St. Augustine's Written History

  • Beneath the British Flag

    Until the arrival of a governor on August 29, 1764, nothing was done to maintain St. Augustine. Colonel James Grant was named governor of East Florida. He named his Carolinian friends to his governing council and provided them with free land. He brought James and John Moultrie, who were influential in getting other planters to bring slaves and money to East Florida for their free land. Grant ignored claims of Spanish ownership of nearly two hundred buildings. He also obtained land from the Creek Indians in 1765.

    Grant promoted East Florida by offering free transportaion on his schooner and used his plantation as a training facility to help newcomers. While Grant was away in England seeking medical attention, John Moultrie was placed in charge of East Florida. Moultrie supervised the construction of an outstanding road stretching southward to beyond the plantation at New Smyrna. The Government House on the plaza was remodeled and strengthened while Grant sent church bells and a town clock to St. Augustine.

    After the capture of a British supply ship in 1775, St. Augustine became a place of refuge as well as a rallying point for rebels in Georgia. Nearly everyone profited by meeting the needs of the Royal Navy, the British Army and the refugees. Despite the quality of life in East Florida, there was growing discontent over the continuing dominance of Grant’s friends in the governing of the colony. St. Augustinians wanted to elect a House of Assembly, and in 1781, the Coucil was joined by an elected House of Commons. In May, 1781 they received shocking news that the neighboring colony, West Florida, had fallen to Spanish forces. Although there had been little contact between the two colonies, the fact that Pensacola was now in the hands of an enemy was a disturbing turn of events. Then, in October, word arrived from Virginia that Lord Cornwallis had surrendered his entire army to George Washington and the rebels. In June, 1783, the official word on their fate reached St. Augustine from Paris. The colony was to be returned to the Spanish. The British were forced to sell or leave their homes, but the Menorcans decided to stay. Most of them spoke a form of Spanish were Catholic and many had established successful businesses in St. Augustine.

    Spanish Once More

    In June 1784, Governor Zespedes and 500 Spanish soldiers arrived from Cuba to take over the colony. In November, the last refugee ship departed carrying Governor Tonyn, his staff and the few remaining British subjects away to England. Within weeks, the bustling economic activities of St. Augustine had ended and the town returned to serving as a remote outpost of the Spanish Empire. The population of St. Augustine decreased from 17,000 to about 3,000, with the majority being the Menorcans. Less than 100 British subjects had abandoned their allegiance to King George in order to continue living in Spanish Florida.

    In 1796, a new governor, Enrique White, arrived in St. Augustine. Under his leadership, new homes were built, the Cathedral was completed and both the morale and military readiness of the garrison were improved. In 1812, a new group of visitors showed up at the location of old Fort Mose just north of the city’s fortifications. In cooperation with President James Madison, these armed men called themselves “Patriots” and demanded that St. Augustine be surrendered to them. Determined to end the continued escape of their slaves to Spanish Florida and to put an end to Indian raids from Florida into Georgia, the Patriots planned to overthrow the government of Florida and then “invite” the U.S. government to take over the territory. Governor Estrada refused to surrender and it quickly became apparent that the Patriots would never be able to breach the city’s strong defenses. 100 American soldiers showed up to help, but the “invasion” had by then become an embarrassment and President Madison ordered the troops to withdraw from Florida.

    The Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812 allowed the United States to keep large areas of West Florida that were occupied by the Americans during the war. The American government demanded that Spain reimburse slave owners for the loss of slaves who fled to Florida for their freedom and to also pay for property destroyed by Indian raiders based in Florida. To resolve the dispute, negotiations began in 1819 and two years later the two nations ratified the Onis-Adams Treaty. Negotiated for the United States by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, the treaty gave Florida to the Americans in exchange for dropping their $5 million claim against Spain.

    Under the Stars and Stripes

    The Spanish rule in Florida came to an end on July 10, 1821 when a small detachment of American soldiers marched into St. Augustine and were given possession of the Castillo de San Marcos. Land speculators, and Americans seeking fame and fortune quickly came to see the latest addition to the United States. Unfortunately, a yellow fever epidemic swept through town and killed many residents, including several of the new American administrators. The number of fatalities was so great that a new cemetery, called the Huguenot, was opened just outside the city gate. Americans also faced ongoing attacks from Indians. In effort to stop Seminole attacks on settlers, the U.S. government met with the Indians for several days of negotiations just outside St. Augustine. The resulting Treaty of Moultrie brought peace between the two groups. In exchange for weapons, food, blankets and a guaranteed grant of land for their use in central Florida, the Seminoles agreed to stop their war-like activities.

    With the adoption of Tallahassee as the new capital of Florida, more travelers, especially people suffering from tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments, came to Florida to escape the cold weather. Some of the invalids arriving in St. Augustine were people of some wealth and influence and their impressions of the city continued to spark interest among other potential visitors. Among these was a young Ralph Waldo Emerson who described St. Augustine as “a queer place…full of ruins, chimneyless houses, (and) lazy people.” But, he added, “the air and sky of this ancient, fortified, dilapidated sandbank of a town are delicious” and credited it with restoring his health.Achille Murat, the nephew of Napoleon and the reported heir to his empire, lived in the city for about a year beginning in 1824.