Welcome to Florida Time, a weekly column about Florida history: from the Fountain of Youth and Walt Disney to the Miami Riots and the Koreshan. Today, we dive a little deeper into Florida’s relationship with the American Revolution.
Readers: You might recall, from our first Florida Time column, the myth that Florida was part of Spain during the American Revolution. Well, it was part of England. And liked it! For more, we turn to our archives and Florida Historical Society’s “Florida in the American Revolution” essay from their history essay series called Florida Frontiers.
The Floridas actually constituted England’s 14th and 15th colonies.
After Spain claimed La Florida in 1513, explorers moved up and inland, and everywhere they went, all the way to what’s now Arkansas, they kept calling Florida.
Then, during a dispute with Spain in 1763, England seized Cuba and promptly offered it back in exchange for Florida. Trading a well-developed island for miles and miles of swamp, bugs, reptiles and hostile indigenous people was a no-brainer. The Spanish colonists moved out, pretty much to a man.
Related: Who owned Florida longer; Spain or the U.S.?
So from 1763 to 1783, the Floridas were the only two British colonies, south of Canada, that didn’t bolt.
The British got out their quills and created the territory of East Florida. It ran east and south into the peninsula from the Apalachicola River and included the waterway in the Panhandle that now separates the eastern and central time zones. The territory of West Florida would stretch nearly to New Orleans and include what are now parts of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Two capitals were placed in logical centralized locales: St. Augustine and Pensacola.
Related: How did Tallahassee become a state capital?
On Aug. 11, 1776, when word came to St. Augustine of the Declaration of Independence, furious residents hanged and burned effigies of signers John Hancock and Samuel Adams. And in February 1783, a pro-England paper called the “East Florida Gazette” began publication. It would be Florida’s first newspaper.
During the revolution, the loyal Floridas became a strategic bumper between England's vast Caribbean island colonies and the upstart rebels on North America's east coast. British troops would attack rebels in both Floridas. George Washington authorized five separate invasions of East Florida between 1776 and 1780.
Read more Florida history: Here are Florida’s top 25 stories of all time
But the Brits now had the Castillo de San Marcos. The great coquina citadel in St. Augustine was well known to the Redcoats, who more than once had attacked it, to no avail. At one point, three men -- Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward Jr. and Arthur Middleton -- were held prisoner in it. They, too, were signers of the Declaration of Independence whom the British had captured in Charleston, S.C., in May 1780.
During a series of battles from 1779 to 1781, Spain was able to recapture West Florida from the British. And when the revolution ended in 1783, England returned East Florida to the Spanish to keep control of another strategic point in their vast empire, Gibraltar. But not for long.
The new nation’s idea of manifest destiny did not just go from east to west. It went south, too. By 1819, Florida was an American possession. More about that next week.
READER REWIND: What's your Florida story? Share it with Eliot by leaving a voicemail at (850) 270-8418.
– Florida’s top 25 stories of all time
– Who owned Florida longer? Spain or the United States?
– The last naval battle of the American Revolution
– The shipwreck of the American Revolution era
Last week: Inside Thomas Edison’s Florida home
Next week: East Florida Rebellion
A reader asks: In the late 70’s, my uncle farmed an area in the Everglades called Devils Garden. We would leave Fort Lauderdale and go out to Alligator Alley and turn onto a limerock road then go through the Indian reservation. It took about an 1 ½ hours. It was near Immokalee. It was a large commercial farming operation. Citrus and vegetables. Do you know why that area is called Devils Garden? - Scott S.
Eliot Kleinberg has been a staff writer for the past three decades at The Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, and is the author of 10 books about Florida (www.ekfla.com). Florida Time is a product of GateHouse Media and publishes online in their 22 Florida markets including Jacksonville, Fort Walton Beach, Daytona Beach, Lakeland, Sarasota and West Palm Beach. Submit your questions, comments or memories to FloridaTime@Gatehousemedia.com. Include your full name and hometown. Sorry; no personal replies.