The Patriot War in Florida: Manifest Destiny, Slavery, Covert Intervention, and U.S. Imperialism

The Patriot War in Florida: Manifest Destiny, Slavery, Covert Intervention, and U.S. Imperialism

Historian Adam Wasserman's account of the Patriot uprising in 1812 East Florida, a covert operation sanctioned by the Madison Administration to 1) Wrest possession of the Florida territory from Spain 2) Wipe out the Seminoles, an indigenous tribe that resisted the encroachment of white settlers 3) Enslave the black Seminoles, fugitive slaves incorporated into the Seminole tribe 4) Destroy the free black militias at St. Augustine, an army of mulatto blacks who protected Spanish hold over the Florida territory and incited slave insurrection on the Southern frontier 5) Expand slavery into the territory.

This article is an extract from Wasserman's A People's History of Florida.

After 1790 negotiations with the United States, Spain no longer granted freedom to fugitive slaves absconding to its territory. Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, was instrumental in forcing Spain to give up its 1693 edict granting refuge for runaway slaves. The 1790 Treaty of New York with the Creek tribe, the first treaty in U.S. history, was one of many successive measures that turned the Lower Creeks into slave-raiding allies of the United States. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, two “Founding Fathers” who we are told laid the foundations of the “free world,” were engaged in destroying the only beacon of freedom that existed for African slaves in the South. Regardless, Spain’s tenuous hold over Florida allowed slaves to escape from Georgian and Carolinian plantations and disappear as they crossed the Oconee River into Seminole territory. While Spain no longer abided by its promise of freedom, its possession of the territory prevented the establishment of an effective safeguard against the loss of slaves. The frontier planters of Georgia claimed over five million dollars worth of their slave “property” had fled to Seminole territory over the years. This was the real background to the filibustering operation today known as the “Patriot War.”
The growing U.S. tensions with Britain raised fears in Georgia that the British would attempt to attack the Southern states through Florida, as its sparsely populated, lightly governed border provided little protection for the frontier. The U.S. government, using rhetoric that it had applied in West Florida, stroked fears of British intervention into East Florida with a crumbling Spanish Empire. Georgia settlers feared that British mechanisms in Florida would lay waste to the frontier plantations on the Georgia/Florida border through organized and armed bands of fugitive slaves and native tribes. White settlers knew that the British would have no problem in garnering allies among them, as they themselves were taking native lands and raiding Seminole towns to seize their black allies. Florida was also a geopolitical prize that could provide the U.S. increased strength in the Caribbean and control of important shipping routes as well. Florida commanded the rivers of the Southeast, making it an important base of navigation. Its continental position also complimented the popular belief that the U.S. had the right to acquire it. Secretary of State Monroe wrote:

“Situated as East Florida is, cut off from the other possessions of Spain, and surrounded in a great measure by the territory of the United States, and having also an important bearing on their commerce, no other Power could think of taking possession of it, with other than hostile views to them. Nor could any other Power take possession of it without endangering their prosperity and best interests.” 34

In the long term, slaveholder interests hoped to expand slavery as an institution into Florida to continue the rapid economic growth of the Cotton Kingdom. The demand for cotton grew with the demand for fertile lands and slaves. As more land opened up in the Southeast for speculators, the demand for slaves grew. And the rising price for slaves was complimentary to their growing demand. Georgian planters were well-aware of the black towns in Florida. These blacks could be procured at a bargain price. For Southern expansionists, slavery was the real issue. Annexing Florida, along with other Spanish colonies, would give additional Slave States to the South in order to the balance out the growing power of Free States in the North.
The Seminole sanctuary for fugitive slaves added fear as an incentive to annex Florida. To U.S. expansionists, this meant that not only was the possession of Florida desirable and inevitable, but any continued reluctance on taking hold of the territory was severely damaging to the South’s economy and stability. Added to the mix was the threat that the free black militias at St. Augustine posed. Georgia’s settlers increasingly feared the possibility of slave insurrection perpetrated by free black militias under orders of the Spanish Crown. Armed free blacks in such close vicinity to plantations on the St. John’s and St. Mary’s rivers exacerbated Anglo planters in East Florida and Georgia. The armed and organized blacks could influence slaves in the vicinity to revolt by their mere example alone. In order to procure assistance from the reluctant Federal government, John McIntosh, Patriot leader and wealthy Florida planter, wrote to Secretary Monroe:

“Latterly we have learned with inexpressible anguish, that the troops and gun boats of the United States, which constitute our only security, are to be removed, our slaves are excited to rebel, and we have an army of negroes raked up in this country, and brought from Cuba to contend with. Let us ask, if we are abandoned, what will be the situation of the Southern states, with this body of men in the neighborhood? St. Augustine, the whole province will be the refuge of fugitive slaves; and from thence emissaries can, and no doubt will be detached, to bring about a revolt of the black population in the United States.” 35

When the U.S. government later withdrew its support for the Patriots invasion, David Mitchell, Patriot leader and Georgia governor, attempted to refurbish support for the Patriots with fears of slave insurrection in a letter to Monroe:

“And I feel that it is a duty I owe the United States, and Georgia in particular, to assure you, that the situation of the garrison of St. Augustine will not admit of the troops being withdrawn.—They have armed every able bodied negro within their power, and they have also received from the Havana a reinforcement of nearly two companies of black troops. An additional correspondence to that now enclosed, has taken place between the governor and myself, in which I have called his attention to the introduction of this description of troops, and it is my decided opinion that if they are suffered to remain in the province, our Southern country will soon be in a state of insurrection.” 36

Long before the Bay of Pigs, the U.S. had commissioned an illegal, covert revolution in a foreign country that failed in every aspect. As with the Bay of Pigs, a rag tag band of scoundrels was attempting to overthrow an “oppressive regime” for the purpose of establishing a U.S. proxy state. As with the Bay of Pigs, the U.S. feared to openly support it, believing that international conflict would break out if its support for the invaders became apparent. As with the Bay of Pigs, the U.S. was attempting to remove a foreign regime that threatened the wealth of its dominant propertied interests. On January 15, 1811, Congress gave its approval for an act to “enable the president of the United States, under certain contingencies, to take possession of the country lying east of the river Perdido, and south of the State of Georgia and the Mississippi Territory, and for other purposes.” 37
The President was essentially given power equivalent to Napoleon. The statement, “and for other purposes,” gave unlimited power for the U.S. government to violate constitutional and international authority as it wished in taking possession of East Florida. It gave the Executive powers a huge opening. It seemed as if the enactment only gave the President authority to acquire East Florida if an arrangement could be made with local authorities to handover possession of the province, the only exception being an invasion from a foreign power. This implied that if Great Britain made a strategic move to strengthen its influence in Florida, then the U.S. could take control of the territory to counter this potential threat. The President was given several powers in accordance with the bill: 1) To employ the military for the purpose of controlling the province if it became necessary 2) To appropriate 100,000 dollars for the necessary expenses of coveting the territory 3) To establish a temporary government over the territory in the process. 38
George Matthews and Col. John McKee were commissioned as secret agents to incite a revolution in East Florida. Matthews was a frontier diplomat engaged in international intrigue to scheme annexation of Spanish territories. Being a wealthy slaveholder himself, the free blacks in Seminole territory were also probably an utmost concern for him. President Madison could justify the acquisition of East Florida if a new regime demanded the intervention of the U.S. government for its protection. This opened up an obvious loophole as Matthews was commissioned to establish the noted “local authorities” as he saw fit to do so. The fermented chaos could provide the pretext for acquisition as the threat of a foreign power could be conjured in the absence of a stabile regime. This shared uncanny similarities to the uprising of West Florida. There the U.S. established its own right to seize and occupy a foreign territory if there was a crisis from political unrest. Any crisis in these foreign territories was feared as an opening for Great Britain to exploit and U.S. intervention was perceived as necessary to prevent the “foreign threat.”
On January 26, Secretary of State Robert Smith ordered the two agents to secretly travel to West Florida. They were to take control of the Pensacola region if Governor Folch agreed to hand it over to the United States, thus completing the informal annexation of the territory. They were to return West Florida to Spanish possession at a future date if such a stipulation was insisted. Smith wrote to them about their mission:

“Should there be room to entertain a suspicion of an existing design in any foreign Power to occupy the country in question, you are to keep yourselves on the alert, and, on the first undoubted manifestation of the approach of a force for that purpose, you will exercise, with promptness and vigor, the powers with which you are invested by the President to pre-occupy by force the territory, to the entire exclusion of any armament that may be advancing to take possession of it.” 39

The orders were purposely vague, leaving open plausible deniability for the U.S. government if it became necessary to deny its involvement. Smith informed the agents that their subjective view of events in East Florida was sufficient to create the pretext for the U.S. to intervene:

“The conduct you are to pursue in regard to East Florida, must be regulated by the dictates of your own judgments, on a close view and accurate knowledge of the precise state of things there, and of the real disposition of the Spanish government.” 40

On February 25, 1811, General Matthews requested further instructions from the President verifying his exact wishes for East Florida:

“I hope to have it in my power to carry the President’s wishes into effect, our commission only goes to West Florida while our instructions embrace East Florida. Would it not be proper to forward a commission for East Florida by my return here? Should the President think this proper direct it to me here to the care of the Post Master-from the prospect of things here E. F. is growing of more importance to the U. S. every day. There is now in the Spanish waters here twenty large visits loading with lumber for the British government and eighty loaded the last year on the same account. You will be pleased to assure the President every exertion in my power will be made to carry his wishes in to effect.” 41

No exact orders from the Madison Administration authorizing Matthews to invade East Florida are available on the public record. But a few weeks after his request for further instructions, his good friend Col. Benjamin Hawkins wrote to President Madison that Matthews “was sincerely impressed with the reception you gave him and the confidence you reposed in him as well as of all the heads of departments. He revealed to me the subject of his mission, and seemed pretty confident of success.” 42 This is evidence that instructions not contained in the public archives exist in regards to Matthews’ commission for East Florida. Since Matthews and the other Patriots believed that the invasion of East Florida was in accordance with the desires of the U.S. government, it can be inferred that the U.S. government at least initially supported his efforts. Matthews maintained constant communication with the Madison Administration, never disguising what his true intentions really were. On April 8, he wrote to Secretary Monroe about his plans for East Florida:

“I ascertained that the quiet possession of East Florida could not be obtained by an amicable negotiation with the powers that exist there; . . . that the inhabitants of the province are ripe for revolt. They are, however, incompetent to effect a thorough revolution without external aid. If two hundred stand of arms and fifty horsemen's swords were in their possession, I am confident they would commence the business, and with a fair prospect of success. These could be put into their hands by consigning them to the commanding officer at this post, subject to my order. I shall use the most discreet management to prevent the United States being committed; and although I cannot vouch for the event, I think there would be but little danger.” 43

Furthermore, Matthews freely communicated his plans to his close friend Senator William Crawford of Georgia, whom he commissioned to further explain his designs to the government. There is no documented response to Matthews’ letters but there was no sign of rebuke or protest from the Madison Administration either. Consensual silence was the only response. Madison also chose to ignore reports of Matthews’ covert operations on the East Florida border. 44 Prior to the Patriots’ invasion, Matthews unsuccessfully attempted to garner support among the wealthy Anglo planters and traders in East Florida. While he claimed that the province was “ripe for revolt,” a letter from St. Mary’s declared the contrary:

“The Province of East Florida enjoyed, previous to the late rebellion, an extensive and lucrative lumber trade; which produced to some individuals upwards of a thousand dollars per month. It's cotton was equal to the best Georgia Sea Island; and the planters, if not rich, were tranquil and happy. In one moment the demon of revolution assisted by our intrigues, has spread ruin and desolation over the whole country; the lumber trade was destroyed, and the planters were obliged to fly from the open country, and take refuge in the Capital or in Amelia Island with their negroes, and leave their plantations to the devastation of the banditti from Georgia; for it is a well known fact, sir, and it will be some day, I hope, proved in a court of justice, that, had not the citizens from Georgia joined in the rebellion, there would have been no movement, as by far the greater number of the inhabitants were loyal.” 45

This was a far more accurate picture. The vast majority of the Patriots’ force consisted of Georgia militiamen. Out of 350 Patriots, 300 were Georgians and only 50 were actual Floridians: “not one of them real Spaniards.” Five hundred acres of land was bribed to each participant. This was after they planned to ethnically cleanse the Seminole towns in the Alachua region. British Ambassador Augustus Foster informed James Monroe that Matthews was going about the East Florida frontier in hopes to provoke a revolt:

“For the purpose of treating with the inhabitants of that province, for its being delivered up to the United States ' government; that he was with this view using every method of seduction to effect his purpose: offering to each white inhabitant who would side with him 50 acres of land, and the guarantee of his religion and property; stipulating also that the American government would pay the debts of the Spanish government whether due in pensions or otherwise: and that he would cause the officers and soldiers of the garrisons to be conveyed to such places as should be indicated, provided they did not rather choose to enter into the service of the United States.” 46

By March of 1812, Matthews had considerable backing for his plans. He had recruited 350 land-hungry Patriots, ensured the support of the U.S. military, and believed that the Madison Administration fully approved of his designs. By March 5th, Patriot leader and wealthy Florida planter John McIntosh claimed that the Patriots had successfully subjugated the areas between the St. Mary’s and St. John’s, planning next to take Amelia Island from the Spanish authorities. McIntosh wrote to the Spanish Commandment at Fernandina, Don Justo Lopez, about the determination of the United States government “to take possession of our country by conquest, determined some of us, who are much interested in the advantages we now enjoy to do it ourselves.” 47
On March 16, Col. Lodowick Ashley wrote to Lopez ordering the residents of Fernandina to “place themselves under the protection of the government of the United States.” 48 From the start of the revolt, the Patriots made it clear that they feared the existence of the armed free black militias under Spanish rule. One wrote to Lopez: “We are informed sir, that you have armed negroes on the Island against us.—We hope this is not true. If, however, we should find it a fact, remember that we solemnly declare that we will give you no quarters at the town of Fernandina.” The Patriots “threatened the inhabitants with a general massacre” if they refused to surrender, meaning that if they employed the free black militias against them. 49 The Royal Party was prepared to fight the Patriots and could have successfully resisted the invasion if it hadn’t been for the assistance of several U.S. gunboats. Realizing that the gunboats were backing the insurgents, they immediately surrendered. The Patriots held Fernandina for 24 hours before handing authority over to the U.S. military. The U.S. flag was hoisted above the city. On March 18, Col. Smith wrote:

“In obedience to my instructions of the 26th January, 1811, I have sent a detachment consisting of fifty men 2 to receive and defend in the name of the United States, the Town of Sn. Ferdinandina & the Island of Amelia. I have been informed by General Mathews, that he has good reason to believe that a detachment of English troops (blacks) are on the eve of being sent to occupy the military posts within East Florida.” 50

The Patriots scourged the countryside, intimidating loyal Florida citizens. Zephaniah Kingsley, a distinguished Florida planter, was brought to their headquarters and told to either join their cause or face imprisonment and confiscation of his property. 51 East Florida residents fled the plantations for the protection of the highly fortified St. Augustine. As the Patriots occupied East Florida, they “pursued a career of plunder,” driving the territory into chaos:

“Since the beginning of May, when the disavowal was said to have taken place, until the 18th inst. the United States' troops have continued encamped within a few miles of St. Augustine, and as the garrison was inadequate to the task of expelling them from the province, the whole country has been for five months the prey of the banditti calling themselves patriots. The trade has been totally suspended, the crops have been lost, the negroes scattered, and the stock amounting to some thousand head, destroyed or driven off to Georgia.” 52

Their plunder included a large number of slaves from Spanish plantations. Up until 1848, residents of East Florida were claiming compensation for ninety slaves seized by the Patriot invaders. 53
The next operation was centered on capturing St. Augustine. On April 8, Col. Smith stationed the U.S. soldiers in Fort Mose about two miles from St. Augustine. The Patriots were located in a nearby camp. The U.S. gunboats prevented supplies and provisions from entering the city from the coast, while the Patriots committed depredations on the local plantations, preventing any sustenance entering the city from the inland. Only 400 soldiers, made up mostly of the free black militiamen, were available to defend St. Augustine. Furthermore, the majority of the Spanish military was spent resisting the French occupation at home, leading the Patriots to believe that St. Augustine could be easily seized. They found this to be completely incorrect. As a U.S. soldier in the camp outside of St. Augustine put it: “Our aim is at Fort St. Augustine; five times the force we have will not be able to take it by storm, it’s the best and most Secure Fortified Fort I have ever Seen.” 54 What the Patriots also didn’t take into account was that Seminoles, black Seminoles, the free blacks of St. Augustine, and runaway slaves would assemble to defend Spanish rule. This was the most important factor to divert the siege of St. Augustine. Governor Mitchell wrote to Secretary Monroe, frustrated that the unexpected strength of the free black militias prevented the Patriots from successfully taking St. Augustine:

“Indeed the principal strength of the garrison of St. Augustine consists of negroes, there being but a few militia of the province in the place who adhered to the royal government when the revolution broke out, and about one hundred effective men, the remains of an old battalion of regular troops, whom it is understood would surrender without firing a shot.” 55

In the mean time, Secretary of State Monroe decommissioned General Matthews from command of the Patriots, claiming that Matthews had overstepped his boundaries and instructions. Monroe claimed he only had the authority to take East Florida under consent of the local authorities, the only exception being the immediate threat of a foreign power attempting to take control of the territory. But it’s more likely that the Madison Administration was thinking strategically on the matter, not wishing to extend hostilities to Spain as they were facing war with Britain at the same time. Public support for the war against Britain could have been possibly compromised from embarrassing news of illegal operations in Spanish Florida. On April 10, Secretary Monroe appointed Georgia Governor David Mitchell at the command of forces in East Florida. He was ordered to restore the province back to its previous condition before the invasion. He was further ordered to withdraw the U.S. troops and restore the Spanish authorities of Amelia Island. He was to receive assurance from the Spanish Florida governor that the Patriots would receive amnesty. 56 But on May 27, Monroe gave Mitchell a loophole to maintain the U.S. presence in East Florida:

“It is not expected, if you should find it proper to withdraw the troops, that you should interfere to compel the patriots to surrender the country, or any part of it, to the Spanish authorities. The United States are responsible for their own conduct only, not for that of the inhabitants of East Florida. Indeed, in consequence of the commitment of the United States to the inhabitants, you have been already instructed not to withdraw the troops, unless you find that it can be done consistently with their safety, and to report to the Government the result of your conferences with the Spanish authorities, with your opinion of their views, holding in the mean time the ground occupied.” 57

Before Matthews left Florida, he spoke with a delegate of Seminole chiefs in St. Augustine who offered their services on behalf of the Patriots. They were led by their head chief Payne. Matthews told them, “I am the representative of the Americans here, sit you down at home and mind your business, and I will be your friend.” 58 The Seminoles were weary of Matthews’ words. They didn’t know what to believe. His band of marauders constituted the same white settlers who had been making land grabs in their territory for years. If they had control of Florida, what would stop them from using their new power to continue to do so? A black man from St. Augustine made his way over to the Alachua towns and warned the Seminoles of the Patriots’ hidden motives:

“These fine talks are to amuse and deceive you, they are going to take your country beyond St. Johns, the old people will be put to sweep the yards of the white people, the young men to work for them, and the young females to spin and weave for them. This I have heard and this I tell you.” 59

The prior disposition of the Patriots to divvy up 500 acres of land for each man proved that the black man’s suspicions were probably correct. This talk struck a chord with the Seminoles, confirming the worst fears of the recent invaders. On July 26, the Seminoles raided the plantations around the St. Mary’s River on the Florida/Georgia border, running off with 35 slaves and deliberately targeting the landholdings of the Patriots. This began a series of raids and depredations committed by bands of Seminoles, free blacks, and runaway slaves unified in their common interest. Over the first week of attacks, the Seminole bands murdered about nine settlers and liberated some eighty slaves. Benjamin Hawkins, close friend of George Matthews and Creek Agent, gathered the Seminole chiefs and told them to cease their depredations, but to no avail. 60 Furthermore, the slaves were abandoning the plantations at their own free will. The Spanish gave incentive for the slaves to join the fight against the Patriots, promising freedom for all runaways who came to their side. Governor Mitchell complained: “The same governor has proclaimed freedom to every negro who will join his standard, and has sent a party of them to unite with, and who are actually at this time united with the Indians in their murderous excursions.” 61 Col. Smith knew that that hundreds of runaway slaves joining the Seminoles and free blacks would become even more difficult to stop if they weren’t immediately checked:

“The safety of our frontier I conceive requires this course. They have, I am informed, several hundred fugitive slaves from the Carolinas & Georgia at present in their Towns & unless they are checked soon they will be so strengthened by desertions from Georgia & Florida that it will be found troublesome to reduce them.” 62

A letter on January 3, 1813 declared: “A number of slaves have lately deserted their Masters & gone to Augustine from the St. Johns.” 63 Ironically the Patriot coup attempt exacerbated the influx of runaway slaves into Florida when annexation of Florida was primarily intended to eliminate it as a refuge for slaves. The free blacks, runaway slaves, and Seminoles all felt it in their best interest to protect Spanish rule of Florida from U.S. encroachment.
The U.S. force maintained its position at Fort Mose until May 16, when an armed Spanish schooner destroyed the fort with a shot from a 24-pound cannon. The Patriots had already started deserting their camps for the inability to successfully siege St. Augustine. But when the Seminole raids began, camp after camp was found deserted as the Patriots left to protect their homes. They completely forgot about their “grand mission.” Since most of them were there to gain more slaves and landholdings, it’s doubtful whether they had foreseen that they would lose their slave property and lands in the process. The Seminoles and free blacks successfully created a front in the rear of the attackers to divert their attention from the siege of St. Augustine. The Patriots’ force was successfully split up. Col. Smith wrote: “Their only fears now seem to be about the Indians.” Not only were over a third of the U.S. soldiers sick, but they were literally trapped in the vicinity of St. Augustine as roaming bands of Seminoles and blacks awaited their exit. Retreating to the St. John’s River would have ensured their death. Col. Smith was apparently growing tired of the operation at this point: “In truth I am truly tired of the Damned Province and would not remain (if it rested with me) one month longer in my present situation for a fee simple to the whole of it.” 64 Smith ordered Major Newman to head an expedition of two hundred to 250 volunteers to destroy the Seminole towns in the Alachua region. Over time he became increasingly concerned with diverting the Seminoles away so his men could safely escape to the gunboats on the St. John’s River. But Newman’s operation could be carried out in the meantime as there was much difficulty in attaining horses and provisions for the expedition. Col. Smith and his force were under the possible threat of about two to three hundred Seminoles and blacks coming from the west of the St. John’s. Any detachment sent to gather information failed: “Blacks assisted by the Indians have become very daring & from the want of a proper knowledge of the country the parties which I have sent out have always been unsuccessful.” The camps of U.S. soldiers were terrified as entire parties of their men were frequently slaughtered and mutilated. The U.S. soldiers in the vicinity of St. Augustine, no longer concerned with successfully taking Spanish Florida, now even looked grimly at their prospects for survival: “West India Blacks, strangers to fear, renders our situation extremely critical.” 65 The siege of St. Augustine seemed more hopeless by the day. A U.S. marine at the St. Augustine encampment wrote:

“We have already experienced the loss of ten brave men murdered by the Indians and Negros, one of them a Mr. Maxwell charged with dispatches for Colonel Smith from the Blockhouse (where a number of our troops are stationed and where our provisions are stored) was way laid and dreadfully tortured and murdered having his nose ears and privities cut off scalped and otherwise barbarously used.” 66

The full turning point of the war was based on a single strike. The U.S. soldiers near St. Augustine eagerly awaited supplies carried by string of provisions wagons on its way to their camp from the west. This supply line was escorted by Captain John Williams, Captain Fort, a non-commissioned officer, and nineteen regular troops. At St. Augustine, the Spanish caught wind of the supply escort and, determined to defeat the occupation, made plans to destroy it. About ninety free blacks from Havana were brought to the city and sent to destroy the escort under the command of a free black named Prince. They would be accompanied by a band of Seminoles. On September 12th, the Seminoles and blacks attacked the U.S. convoy as soon as it entered the Twelve Mile Swamp around eight o’clock at night. They relentlessly assaulted the U.S. forces for 25 minutes straight. The convoy charged back amidst the heavy fire, causing the Seminoles and blacks to give ground. After the second fire, they fled into the woods, “yelling like devils.” But the Seminole and black raid had successfully destroyed all of the provision wagons, killed the non-commissioned officer, and wounded eight others. Captain John Williams was fatally wounded. The supply wagons would have permitted the U.S. encampment at St. Augustine to continue the siege. Hence the attack of the free blacks on the U.S. convoy was the most important event to protect Spanish rule in Florida. Nevertheless, Major Newman began his expedition to Alachua, diverting the attention of the Seminoles back to their homes. Once the Seminoles and blacks left to protect their towns, Col. Smith immediately withdrew his troops from their St. Augustine camp to the safety of the U.S. gunboats on the St. John’s. 67
Major Newman, adjutant general of Georgia and commander of the Georgian volunteers, led a force of 117 Patriots to the Alachua region where the main Seminole towns were concentrated. If the U.S. forces and Patriots destroyed the Seminole towns, they could obtain personal land-holdings, cease the raids on their plantations, and destroy the refuge for the runaway slaves from the Southern states. It was estimated that about two hundred Seminole gun-men and forty black gun-men were among the upper towns in Chief Payne’s vicinity. 68 On September 24, the U.S. expedition set out from St. John’s under Newman’s command. On the fourth day of the march, the volunteers encountered a Seminole force numbering 75 to 100 warriors commanded by chiefs Payne and Bowlegs, intending to strike the volunteers approaching their towns. Newman estimated his command to be about six to seven miles away from the main towns. The warriors gallantly formed in two columns. The U.S. expedition only slightly outnumbered them. Major Newman found that the Seminoles remained close to the swamp as they fought, cleverly calling for a retreat once he realized this. The Seminoles, overjoyed and confused at the same time, overeagerly gave pursuit. Suddenly, the volunteers turned around and charged back, killing many of the warriors. This included Payne who was conspicuously mounted on a white horse, making him an easy target for the long-range frontier rifles. The warriors were furious at the death of their leader, retreating back into the swamps with shrieking yells.
The warriors remained near the battleground, painting themselves and consulting among each other with the intention to renew warfare. As nightfall approached, the Georgian volunteers formed a breastwork of logs with portholes for protection. The Seminoles returned thirty minutes before sundown with large reinforcements from the black towns, numbering about 200, shouting the most horrible yells imaginable and making wild, frantic gestures. Newman noted that the party included blacks, “who were their best soldiers.” The battle continued until 8 o’clock when the Seminoles and blacks were finally repulsed. The next day, Newman sent out a dispatch to St. John’s for provisions and reinforcements. In the mean time, they encamped at the breastwork they had set up for defense. Three days later, the Seminoles started randomly sniping at the breastwork again, renewing their attack every day for five to six days straight. The U.S. force grew hungry over this time period, now reduced to killing and consuming their horses. The number of the sick was increasing daily. An officer and some soldiers considered deserting the expedition in the middle of the night rather than starve or fall victim to the “merciless Seminoles and negroes.” Only fifty of the men were still able to fight around this time.
On the eighth day, they left the breastwork for the Seminole towns. Two hours after they left, they received their provisions from 25 mounted volunteers detached from the St. John’s who quickly turned around and went back after their job was done. Only five miles into the march, Newman’s force was attacked by a party of fifty Seminoles, equivalent in number to them. Within fifteen minutes the Seminoles were absolutely defeated, many dropping their guns and retreating without even attempting to rally. It was estimated that the Seminole and black warriors endured about fifty deaths altogether from the numerous skirmishes. This is compared to the 22 casualties suffered by the U.S. expedition. Having lost many good warriors, the Seminoles and blacks left the expedition to itself once Newman ordered the retreat. They marched another five miles the next day, constructing a breastwork between two ponds. There they survived by “living upon gophers, alligators and Palmetto stocks.” Another relief party came to their aid. From their encampment they proceeded to the St. John’s River where Col. Smith awaited them with gunboats for protection. 69
By December, volunteers from East Tennessee were offering their assistance to the U.S. forces entrenched in East Florida. The East Tennesseans were concerned with the Seminole raids but there is evidence that they were aware of the problem of runaway slaves. Governor William Blount wrote from Nashville to Secretary of War William Eustis:

“The hostile conduct of the Creek Indians, with the spirit of disaffection among the blacks, as manifested in the attack of captain Williams of the marine corps of the United States, on the frontier of Georgia, founded as it is believed, from the instructions which they have from time to time received, from the Spanish local authorities, at St. Augustine and St. Marks, tending to excite the Indians and blacks in that quarter, to commit murders and depredations on the frontier citizens of the state of Georgia.” 70

The Patriots’ invasion became solely focused on clearing the Seminoles from their lands and, as a result, destroying the refuge for their runaway slaves. Col. John Williams marched about two hundred volunteers down to St. Mary’s from Knoxville in December. The Tennessean volunteers desired land holdings of the fertile Alachua territory and to plunder runaway slaves for personal use or sale. The large herds of cattle on the Seminole lands could also prove to be a very profitable prize from the endeavor. The volunteers increased their forces once they reached the St. Mary’s River. They consisted of hunters, trappers, vagabonds, and men of desperate fortunes, each looking to profit from the destruction of the Seminoles and blacks in the Florida territory. 71
By February 7th, a detachment of 220 soldiers under Col. Smith met about 350 volunteers under the command of Col. Williams near the Alachua towns. It was estimated they were only thirteen miles from Payne’s town. But the Seminoles and blacks were well aware of the U.S. plans weeks before they arrived. They made no time to flee in refuge from the large force. Col. Smith occupied Payne’s town unabated as Williams led his volunteers to Bowleg’s town. On the route over, they killed several Seminoles and captured seven prisoners. They interrogated the captives and learned that there was a black town about two miles from their position. Williams visited the town and found it empty. Its black inhabitants had fled just in time, warned of the encroaching U.S. expedition by a wounded Seminole and the sound of gunfire off in the distance. This prevented many from being taken prisoner and undoubtedly sold into bondage afterwards. Williams returned to the U.S. camp at Payne’s town. They learned from the prisoners that the Seminoles had discovered the U.S. invasion plans about three months in advance and most had fled for safety.
On the 10th, Williams set out with his volunteers and confronted about two hundred Seminoles and blacks in a spirited skirmish. The Seminoles were repelled and suffered about fifteen deaths. But the volunteers were successfully delayed for two days by the attack. On the 11th, the U.S. troops under Col. Smith destroyed the empty black town that was shown to them by the prisoners. On the 12th, the volunteers and troops rendezvoused at Bowlegs Town. Finding the houses empty, they proceeded to plunder and destroy the town. They burned down 386 homes; consumed and burned about 2,000 bushels of corn; gathered 300 horses and 400 cattle; and appropriated 2,000 deer skins. The Seminoles and blacks viewed from the swamp as the plundering invaders ransacked their homes and provisions. As the soldiers were preoccupied, the warriors made a brief strike before they were repelled once again. Yet the Seminoles and blacks had fought them tooth and nail the entire way through. Their continued resistance convinced Williams’ expedition not to proceed any further. 72
The principle towns of the Seminole territory were ruined and plundered, sending them into a state of destitution and starvation. The Seminoles and blacks of the Alachua region spread out to the Suwannee and down south into a flourishing community of blacks south of Tampa Bay. While the piratical army successfully broke up the Seminole and black towns, they failed in their main objective to seize the blacks as slaves. They broke up the centralized Alachua settlements that the Seminoles and blacks had peacefully inhabited for generations. But for all the damages and losses suffered by the Seminoles and blacks, they had managed to delay the takeover and acquisition of Spanish Florida until negotiations began for U.S. withdrawal of troops at the beginning of 1813. Black and native militancy diverted U.S. acquisition of Florida temporarily. Don Luis De Onis, the Spanish minister at Washington, communicated to Secretary Monroe an act for the amnesty of the Patriots “who have been induced to revolt by an agent of the United States, whose proceedings in this respect, were unauthorized.” 73 By March, General Pinckney started negotiations with the Spanish government of Florida. Governor Kindelan wrote to General Pinckney that he would authorize amnesty for the insurgents if the U.S. government, in turn, withdrew its troops from Florida. He published his proclamation of amnesty for the Patriots:

“DECREE-Don Fernando VII, by the grace of God, and by the constitution of the Spanish monarchy, king of Spain, and during his absence and captivity the regency of the kingdom specially authorized by the general and extraordinary cortes, to grant an amnesty to the insurgents, who have co-operated in the invasion of the Spanish territory in East and West Florida, acting in conformity with the beneficent and conciliatory principles of the said cortes, and wishing to give a new proof of their clemency in favor of the Spanish subjects, who, unfortunately forgetful of their duties, have added to the distress of the mother country, during a most critical epoch, has determined to grant them a general pardon with oblivion of the past, on condition that, in future and after the proclamation of this amnesty, they shall demean themselves as good and faithful Spaniards, yielding due obedience to the legitimately constituted authorities of the national government of Spain, established in the peninsula.” 74

The U.S. began making preparations for the withdrawal of its forces. On the morning of April 27th, the soldiers withdrew from their station on the St. John’s River, leaving their encampment in flames behind them. On May 6th, the army lowered the flag at Fort San Carlos, Fernandina and crossed the St. Mary’s River over to Georgia with the remaining troops. 75 But the Patriots were not done. John McIntosh appealed to his Patriot comrades, reminding them of the free black militias at St. Augustine:

“Patriots of East Florida! At last the corrupt Government of St. Augustine has come forward with a proclamation offering "amnesty to the Insurgents who have co-operated in the invasion, (falsely so-called), of East Florida." Weak must be the mind that can have the least dependence upon a promise so hollow & deceitful. Can anyone believe that such a corrupt, jealous, & arbitrary Government will adhere to promises however sacredly made...?

Can you? Will you, in poverty become the sport of Slaves & the abhorred Army in St. Augustine?” 76

The Patriots couldn’t permit the peaceful existence of free black militias and black Seminole maroon communities in Spanish Florida to continue unabated. Col. Hawkins wrote that the Patriots refused to surrender because “they could not submit to the present order of things at St. Augustine. The military force there being of that description of people, mostly blacks and mulattoes, abhorrent to them.” 77 A pro-Patriot letter declared:

“I have just received information from a respectable character immediately from St. Augustine, that the runaway negroes from the U. States and Florida, that had been received and protected St. Augustine, are now getting out of the lines, and embodying themselves to make head against the revolutionists, and in favor, as to say, of the Indians. This measure has taken place upon the full expectation that the U. States troops are to be withdrawn from Florida—What is to become of us, God knows.” 78

In January of 1814, a body of Patriots moved into the Alachua lands that they cleared of their Seminole residents just a year beforehand. This alternative strategy aimed at establishing a self-governing state. On January 25, the Patriots declared the occupied territory the “Republic of East Florida,” intending to supplant the Spanish “Territory of East Florida.” They assembled at the location of the former Seminole towns, declaring it the “Elotchaway District” with its capital only a few miles east of Ocala at Fort Mitchell. At the first assembly of the “Council of the Republic of East Florida,” its President General B. Harris recognized that the Patriots appropriated “a quarter of the Continent heretofore the lurking places of the most inveterate and troublesome savages, who have been instigated by British Influence, aided by many of the Slaves of the unfortunate Patriots.” 79 They petitioned Congress and requested annexation of the “Republic” to the United States. In April 1814, Secretary Monroe rejected their request: “The United States being at peace with Spain, no countenance can be given by their government to the proceedings of the revolutionary party in East Florida, if it is composed of Spanish subjects-and still less can it be given them if it consists of American citizens.” In 1816, the Spanish government in East Florida offered peace terms to the Patriots, proposing that they abandon the “Republic” and accept Spanish rule under a system that divided the territory between the St. Mary’s and St. John’s into three self-governing districts. The Patriots accepted these terms, finally ended their “revolution” after four years of attempted conquest. 80
In 1815, former Patriots were still entering Florida, committing murders, depredations, and raids on the Seminole towns. Seminole chief Bowlegs complained to British official Col. Nichols about outrages from “the people of Georgia, who had gone into East Florida, driven off his cattle, and destroyed his property...and murdered two of his people.” 81 Col. Nichols addressed Bowlegs’ multiple complaints to Col. Benjamin Hawkins, a Patriot sympathizer from the start. Nichols’ defense of the Seminoles was one of the rare instances when white men in Florida actually identified with the cause of people of color. Others were either outright hostile to the Seminoles and blacks or patronized them as “poor savage victims.” But the Seminoles warmed to Nichols, realizing that they had a true ally in the British official. Hawkins replied that the renewed assaults of the Patriots were justified: “The Indians of Aulotchwan, who, without provocation, murdered and plundered a number of subjects of Spain on the St. John’s, have engendered such a deadly feud between the parties, that it will be long before the descendents of the injured can forget and forgive.” 82 This is evidence that the continuous crimes inflicted on the Seminoles were perpetrated by the Patriots. The Seminoles had only targeted the plantations of the Patriots to divert their attention from the illegal siege of St. Augustine. Hawkins never mentioned that the Seminoles had been the victims of white land grabs long before the Patriots invasion. The Seminoles raids were sparked once the chiefs discovered that the Patriots intended to steal their land and divvy it among themselves as soon as they conquered East Florida.


34. ASPFA 3: 544.
35. State Papers and Publick Documents of the United States, from the Accession of George Washington to the Presidency, Exhibiting a Complete View of Our Foreign Relations Since that Time, Vol. 9. Boston: T. B. Wait and Sons, 1817. 156.
36. Ibid. 164.
37. ASPFA 3: 571.
38. U.S. House Journal. 11th Congress, Third Session. Washington: U.S. G.P.O. 489-526.
39. ASPFA 3: 571.
40. Ibid.
41. Kruse, Paul. “A Secret Agent in East Florida: Governor Matthews and the Patriot War.” Journal of Southern History 18 (May 1952): 198.
42. Ibid. 199.
43. Adams, Henry. History of the United States of America during the First Administration of James Madison, Vol. II. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890. 239.
44. Boston Repertory, May 8, 1812.
45. New York Evening Post, October 15, 1812.
46. Boston Weekly Messenger, November 29, 1811; New York Spectator, May 20, 1812.
47. Ibid. May 16, 1812.
48. Ibid.
49. Ibid.; New York Evening Post, April 28, 1812.
50. Davis, T. F. "United States Troops in Spanish East Florida, 1812-1813." Florida Historical Quarterly 9 (July 1930): 6.
51. Williams, Territory of Florida, 195.
52. New York Evening Post, October 16, 1812.
53. Giddings, Joshua R. The Exiles of Florida: or the Crimes Committed by Our Government Against the Maroon Who Fled from South Carolina and Other Slave States Seeking Protection under Spanish Laws. New York: Black Classic P, 1997. 30.
54. Patrick, Rembert W. "Letters of the Invaders of East Florida, 1812." Florida Historical Quarterly 28 (July 1949): 62.
55. State Papers and Publick Documents, 169.
56. ASPFA 3: 572.
57. Ibid. 573.
58. State Papers and Publick Documents, 182.
59. Ibid.
60. Ibid. 183.
61. Ibid. 169.
62. Davis, “United States Troops in East Florida,” Part II, 108.
63. Ibid. Part IV, 269.
64. Ibid. Part II, 112-113.
65. Ibid. 112; Davis, “Letters of the Invaders of East Florida,” 63.
66. Ibid.
67. Davis, “United States Troops in East Florida,” Part III, 139-141; Alexander, J.H. “The Ambush of Captain John Williams, U.S.M.C.: Failure of the East Florida Invasion, 1812-1813.” Florida Historical Quarterly 56 (January 1978): 281-297; Williams, Territory of Florida, 197.
68. State Papers and Publick Documents, 186.
69. National Intelligencer, December 5, 1812; Davis, “United States Troops in East Florida,” Part III, 147-156.
70. State Papers and Publick Documents, 158.
71. Giddings, Exiles, 31.
72. Davis, “United States Troops in East Florida,” Part IV, 272-275; Porter, Kenneth P. “Negroes and the East Florida Annexation Plot, 1811-1813.” Journal of Negro History 30 (Jan. 1945) 26-27.
73. Davis, “United States Troops in East Florida,” Part V, 26.
74. Ibid. 28.
75. Ibid. 33-35.
76. Davis, T.F. “Elotchaway, East Florida, 1814.” Florida Historical Quarterly 8 (January 1930): 145.
77. ASPIA 1: 844.
78. Boston Weekly Messenger, May 14, 1813.
79. Davis, “Elotchaway,” 67.
80. Wyllys, Rufus K. “The East Florida Revolution of 1812-1814.” The Hispanic-American Historical Review 9 (Nov. 1929): 444-445.
81. ASPFA 4: 549.
82. Ibid. 550.