The Revolution That Never Was
Covert ops, land grabs, illiterate real estate speculators. Florida had them all before Florida was our Florida.
I’m migrating over here from Medium, little by little. This piece is contextually relevant to my next, so I’m moving it here for free. It serves to reinforce exactly how Florida was Born Into Blood
I’ve been writing an abridged history of Florida for a cookbook project and I came across the story of this failed attempt at a land grab while researching. It has zero bearing on food, so it has no place in my book. Yet, it’s a fascinating story that many don’t know.
Shortly after the American Revolution, the US started turning its eye towards Florida. Many motivators are thrown around as to why, but let’s face facts; the idea that people who had escaped enslavement could live freely under Spanish law and Seminole sensibility by merely crossing a geographic boundary. The concept of such independence threw wealthy, white slaveholders into a rage. They wanted Florida to be a US territory, giving them the right to retrieve their property or gather African people at will and sell them back into enslavement.
For the most part, the Spanish concentrated their efforts and rules of order in St. Augustine and Pensacola, leaving the rest of the area largely unsettled and lawless, both by design and the fact that the Spanish weren’t particularly adept at controlling anyone in Florida. By the 1790s, Americans were slipping across the border and settling in Spanish Florida, which was attractive for several reasons. First, a new country could mean reinventing oneself as more important and influential than life had previously allowed. Secondly, Spanish laws bore little resemblance in social and economic matters to the US doctrine of white, European supremacy, enabling people of any race and color to rise to the limits of their abilities without limitation imposed by wealthy, white men. The US had cut off ties with England and France by this point, and trade via US ports was at a standstill, while Spain had recently shored up an alliance with England in the way that European powers were prone to do. The Florida ports of Fernandina and St. Augustine were alive with European trade, and smuggling goods north from there was as lucrative as smuggling cocaine was in the 1980s.
Tensions with England were also reaching a peak, harboring fears of the newly allied English gaining a foothold in Florida from where they could quickly attack southern states; President James Madison convinced Congress to authorize a secret act to acquire the territory in 1811. His man for the mission was George Matthews, a disgraced former governor of Georgia, the architect of the Yazoo Land Scandal, which displaced thousands of native people (ironically one of the many contributing factors to the migration of natives from the north to Florida) and altogether incompetent. His actions would be comical if they weren’t so criminal. His instructions were to obtain Florida by diplomacy or deceit.
The play they employed was not unique in American expansionism; first, get Americans to move to a territory owned by someone else. Second, get these settlers to cry oppression concerning the current laws of a foreign government. Third, get the US government involved, then annex the land.
Matthews set up headquarters on the St. Mary’s river, in Georgia, almost within sight of the thriving Amelia Island, with its disgraceful, multiracial community, practically thumbing its nose at the white supremacist sensibilities that existed on his side of the river. To give his mission validity, he needed the oppressed American component from the playbook and rooted around until he could find nine disgruntled white men who were willing to declare Florida independent from Spain. As they weren’t Spanish citizens, they crossed the river to sign their declaration of independence on Florida soil, and then they all rowed back to Georgia. With this, the East Florida Republic and the Patriot movement were created, pulled off by a group of functionally illiterate real estate speculators, including Matthews himself.
Matthews then raised a militia of about seventy YeeHawdists from south Georgia, intent on taking Amelia Island and Fernandina. They accomplished this in a way; the Spanish garrison amounted to some ten troops. While these were trained troops, the commander thought it better to find a diplomatic solution than to take on the seventy-something rednecks from across the river in a fight. He surrendered, but neither Spain nor the US recognized the East Florida Republic, so he surrendered to the US. In their declaration, the Patriots had sworn to turn over their land to the US, as well. The group from Georgia’s payment, promised by Matthews, sacking the town and land grants of former Spanish territory, was not to be, as the town and any land were now under US control.
With Fernandina surrendering so easily, Matthews turned his group south towards St. Augustine. About two hundred soldiers from the garrison at St. Mary’s had bolstered his seventy YeeHawdists at this point, and they felt confident of similar results there. But, St. Augustine was not a stranger to attacks from the north, having dealt with several failed attempts by the British to take the fort there in previous years. The Georgians arrived at Castello San Marcos and presented their demands to the governor, who was sitting safely behind the fort’s walls. The governor gave their terms a hard pass and hunkered down while the rednecks and soldiers occasionally lobbed cannonballs against the thick, shell walls of the fort with little or no effect.
Two things happened at this point; 1) the Spanish realized American troops were shooting at them with no declaration of war, and 2) black militias, natives, and anyone else with a gun who didn’t want to be American started picking off the invaders, little by little. Madison had to do quick damage control and recalled the army troops to Georgia, reprimanding their commander for taking part in this invasion. He also sent word to Matthews that his instructions didn’t involve using force to obtain Florida. Ostensibly, Madison left Matthews and his group of Patriots to their own devices on the retreat to Georgia, harassed the whole way by natives and black militia who didn’t appreciate them jeopardizing their freedom. Matthews never found the glory nor financial reward that he sought in this undertaking; instead, he died on his seventy-third birthday en route to Washington to give Madison a piece of his mind over being hung out to dry for following his orders.