Reuben, Samuel, and Nathan Kemper, sons of a Virginia Baptist preacher, migrated to the Feliciana Parish area of West Florida in 1799. There they helped found and manage a “settlement store” for John Smith, a US senator from Ohio. The business dovetailed with Spanish efforts to encourage American settlement in the area, but the store’s failure devolved into a dispute over nearly forty-eight hundred pesos Reuben Kemper owed to Smith.
The Kempers remained in and around West Florida. They owned land and slaves in Feliciana and worked Smith’s land for him but seemed to have no real ties to the community. At the same time, the brothers had purchased an inn in Pinckneyville, Mississippi, just over the border. By early June 1804 Smith was attempting to expel the Kempers from his property, and Nathan, Samuel, and four companions resisted the eviction with force, fighting off authorities for several days. Nathan and Samuel Kemper eventually fled across “the line,” as residents called the West Florida–Louisiana border, to Pinckneyville, beyond the range of Spanish officials. Assembling a gang of about twenty men, they returned to Spanish territory in mid-June, accosted some locals, and spent a few weeks stealing cattle, slaves, and anything else they could carry away. Spanish officials captured some of the men, though a raiding party led by the Kempers subsequently freed them.
Reuben Kemper had escaped to New Orleans, where he wrote to American officials in Mississippi, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C., urging them to intervene in the West Florida affair on the Kempers’ behalf. When the US government pardoned the gang members, Spanish officials began to suspect that the Kempers had American backing. In large part because the Kempers’ actions in June 1804 were not directed at any institution or group of officials, Spanish officials never viewed the violence as a true rebellion in the sense that it had any larger organization and never filed complaints with the US government. Instead, the Spaniards treated the incidents as simple banditry of the type that had plagued the area for decades and issued an order to take the gang members “dead or alive,” confiscated their West Florida property, pardoned members of the gang willing to lay down their arms and leave Florida peacefully, and forbade the Kempers from returning to Spanish territory.
Nathan and Samuel crossed into Spanish territory in early August, bearing a declaration of independence as well as a flag featuring blue and white stripes and two stars on a blue field. This act, combined with confessions from some gang members, made the Kempers’ actions a true attempt at political rebellion, and the Spaniards began to label them traitors. Chased back across the line within a few days, the Kempers reverted to cattle and horse thievery until a Spanish militia crossed the Mississippi border, snatched Nathan and Samuel from their beds, and put them on a boat to Baton Rouge. A raiding party freed the brothers, who made their escape to New Providence in the British Caribbean, where they spent several years attempting without success to raise support for a British invasion of West Florida. Some historians have glorified this event as evidence of nascent anti-Spanish sentiment in West Florida. Nevertheless, the Kemper “rebellion” was nothing more than a series of border raids led by a few disgruntled settlers.
- Archives of the Spanish Government of West Florida: A Series of 18 Bound Volumes of Written Documents Mostly in the Spanish Language, vols. 2, 4, 7
- Isaac Joslin Cox, The West Florida Controversy, 1798–1813: A Study in American Diplomacy (1918)
- Andrew McMichael, Louisiana History (Spring 2002)
- Vicente Sebastián Pintado Papers, Library of Congress; Robert W. Wilhelmy, Cincinnati Historical Society Bulletin (1970)