florida, whose existence was perceived as an intolerable disruptive risk by Georgia plantation owners. The U.S. effectively seized control of northeastern Florida although was not interested in outright annexation of territory for Georgia; for additional US Territory; or, for the creation of another U.S. state.

Adams argued that the U.S. had to take control because Florida (along the border of Georgia & Alabama Territory) had become “a derelict open to the occupancy of every enemy, civilized or savage, of the United States, and serving no other earthly purpose than as a post of annoyance to them.” Spain asked for British intervention, but London declined to assist Spain in the negotiations. Some of president Monroe’s cabinet demanded Jackson’s immediate dismissal for invading Florida, but Adams realized that his success had given the U.S. a favorable diplomatic position. Adams was able to negotiate very favorable terms.

The treaty, consisting of 16 articles was signed in Adams’ State Department office in Washington, on February 22nd, 1819. Ratification was postponed for two years, because Spain wanted to use the treaty as an incentive to keep the United States from giving diplomatic support to the revolutionaries in South America. As soon as the treaty was signed, the U.S. Senate ratified unanimously; but because of Spain’s stalling, a new ratification was necessary and this time there were objections. Henry Clay and other Western spokesmen demanded that Spain also give up Texas. This proposal was defeated by the Senate, which ratified the treaty a second time on February 19th, 1821, following ratification by Spain on October 24th, 1820. Ratifications were exchanged three days later and the treaty was proclaimed on February 22nd, 1821, two years to the day after the signing.

The Treaty closed the first era of United States expansion by providing for the cession of East Florida under Article 2; the abandonment of the controversy over West Florida under Article 2 (a portion of which had been seized by the United States); and the definition of a boundary with the Spanish province of Mexico, that clearly made Spanish Texas a part of Mexico, under Article 3, thus ending much of the vagueness in the boundary of the Louisiana Purchase. Spain also ceded to the U.S. its claims to the Oregon Country, under Article 3.

Spain relinquished all claims in the Americas north of the 42nd parallel north. This was a historic retreat in its 327-year pursuit of lands in the Americas. The previous Anglo-American Convention of 1818 meant that both the United States and the British Empire could settle land north of the 42nd parallel and west of the Continental Divide. The United States now had a firm foothold on the Pacific Coast and could commence settlement of the jointly occupied Oregon Country (known as the Columbia District to the rival United Kingdom). The Russian Empire also claimed this entire region as part of Russian America.

For the United States, this Treaty (and the Treaty of 1818 with Britain agreeing to joint occupancy of the Pacific Northwest) meant that its claimed territory now extended far west from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. For Spain, it meant that it kept its colony of Texas and also kept a buffer zone between its colonies in California and New Mexico and the U.S. territories. Many historians consider the Treaty to be a great achievement for the U.S., as time validated Adams’ vision that it would allow the U.S. to open trade with the Orient across the Pacific. For another 30 years North America was fairly evenly divided between the United States and Mexico (with Russian and British claims mixed in).

Since the control of Florida was a key aspect of the Treaty, a Florida recipe is called for. The main thing about Florida cuisine is that it has multiple influences. In the north of the state and the panhandle, the cooking most closely resembles Southern US cooking, and in the southern part there are strong Cuban and Caribbean influences. The old colonial Spanish era has scarcely left a trace. It’s better to think of Florida cooking in terms of ingredients such as key lime which can be found in many products apart from key lime pie. Conch is also a celebrated ingredient. However, I have given recipes for key lime and conch already, so I will turn to the Florida stone crab (Menippe mercenaria). This crab has a small body that is not usually eaten, but has large, powerful claws which are prized.

The Florida stone crab loses its limbs easily to escape from predators or tight spaces, but their limbs will grow back. When a claw is broken such that the diaphragm at the body/claw joint is left intact, the wound can quickly heal itself and very little blood is lost. If, however, the claw is broken in the wrong place, more blood is lost and the crab’s chances of survival are much lower. Each time the crab molts, the new claw grows larger. So far so good. The usual practice is to take one or two claws and toss the crabs back to regrow them. It almost seems like a green, sustainable practice. Not so fast, though. Clinical trials seem to indicate that around 25% of stone crabs that have one claw taken die, and around 50% of those with two claws taken die. The latter is hardly surprising. The crabs need their claws for survival. So, I suppose they are semi-sustainable.

Here is a video on their preparation:

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