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The Patriot War

The often overlooked war in which the
United States invaded Spanish East Florida

The first permanent settlement in what is now Jacksonville was founded at "The Cowford" in 1791, at a narrow point in the St. Johns River where cattlemen could ford their livestock across. This was some 3000 feet west of the Spanish Fort San Nicolas.

Spain controlled Florida peninsula. This was a major concern for leaders of the youthful United States as the War of 1812 loomed. Many Americans had been moving into Florida since the 1790s. They were known as "Patriots", and they were eager to help Florida become American territory. Since anarchy reigned over most of Florida except a few places controlled by the Spanish, the U.S. government used the excuse to invade Florida in order to control anarchy and protect American citizens in the area. The U.S. also wanted the territory in order to prevent Britain from getting a foothold in the area.

The nation’s fourth president, James Madison, and his Secretary of State, James Monroe, plotted to secure the Spanish Floridas as a territory of the United States. On January 15, 1811, Congress passed a secret act for acquisition of the area. Madison appointed former Georgia governor, General George Mathews, to lead a contingent into Florida with justification that U.S. forces must support local revolts against Spanish oppression. But Madison’s opponents condemned the invasion, saying the claims for invasion were trumped-up.

By March 1812, the Patriots, aided by the U.S. Navy, and with leadership from John McIntosh (of Ortega fame) took possession of Fernandina and Amelia Island. But within weeks, Madison, unhappy with the tactics used by the Patriots, rescinded the Mathews’ appointment and publicly “repudiated the seizure of East Florida.” Yet, he secretly appointed Georgia Governor David Byrdie Mitchell to oversee activity in Florida. By June, the U.S. declared war on Great Britain (the War of 1812). With the fear that friendship with the Spanish would allow the English to establish a dangerous staging-ground in Florida, the matter of seizing the area resurfaced as a national issue. Then, as long feared by the Patriots and many American leaders, the Seminoles joined the Spanish, raiding homes and attacking Patriots and Patriot sympathizers.

Georgian Daniel Newnan gained celebrity for leading volunteers on a march into the Alachua area to wage battle against the Seminoles and their leader, King Payne. His unit’s efforts and escape were considered miraculous.

Nearly a decade later, as the original streets of Jacksonville were laid out, Newnan would still be remembered as a hero, and a major street would be named in his honor.

With the death of General Buckner Harris, May 1814, the Patriot movement collapsed. The Patriot War managed to eventually accomplish the one thing that the country’s War of 1812 failed to do:  it brought new territory into the United States, and it ultimately led to the founding of Jacksonville. The Florida Territory was sold to the United States in 1821, and by 1822, "Jacksonville" was the name of the new town at the bend of the St. Johns River.



 

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