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Historic St. Augustine

A Young Attorney Comes to Town

When the Americans took over in Florida in 1821 it naturally followed that new people from the States would move to St. Augustine and make it home. Among them were Thomas Douglas and his family of Indiana. Douglas was appointed U.S. Attorney for East Florida in 1826, and came on ahead to make arrangements for his family's arrival later.

After a stormy sea voyage via Baltimore and Charleston, he was met off the bar one fall afternoon by judge Joseph L. Smith, his wife and daughter, in a small boat. They landed at the wharf near the St. Francis Barracks and walked along what appeared to the newcomer, accustomed to the wide streets of the middle west, to be a narrow alley. He was surprised to learn from judge Smith that it was a main thoroughfare (probably Charlotte or Marine Street). Douglas found temporary living quarters in the Reuben Loring boardinghouse on the bayfront, and was given office space in the 70-foot tower of Government House.

It was hard work getting established in his new duties and it was not until December of 1827 that he set out to get his wife and three children. Evidently his sea trip had been pretty traumatic, because it was decided that they would make the trip south overland. Douglas bought a pair of horses and a barouche and they left Indiana in February of 1828 on a journey which was to take 30 days. It was a mild winter and all went well until they reached south Georgia where the rivers were in flood, but some friendly country folk got them across the Santilla. The Douglas family crossed in a canoe, the horses swam, and the barouche was ferried across, the wheels on each side planted in a separate canoe.

Once safely in St. Augustine, the family moved into a small house near Douglas's office, built in the old Spanish style with barred windows on the ground floor and a walled garden. At first Mrs. Douglas didn't like it, because it was all so different from Indiana, but she soon grew to love the advantages of a private garden in mid-city. Unlike many of the new arrivals, the Douglas family never found it necessary to go north for the summer.

Thomas Douglas was straitlaced and God-fearing. He disapproved of the local custom of keeping spirits and wine at the ready on the sideboard so he was among the first to join when a Temperance Society was formed with Dr. Andrew Anderson as its first president. He was active in the Episcopal Church as a vestryman and leader of its first choir, and was a prime mover in the local Bible Society.

Douglas endured all of the ills of the period, losing his orange trees in the freeze of 1835 and serving in the militia during the Seminole War. For 19 years he served as U.S. Attorney and when Florida was admitted to the Union in 1845 he was appointed judge of the Circuit Court. When this office was made elective he was chosen by the people to fill it and was later elected to be a judge of the Florida State Supreme Court.

An anecdote of his work as a judge tells of how he admonished an attorney who felt his client should be freed of a charge of horse-stealing because his name had been misspelled on the indictment. He asked the lawyer, whose name was Westcott, if he thought that should he be arraigned on a charge of murder he would be freed if his name was spelled Waistcot or Waistcoat. "You should hang, sir!" thundered the judge. When the disgruntled attorney replied that perhaps there were those who might wish to spell the judge's name D-o-u-g-l-ass, he was promptly fined $50 for contempt of court.

Judge Douglas died in 1855 at age 65, after 33 years of devoted public service. Mrs. Douglas survived her husband for a number of years and spent the last part of her life on a plantation on the St. Johns near Black Point.

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