Sabine Free State

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A disputed area of land between Spanish Texas and the United States Louisiana Purchase. The Arroyo Hondo and the Sabine River were named the eastern and western boundaries, respectively. The southern boundary was undoubtedly the Gulf of Mexico, and it can be assumed that the northern boundary was the thirty-second parallel, approximately. It included portions of the present-day Louisiana parishes of De Soto, Sabine, Natchitoches, Vernon, Rapides, Beauregard, Allen, Calcasieu, Jefferson Davis, and Cameron.

The area covered by the agreement was declared off-limits to soldiers of both countries. The agreement also stipulated that no settlers would be permitted in the Neutral Ground. Nevertheless, settlers from New Spain and the United States territory began to move in. Some American settlers took Spanish land grants known as the Rio Hondo claims. Others simply squatted on unclaimed land. This lawless area also attracted exiles, deserters, political refugees, fortune hunters, and a variety of criminals. Eventually, the highwaymen organized to the degree that they manned outposts and organized spies in order to better fleece travelers and avoid the American and Spanish military. In 1810 and again in 1812 the two governments sent joint military expeditions into the area to expel outlaws.

The Neutral Ground was settled in part by people of mixed-race informally called Redbones. Some of their family surnames can be traced back to African Americans who were free in Virginia and North Carolina during the colonial period. The origins and ancestry of Redbones continues to be debated. During the years of migration from the Upper South, it is possible that some Native Americans also married into the community.

The Adams-Onís Treaty, signed in 1819 and ratified in 1821, recognized the U.S. claim, setting the border at the Sabine River. Spain surrendered any claim to the area. (Two years after the treaty was negotiated, New Spain won its independence as the Mexican Empire.) Even after the treaty, however, the Neutral Ground and the adjacent part of East Texas remained largely lawless. The Regulator-Moderator War in East Texas in 1839-44 had its roots in the earlier anarchy of the Neutral Ground.