History of St. Augustine-
The British and Second Spanish Periods
Great Britain emerged from the Seven Years' War as the world's
dominant colonial power. Defeated France yielded to her Canada and
all French territory east of the Mississippi River except the port
of New Orleans. The capture of Havana and Manila had revealed the
vulnerability of Spain. Britain's reward for the capture of Havana
was Florida. The news of Florida's acquisition found an unwelcome
reception from many Englishmen, who would have preferred to take over
some of the sugar producing West Indian Islands instead. From a
commercial standpoint, the sugar islands, at that time the world's
most lucrative colonies, would have been far more valuable than
Florida. But strategic considerations prevailed. Britain chose
Florida to round out her continental possessions. She was now un-
disputed master of eastern North America. When France in a separate
treaty ceded the vast Louisiana territory to Spain to compensate
her ally for the loss of Florida, Great Britain's strategic position
improved even further, for Spain could not hope to control such
enormous territories with the forces available to her.
The British government soon took steps to organize its new
territories. Believing Florida too large to govern effectively
from one capital, the government decided to divide it into two
provinces. Accordingly, the Proclamation of October 7, 1763, created
two separate administrations. All lands between the Mississippi and
Chattahoochee Rivers up to latitude 310 comprised West Florida. The
following year the northern boundary was moved up to 320 28'. The
rest of Florida, including the peninsula, became East Florida. Its
northern boundary ran directly east from the confluence of the
Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers to the headwaters of the St. Mary's River,
that stream forming the rest of the boundary. In this discussion we shall be
concerned with East Florida.
The Treaty of Paris gave the Spanish residents of Florida 18 months to
settle their affairs and dispose of their properties if they planned to leave.
Naturally, they found few buyers. Incoming British soldiers had little money,
and civilian settlers hoped to receive outright grants of land from the Crown.
By the time the last Spaniards left in January 1764, few had managed to sell
In May of that year, Don Juan Joseph Elixio de la Puente, the former
accountant and probably the wealthiest of the former Spanish inhabitants, re-
turned to St. Augustine empowered to act as agent to sell the remaining properties.
But Puente could not work miracles, and as the deadline approached most of them
still remained unsold. Puente finally resolved his dilemna by transferring the
properties to a small number of speculators, the most notable being Jesse Fish.
Fish had lived in St. Augustine for many years serving as factor for the William
Walton Company of New York, a firm contracted by the Havana Company to supply
St. Augustine. He spoke Spanish well, had been thoroughly Hispanicized, and
was apparently trusted by Puente. The deal was that Fish, who paid a nominal
price for the properties, would sell them for the original proprietors, then
remit the receipts to them after deducting his expenses. By 1765, therefore,
Fish controlled a lion's share of the property in St. Augustine, including some
church properties, as well as vast tracts in the interior of Florida. The Crown
invalidated his claim to church property and to the interior tracts, but Fish
managed to hold on to most of the local houses and lots he had acquired from
Puente. By 1778 he had disposed of most of it through sales. There are no
records clearly indicating that the Spanish residents received any compensation,
although some apparently did, often after many years had passed.
From the point of view of one program, Fish was significant because
his register of real estate transactions is an important source for local
Please do not get the idea that Fish handled all the properties in town.
Quite a few houses and lots reverted to the Crown and were disposed of by out-
right grants to settlers.
One of the most important steps British authorities took in consolidating
their hold on East Florida was an agreement with the Indians. By 1763 the Indian
population had changed. The few surviving remnants of the north Florida aboriginal
tribes had left with the Spaniards, their places being taken by Lower Creeks
migrating down from what is now Alabama and Georgia. These groups eventually
became known as Seminoles. British policy aimed to win the Indians to a British
allegiance and to pacify them by extensive concessions. In a conference with
the Indians held at Picolata in November, 1765, Governor James Grant agreed to
restrict white settlement to the region east of the St. Johns River, the interior
being left to the Indians. In the succeeding years the British traded heavily
with the Indians and plied them with gifts. This policy succeeded in keeping
the Florida Indians loyal to Great Britain during the American Revolution.
British East Florida resembled Spanish Florida in that: 1) it functioned
primarily as a military outpost, and 2) it was dependent upon a royal subsidy
to pay the soldiers and officials, to buy Indian presents, and so forth. British
East Florida was unlike Spanish Florida in that a conscious effort was made to
attract settlers and to encourage economic development. To populate the province,
the Crown offered two types of land grants: large tracts of up to 20,000 acres
for those who would pay the cost of settling families on it, and much smaller
head-right grants to families who wished to settle. A brisk publicity campaign
entolled the possibilities of the undeveloped peninsula. Despite the induce-
ments, settlement proceeded slowly. Too much land was available elsewhere in
colonies for there to be much demand for Florida land. Furthermore, many
grantees were more interested in speculating with Florida property than with
settling it. New residents did come, though not in the hoped-for numbers.
Although development was slow, East Florida did become much more productive
than it had under the Spanish. A plantation economy arose, based upon the
cultivation of cash crops such as indigo, rice, sugar, and oranges. All of
the governors--James Grant, John Moultrie, and Patrick Tonyn--owned planta-
tions, as did many private citizens. Ultimately about 100 were established in
the settled region east of the St. Johns River between New Smyrna and the St.
Mary's. At the same time a forest products industry developed, to exploit
Florida's rich stands of timber. Lumber and naval stores were exported. As
important as these industries were in the context of East Florida, especially
when compared to what had existed under the Spanish, their contribution to
Great Britain's overall North American trade was quite small. Florida, though
more productive than ever before, remained a poor, underdeveloped colony.
For the later history of St. Augustine, one of these development schemes
was especially significant. I am referring, of course, to Andrew Turnbull's
New Smyrna enterprise, which was the most ambitious of all efforts to develop
commercial agriculture in East Florida. It all began in 1766 when a group of
influential partners headed by Dr. Turnbull, a Charleston physician, decided
to establish an agricultural settlement in Florida to grow Mediterranean com-
mercial crops such as rice, hemp, cotton, and indigo. What better way, the
partners reasoned, to grow Mediterranean crops than to employ Mediterranean
farmers. Turnbull had traveled extensively in the Mediterranean world, had
married, in fact, a Greek woman from Smyrna. He believed the Greeks perfectly
suited for the production of such crops in the Florida environment. The partners
having acquired two adjoining 20,000 acre sites south of St. Augustine near
Mosquito Inlet (now the Ponce de Leon Inlet), they laid plans to settle
500 Greeks there.
In 1767 Turnbull set sail for the Mediterranean to recruit his colonists.
He did assemble a number of Greeks from the mainland, the Aegean islands, and
a Greek colony on the island of Corsica. But he did not limit his recruiting
to Greeks. About 100 Italians joined him in Livorno, Italy. The grandest
harvest of all came from the island of Minorca, then in the grip of a three-
year famine. Overall, about 1,400 settlers shipped out with Turnbull for
Florida. The great majority were MInorcans. All of these people came as in-
dentured servants, in other words, they agreed by contract to work for Turnbull
for a number of years, at the end of which they were to regain their freedom
and to receive land in return.
The colonists reached Florida in June of 1768. Their settlement was
named New Smyrna after the birthplace of Turnbull's wife.
From the outset the enterprise was plagued by difficulties. Turnbull
had brought too many settlers. Supplies were inadequate to maintain them while
they built homes and cultivated their first crop. The environment-totally wild
and undeveloped--was forbidding. Tensions arose from the confusion of languages.
The overseers drove the people to the limit of their endurance. Sickness and
hunger took their toll. A brief revolt was harshly put down, after which the
colonists lived under a virtual reign of terror. Despite the hardships and
the fact that the return initially was not as great as hoped, the colony event-
ually produced profitable crops of indigo.
The demise of New Smyrna owed more to politics than to economics. Turn-
bull was prominent in a faction agitating for an elected representative assembly,
a demand resisted by the governors, to whom the dangers inherent in such assemblies
were evident from the unrest in the northern colonies. Turnbull's role alienated
him from the administration in St. Augustine and cost him official support for
Meanwhile, several years had elapsed, and the settler's indenture
contracts were about to expire. Unwilling to release his laborers when it
seemed that his enterprise was finally becoming successful, Turnbull attempted
to prolong their period of service. Protesters were treated severely. In the
spring of 1777, while Turnbull was absent from New Smyrna, three colonists
slipped out and walked to St. Augustine, where they appealed to Governor Patrick
Tonyn for aid, filling his ears with horror stories about New Smyrna. The
governor, sensing an opportunity to strike a blow against his political enemy,
Turnbull, released them from their contracts and invited them to St. Augustine.
In May and June 1777, the settlers picked up their scant belongings and marched
to St. Augustine, where they settled down in the north end of town on lots
assigned to them by the governor. The descendants of these Italians, Greeks,
and Minorcans have remained an important element in the city's population
During the same years that the transplanted New Smyrna settlers were
establishing themselves in St. Augustine, East Florida received a new influx
of immigrants. In 1775, long-simmering resentment in the northern colonies
burst into open revolt against the Crown. Thirteen of the colonies declared
their independence the following year. The flames to revolution did not ignite
the Floridas, however. They were still primarily garrison colonies, dependent
upon the mother country. Being young colonies, they had not developed a sense
of identity. Since their trade was small, they did not experience the commercial
resentments that played such a prominent role in revolutionary activity else-
where. As frontier settlements, they were still wholly dependent upon British
arms for protection.
East Florida's military position was precarious throughout the war, but
apart from a few skirmishes and cattle raids, it did not become the scene of
fighting. The Castillo's principally functioned as a prison. It suffered no
East Florida served the royal cause primarily as a haven for Loyalist
refugees. By 1778 they were arriving in some numbers, principally from the
southern colonies. The biggest influx occurred in 1782, after British forces
abandoned Charleston and Savannah. They came by thousands bringing more
thousands of slaves with them. Since the available housing in St. Augustine
could not begin to accommodate such numbers, many had to content themselves
with rude hovels of boards and thatch. Mowat estimates that in 1783 there
were 13,375 refugees (both white and black) in East Florida.
As it turned out, the revolution cost Great Britain not only thirteen
of the northern colonies, but the Floridas as well. In 1779, Spain, hoping
to cripple her old colonial rival, joined France in declaring wars on Great
Britain. (Spain actually had little sympathy for American independence.)
Spanish forces captured West Florida. When the war ended in defeat for Great
Britain, Spain as a victorious power was in a position to make gains. She
kept Louisiana and acquired the Floridas.
The official transfer of flags took place in St. Augustine on July 12,
1784. Most, although not all, of the British residents of East Florida either
left for other parts of the empire or cast their lot with the young United
States. Most of the Minorcans, Greeks, and Italians from New Smyrna stayed,
forming the core population of the colony. After a brief interlude of twenty-
one years, Florida had once more become part of the Spanish empire.
As one writer has so aptly put it, East Florida during the Second Spanish
occupation was only nominally Spanish. The administration and the regular troops
of the garrison were Spanish or Spanish-colonial, but the population was diverse
more so perhaps than that of any Spanish colony. Although most of the English
residents left, a number stayed on, and some returned later from the Bahamas.
The great majority of the Greek, Italian, and Minorcan survivors of the New
Smyrna colony remained in St. Augustine. Large numbers of refugee blacks, many
slaves from the former English colonies, once again found a haven in Spanish
Florida. And again flocks of land-hungry Americans were pouring in, at first
with Spanish encouragement, later despite official discouragement. And, of
course, a few of the former Spanish residents of Florida returned to claim
properties they had left behind. Unfortunately, Florida also attracted drifters,
cutthroats, and undesirables of many nationalities, who capitalized on the
weak, ineffective Spanish administration.
To understand the reasons for Spain's unimpressive administration of
the Floridas, one must consider the difficulties she faced during those years.
From 1793 on, Spain was embroiled in a series of wars against revolutionary
France and the Napoleonic Empire. For a period her royal family was overthrown
and one of Napoleon's brothers occupied the throne, while the Spanish people
waged a relentless guerrilla war against the French invaders. With Spain so
distracted, revolution broke out all over Spanish America, struggles that were
to culminate in independence for most of Spain's American colonies. Small
wonder that Spain was unable effectively to police and administer the Floridas.
Ultimately, her inability to control lawless elements and predatory Indians
led to American annexation. In some respects one wonders not why Spain lost
the Floridas but how she managed to hold on to them so long.
When Spanish administration returned to the Floridas, officials soon
discovered that the legacy of the twenty-one year British occupation could not
be erased. They preserved the administrative division of Florida into two
provinces, east and west, although ultimately they withdrew the boundary of
West Florida to 310. We shall be concerned, of course, with East Florida
They continued the British Indian policy, agreeing to abide by the white-Indian
boundary established by Grant in 1765. They also kept up the British policy
of trade with the Indians, based on lavish expenditure for trade items and
presents. Since Spanish resources were inadequate to pursue this policy,
the administration allowed the English trading firm of Panton, Leslie, and
Company to continue its monopoly of the Indian trade in the Floridas. (After
Panton's death in 1801, the firm operated under the name of John Forbes and
Company.) Spain perpetuated British Indian policy in order to win the natives'
loyalty--the Indians had initially been quite resentful of the change of flags
--and to keep them from falling into the arms of the Americans. That policy,
on the whole, succeeded.
In many other respects--population, religion, language--there was more
diversity in the Second Spanish occupation than in the First.
When East Florida reverted to Spain in 1784, the territory was depopu-
lated again, although not as completely as in 1763. The population dropped
from about 17,000, swollen of course by large numbers of refugees, to about 1,700.
British subjects were permitted to remain and to keep their property if they
agreed to take an oath of allegiance to Spain. While most departed, a number
Aware of their inability to garrison East Florida with large numbers of
troops, the Spanish hoped to build up the population as a means of securing
effective control. A series of efforts to attract Irish Catholic settlers
proved fruitless. Therefore, in 1788 immigration was liberalized, shockingly
so, considering previous Spanish practice. The government provided liberal
grants of free land to outsiders, even non-Catholics. The outsiders, needless
to say, came principally from the United States. We might note here Thomas
Jefferson's remark that such a poling might enable the U.S. to gain the Floridas
without a war. From 1787 to 1804 the population of East Florida increased to
about 4,500, most of the increase being American settlers and their slaves.
As Jefferson had foreseen, the policy backfired for Spain. The new
settlers could not be counted upon to remain loyal. And Spanish regulations
forbid three activities popular with the Americans: public Protestant worship
(private worship tolerated), elections and local self-government, and land
speculation. By 1804 Spanish authorities had seen the error of their ways,
and they officially closed East Florida to U.S. citizens. The ban was in-
effective, however. New settlers continued to drift in, and the governors
did little or nothing to stop them. The result was that East Florida's
population during the Second Spanish Period became predominantly American.
Spanish doubts about the Americans' loyalty also proved correct. Many of
them later plotted to overthrow the Spaniards and to seek annexation to the
Let us turn our attention now to the economy of Spanish East Florida.
Just like under the first Spanish occupation, East Florida served primarily
as a military outpost and St. Augustine as a garrison town. Spain regarded
the Floridas and Louisiana as buffers against American expansion toward New
Spain and the Spanish Caribbean. Just like before, the garrison at St.Augustine
was dependent upon outside supplies. Spanish authorities would have liked to
confine East Florida's trade to the Spanish empire, particularly Cuba, but they
could not. Florida had become dependent on other sources, formerly English,
now American. More and more of Florida's trade went to the U.S. For example,
of 42 ships that called at St. Augustine in 1806, five were from Havana and
37 from American ports.
Another similarity between the first and second Spanish regimes was
that payments to the garrison were erratic, and that the colony suffered
continuously from a shortage of money.
Unlike the first Spanish occupation, however, the second period did
exhibit a more diverse economy. Not all of the gains made during the British
period were lost. It is true that many British plantations and settlements
fell into ruin, but a plantation economy based upon slave labor survived,
producing cattle, cotton, rice, and sugarcane. The production of naval stores
continued on a small scale. Moreover, the town of Fernandina on Amelia Island
near the boundary between Florida and theUnited States became a thriving center
of smuggling, especially after the U.S. embargo of 1807 and the American pro-
hibition of the slave trade in 1808 created a heavy demand in the U.S. for
contraband goods. The economy of East Florida during this era was thus more
diverse and productive, yet East Florida was not by any stretch of the ima-
gination prosperous. It remained a rough, unruly, and sparesly settled frontier
When Spain sold Louisiana back to France in 1800 and France then sold
the vast territory to the United States in 1803, the Spanish Floridas were
isolated, by U.S. territory. Given Spain's weakness, the Floridas' ultimate
cession to the U.S. was probably inevitable. We have already noted the influx
of American settlers, many of whom schemed for a U.S. takeover. As it turned
out, a majority of the inhabitants of Spanish East Florida could not be relied
upon to defend her. There were some, of course, who profitted from the regime's
weakness, particularly smugglers and bandits, elements the Spanish administration
proved unable to curb. Furthermore, British agents during the War of 1812
cited the Florida Indians against Americans, and even after the cessation of
hostilities Indian raiders continued to use Florida as a sanctuary from which
to launch attacks on American territory. All in all, Spain's simple inability
to keep order in the Floridas, and to control elements that menace their
American lives and property, led.to increasing demands in the United States for
their annexation. Diplomatic contacts between the United States and Spain cul-
minated in 1819 in the Adams-Onis Treaty, not fully ratified until 1821,
which transferred the Floridas to the U.S. The U.S. government agreed to
assume Spanish debts to American citizens totaling about $5,000,000. The
change of flags in East Florida took place in St. Augustine on July 10, 1821.