Tag Archives: Florida History

Gadsden in Florida: Treading on Tampa

Gadsden’s Florida Connection (And It Isn’t Only the County)

a black-and-white illustration of a segmented snake, with different British colony abbreviations at each segment. Below the image are the words "Join, or Die" — this is the start of the Gadsden Flag that would become the Don't Tread on Me Florida License Plate
“Join, or Die” — this is the start of the Gadsden Flag that would become the Don’t Tread on Me Florida license plate.  Gadsden has another Florida connection, too.
Image via the United States Library of Congress

In response to yesterday’s post about the face-palm-i-ness of the Don’t Tread on Me Florida license plate, Florida historian Joey Vars sent me the following information. These are his words, with his sources at the end of the post:

Gadsden Purchase in the Southwest

“James Gadsden was the grandson of Christopher Gadsden and is significant in Florida’s territorial history. James is largely known for the Gadsden Purchase in 1853. That purchase includes portions of southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. He was also the aide-de-camp of General Andrew Jackson during the first stage of the Seminole War in 1818. He would become instrumental in forming the Treaty of Payne’s Landing in 1832.

Gadsden in Tampa Bay

“However, in late 1823, as response to the Treaty of Moultrie Creek, Colonel Gadsden was ordered to mark the boundaries of a new military reservation in Tampa Bay and scout the location of a new fort. His ship arrived in early 1824. It landed on the southeastern portion of the interbay peninsula — an area today known as Gadsden Point.

“After leaving a marker on the shoreline for Brooke’s pending arrival, Gadsden and his men trekked 12 miles north to the mouth of the Hillsborough river where William Hackney’s plantation was located. Now technically within the boundaries of the newly established military reservation, he commandeered Hackney’s plantation home as headquarters while soldier’s constructed what would become Fort Brooke — the foundation for Tampa and all those who inhabit the region today.

“Why didn’t Hackney tell James Gadsden to ‘not tread on me’, as his
grandfather famously empowered the Patriots? Well, Hackney was in Pensacola on business when Gadsden and his men arrived. When he returned home later in the spring to hundreds of soldiers, barracks, and a small cantonment, there was little he could do to get his property back. Hackney’s family was embroiled in litigation with the federal government until the late 1880s over the wrongful possession of the Hackney property.”

Gadsden Research Links

“Don’t Tread on Me” Florida License Plate and Florida history

The Gadsden flag, which is a yellow flag with a coiled snake on it. The text reads "Don't tread on me" — this is now part of the "Don't Tread on Me" Florida license plate.
The “Don’t Tread on Me” Florida license plate shows how little we know Florida history.
Public Domain

The other day I was driving and found myself behind a truck with a specialty tag. That in and of itself isn’t unusual; Florida has more than 100 specialty license plates. What caught my eye was the image on the plate: The Gadsden flag.

This made me cringe.  Not because I don’t find the beneficiary worthy (the Florida Veterans Foundation) or because the flag, to some, embodies the battle cries of those who believe the 2020 election was stolen (it was not.)

It’s because the “Don’t Tread on Me” Florida license plate shows how truly ignorant we are about Florida’s history.

A black license plate with a yellow flag next to the letters "S A M P L" — the flag is the Gadsden Flag and shows a coiled snake with the words "don't tread on me" on it. The plate also says "Florida" and "Don't Tread on Me" on it.
Early 19th-century Floridians are rolling in their graves. 
Image via the State of Florida

The Gadsden Flag

I first learned about the Gadsden flag in grade school. It represented the unity of the 13 so-called “original” colonies. The idea came from a 1754 political cartoon, called “Join, or Die” and symbolized the unity of all EuroAmericans against King George.

a black-and-white illustration of a segmented snake, with different British colony abbreviations at each segment. Below the image are the words "Join, or Die" — this is the start of the Gadsden Flag that would become the Don't Tread on Me Florida License Plate
“Join, or Die” — this is the start of the Gadsden Flag that would become the “Don’t Tread on Me” Florida license plate.
Image via the United States Library of Congress

Or did it?

Why the “Don’t Tread on Me” Florida License Plate is an Insult to History

The Gadsden flag was hoisted in 1775, as the colonies — some of the colonies — in North America prepared to declare their independence from England. Everyone knows there were 13 original colonies, and they all rallied behind this flag.

Most of that is true. The 13 colonies revolting against the Crown did, indeed, rally behind this flag. But they weren’t the original colonies. Or, more accurately, they weren’t the only colonies at this time. Other colonies apart from those so-called “original” 13 included Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and Quebec. Caribbean colonies — the Bahamas, the BVI, Jamaica and Bermuda — also remained loyal.

And so did Florida. At the time, we were two colonies: East Florida and West Florida, and we wanted no part of a revolution. The way we saw it, it wasn’t so much “revolution” as it was “insurrection” (yes, I know) and it was, to our way of thinking, treason.

Other colonists who wanted to remain British fled either to present-day Canada or to Florida. There are a few reasons life in Florida was great for British colonists (check out that link; it’s a fascinating description of Florida during the American Revolution), but the takeaway here is that the signing of the Declaration of Independence so incensed Floridians that they  burned effigies of John Hancock and Sam Adams in the St. Augustine town square. During the war, Floridians fought for England.

So, in 1776, Florida was less concerned with being tread on than it was distancing itself from an insurrection. And make no mistake about it: What we now call the American Revolution was, indeed, an insurrection (per Merriam Webster, who defines insurrection as an “act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government.”)

The End of Revolution and the Gadsden Flag

The Gadsden flag, then, was not one Florida supported. It, in all likelihood, upset late-18th-century and early-19th-century Floridians. When the 13 other colonies won their independence, that flag likely chafed even more, because now the Floridas went to Spain. That’s one hell of a reward for loyalty, although this was part of the 1783 Treaty of Paris and not something England otherwise might have done. Nevertheless, every time a Floridian looked at the Gadsden flag or heard the phrase “don’t tread on me,” it’s safe to say it didn’t inspire patriotism.

Of course, today, Florida’s part of the United States. I get that. But we can’t claim that the Gadsden flag’s origin or initial purpose did anything other than stand in opposition to what Florida was at the time. It stood for things we hated.

But sure, let’s put it on a license plate. Even if, every time I see one of those plates, I won’t think about helping Florida’s veterans. Instead, I’ll remember a Florida that desperately wanted nothing to do with these United States.

Maybe not the message we want that Don’t Tread on me Florida license plate to send.

Read more Florida history you don’t know, this time about Henry Flagler and railroads.

Introducing the Florida Keys Spectacular: A Podcast for Keys Fans

a pickup truck that's been bedazzled, Florida-keys style.
Introducing the Florida Keys Spectacular — bonus podcast content for Florida Keys fans!
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Do you love podcasts? Do you love the Florida Keys? Do you already listen to the Florida Spectacular podcast, co-hosted by me and Rick Kilby?

Well, then, this is your lucky Thursday. Why? Because, as of today, Florida Keys historian Brad Bertelli and I have a biweekly podcast about the Florida Keys.

Introducing the Florida Keys Spectacular podcast.

It’s no secret I love the Florida Keys.

One of the things I struggled with when I started visiting the Florida Keys regularly? Finding non-touristy things to do. Oh, yes, I swam with a sea lion (something I loved, but feel bad about now) and yes, I’ve eaten at Margaritaville. But… those things aren’t really the Florida Keys I love.

The Florida Keys really opened up to me after I met Brad Bertelli in 2015, when a stroke of serendipity sent me to the Florida Keys to get interviewed by a Canadian television station. At the time, Brad worked for a Florida Keys museum, I didn’t have this website, and my book was not-yet published. Brad, already a published author, was really nice to an unknown Florida writer. Throughout the years, we became friends as well as colleagues. (When my book, Florida Spectacular, comes out later this year, you’ll read one of my favorite Brad stories in the introduction.) During the pandemic, Brad and I had virtual cocktails for people playing the Florida Keys home game (which was everyone, really).

Photo of Brad Bertelli, co-host of Florida Keys Spectacular podcast. A bald-ish man with black frame glasses, smiling at the camera. Man is wearing a white tee.
There’s no better co-host for the Florida Keys Spectacular podcast than Brad Bertelli.
Photo courtesy Brad Bertelli.

Today, Brad has a few more books, a column about Florida Keys history in Keys Weekly, and a Facebook group about Florida Keys history that has more followers than a small town.

A few years back, I started the Florida Spectacular podcast.

The show has gone through several iterations. Right now we hit a sweet spot. Rick Kilby (another amazing Florida author) co-hosts. Rick and I have a lot of fun taking listeners across Florida every week. We talk about history, environment, and, of course, things to do in each part of Florida.

While Rick spends a lot of time traveling the state, he doesn’t spend nearly as much time in the Florida Keys as I do. And, honestly, there’s a lot more to the Sunshine State than Key West, Florida Bay, and the upper and middle keys. It’s a different world, honestly.

Which is why it makes sense to have a different podcast. Every Thursday, Brad holds court at Robbie’s in Islamorada. Anyone who wants to talk Florida Keys history can hang out with him, ask history questions, or share memories. I found myself, as I so often do, in the Florida Keys recently, so I found Brad at Robbie’s, bought him a beer, and told him I had a proposition. Why not take his knowledge about the Florida Keys and create an off-shoot of the Florida Spectacular podcast? This one would be only for Keys fans, and we’d cover everything from where to buy sandwiches for a picnic lunch at Windley Key (Episode 1) to the original route of the Oversea Highway (Episode 2).

Brad was all in immediately. While I plowed my way through a piece of fish at the Hungry Tarpon, we planned. Back home, the planning continued. Brad taped a commercial. Brad drafted some scripts. We chose topics. And, finally, today, the Florida Keys Spectacular podcast goes live.

Subscribe to Florida Keys Spectacular today and support us!

Florida Keys Spectacular is bonus content, available to anyone who supports the podcast at the $5/month level. For that $5, you get two episodes a month. Each one will take a deep dive into the Florida Keys. We’ll give you Florida Keys history, suggestions on things to do, and the ability to see the Florida Keys like a local does. No podcast explores the Florida Keys like we do. Take a listen — you won’t be disappointed!

I’d love to do the Sally Struthers thing and say, “for the cost of a cup of coffee” but, well, inflation. Also, aside from Joffrey’s, some of my favorite coffee in Florida is Baby’s Coffee, and since it’s a bit of a drive to Baby’s, it costs me a whole lot more than $5 to get a cup (but so worth it!).