First Governor of Spanish West Florida
(1781 to 1793)
In part, from an article by Eric Beerman appearing in the The Florida Historical Quarterly (Volume 60; Issue 1)
Map of Spanish West Florida
In the treaty ending the Seven Years’ War, in 1763, Britain received the Spanish colony of Florida, and the portion of the French colony of Louisiana lying east of the Mississippi River. The British reorganized this territory into the provinces of East Florida (which consisted of most of the present state of Florida) and West Florida (bounded by the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain in the west, by the 31st parallel on the north and the Apalachicola River on the east). The British capitol of West Florida was Pensacola. In 1764, the British moved the northern boundary of West Florida to a line extending from the mouth of the Yazoo River east to the Chattahoochee River, consisting of approximately the lower third of the present states of Mississippi and Alabama. In 1779, the Spanish returned, and by 1781, they were ready to reclaim West Florida.
An Irishman serving in the Hibernia Regiment of the Spanish military, Lieutenant Colonel Arturo O’Neill gazed through the late afternoon haze on the ninth day of March in 1781, and took his first look at Sigüenza Point on the western end of Santa Rosa Island at the entrance of Pensacola Bay. As the Spanish invasion fleet moved closer, O’Neill saw the hill behind Pensacola, with the British Fort George dominating the surrounding terrain. He no doubt felt trepidation, as the Spanish forces would be making a nighttime assault on Sigüenza. However, this was hardly the 45-year-old soldier’s first battle; and with his veteran Hibernia troops surrounding him, O’Neill’s concerns diminished. Little did the Irish officer realize what a tough battle lay ahead, or that Pensacola would become his home for the next twelve years. At the battle’s successful conclusion, O’Neill would become Governor of West Florida, and serve in that post until 1793, proving to be an effective diplomat and an able administrator. His long and brilliant military career would continue as Captain General and Governor of the Yucatán in Mexico, as Lieutenant General and Minister of the King of Spain’s Supreme War Council, as the noble Marquis del Norte and Viscount de O’Neill, and finally as the elderly hero of the war against Napoleon.
Count Arturo O’Neill – Marquis del Norte and Viscount de O’Neill
Arthur O’Neill’s ancestral home was in County Tyrone, Ireland. He was born in Ireland on January 8, 1736, the third of five children of Henry O’Neill and Ana (O’Kelly) O’Neill. After losing their land in Ireland, his parents moved the family to Spain. In 1752, he enlisted as a cadet in the Irlanda (Irish) Regiment. The regimental commander was his cousin José Camerford. The following year, O’Neill transferred to the Hibernia Regiment, where he spent the next twenty-eight years of his military career. He served nine years as a sub lieutenant. Then in 1762, during the Seven Years’ War, as Lieutenant O’Neill, he took part in the invasion of Portugal that occupied the strategic center of Chaves. O’Neill’s combat abilities came to the attention of his superiors, and he received promotion in 1764 to Adjutant Major of the Hibernia. Nine years later he became Captain of the regiment while serving in Pamplona.
Moorish pirates harassed Spanish shipping in the Mediterranean for years. Exasperated, King Carlos III of Spain decided to punish the pirates in their lair at Algiers. The Hibernia Regiment left the capital of Navarre and went to Barcelona in April 1775, in preparation for the assault on the African coast. The next month, O’Neill’s regiment was at Cartagena, from where 22,000 Spanish infantrymen, commanded by General Alejandro O’Reilly, departed in June for Algiers. O’Neill and his men went ashore on July 8. By the end of a bloody day of fighting, some 2,000 Spaniards lay dead or wounded on the rocky Algerian beach. It was a disaster, and O’Reilly ordered all of his troops to re-board the offshore ships. O’Neill escaped unscathed, and returned with his regiment to Alicante a week after the invasion.
In August 1776, O’Neill accompanied his regiment to its new station at Cadiz, then under O’Reilly’s command. Spain and Portugal again declared war, with the principal scene of military action being in South America. Marquis de Casa-Tilly and General Pedro Ceballos commanded a large naval and army expedition which sailed out of Cadiz in November 1776, destined for the Portuguese island of Santa Catalina off the southern coast of Brazil. O’Neill was happy to put to sea. After two months at sea, Captain O’Neill led his infantry company ashore at Santa Catalina Island off the coast of Brazil. The Portuguese garrison there soon surrendered on February 20, 1777.
Fort Santa Cruz on the mainland several miles away was the next objective. Concerned about adequate clearance for large vessels, General Ceballos had O’Neill make soundings of the channel between the island and mainland. The draft proved adequate, the ships were able to move troops to the mainland, which then captured Fort Santa Cruz. The Spanish expedition then sailed south for 800 miles, where O’Neill participated in the seizure of the Portuguese fort at Colonia de Sacramento and of the island of San Gabriel in the River Plate. General Ceballos appointed O’Neill as Governor of Santa Catalina in June, and directed him to strengthen the island’s fortifications in the event of a Portuguese counterattack. O’Neill returned with the expedition to Cadiz in March 1778.
When war broke out between Spain and England in June 1779, King Carlos III was determined to eliminate British power in Florida and the Caribbean. Bernardo de Gálvez, governor of Louisiana, led Spanish troops later that year in victories at Manchac, Baton Rouge, and Natchez. However, the forts at Mobile and Pensacola would require additional Spanish troops if they were to be captured. In April 1780, O’Neill accompanied both battalions of the Hibernia when they sailed out of Cadiz bound for Havana. The fleet of 141 vessels, commanded by Admiral José de Solano, carried 11,752 infantrymen under Lieutenant General Victoria de Navia. That fleet was perhaps the greatest concentration of Spanish military force ever sent to the Americas. It proved to be a long and difficult ocean crossing, and the Hibernia suffered 272 losses en route to Havana.
After his conquest of Fort Charlotte at Mobile, Gálvez came to Havana to meet with the forces preparing for the coming assault on Pensacola, and met O’Neill again. Gálvez and O’Neill had not seen each other since that tragic day on the rocky beach at Algiers five years earlier. On October 16, 1780, the fleet of Gálvez and Solano departed Havana for Pensacola. Only a few hours out of the bay, a fierce hurricane struck the invasion fleet and scattered the ships. O’Neill and the Hibernia regiment had remained behind on garrison duty in Cuba, and O’Neill, upon learning of the hurricane, imagined the worst as to the fate of the fleet. However, a month later he was surprised to see Gálvez, aboard his frigate Nuestra Señora de la O, sailing back into Havana Bay with two captured British frigates in tow. The Pensacola expedition had only been delayed, not abandoned. At Havana, the army and navy quarreled over the responsibility for the October disaster, and for the next expedition to Pensacola, Captain José Calvo de Irazabal replaced Solano as fleet commander.
On February 28, 1781, O’Neill and 319 men of his regiment sailed out of Havana Bay for Pensacola. Santa Rosa Island came into view on the afternoon of March 9, and O’Neill led his grenadier company ashore at nine o’clock that evening, quickly securing Sigüenza Point. The Spanish force was delighted to find that the British battery was not operational. If it had been functioning, it could have raised havoc with the invasion. Gálvez had so much faith in O’Neill that he named O’Neill as aide-decamp and commander of the patrol scouts. Gálvez forced the entrance of Pensacola Bay on March 18 despite a furious barrage from the English battery at Barrancas Coloradas. The following afternoon at two o’clock, O’Neill sailed through a similar barrage unscathed, as the remainder of the fleet joined Gálvez inside the bay, and the full siege of Fort George began. O’Neill’s patrol scouts blunted an attack by 400 Indians during the afternoon of March 28.
Additional Indians, supporting British troops from Fort George, launched a combined attack on April 12. At first the Spanish fell back, but the patrol scouts rallied and forced the enemy to withdraw. Spanish losses included one killed and six wounded, one of whom was Gálvez, who was replaced temporarily by José de Ezpeleta. Gálvez recovered rapidly and resumed command. The siege of Fort George until that time had moved slowly. Consequently, the Spanish were pleased, when on April 19, Solano’s fleet arrived with 1,600 fresh reinforcements under the command of Field Marshal Juan Manuel de Cagigal. The siege lines then tightened around Fort George, in spite of sharp counterattacks. One came three days after Solano’s arrival. O’Neill accompanied Gálvez and Cagigal in reconnoitering an artillery battery site some 550 yards from the Queen’s Redoubt when a regiment of soldiers streamed out and fired on the patrol.
Siege of Pensacola
Two days later, on April 24, an Indian attack caught the Spanish by surprise, wounded five, including O’Neill’s kinsman, Hibernia Sublieutenant Felipe O’Neill. On April 26, English soldiers from Queens Redoubt attacked Spanish positions, but O’Neill’s scouts managed to drive the enemy back. Spanish batteries then began a heavy barrage against Queen’s Redoubt. A lucky round hit the powder magazine on May 8, killing 105 English defenders. General John Campbell surrendered Fort George and Prince of Wales Redoubt two days later. O’Neill participated in the surrender ceremonies, which ended British sovereignty in West Florida.
The Spanish fleet sailed out of Pensacola for Havana on June 1 to assemble for the invasion of the remaining British bastions in the Caribbean. O’Neill did not accompany his departing Hibernia. Three days later, Gálvez named O’Neill Governor of West Florida. He was told to improve Pensacola’s defenses quickly, as an English counterattack was possible. O’Neill realized that poor British marksmanship at Barranacas Coloradas had been due to the battery being too far from, and too high above the entrance of the bay. He constructed a new battery of five thirty-two pounders on the beach below Barrancas, and another battery across the water at Sigüenza Point. O’Neill drafted a plan for a new Santa Rosa garrison. Fort George was strengthened to withstand an attack from the northwest. Indians had been one of the main supports of the English defense at Pensacola; so O’Neill gave top priority to winning their friendship by trade and alliance. He wrote to Cagigal, describing his military position at Pensacola and detailing what would be needed from Spain and Cuba to withstand an English assault. In August, O’Neill was promoted to Colonel.
As Governor, O’Neill also concerned himself with the need to build up the Spanish population in West Florida. He wrote to Gálvez in January 1782, urging a settlement of Canary Islanders around Pensacola. With the end of hostilities in 1783, O’Neill gave additional attention to the Indians in West Florida. On January 1, 1784, Alexander McGillivray, Indian commissioner of the Upper Creeks, informed him of the danger of American infiltration on the Mississippi River. O’Neill hosted a conference with the Creeks, May 31 to June 1, 1784, at which Spain and the Creeks signed a treaty of friendship. Vicente Manuel de Zéspedes sailed from Havana, with administrators and 460 soldiers from the Hibernia regiment, for St. Augustine, the capitol of East Florida on July 12, 1784. One of his first official acts there was to give William Panton permission to bring in goods from the Bahamas for the Indians of Florida, so they would not have to trade with Americans. The following year, McGillivray, represented the Creeks, Chickasaws, and Cherokees requested O’Neill’s protection against continuing American encroachment. American settlers apparently posed a threat not only to the Indians but to Spain as well, and O’Neill sent reinforcements to Mobile when it appeared that there might be an attack on that community. In 1786, O’Neill sought the assitstance of Esteban Miró, Governor of Louisiana, to supply McGillivray with arms and munitions. McGillivray wanted additional muskets to be able to attack the Americans the following spring. McGillivray then informed O’Neill that the Americans seemed to be changing their tactics, and were trying to gain the friendship of the Creeks. O’Neill realized the danger of an American-Indian alliance to Spanish security in West Florida, and thought it could best be countered by another conference with the Indians at Mobile.
By the end of 1787, O’Neill had served as Governor one year more than the customary five-year term. He requested promotion to Brigadier and a transfer as Governor of Puerto Rico, or to a similar post. He did not receive the requested transfer, and was destined to stay on another six hectic years in Florida. The British hoped to win over McGillivray in 1788 to fight both Americans and Spaniards, and thus allow them to retake Pensacola. A key element in the British plan was to send William Augustus Bowles’ expedition to the Apalachicola River with arms and goods for McGillivray’s Creeks. O’Neill’s health was failing and, nothing had materialized regarding the planned Bowles’ expedition, so he requested leave of absence to go to Mobile to recuperate. This time, Madrid did approve O’Neill’s request, and even promoted him to Brigadier in 1789. He was temporarily replaced as Governor by Francisco Cruzat, former lieutenant governor of Illinois.
Back in Pensacola the following year, O’Neill learned that Bowles had returned to Florida from the Bahamas and had landed near St. Marks. To strengthen his military position in West Florida, O’Neill organized the third battalion of the Louisiana Fixed Infantry Regiment. The former San Marcos de Apalachee commandant Diego de Vegas was replaced in 1798 by a native of France, Captain Luis Bertucat, who rebuilt the old Spanish fort and made three sallies against Bowles. Bertucat captured arms and ammunitions in one of these attacks in 1791. Soon after taking office in 1792, Baron de Carondelet, Miro’s replacement as Governor of Louisiana, told O’Neill to send reinforcements to Mobile because of another possible attack there. Carondelet informed O’Neill that William Panton had Spanish authorization for the importation of muskets from the Bahamas for Florida Indians. Lord Durnford, the English Governor of the Bahamas, sent a naval vessel to interrupt this trade between the Bahamas and Florida. To counter this action, the Captain General of Cuba, Luis de las Casas, dispatched the coastguard ship San Luis to protect Spanish shipping in the area.
Finally, in 1793, much to his relief, O’Neill was replaced as Governor by fellow Irishman Carlos Howard, and was re-assigned to become the Captain General of Yucatán and Intendant of Tabasco and Laguna de Términos. The war which broke out that year between Spain and France delayed his departure from Pensacola, but he was finally able to begin his 1,000 mile journey to Campeche, the port for Mérida, the capital of Yucatán. Soon after arrival at his new post, O’Neill received the welcomed news of his promotion to Field Marshal. O’Neill’s conduct as Governor of West Florida underwent a customary investigation and review by the Spanish judge, Luis Carlos de Jaen, a lawyer of the Real Audiencia of Louisiana. The inquiry began in 1796, and was finally concluded in 1807, when the judge announced that O’Neill had performed his duty in Pensacola with great skill and impartiality.