Florida had an unusual history as a colony during the 1700s because it changed from Spanish to British rule and then back to Spanish rule again. The two decades of British settlement (1763-1783) saw some important changes in the region. Creeks and Seminoles settled in the area, taking the place of earlier Native American communities. There was a flurry of publishing, giving us many English-language books and articles about this time period. The British were avid sponsors of tracts to promote settlement, scientific reports, and maps and charts. In the 1780s Florida also had a short-lived newspaper. Prominent among the writers of the time were the naturalist John Bartram  and his son William, both of whom became important chroniclers of Florida’s natural history. The British Period also saw more settlers investing in the types of commercial plantations common in South Carolina and Georgia, and with these plantations came an increased use of slave labor. The upheavals of the American Revolution eventually disrupted British efforts to control and develop Florida and paved the way for Spain to regain the area.
Florida’s British Period began with the defeat of French forces in North America during the Seven Year’s War. Spain, as a French ally, also suffered defeat. In February 1763, two centuries of Spanish rule in East Florida came to an end, when representatives of Spain, France and Great Britain signed a peace treaty to end the Seven Years War (also known as the French and Indian War). In the massive reshuffling of European colonies that followed, Britain acquired Florida from Spain in exchange for Cuba, which had been captured by British troops in 1762. France ceded to Britain the huge territory that adjoined Florida to the west and extended all the way to the Mississippi River. The one exception was the Isle of Orleans, seat of the City of New Orleans, which went to Spain, along with French land west of the Mississippi.
Britain divided the new Gulf Coast and Florida territories into two provinces separated by the Apalachicola River. East Florida would comprise the peninsula south of the St. Marys River, and from the Atlantic Ocean west to the Apalachicola. West Florida would extend from there to the Mississippi River and north from the Gulf of Mexico to the Yazoo River in present day Mississippi.
On July 20, 1763, British troops took control of St. Augustine, East Florida’s only city. Most of the 3,500 Spanish residents of the city had departed for Spanish Cuba or Mexico by January 1764. Only three families chose to remain under British rule.
It was August 5, 1763 when British troops under Lieutenant Colonel Augustine Prevost arrived at Pensacola in West Florida. One month later, 800 persons departed for Havana and Vera Cruz, leaving 350 French residents of Mobile, and another ninety French families settled on nearby farms. Prevost complained about the miserable conditions of the fort and the dwelling houses at Pensacola and judged the absence of cultivated fields to be evidence of the “insuperable laziness of the Spaniards.” He believed his most important duty was to establish peaceful relations with the 28,000 Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek residents of the area. In East Florida, Major Ogilvie took gifts to Chief Cowkeeper and the Creek villagers west of St. Augustine.
East Florida’s first governor, Colonel James Grant , arrived at St. Augustine in August 1764. A native of Scotland and a resident of London for years, Grant was shocked by the miniscule size of the provincial capital. The distance from the town’s barrier wall on the north to the southern barricade was less than one mile. Westward from the wharf on the Matanzas River only four sand-filled streets were crossed before the barricade and redoubts on the edge of the town were encountered. The 300 dwellings were less than fifty years old: fires, wood rot, termites, and the English siege of 1702 had destroyed most traces of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century city. The mostly one-story houses were made of quarried coquina stone, tabby or wood.
In typical Spanish colonial fashion, St. Augustine centered on a plaza surrounded by important public buildings. Streets radiated north and south, bounded by the stores and residences of the town’s leading citizens. The dominant structure was the Governor’s House at the west end of the plaza. The governor distributed the Spanish houses among British officials, merchants, and settlers, with preference given to their social status.
When West Florida Governor George Johnstone arrived at Pensacola in October 1764, he found even fewer dwellings, mainly wooden houses in wretched condition. The surveyor, Elias Durnford, drew up a town plan for a new Pensacola. The lots were allocated by lottery without charge, but it would be 1768 before two hundred houses were standing.
Peopling the Provinces
The major challenge for both governors was attracting settlers. Grant characterized East Florida as a “New World in a State of Nature” after finding “not an acre of land planted…and nobody to work or at work.” Like Grant, Governor Johnstone wanted a ban on wandering frontiersmen he called the “overflowing scum of empire.” He wanted immigrants who would clear forests and cultivate provisions as well as crops for export.
Both governors were hindered by policies that awarded 10,000 and 20,000 acre tracts to wealthy and influential men in Britain . Grant warned that absentee landlords would claim the best land to speculate rather than cultivate. “No Lands ought to be granted, but to People who are actually to reside in the Colony,” Grant reasoned, but his advice was not heeded. He then wrote repeatedly to the “great grantees” who were awarded the large tracts to urge them to invest in developing it rather than to speculate on an increase in land values. He also implored them to purchase enslaved black men and women as their laborers rather than white Europeans. White indentures became debilitated by the heat in Florida, Grant observed, and they soon abandoned the rural settlements for the colonial towns. Even the often praised German immigrants “won’t do here” Grant wrote: “Upon their landing they are immediately seized with the pride which every man is possessed of who wears a white face in America and they say they won’t be slaves and so they make their escape.” He told one grantee: “no produce will answer the expense of white labor,” and another: “Settlements in this warm climate must be formed by Negroes.”
Promises of free land and government offices enticed several South Carolina and Georgia planters with experienced slave labor forces to migrate to East Florida. In addition, Grant attempted to “put a spur” to local proprietors by developing a model indigo plantation. When the proceeds of four years of profits from indigo exports repaid all of Grant’s startup expenses, including the cost of his seventy-eight slaves, planters paid attention. Soon after, nearly all of the field laborers in East Florida were enslaved black men and women.
Numerous St. Augustine residents owned farms located west of the town and to the north alongside forty miles of the North, Guana, and Pablo rivers. George Grassell, a carpenter in the town, owned four farms. Englishman Spencer Mann ran a mercantile business in St. Augustine from 1764 to 1784, while his overseer and sixty slaves cultivated rice, indigo, and corn, and harvested lumber, shingles, and naval stores at nine rural properties. Francis Philip Fatio, Francis Levett, and many others had houses in St. Augustine plus estates of ten thousand acres on the St. Johns River. (Resources:
South of St. Augustine dozens of large estates were developed, all worked by enslaved Africans. The wealthy London merchant Richard Oswald shipped 280 enslaved Africans from Sierra Leone to his 20,000-acre plantation at today’s Ormond Beach. Dr. Andrew Turnbull’s 60,000-acre tract south of St. Augustine at today’s New Smyrna Beach was the exception. He traveled to the Mediterranean to recruit 1,400 Greeks, Italians, and Minorcans to work as indentured laborers. Troubled by agonizingly high sickness and mortality rates, labor unrest, and food and funding shortages, the settlement had failed by 1778, and the settlers had moved to St. Augustine, where they played a significant role in the future of the city. While the Turnbull settlement existed, the scale of development surpassed anything attempted in the other North American colonies. (Resources: New Smyrna Beach  Minorcans )
At West Florida, migrants arrived soon after the British flag was raised, but infertile soils near Pensacola and high sickness and mortality rates slowed the inflow. In the early 1770s, after news of the rich soils along the Mississippi River spread to the New England colonies, the stream of migration resumed. In 1774, Elias Durnford estimated that 3,100 persons (2,500 white & 600 black) resided at the east bank of the Mississippi between the Iberville and Yazoo rivers. Migration was stagnated by the onset of the American Revolution and military raids in 1778.
British/Native American Relations
In addition to recruiting problems, both governors faced diplomatic challenges as they negotiated land concessions and trade agreements with Native Americans. Johnstone’s problems in West Florida were more severe, partly because of a greater population imbalance, but also because of British policies that pitted one Native American nation against another to weaken overall Native American strength. His policy of meeting with Indian leaders to distribute gifts and negotiate differences had some early success.
In East Florida, Governor Grant and John Stuart, British Superintendent of Indian Affairs, invited Creek leaders to a congress at Fort Picolata west of St. Augustine in November 1765. The fifty Creek chiefs who attended tenaciously protected their expansive hunting grounds to ensure the continuation of their profitable fur trade, although they agreed to peace terms and limited land concessions. To avoid potential conflict, Grant imposed strict rules on British fur traders and informed planters that Creek hunters had the right to pass through their farms in pursuit of game. Similar congresses were held throughout the remaining years of Britain’s brief tenure in Florida.
The American Revolution
Colonel Patrick Tonyn became the second governor of East Florida in March 1774. After the American Revolution began in 1775, Tonyn ordered a census of white inhabitants fit to bear arms and of enslaved men who could be trusted with weapons. By August of 1776 he had formed the East Florida Rangers, a militia of white volunteers and enslaved black men serving under white officers. Thomas Brown, a Loyalist refugee from Georgia, was given command. To help repel invaders, Tonyn formed alliances with the Creek and Seminole, supplied them with weapons and gunpowder, and deployed them as scouts and soldiers, and also as cattle rustlers.
Beginning in August 1776, the war in Florida devolved into border warfare as Georgia militia crossed into Florida to destroy settlements and steal cattle and slaves. Within weeks, Florida’s Rangers retaliated with raids into Georgia. The violence continued for the remainder of the war and turned the area between the St. Marys and the St. Johns rivers into a “no man’s land” of scorched stubble where corn and indigo fields once thrived and of debris and ashes where settlements once stood. East Florida forces retaliated and captured Fort McIntosh on the Satilla River in February 1777 before returning with cattle and prisoners. The Georgia invaders that struck back were stopped short of the St. Johns River, prompting Lieutenant Governor John Moultrie to write: “the common frontier [became] quite abandoned on both sides, horses and crops destroyed, people and cattle moved away; numbers of refugees…fled to us, they almost eat up our provisions, but…we drive off as many cattle from the Georgians as have hitherto supplied our market.” The border raids continued until June 1778, when the East Florida Rangers defeated invaders from Georgia at Nassau River. Reinforcements were rushed to St. Augustine and marched northward to participate in the capture of Savannah in November 1781. With the border finally secure, the threat of wartime invasion was over for East Florida residents.
For West Florida, the war came at the inopportune time when increasing numbers of settlers were claiming land along the Mississippi River. More than 3,100 persons lived on the east bank of the river. John Stuart organized a militia of volunteers, but with only minimal numbers of soldiers assigned to the western garrisons, that valuable portion of the colony was vulnerable. In February 1778, James Willing and 100 American raiders traveled down the Mississippi to capture Natchez and continue down the river, plundering and looting on their way to New Orleans.
On June 21, 1779, Spain’s declaration of war on Great Britain meant that a powerful ally joined the colonial rebels in their fight for independence. Bernardo de Gálvez, the Spanish governor of New Orleans led a Spanish army in the capture of all British forts on the east side of the Mississippi River. By May of 1781, Gálvez’s army had forced the surrender of Mobile and Pensacola and driven British arms from the Gulf of Mexico. British West Florida became part of the Spanish colonial empire.
The Fate of East Florida’s Loyalists
By late 1775, supporters of King George III began fleeing the colonies in rebellion to escape from zealous revolutionaries and restart their lives in loyal East Florida. Governor Tonyn made unoccupied land available for their settlement. In August 1776, John Moultrie observed that St. Augustine was “full of people who have fled for safety” and decided to profit from planting “nothing but what is to go into the mouth.” In the summer of 1778, troop reinforcements began pouring into St. Augustine accompanied by carpenters, dock workers, and hundreds of sailors on shore leave. For local farmers and businessmen, the influx meant unprecedented opportunity.
Loyalists were shocked to learn that Lord Charles Cornwallis surrendered his 8,000-man British army to General George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia on October 19, 1781. Britain opened peace negotiations and ordered withdrawal of the Charleston and Savannah garrisons, while designating East Florida a haven for disheartened refugees. By the end of December, East Florida had received more than 6,147 refugees. They were provided rations, tools, and seeds for planting provisions crops at rural tracts marked out by order of the governor.
The new planters focused on forest products for export. With the forests north of Florida closed to Britain by the war, the Royal Navy and colonists in Britain’s Caribbean possessions clamored for naval stores and building materials. The Loyalist refugees created new farms along the rivers north and south of St. Augustine, and amidst the thriving settlements on the lower St. Johns a new town of two to three hundred houses appeared at St. Johns Bluff (in today’s Jacksonville). Residents were optimistic, but the collective mood changed to despair after news arrived that British peace negotiators had agreed to return East Florida to Spain. The Treaty of Paris was signed January 20, 1783; American independence was achieved.
Twelve thousand Loyalists had fled to East Florida expecting to rebuild their lives. Approximately 18,000 persons lived in the loyal province in 1783, not counting Native Americans. They now faced a bitter choice: stay in Florida under Spanish rule, or sacrifice wealth and property and move to the new United States or board a ship of the evacuation fleet departing for Britain or a British colony. The vast majority chose to leave. As late as 1793, the total population of Spanish East Florida—not counting Native Americans—had not yet climbed back to four thousand.
On July 12, 1784, Spanish Governor Vizente Manuel de Zéspedes witnessed the formal change of flags at the Plaza in St. Augustine. For the next year, two governors resided in the town, one British and the other Spanish. Eventually Governor Tonyn moved to the St. Marys River to supervise the final departures, but it was not until November 10, 1785 that a troop transport carried the governor and the last of the British Loyalists away.
A photographic tour of the St. John’s River as seen through the eyes of John Bartram. Part of the “Florida History Online” website, a digital archive of textual and visual documents of Florida history produced by students and faculty at the University of North Florida.
“Adventures in British America: Papers Found in Scottish Castle Shed Light on Revolutionary War Era.” An article on the discovery of the James Grant papers, from the Library of Congress Information Bulletin.
A photographic tour of sites of former British farms and plantations along the St. John’s River. Part of the Florida History Online website, a digital archive of textual and visual documents of Florida history produced by students and faculty at the University of North Florida.
Essay on Bernardo de Gálvez from Knowla: The Encyclopedia of Louisiana.
Further Reading: Books and Periodicals
Alden, John Richard. John Stuart and the Southern Colonial Frontier: A Study of Indian Relations, War, Trade, and Land Problems in the Southern Wilderness, 1754-1775. New York: Gordian Press, 1966.
Bailyn, Bernard. Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986. Chapters 12 and 13.
Bense, Judith A. Archaeology of Colonial Pensacola. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999.
Buker, George E., and Richard A. Martin. “Governor Tonyn’s Brown-Water Navy: East Florida During the American Revolution, 1775-1778.” Florida Historical Quarterly Vol. 58 (July 1979).
Cashin, Edward J. The King’s Ranger: Thomas Brown and the American Revolution of the Southern Frontier. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1989.
Clune, Jr., John J., and Margo S. Stringfield. Historic Pensacola. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009.
Covington, James W. The British Meet the Seminoles: Negotiations Between British Authorities in East Florida and the Indians: 1763-68. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1961.
Ellsworth, Lucius, and Linda Ellsworth. Pensacola: The Deep Water City. Tulsa, OK: Continental Heritage Press: 1982.
Fabel, Robin F.A. Bombast and Broadsides: The Lives of George Johnstone. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1987.
Fabel, Robin F.A The Economy of British West Florida, 1763-1783. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988.
Fabel, Robin F.A. “British Rule in the Floridas.” In Michael Gannon, editor, The New History of Florida. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996.
Gallay, Allan. The Formation of a Planter Elite: Jonathan Bryan and the Southern Colonial Frontier. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.
Gold, Robert L. Borderland Empires in Transition: The Triple Nation Transfer of Florida. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.
Griffin, Patricia C. Mullet on the Beach: The Minorcans of Florida, 1768-1788. Jacksonville: University of North Florida Press, 1991.
Griffin, Patricia C. “Blue Gold: Andrew Turnbull’s New Smyrna Plantation.” In Jane G. Landers, Colonial Plantations and Economy in Florida. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 21000. Chapter 2.
Hancock, David. Citizens of the World: London Merchants and the Integration of the British Atlantic Community, 1735-1785. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Lewis, James A. The Final Campaign of the American Revolution: Rise and Fall of the Spanish Bahamas. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
Mowat, Charles Loch. East Florida as a British Province, 1763-1784. Berkeley: university of California Press, 1943; reprint, Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1964.
Nelson, Paul David. General James Grant: Scottish Soldier and Royal Governor of East Florida. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1993.
Panagopoulos, Epaminondas P. New Smyrna: An Eighteenth-Century Greek Colony. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1966.
Schafer, Daniel L. “‘not so gay a town in America as this’”: St. Augustine, 1763-1784.” in Jean Parker Waterbury, The Oldest City: St. Augustine, Saga of Survival. St. Augustine, FL: St. Augustine Historical Society, 1983. Chapter 4.
Schafer, Daniel L. “Plantation Development in British East Florida: A Case Study of the Earl of Egmont,” Florida Historical Quarterly 43 (October 1984): 172-83.
Scharfer, Daniel L.. “Yellow Silk Ferret Tied Round Their Wrists, African Americans in British East Florida, 1763-1784.” In David R. Colburn and Jane L. Landers, editors. The African American Heritage of Florida. Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 1995. Chapter 4.
Schafer, Daniel L. “A Swamp of an Investment”? Richard Oswald’s British East Florida Plantation Experiment.” In Jane G. Landers, editor, Colonial Plantations and Economy in Florida. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000. Chapter 1.
Schafer, Daniel L. Governor James Grant’s Villa: A British East Florida Indigo Plantation. St. Augustine, FL: St. Augustine Historical Society, 2000.
Schafer, Daniel L. St. Augustine’s British Years, 1763-1784. St. Augustine, Fl: St. Augustine Historical Society, 2001.
Siebert, Wilbur Henry. Loyalists in East Florida 1774 to 1785. Deland, FL: The Florida State Historical Society, 1929. Two Volumes.
Snapp, J. Russell. John Stuart and the Struggle for Empire on the Southern Frontier. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Starr, J. Barton. Tories, Dons, and Rebels: The American Revolution in British West Florida. Gainesville, University Presses of Florida, 1976.
TePaske, John Jay. The Governorship of Spanish Florida, 1700-1763. Durham: Duke University Press, 1964.
Troxler, Carole Watterson. “Loyalist Refugees and the British Evacuation of East Florida, 1783-1785,” Florida Historical Quarterly. Vol. 60, No. 1 (July 1981):1-28.
Webber, Mabel L. “Josiah Smith’s Diary, 1780-1781,” The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine (January 1932).
Weisman, Brent R. Like Beads on a String: A Cultural History of the Seminole Indians in North Peninsular Florida. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1989.
Weisman, Brent R. Unconquered Peoples: Florida’s Seminole and Miccosukee Indians. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999.
Williams, Linda K. “East Florida as a Loyalist Haven,” Florida Historical Quarterly (1976).
Wright, Jr, J. Leitch. British St. Augustine. St. Augustine: Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board, 1975.
Wright, Jr, J. Letich. Florida in the American Revolution. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1975.
Wright, Jr, J. Letich. Creeks and Seminoles. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.
Three collections of primary source documents are important for researching British East Florida: the James Grant Papers, the Papers of the East Florida Claims Commission, and the Colonial Office Papers.
The James Grant Papers include Governor James Grant’s letter books and original correspondence found in the Macpherson-Grant Papers, Ballindalloch Castle, Banffshire, Scotland, now housed at the National Archive of Scotland, Edinburgh. Microfilm copies are available at the Library of Congress, the Kislak Foundation at Miami Lakes, Florida, the David Library of the American Revolution at Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania.
Also of great utility are the letters exchanged between the governors in St. Augustine and the Board of Trade in London. The Colonial Office Papers (CO) are available at the National Archives of the United Kingdom at Kew, and on microfilm at most research libraries. Pertinent for this study are CO 5/540 and 550-555.
The Papers of the East Florida Claims Commission, or Treasury 77 (T77), are located at the National Archives at Kew. The James Grant Claim is Piece 7, File 18. The file contains plantation plat maps and dozens of letters written to Grant by his plantation manager, Alexander Skinner. Similar claims were submitted by Governor Patrick Tonyn, Lieutenant Governor John Moultrie and other elite St. Augustine residents. The losses suffered by workers, widows, British soldiers, and Loyalist refugees from rebellious colonies during the American War for Independence were also sent to the Commission.
Pensapedia is a wiki-based encyclopedia focusing on Pensacola, Florida and the surrounding area, featuring articles on history, culture, business, and more. The site appears to no longer be maintained, but features some in-depth articles with primary resources from the Library of Congress and other reliable sites.