Immediately after the negotiations with the United States in 1790, Spain no longer granted freedom to fugitive slaves who found their way to Spanish Florida.
Spain changed a law whose edit granted freedom to escaped slaves since 1600. Then Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson became instrumental in forcing Spain to give up its 1693 edict granting refuge for runaway slaves.
The 1790 Treaty of New York with the Creek tribe was one of many measures that turned the Lower Creeks into slave-raiding allies of the United States. At the time George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, two “Founding Fathers” were engaged in destroying the only beacon of freedom that existed for African slaves in the South.
Regardless, Spain’s tenuous hold over Florida allowed slaves to escape from Georgian and Carolinian British plantations and disappear as they crossed the Oconee River into Seminole territory. While Spain no longer abided by its promise of freedom, its possession of the territory prevented the establishment of an effective safeguard against the loss of slaves.
The planting frontiersmen of Georgia claimed over five million dollars worth of their slave “property” that had fled to Seminole territory over the years. This was the real background to the filibustering operation today known as the “Patriot War, which also occurred at Fort Mose, in St. Augustine. In fact, my friend Jack Williams, a St. Augustine resident and a living patriot himself once owned the Fort Mose property where he found, dug up, and located many artifacts that invariable led to Dr. Kathleen Deggan on her quest along with other items to study the site more intently.
Nevertheless, the growing U.S. tensions with Britain raised fears in Georgia that the British would attempt to attack the Southern states through Florida. Florida at the times was sparsely populated, small governing border that provided little protection on the frontier. The U.S. government, stroked fears of British intervention into East Florida with a crumbling Spanish Empire, and the Georgia settlers feared that British mechanisms in Florida would lay waste to the frontier plantations on the Georgia/Florida border through organized and armed bands of fugitive slaves and native tribes.
Caucasian, settlers knew the British would have no problem in garnering allies, as they themselves were taking native lands and raiding Seminole towns to seize their black allies. Florida was also a geopolitical prize that could provide the U.S. increased strength in the Caribbean to include shipping maritime routes. Florida commanded the rivers of the Southeast, making it an important base of navigation, and it continental position also complimented the popular “belief” that the U.S. had the right to acquire it.
The slaveholder interests hoped to expand slavery as an institution into Florida to continue the rapid economic growth of the Cotton Kingdom, and the demand for cotton grew with the demand for fertile lands, and slaves.
The Geogia planters were well-aware of the black towns in Florida, and these blacks could be procured at a bargain price for the Southern expansionists, slavery was the real issue. Annexing Florida, along with other Spanish colonies, would give additional Slave States to the South in order to the balance out the growing power of Free States in the North.
The Seminole sanctuary for fugitive slaves helped add fear as an incentive to annex Florida, and to U.S. expansionists. This meant that not only was the possession of Florida desirable and inevitable, but any continued reluctance on taking hold of the territory was severely damaging to the South’s economy and stability. The free black militias at St. Augustine added to the mix, and the Georgia’s settlers increasingly feared the possibility of slave insurrection perpetrated by free black militias under orders of the Spanish Crown. Armed free blacks in such close vicinity to plantations on the St. John’s and St. Mary’s rivers exacerbated Anglo planters in East Florida and Georgia. The armed and organized blacks could influence slaves in the vicinity to revolt by their mere example alone.
George Matthews and Col. John McKee were commissioned as secret agents to incite a revolution in East Florida. Being a wealthy slaveholder himself, the free blacks in Seminole territory were also probably an utmost concern for him.
President Madison could justify the acquisition of East Florida if a new regime demanded the intervention of the U.S. government for its protection. This allowed for a loophole as Matthews was commissioned to establish the noted “local authorities” as he saw fit to do so. This chaos could provide the pretext for acquisition as the threat of a foreign power could be conjured in the absence of a stabile regime. This shared uncanny similarities to the uprising of West Florida. There the U.S. established its own right to seize and occupy a foreign territory if there was a crisis from political unrest. Any crisis in these foreign territories was feared as an opening for Great Britain to exploit and U.S. intervention was perceived as necessary to prevent the “foreign threat.”
On January 26, Secretary of State Robert Smith ordered the two agents to secretly travel to West Florida where they were to take control of the Pensacola region if Governor Folch agreed to hand it over to the United States, and thus completing the informal annexation of the territory. They were to return West Florida to Spanish possession at a future date if such a stipulation was insisted. The orders were naturally vague, so to leave deniability for the U.S. government if it became necessary to deny its involvement, and Smith informed the agents that their subjective view of events in East Florida was sufficient to create the pretext for the U.S. to intervene.
On February 25, 1811, General Matthews requested further instructions from the President verifying his exact wishes for East Florida. Today, no exact orders from the Madison Administration authorizing Matthews to invade East Florida are available on the public record. The vast majority of the Patriots’ force consisted of Georgia militiamen where out of 350 Patriots, 300 were Georgians and only 50 were actual Floridians: “not one of them real Spaniards.” Five hundred acres of land was bribed to each participant, and this was after they planned to ethnically cleanse the Seminole towns in the Alachua region. British Ambassador Augustus Foster informed James Monroe that Matthews was going about the East Florida frontier in hopes to provoke a revolt.
By March of 1812, Matthews had considerable backing for his plans, and he had recruited 350 land-hungry Patriots, ensured the support of the U.S. military, and believed that the Madison Administration fully approved of his designs. By March 5th, Patriot leader and wealthy Florida planter John McIntosh claimed that the Patriots had successfully subjugated the areas between the St. Mary’s and St. John’s, planning next to take Amelia Island from the Spanish authorities. McIntosh wrote to the Spanish Commandment at Fernandina, Don Justo Lopez, about the determination of the United States government “to take possession of our country by conquest, determined some of us, who are much interested in the advantages we now enjoy to do it ourselves.”
On March 16, Col. Lodowick Ashley wrote to Lopez ordering the residents of Fernandina to “place themselves under the protection of the government of the United States.” And, from the start of the revolt, the Patriots made it clear that they feared the existence of the armed free black militias under Spanish rule. One wrote to Lopez: “We are informed sir that you have armed Negroes on the Island against us. — We hope this is not true. If, however, we should find it a fact, remember that we solemnly declare that we will give you no quarters at the town of Fernandina.” The Patriots “threatened the inhabitants with a general massacre” if they refused to surrender, meaning that if they employed the free black militias against them. The Royal Party was prepared to fight the Patriots and could have successfully resisted the invasion if it hadn’t been for the assistance of several U.S. gunboats. Realizing that the gunboats were backing the insurgents, they immediately surrendered. The Patriots held Fernandina for 24 hours before handing authority over to the U.S. military, and the U.S. flag was hoisted above the city.
The Patriots scourged the countryside, intimidating loyal Florida citizens, and Zephaniah Kingsley, a distinguished Florida planter, was brought to their headquarters and told to either join their cause or face imprisonment and confiscation of his property. East Florida residents fled the plantations for the protection of the highly fortified St. Augustine. As the Patriots occupied East Florida, they “pursued a career of plunder,” driving the territory into ruin.
Their plunder included a large number of slaves from Spanish plantations, and up until 1848, residents of East Florida were claiming compensation for ninety slaves seized by the Patriot invaders. Another operation was planned on capturing St. Augustine, where on April 8, Col. Smith stationed the U.S. soldiers in Fort Mose about two miles from St. Augustine. The Patriots were located in a nearby camp, and the U.S. gunboats prevented supplies and provisions from entering the city from the coast. The Patriots committed depredations on the local plantations, preventing any sustenance entering the city from the inland. At the time 400 soldiers, made up mostly of the free black militiamen, and were available to defend St. Augustine.
The majority of the Spanish military was spent resisting the French occupation at home, leading the Patriots to believe that St. Augustine could be easily seized. They found this to be completely incorrect. As a U.S. soldier in the camp outside of St. Augustine put it: “Our aim is at Fort St. Augustine; five times the force we have will not be able to take it by storm, it’s the best and most Secure Fortified Fort I have ever Seen.” What the Patriots also didn’t take into account was that Seminoles, black Seminoles, the free blacks of St. Augustine, and runaway slaves would assemble to defend Spanish rule. This was the most important factor to divert the siege of St. Augustine. Governor Mitchell wrote to Secretary Monroe, frustrated that the unexpected strength of the free black militias prevented the Patriots from successfully taking St. Augustine.
In the mean time, Secretary of State Monroe decommissioned General Matthews from command of the Patriots, claiming that Matthews had overstepped his boundaries and instructions, and Monroe claimed he only had the authority to take East Florida under consent of the local authorities, the only exception being the immediate threat of a foreign power attempting to take control of the territory.
Public support for the war against Britain could have been possibly compromised from embarrassing news of illegal operations in Spanish Florida. On April 10, Secretary Monroe appointed Georgia Governor David Mitchell at the command of forces in East Florida, and he was ordered to restore the province back to its previous condition before the invasion. He was further ordered to withdraw the U.S. troops and restore the Spanish authorities of Amelia Island. He was to receive assurance from the Spanish Florida governor that the Patriots would receive amnesty.
The free blacks, runaway slaves, and Seminoles all felt it in their best interest to protect Spanish rule of Florida from U.S. encroachment. The U.S. force maintained its position at Fort Mose until May 16, when an armed Spanish schooner destroyed the fort with a shot from 24-pound cannon. The Patriots had already started deserting their camps for the inability to successfully siege St. Augustine. But when the Seminole raids began, camp after camp was found deserted as the Patriots left to protect their homes. They completely forgot about their “grand mission.” Since most of them were there to gain more slaves and landholdings, it’s doubtful whether they had foreseen that they would lose their slave property and lands in the process.
The Seminoles and free blacks successfully created a front in the rear of the attackers to divert their attention from the siege of St. Augustine. The Patriots’ force was successfully split up. Col. Smith wrote. “Blacks assisted by the Native Americans became daring and the camps of U.S. soldiers were terrified as entire parties of their men were frequently slaughtered and mutilated. The U.S. soldiers in the vicinity of St. Augustine, no longer concerned with successfully taking Spanish Florida, now even looked grimly at their prospects for survival.
The U.S. government later withdrew its support for the Patriots invasion, due to the resistance of native, Spanish, and black militias.
Derek Boyd Hankerson
St. Augustine, FL
Derek Boyd Hankerson is the Managing Partner of Freedom Road, LLC. Derek is former vice president of the St. Johns County Republican Executive Committee and was an alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention. Derek has been a leader in numerous community projects in support of Fort Mose, multicultural education and heritage tourism. Historic City News is pleased to be able to publish Derek’s periodic guest columns which are both informative and entertaining. Derek and his wife live in St. Augustine.