The Forbes Purchase; Florida’s Biggest Land Grab

Every American knows that the American Revolution began formally in 1776 with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Few can tell you that the roots of the Revolution can be traced back to British King George III’s Proclamation of 1763 at the end of the French and Indian Wars concerning governing the American Colonies, that among other things split Florida into two colonies: East and West.

Still fewer can tell you that the treaty to end the Revolution wasn’t signed and implemented until 1783 when the British sailed away from New York, fully two years after the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.

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Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida

In 1765 a 20-year old Scottish immigrant named John Panton sailed to America and settled in Savannah, Georgia. By 1774 Panton had become a partner in the trading firm of Moore & Panton and had gained invaluable experience as an Indian trader. The following year, Panton was appointed by the British as the official trader to the Creek Indians. He formed a new company with fellow Scotsman Thomas Forbes called Panton, Forbes & Company.

Both Tories, Panton and Forbes remained loyal to the crown when the Revolution broke out, and relocated their headquarters to St. Augustine in British East Florida. Their property in South Carolina and Georgia were confiscated by the United States as a consequence, which set into motion an enmity between the company and the US. Throughout the Revolutionary War, the company expanded steadily.

In 1783 they were joined in the enterprise by three other Scotsmen named William Alexander, Charles McLatch, and John Leslie. The company name was changed to Panton, Leslie & Company.

It wasn’t until 1783 that the company got its chartering paperwork in order from the British Government. By then Cornwallis had surrendered and common wisdom was that the newly created United States would be given jurisdiction over the British Colonies of West and East Florida. The Treaty of Paris, which established the terms of the end of the American Revolution, surprised nearly everyone by giving Florida back to Spain.

During the Revolution the firm of Panton, Leslie & Co. were firmly entrenched. The Spanish, realizing there were no experienced Spanish Indian traders, gave the company a monopoly in East Florida, and a tax-free license for imports. In 1785 the expanding company expanded and moved its headquarters to Pensacola. Forbes’ & Leslie’s  younger brothers joined the company, and John Forbes opened a post in Mobile.

Within ten years Panton, Leslie & Co, had trading posts as far north as Memphis, westward to New Orleans, all along the Gulf Coast into Central Florida, as well as the Bahamas and other islands in the Caribbean.  Some historians credit the company with operating the first chain stores.

Known as "The Emperor of the Creeks", Alexander McGillivray was the son of a Loyalist Scottish father and a mixed race woman from the influential Creek Indian prestigious Wind Clan (Hutalgalgi). With his support, and perhaps silent partnership, Panton Leslie prospered enormously.

Known as “The Emperor of the Creeks”, Alexander McGillivray was the son of a Loyalist Scottish father and a mixed race woman from the influential Creek Indian prestigious Wind Clan (Hutalgalgi). With his support, and perhaps silent partnership, Panton Leslie prospered enormously.
Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida

A goodly portion of the goodwill Panton, Leslie & Co. enjoyed with the Indians came from their association with Alexander McGillivray, the son of Scottish trader and a Creek mother from the important Wind Clan. McGillivray was a leader of the Creek Nation, and used his influence to urge Native Americans to distrust the US government, and to trade with Panton, Leslie instead of other traders. It has been speculated that McGillivray was a silent partner in the company.

Along with Creeks, the company also traded with the Seminoles, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Cherokees. The original partners  were opposed to the expansion of the United States, and urged the tribes they dealt with to favor the Spanish, resist white settlement, and resist attempts by the United States to acquire Indian land.

By the late 1790’s, as carrying the debt became burdensome, more partners were brought into the company.  These partners were more pragmatic than Panton and Leslie, and the company began a series of deals whereby the United States would purchase Indian lands for cash which was then used to pay off debts to the company to satisfy the company’s claims. According to the online Encyclopedia of Alabama, the company acquired three million acres in what became Mississippi and Alabama, and also became the largest landowner in West Florida.

In 1804 Panton, Leslie & Company negotiated with  a group of Seminole and Creek chieftains to transfer a swath of land that extended from present day Gulf County in the west to the St. Marks River in the east and north past present day Tallahassee. In all approximately 1.2 million acres of land passed from the Indians to Panton, Leslie & Co. Soon afterward the company was reorganized and renamed John Forbes & Company, and the transaction became forever known as the Forbes Purchase.

In the early 1800’s the United States began to flex its muscle with George Washington threatening to open a government operated string of trading posts just north of the Florida border, as well as General Andrew Jackson’s invasion of New Orleans, Pensacola, and the Panhandle.

Two incidents especially alarmed the directors of Forbes & Co. During the Creek wars (1813-1814) the British built a fort at Prospect Bluff  (a.k.a. Bloody Bluff) leaving a garrison of Black Seminoles, free blacks, and Indians organized in an effort to destabilize the Spanish administration. In 1816 Jackson’s forces sent a supply mission to Ft. Scott on the Flint River in Georgia  via the Apalachicola River. When the supply convoy was fired upon by “The Negro Fort” the US forces returned fire. Their ninth shot was a “hot shot” (a cannonball heated to glowing red) which managed to hit the fort’s powder magazine causing an explosion heard 100 miles away in Pensacola. Of the 320 people known to be inside the fort, 250 were killed immediately. Creek mercenaries captured as many of the survivors as possible. Within weeks the Creeks had sold off survivors to various slaveholders, and collected  2,500 muskets, 50 carbines, 400 pistols, and 500 swords from the ruins.

In 1818 General Andrew Jackson during the First Seminole War set out from Ft. Scott, marching down the Apalachicola River. When they reached Bloody Bluff they constructed a new garrison named Ft. Gadsden. Jackson then set out to destroy the Mikasuki villages around Lake Miccosukee. Tallahassee was burned on March 31, and the town of Miccosukee was taken the next day, resulting in the destruction of more than 300 Indian homes.

During the First Seminole War, Andrew Jackson captured Prophet Josiah Francis and Chief Homathle-Micco at St. Marks and hanged them and also hanged two British subjects, creating an international incident.

During the First Seminole War, Andrew Jackson captured Prophet Josiah Francis and Chief Homathle-Micco at St. Marks and hanged them and also hanged two British subjects, creating an international incident.
Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida

When Jackson arrived at St. Marks on April 6, soldiers were holding four prisoners: two Indian chiefs and two British subjects. The chiefs, Prophet Josiah Francis and Chief Homathle-Micco, had been taken prisoner when they approached a US vessel deceptively flying the Union Jack. Col. Jackson had them brought ashore and hanged immediately without a trial.

Alexander George Arbuthnot, a Scottish trader sympathetic to the Indians, and Robert Ambrister, a former British officer were charged with aiding the Seminoles and Spanish, and inciting war against the United States. Ambrister was shot by firing squad and Arbuthnot was hung from the yardarm of his own ship, causing an international incident that threatened to set of a war between the US and Britain.

Forbes became worried that his fortunes would suffer greatly if the United States were to invade Florida, or in some way once again run off the Spanish. Although the transfer of Indian lands to the company was approved by the Spanish government, it was still necessary for Forbes to sell the land, and Spain was particular about who could buy land in Florida.

With the cooperation of Spain, a group of seven men living in Cuba was identified and three brothers named Carnochan and four brothers named Mitchel  (in some records misspelled with a double L) made an offer. In May of 1819 the group’s front man, Colin Mitchel met with company officials in Pensacola and paid $111,676.00 for the land. In 1821 Spain ceded West and East Florida to the United States, and Florida became slotted on the fast track for Statehood. John Forbes would die four years later in 1823.

Mitchel and his partners set about to survey and sell off parcels, while evicting squatters and others from their newly acquired land. Many challenges to the legitimacy of the Forbes Purchase were raised.

The US Land Commission was created to determine what land in Florida was in private hands. Land without valid owners would become property of the government. Mitchel filed his claim, but got no ruling for two years. When the commission disbanded and left it up to Congress to decide if the Forbes purchase should be recognized. Congress failed to act on this political football.

After being ignored for seven years, Mitchel filed suit in the territorial court, where a judge ruled against the validity of the Forbes purchase, citing a watermark on a document that had not been an issue at trial. Finally, in 1831 Mitchel filed an appeal with the Supreme Court.

Delay after delay hampered Mitchel as the US attorneys tried to get supporting documents from Cuba. Finally, after four years of delay, the court refused any further continuances, and heard arguments in January of 1835, and ruled in March. The ruling, the last involving Chief Justice John Marshall, held that since the Spanish rulers approved the transfer, it would violate US/Spanish treaty if the transaction were not recognized as valid by the US.

Mitchel’s purchase was validated, the company took on some additional investors, and Apalachicola Land Company went to work.

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