Florida’s forgotten role in early American history
Florida has a forgotten role in the US Revolution. Florida was under Spanish control from 1513 until 1821, except for a brief period from 1763 until 1784. This period of British rule of Florida just so happened to coincide with the American Revolution. Two hundred and forty-six years ago, on May 17, 1777, there was the only sizable Revolutionary land battle in Florida, which took place north of Jacksonville, called the Battle of Thomas Creek.
In the French and Indian War, Spain was aligned with the French against the British. During the war, the British captured Spanish Cuba and the Philippines. In exchange for the return of those colonies, Spain was forced to give Florida to the British in the First Treaty of Paris, which was signed on February 10, 1763.
During the British Period, many colonists moved to Florida and built businesses, farms, and plantations. The number of people living in Florida greatly increased during this time.
One of these colonists was Andrew Turnbull, who created a massive 40,000-acre plantation in New Smyrna. The name for the area, ‘New Smyrna,’ was chosen as Turnbull had served as the British consul at Smyrna, and his wife was from the city.
He recruited 1403 impoverished Mediterraneans (Greeks, Italians, Menorcans, etc.) to work as indentured servants on the plantation, and they became known collectively as the Menorcans. They had a contract to work for nine years on the plantation to pay off their voyage and gain their freedom, plus receive a small parcel of land.
On the voyage to the United States, 148 Menorcans died from scurvy and other illnesses. In a couple of years, half of the remaining Menorcans had died, and Turnbull went to England, leaving overseers in charge. In the nine years that they stayed on the plantation, 704 adults and 260 Menorcan children died.
After nine years, the Menorcans sent a delegation 70 miles on the King’s Road to St Augustine seeking asylum. They recounted the abuses they endured on the plantation to the new English governor Patrick Tonyn, who granted them asylum. The remaining Menorcans, who numbered around 600, walked to St Augustine, where they were given a small area of the town to live in. This was the start of the end of Turnbull’s colony.
The British period greatly changed Florida. When the 1783 Treaty of Paris was completed ending the American Revolution and returning Florida to the Spanish, many of the English colonists chose to remain as they had businesses, farms, and plantations.
East and West Florida
During the revolution, there were two British colonies referred to as Florida: East and West Florida. East Florida was most of what we now call Florida. West Florida included parts of the Panhandle, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. These two colonies, along with Nova Scotia, did not rebel against the British. There were 16 British colonies in North America and 33 total in the area, including the Caribbean.
The last battle in the Revolution was fought off the coast of Cape Canaveral on March 10, 1783. Two US ships, the Alliance and the Duc de Lauzun, were returning from Cuba with 72,000 Spanish silver dollars to pay the continental army soldiers. Three British ships, the Alarm, the Sybil, and the Tobago, attempted to capture the American ships after receiving a tip. The Americans evaded the British in a running battle. A preliminary peace treaty was signed on November 30, 1782, between the British and Americans, so this battle was fought months after the war ended.
There were several other naval Revolutionary battles fought off the coast of Florida. There was also a land battle fought in Florida. The Battle of Thomas Creek was fought a little north of Jacksonville. A mixture of British soldiers, loyalists, and Muscogee Creek Indians ambushed and routed a Georgia-mounted militia. The Georgia militia was the land part of an invasion force, which was supposed to join up with a naval force that was delayed. This delay made the militia vulnerable since they had to wait.
Florida is often ignored or forgotten when talking about the American Revolution. Learning the history of Florida during this time can provide valuable insights into this time period.