The Patriot War

During the War of 1812, there was an active policy of the United States to take control of Florida from Spain. One of the best sources about Florida during this time is by Rembert W. Patrick, "Florida Fiasco, Rampant Rebels on the Georgia-Florida Border, 1810-1815." Well titled, because the whole event during that time was a total fiasco by Georgia and the United States. It is long out of print, but available in most Florida libraries. As usual, the Indians in Florida were caught right in the middle, and were the objective of much of the attacks by the Americans in Florida. In comparison, the American attempt to take East Florida was no better than William Augustus Bowles' attempt to take West Florida 15 years earlier.

Before war started with England in 1812, President Madison's policy on Florida was to hope for it to be occupied and absorbed into the quickly expanding United States. Since Spain had made a peace treaty with England, Spanish Florida became a target. The United States wanted an excuse to expand into Florida, and if the British came to Florida, that would give them an excuse. The Spanish population in St. Augustine was so small at this time that they could not do anything outside the city, letting the Americans claim that they were allowing lawlessness to run free in the interior of the state. The borders of Spanish Florida were shrinking fast. In 1795, Spain ceded all of Florida above the 31st parallel to the United States, and 1813 took the rest of West Florida between the Perdido River and Mississippi River. Napoleon had overthrown the government in Spain in 1812, so the Spanish old guard here in the new world were without direction or support from the mother country.

Already Americans in the southeast were living in Florida, known as "Patriots", and eager to help Florida become American territory. One Patriot who lent support to the Americans was Zephaniah Kingsley, who owned a wealthy plantation on the St. Johns River known as Laurel Grove. This seemed a contradiction that Kingsley would support the Patriot movement, since his wife was a Black African Princess.

Many Americans had been moving into Florida the past few decades. Since anarchy reigned over most of Florida except a few places where there was a Spanish garrison, the U.S. government said that they were obligated to protect American citizens. One excuse that the U.S. used to annex West Florida west of the Perdido River in 1813 was to control anarchy and protect American citizens in the area. The U.S. also took the area to prevent Britain to get a toehold in the area, and splitting the U.S. between the eastern states and western territories. Britain also did not recognize the Louisiana Purchase.

On March 17, 1812 (three months before the War of 1812 began), American "Patriots" under Major General Thomas Pinckney and Colonel Thomas Smith occupied Fernandina and declared Florida as United States territory. Silent and confusing messages from Washington do not give any clear indication of what support they had from Washington. By the end of the War of 1812, the Madison (and Monroe) administration was no longer interested in Florida, and giving more attention to peace with the European powers. The Patriots were forced to evacuate Fernandina and negotiate amnesty with the Spanish governor in St. Augustine.

On April 12, 1812, Colonel Smith's force occupied Fort Moosa near St. Augustine. They were forced to pull back after the Spanish and their free Negro allies attacked Smith's camp, so Smith sets up an encampment further back from town. The Spanish soon burned Fort Moosa.

The Americans established an outpost at Picolata on the St. Johns River in what is now St. Johns County. The purpose of this outpost was to establish an American presence in Florida, and to be a starting point to explore and settle the interior of Florida. On September 9, 1812 the Indians boldly attacked and destroyed the storehouses at the post, despite the presence of 250 Georgia Volunteer soldiers.


"Picalata" during the time of the British.
State of Florida Archives

On September 12, 1812, an American supply train travelling between the American encampment at St. Augustine to Fort Stallings (on Davis Creek, Duval County) was attacked by a large number of Negroes and Seminoles in the Twelvemile Swamp. Captain Williams, commanding the supply train, was badly wounded and died two weeks later. At this time the American laid siege on St. Augustine, and the attack in Twelvemile Swamp cut off the American's supplies, and they were forced to abandon the siege.

Colonel Daniel Newnan from Georgia raised a force of 117 Georgia Volunteers to destroy Indian towns through Florida. On September 24, 1812, he started towards the interior of Florida with the objective to begin a lightning attack against King Payne and the Seminole village of Lotchaway at Alachua prairie.

On September 27, 1812, Colonel Newnan's force runs into King Payne and 75 Seminole warriors. King Payne was probably on his way to St. Augustine to trade with the Spanish, and the two forces were surprised to see each other. A battle quickly ensued, and many Seminoles and Negroes from the surrounding area came to reinforce the Seminole force. A fierce battle lasted into the night with neither side getting any advantage. The Georgia force built a breastwork for defense, but it also caged them in and cut off any escape route. King Payne, now around 80 years old, bravely leads the Seminoles, but is wounded and dies a few months later. The breastwork was near what is today Newnans Lake, and there is a historical marker along highway 21.

After a long siege by the Seminoles, Newnan's force decides to make a night retreat from their breastwork on October 4, 1812. Facing starvation, sickness, and mutiny, they can only go 8 miles until they stop and build another defensive position. Meanwhile, a relief force from Picolata arrives with 25 horses to rescue Newnan's force. They arrived two hours too late at the breastwork near Payne's Town, and are unable to find Newnan's force.

On October 5, 1812, Newnan's force comes upon an area of fallen trees that were uprooted by a recent tempest that passed by the previous week. When the Georgia force passed by the trees, Seminoles in hiding attacked. After a short skirmish the Americans continue and establish another defensive encampment. Few days later help arrives from Picolata, and by October 11, 1812, Newnan's force is back at Kingsley Plantation having a hero's party. Their dismal failure was proclaimed a victory in the newspapers, and Newnan is declared a hero. One of the largest cities in Florida during territorial days is Newnansville, named after Daniel Newnan.

On February 7, 1813, Colonel John Williams and Colonel Thomas Smith led a force of Eastern Tennessee Volunteers into northeast Florida. They descended on Payne's Town at Alachua with the objective to loot and burn any Indian towns that they find, drive off Indian cattle, and kill or capture all Negroes they find. Another objective was to destroy Bowlegs' town, but none of the guides knew where it was located. (Bowlegs was brother of King Payne.) When the Tennessee force arrives at Payne's Town, they find it deserted, and discover later that the Indians fled a few weeks before. A few roving bands of Seminoles are found and attacked, even when these are found to be peaceful towards the United States.

On February 10, 1813, the Tennessee force runs into a heavily defended Seminole force in a hammock. There is no advance by either side, and a battle lasts into the night. The Americans retreat to Paynes Town. Two days later they try to attack the Seminoles again, but are instead under sporadic fire from the Seminoles. The Americans find an abandoned Indian town and use that as a base camp while they loot and destroy Indian villages in the Alachua area.

On February 17, 1813, the Tennessee force leaves the Alachua area, with a final destruction of Paynes Town as they leave. Much of the Seminole's food supplies, crops, and cattle were destroyed by the campaign of Williams and Smith. This battle removed the Seminoles as a threat in Georgia and Florida for the rest of the War of 1812, and the Seminoles faced starvation in Florida.

The Tennessee force returns to Georgia by February 24, 1813 as heroes. The only prisoners that they have are one boy, one woman with a baby, one wounded woman, and one elderly Negro. Only one of the Tennessee soldiers were killed. The government debates on returning the prisoners, but by the time that they decide, only two are still alive. For over a year later, roving bands of Patriots looted and burned Indian villages and kill any Seminoles they find in northeast Florida.

On 12 January 1814, American Patriots establish Fort Mitchell near what is today Ocala. They establish the "District of Elotchaway of the Republic of East Florida", and claim the land for the United States. The governor of Georgia denies any support for the Patriots, many of whom are wanted in Georgia for tax evasion. In April 1814, Secretary of State James Monroe denies support from Washington. The Patriots still try to establish a permanent American settlement in the area, but when their leader Buckner Harris is killed by Indians on 5 May 1814, the settlement falls apart. Soon the American occupation of Spanish Florida disappears.

There is one interesting story of the death of Buckner Harris. He was surveying the land for his settlement when he was killed. There is a story that an Indian showed up at the Spanish governor's office with Harris' scalp in one hand, and the survey book in the other. At that moment in the governor's office was also the Arrendondo family. Arrendondo Senior soon received the largest land grant in Florida; the boarders of which were the same area that Harris had surveyed, with the center being in the lake on Paynes Prairie.


Read how Alachua County was the bloodiest place in the Florida territory, and Hickory Sink..


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© 1998, 2002 Chris Kimball
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