13 Or 15?

If you took U.S. history in school, you probably learned that at the start of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) there were 13 colonies:

Thirteen colonies is the accepted fact, and 13 was the number of stars and stripes on the first American flag.  The number of stars has grown to 50, but our flag continues with 13 stripes today:

So, if “How many colonies were there at the start of the Revolutionary War?” appeared as a question on a test, you would have answered “13.”

You would have been wrong.

If this came up as the Final Jeopardy! topic…

And the answer was ““Number colonies at the start of the Revolutionary War…”

You would have written, “What is 13?”

You would have been wrong.

At the start of the American Revolution, there were 15 colonies, an almost-unknown fact that I recently learned in a fascinating PBS documentary, America’s Untold Story.

I highly recommend this four-hour film – it’s full of important information about our country, much of which we don’t find in our history books.

The part I’m focusing on is the 15 colonies story, but this needs a bit of backstory, plus this caveat:

I’m a history lover, not a history expert.  Don’t use me as a source – your history professor will not be impressed, and quoting me about how many colonies won’t win Final Jeopardy! for you.

So, as I understand it…

Ponce de León statue in St. Augustine’s Plaza de La Constitución.

Spanish Florida was established in North America in 1513, when Juan Ponce de León claimed peninsular Florida for Spain during the first official European expedition to North America.  Ponce de León named the territory “la Florida” which means “full of flowers” or “flowery.”

That Spanish claim was enlarged as several explorers landed near Tampa in the mid-1500s, and they wandered as far north as the Appalachian Mountains and as far west as Texas, in largely unsuccessful searches for gold.

In their wanderings the Spanish explorers claimed every foot of ground they walked on for their mother country – as all good colonizers do.

After the British settled Jamestown, VA in 1607, more British began arriving on the east coast and doing the wandering-claiming-colonizing thing as well.

Then came the Seven Years War (1754-1763), also known as the French and Indian War.  The British had captured Spanish Cuba and the Philippines and, in order to get these valuable colonies back, Spain was forced to give up Florida.  Signed on February 10, 1763, the First Treaty of Paris gave all of Florida to the British.

Now we come the 14th and 15th colonies, but first I wanted to double-check if what I learned in America’s Untold Story was accurate.

According to this and other articles:

“…the British took control of Florida in 1763.

“The British separated the area into East Florida, with its capital in St. Augustine, and West Florida, with its capital in Pensacola.  Under British rule, East Florida consisted of what is the modern boundary of the state, east of the Apalachicola River.  West Florida included the modern Panhandle of Florida, as well as parts of what are now Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama”:

There they are:  the 14th and 15th colonies.

Now, we tend to think that during the American Revolution, everyone in the colonies wanted to gain their independence from Great Britain, but that wasn’t the case. 

Depiction of the Boston Tea Party, 1773.

Historians have estimated that during the American Revolution, between 15 and 20 percent of the white population of the colonies, or about 500,000 people, were loyal to Great Britain, which earned them the moniker of “Loyalists.”  They were horrified that many of their fellow colonists – who were supposed to be loyal to King George III – were instead throwing chests of tea into Boston Harbor and harboring traitorous notions about “independence.”

Thousands of these Loyalists became refugees, fleeing the 13 colonies, many of them to East and West Florida.


When the Continental Congress formally declared – in 1776 – that their new nation would henceforth be known as the “United States,” the 14th and 15th colonies in Florida were not considered part of the big picture

As a prize of war, Spain had ceded Florida to the British in 1763.


Because of that 1763 First Treaty of Paris, Florida was a British prize of war – the Seven Years War – rather than territory settled by English colonists.

And there’s the bottom line:

Thirteen colonies rebelled against Great Britain, but the 14th and 15th colonies – East and West Florida – remained loyal to Great Britain until the end of the war in 1783.

And Florida didn’t join the United States at the end of the Revolutionary War.  Rather, it was handed back to Spain by the British, and Spain kept it for another three decades.

But that’s another story.

So now I know that what I learned in school was wrong:  While the American Revolutionary War was fought by many who resided in the 13 colonies, there were, in fact, 15 colonies.

This got me wondering what other “facts” in history textbooks are wrong – here are a few examples I found online:

History textbook:  “Columbus first reached North America in 1492.”

Correction:  Columbus never reached North America.  He explored Caribbean islands and the northern coast of South America.

History textbook:  “Before the Civil War, greenbacks [paper money] were redeemable for either gold or silver coins.”

A $1 greenback, first issued in 1862.

Correction:  There were no greenbacks before the Civil War. They originated in the 1862 Legal Tender Act, during the Civil War.

History textbook:  “The 15th Amendment of the Constitution…guaranteed voting rights to all citizens.”

Correction:  The 15th Amendment did not guarantee voting rights to all citizens.  It omitted women, making the 19th Amendment necessary.

But – here’s a fact I encountered in my research (and triple-verified) that just might make you the Final Jeopardy! winner:

If you answer “Florida…”

I’m sorry!

Your answer is correct, but it had to be in the form of a question!

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