The Semblance of Spanish Authority, 1785-1816

As soon as Spanish officialdom was established, the few settlers remaining in Florida petitioned the new governor, Zespedes, to confirm the grants to land they had held under British rule. This was usually done, the only condition being a change of allegiance from England to Spain. The Egmont property on Amelia Island however formed a part of a grant confirmed to Don Domingo Fernandez. The whole, known as “Eliza” or “Louisa” plantation, included the site of the present city of Fernandina.

The town, however, was not named for Don Fernandez. He found a village bearing that name on his tract, so evidently the name of Egmont had not persisted. Among other possibilities the Spanish fort of 1680, San Fernando, may be considered as a source of the name. In 1831, the Spanish Count of Fernandina, cruising American waters in his yacht, visited the town because of its name.

Don Fernandez left the management of his plantation to his wife who set the acreage out in orange trees and managed her household and slaves wisely. Fernandez was an astronomer and spent a large part of his time in a little summer house “stargazing.” Mrs. Fernandez outlived her husband and in her will charged her children with the care of all aged slaves.

From 1796 to 1811, Amelia Island was comparatively quiet, though a small garrison of ten men was kept at Fort San Carlos under Commandant Lopez. Relations between the inhabitants seem to have been amiable. In the early days there was apparently no idea of segregating Negroes, for many free Negroes owned lots in various sections of the town. Every effort was made to keep on good terms with the many Indians who came to town to trade. To avoid trouble townspeople kept out of sight when the Indians grew frenzied from drink. As soon as their savage guests became insensible, the townsmen laid them in their canoes like sardines, and towed them to the opposite shore. Finally it became necessary to insist that only four boats with three Indians in each be allowed in town at the same time. Soldiers from blockhouses, built on Bell’s River and Lanceford Creek, enforced this decree.

In 1807 Fernandina became internationally notorious. Jefferson’s Embargo Act closed American ports to shipping at a time when American commerce with all countries of Europe was enjoying a robust growth. At once the little Spanish town across the American border became a resort for ships of all nations. Foreign vessels thronged its port and wharves were piled with goods destined to be smuggled into the United States. Three large trading firms had wharves and offices there—Hibberson & Yonge, Forbes & Co. (successors to Panton, Leslie and Co.) and Sibbald & Bethune.

A sinister chapter in Fernandina’s history opened in 1808. In that year the United States forbade further importation of slaves from Africa; while conversely the demand for slaves was increasing with the spread of plantations in the South and West. So, contraband slave trade was added to the profitable smuggling enterprises of Fernandina. Violence more desperate even than that of recent prohibition days underlaid the trade, for a captain caught smuggling slaves was subject to the death penalty. Hence human cargoes would be dumped overboard if too hard pressed by the U. S. patrol. If the Fernandina port could be reached, however, the slave-ship owner’s investment was saved. So important did this profitable trade become that Lopez, the Spanish commandant, discreetly petitioned the governor at St. Augustine for more warehouse space so that ships might dispose of cargoes “temporarily” deposited at Fernandina.

Gaining that much desired port was not easy, however, for hijackers concealed their swift barks behind the little marsh islands in the vicinity and pounced upon many unlucky traders as they came in sight. Pierre and Jean Lafitte found this a paying locality and were thought to have visited Fernandina. Some traders bought immunity and others shared profits with the hijackers. Few planters of the area, American or Spanish, were without some connection with these slave ventures.

There were many planters on and near the island by 1810. Don Domingo Fernandez received his grant on the north end of the island in 1808. In 1809 the Browards (originally spelled Brevvard), Bellamys, Harrisons, O’Neils and Fitzgeralds arrived in a body from South Carolina, landing first on the south end of Amelia, where they pitched their tents. The men reported to the commandant at Fort San Carlos and later went to St. Augustine to register claims to plantations on the island and along the Nassau River. Many of these planters cultivated their grants until the War between the States. Captain James Smith (father of Martha Reid, wife of a governor of Florida) had several plantations, one at Sawpit Bluff, others at Pumpkin Hill, Black Hammock and Lunny Grant. The Fitzpatricks and Browards lived at Cedar Point. Hibberson, the trader, tried the role of planter, experimenting with coffee on the marsh islands, using cut marsh grass as fertilizer. He hoped that the fogs would temper’ the cold, but the tender coffee plants did not prosper.

Fernandina grew so rapidly and irregularly that in 1811 the Spanish Government decided to replot the town. Those who moved their houses to conform to the new plan received a lot or half lot adjacent to their property as a reward. Among several residents whose moves were recorded was Isabel Jardine, wife of a wealthy planter, who maintained a town house as a refuge during Indian raids.

Fernandina’s remarkable prosperity made the town a more and more tempting morsel in the great international game in which Florida figured as a pawn. Spain was under the thumb of Napoleon, and many of her American colonies were in revolt, distracting her attention from Florida, Meanwhile, France, England and the United States, regarding Florida as the key to the Gulf of Mexico, watched each other to check any move for control there. Governor Folch of Florida begged in vain for Spanish reinforcements against the border invaders, and finally in disgust wrote Robert Smith, Secretary of State, that if help did not come before the first of the year (1811) he would have to surrender both the Floridas (East Florida and West Florida) to the United States. Concern was not unwarranted; one resident of Fernandina wrote that he had counted thirty-six English warships in the harbor at one time during 1812.

The Spanish Governor’s letter reached Washington about January 1st, and Madison immediately called a secret session of Congress to discuss its implications. In a bill passed by Congress, the President was empowered to receive and hold Florida east of the Perdido River, if the local authorities were willing to give it up or if there was danger that a foreign power would attempt to occupy it. Foreign power meant England, for by this time it was generally realized that a war between the United States and England was inevitable, and it was deemed essential to forestall the seizure of Florida.

The President was authorized by Congress to use the army and navy, if necessary, and to expend up to $100,000 in the occupation of East Florida; he was further authorized to set up a temporary government and appoint such civil, military and judicial officers as he saw fit. President Madison appointed General George Matthews and Colonel John McKee as commissioners to carry out the provisions of the bill.

In their instructions the commissioners were directed to “conceal from general observation the trust, with that discretion which the delicacy and importance of the undertaking required.” If the local authorized leader was inclined to surrender in an “amicable manner,” General Matthews was to accept his abdication in behalf of the United States. “Should there be room,” wrote Robert Smith, “to entertain a suspicion of an existing design of any foreign power to occupy the country in question you are to keep yourselves on the alert, and, on the first undoubted manifestation of the approach of a force for that purpose you will exercise with promptness and vigor with whom you are invested by the President to pre-occupy by force the territory to the entire exclusion of any armament that may be advanced to take possession of it.”

In spite of the admonition to secrecy it was common knowledge that the United States intended to take possession of East Florida on one pretext or another. When General Matthews arrived, he found the St. Mary’s River alive with British shipping engaged in smuggling goods in violation of United States nonimportation laws. After careful inquiry the American decided that it would be impossible to take peaceful possession of the province. Fernandina, free port of entry since 1808, was now a place of considerable importance; it was said that as many as. 150 square-rigged vessels could be seen at one time within her harbor, and the town had a population of about 800. The lucrative smuggling trade would not be surrendered without a struggle, Matthews felt, so he recommended the employment of force. The plan he evolved was inspired by a recent occurrence in West Florida; the people of East Florida were to be encouraged to revolt, declare the province independent, and apply for annexation to the United States, as the West Coast people had done. Matthews thought that “200 stand of arms and fifty horsemen’s swords would be necessary,” and he guaranteed not only that they would reach the right people, but that the United States would not be compromised. He discussed his plans at length with Senator William H. Crawford of Georgia, and felt sure that the latter communicated them to the President. A strong hint also had been officially given by General William Eustis, Secretary of War, to create a new local authority friendly to the United States.

All in all, Matthews felt justified in taking the President’s silence for consent, so he proceeded to organize the revolution. His preparations took about a year, which is not surprising in view of the state of communications at that time.

Adventurous spirits abounded along the St. Mary’s River, which was termed the “jumping place” for criminals and desperate characters. “Moccasin boys,” as they were called, were making slave and cattle raids into the Indian country. Fort Alert, built at Traders Hill on the King’s Road in 1812, for the express purpose of checking smuggling across the border, was adapted to a strange procedure. When a slave trader had a cargo of Negroes to “run” over the border, the “moccasin boys” spread an Indian alarm through the backwoods, settlers crawled into the fort, and the Negroes were marched in gangs unobserved across the Georgia line.

Not only were these adventurous spirits ready for any deed of daring, especially one that promised injury to the Spanish authorities, but an ideal leader was at hand in the person of John McIntosh, Many years before he had intrigued against the Spanish Government, had been arrested and imprisoned in Morro Castle. By 1811, he had become a man of some wealth and importance along the lower St. Johns. Promised protection and reimbursement by Matthews, McIntosh devoted himself to the “sacred cause.”

Matthews probably obtained the “200 stand of arms and 50 horsesmen’s swords,” for on March 14, 1812, he wrote to the Secretary of State that Commodore Hugh Campbell had furnished him with “every assistance in his power.” In the spring of 1812, some 200 adventurous “patriots” assembled near the St. Mary’s. Proceeding to organize a government, they established a Republic of Florida with General McIntosh as governor or director and a Colonel Richard Ashley as military chief. The “patriots” adopted a white flag on which was a soldier with bayonet charged and the motto: Salus populisuprema lex—(The well-being of the people is the supreme law).

They were now ready for the capture of Fernandina. At that time Don Jose Lopez was in command of the fort and viewed his garrison of tén men without illusion. On March 15th, Colonel Ashley sent Lopez an ultimatum in which he said that rather than have the United States take possession of East Florida, the inhabitants had decided to do it themselves, and that they now held possession from the St. Mary’s to the St. Johns River; they demanded the surrender of the fort. There is no doubt that this move was part of Matthews’ carefully considered plan; indeed, there is on record testimony in a damage suit that the Patriot War was planned by General Matthews. On any other supposition it is highly fortuitous, to say the least, that exactly at this time there were in Fernandina nine American gunboats under the command of Hugh Campbell. Their purpose was ostensibly an innocent one, namely, to prevent smuggling and enforce the non-importation law, but significantly, their guns were turned on the fort in Fernandina.

Lopez sent messengers to Commodore Campbell stating the demands of the insurgents, and inquiring if he, Campbell, had orders to aid him. Messengers were also dispatched to a Major Jacint LaVal, who was in command of American troops at Point Peter. While LaVal replied that he had no such orders, Campbell temporized and referred the messengers to General Matthews. These messengers made no secret of their knowledge that the “patriots” were Americans brought to Florida under the promise of 500 acres of*land in case the revolution succeeded, and they added that Lopez would never surrender. But Lopez had little choice.

The patriots came down the river in boats; saw the line of warships with their guns bearing upon the town. Although flying the flag of a neutral power, everyone knew that the warships were prepared to enforce the demand of the “patriots.” The Spanish garrison marched out ten strong. Lopez gave up his sword, McIntosh hauled down the Spanish flag and raised the Flag of the Republic of Florida at four o’clock on March 17, 1812.

In the articles of capitulation it was provided that “the island shall, 24 hours after the surrender, be ceded to the United States of America under the express condition that the port of Fernandina shall not be subject to any of the restrictions on commerce that exist at present in the United States, but shall be open as heretofore, to British and other vessels and produce, on paying the lawful tonnage and import duties; and in case of actual war between the United States and Great Britain the port of Fernandina shall be open to British merchant vessels and produce, and considered a free port until the 1st of May 1813.” The articles were witnessed by George Atkinson, George I. F. Clarke, Charles W. Clarke, and Archibald Clarke. At noon on March 18th, the Stars and Stripes were flying over the fort and a company of soldiers under Lt. Ridgley was on garrison duty, but many citizens in Fernandina remained loyal to the Spanish administration, among them Hibberson, Atkinson, Cashen and Yonge.

On the 21st of March, General Matthews wrote the Secretary of State, “Enclosed you have a letter from the constituted authorities of East Florida requesting me as commissioner of the United States to take possession of all that tract of country lying between the St. Mary’s and the St. Johns Rivers, including the islands between the same, which agreeably thereto was ceded and surrendered to the United States through me on the 18th inst. . . .”

Both the Spanish and the English ministers at Washington protested vigorously against the occupation of Fernandina and a subsequent movement upon St. Augustine. Madison deemed it expedient to say that Matthews had exceeded his instructions and that he would be dismissed. Governor Mitchell of Georgia was appointed to take his place. He had luck neither with the “patriots,” who refused to lay down their arms, nor with Governor Estrada, who declined firmly to make any agreement granting immunity to the insurrectionists. Governor Mitchell thereupon boldly sent to Savannah for aid, which arrived at the same time as the news of the declaration of War against England. Seventeen British ships and a large quantity of timber lying in harbor were promptly seized. Governor Mitchell was thanked by Madison for his “ability and judgement,” and removed to make room for General Thomas Pinckney. This gentleman was cautioned to use only peaceable means to take possession of the province, unless some foreign power attempted to seize it. Nothing untoward seems to have happened. Contraband trade proceeded briskly; cotton bales filled the streets, and goods from all over the world piled up in the warehouses. In 1813, however, the embargo was repealed and Fernandina lost its commercial advantage. On May 16th, 1813, Pinckney withdrew from Amelia Island since, presumably, the danger from a foreign country was past, and Spain was again in possession of Fernandina.

Though Spain published a general pardon to her East Florida subjects, this did not end the ill-feeling and the skirmishes between the Spaniards and so-called patriots, nor the incursion of bands of idlers bent only on making trouble. Fernandina was too weak for defense. St. Augustine was unwilling to send its troops out to hunt “bush fighters,” to quote George Clarke, émigré from Virginia to Fernandina, who wrote: ““The newly styled Republic of Florida over which the influence of order had not been felt since March 1812, and having now no compulsive inducements to union among its members, soon fell into the most wretched state of anarchy and licentiousness; even the honest were compelled to knavery in their own defense, and thus continued until August 1816—while the most rancorous feelings existed between the Patriots on the main, and the damn’d Spaniards of Amelia Island.”

In August, 1816, Clarke, who had been employed as surveyor during the English occupation and later by the Spanish Government, acting on Spain’s behalf, made a bargain with the “patriots” by which they were given considerable land on condition that they return to Spanish rule; the past was to be “buried in total oblivion.” The “patriots” accepted, and thus ended the Republic of Florida.


The above material was written and compiled by “Workers of the Writers’ Program of the Works Projects Administration in the State of Florida, Sponsored by the Florida State Planning Board, and copyrighted by the City Commission of Fernandina in 1940.” There were no subsequent copyrights on this material and the material entered the public domain in 1968, or 28 years after the publication of material. This material uses phraseology and words which may be considered offensive to readers today.

1 thought on “The Semblance of Spanish Authority, 1785-1816”

  1. It’s not a surprise Don Fernandez was a “star gazer”. He was a long-time sailor and Spanish gunboat captain. The stars were his map. If I remember correctly, the only reason he was granted land was because he promised to continue sailing. Apparently, he lied. (My 3G-grandfather, Lewis Mattair, was one of his crew members and later his brother-in-law.)

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