Patrick Tonyn: Britain’s Most Effective Revolutionary-Era Royal Governor


March 22, 2018
by Jim Piecuch Also by this Author


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Even among historians of the American Revolution, the name of East Florida’s royal governor, Patrick Tonyn, is all but unknown. However, Tonyn proved himself to be the crown’s most effective governor in mainland North America during the Revolutionary era. Tonyn’s leadership was not only instrumental in maintaining British control of East Florida, but he also brought significant pressure to bear on colonies to the northward that had joined the rebellion while successfully dealing with challenges from pro-Revolutionary elements within East Florida. His astute diplomacy to maintain an alliance with the Creeks and Seminoles, efforts to make his province a refuge for thousands of Loyalists from other colonies, and his organization of loyal refugees into military units enabled East Florida to withstand three rebel invasions while threatening the Revolutionaries’ control of southern Georgia. Tonyn’s achievements were even more remarkable because he received little guidance from his superiors in London, and therefore had to create his own policies to deal with both external and internal threats to East Florida.

Tonyn was born in 1725, possibly in Ireland, although nearly nothing is known of his life before he was commissioned an officer in the 6th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Dragoons at the age of nineteen. He was promoted to captain in May 1751 and fought in Germany during the Seven Years’ War, including participation at the Battle of Minden on August 1, 1759. In 1761 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the 104th Regiment of Foot. At the end of the war, Spain ceded Florida to Great Britain; British officials divided the territory into two separate provinces, East and West Florida, with the former consisting of the peninsula bordered by the St. Mary’s River on the north and the Apalachicola River to the west. Tonyn was granted 20,000 acres in East Florida in 1767 as a reward for his military service. He was later appointed royal governor of the province and arrived at the capital, St. Augustine, on March 1, 1774.[1]

Upon Tonyn’s arrival, he found the small province to be on a solid economic footing. Of East Florida’s approximately three thousand non-Indian inhabitants, about one half were African American slaves. Most of the slaves labored on plantations along the St. Mary’s and St. John’s Rivers, while another thousand or so indentured servants from Europe, mostly Roman Catholic Minorcans, worked on Andrew Turnbull’s plantation at New Smyrna, south of St. Augustine. Trade with the province’s Indians was profitable, and the plantations produced lumber, turpentine, rice, and indigo for export.[2]

Tonyn assumed the governorship less than three months after the Boston Tea Party ignited the final round of sparks that would lead to revolution in America. Perhaps because of his military background as well as his understanding of his duty as royal governor, Tonyn was determined to keep his province loyal to Great Britain. He apparently found no evidence of rebellious sentiments in the province during his first months there, as he wrote to the Earl of Dartmouth, Secretary of State for the American Department, that the controversy over the 1773 Tea Act could have been avoided entirely by shipping the tea to St. Augustine, where merchants would have paid the tax without protest and could then have shipped the tea to other American colonies. His assertion had merit, given that East Floridians had made no protests against the Stamp Act of 1765 or any other parliamentary legislation that had caused such a furor in the colonies to the northward. The fact that East Florida had no elected legislature to serve as a voice for its inhabitants, and would not have such a body until 1781, may have contributed to the colony’s passive response to British taxation.[3]

While Tonyn believed that East Florida’s settlers were reliably loyal, as the Revolution began he worried about the political sentiments of some of the colony’s leaders. Lt. Gov. John Moultrie, a South Carolina native, was the brother of William Moultrie, who supported the rebellion and rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Continental Army. Another South Carolinian, William Drayton, served as East Florida’s chief justice, and was related to rebel firebrand William Henry Drayton. Turnbull, a member of the council, chafed under what he considered Tonyn’s authoritarian rule, and his wealth gave him an added degree of influence.[4] Under such circumstances, it was not surprising that Tonyn chose to wield power with little consideration for the views of other provincial luminaries.

In the summer of 1775, Tonyn informed the Earl of Dartmouth that reports from South Carolina described “every excess of outrage and sedition” in that province, and that Gov. Sir James Wright’s position in Georgia was precarious. Tonyn added that widespread accounts indicated that the South Carolinians intended to invade East Florida, and that he would “put everything in the best state of defense” despite the small number of troops available.[5] A letter from William Henry Drayton reporting on rebel activities in Charleston to William Drayton in St. Augustine, that Tonyn intercepted, added to the governor’s worries.[6] So too did a request from Virginia’s royal governor, Lord Dunmore, in September. Dunmore asked Tonyn for troops from the East Florida garrison to strengthen his forces conducting raids in Chesapeake Bay, and Tonyn reluctantly agreed to send a detachment of the 14th Regiment, but not the entire number of troops that Dunmore had requested. Tonyn noted that his force was so small that “the province is absolutely defenceless; the garrison so inconsiderable that the fort [Castle St. Mark, formerly the Spanish Castillo de San Marcos] alone can be guarded, not defended in any very formidable manner.” The governor added that he had met with a prominent Creek emissary and was working to garner support from that powerful Indian nation, and reminded Dartmouth “of the importance to Great Britain of this province in the present circumstances.”[7]

Fortunately for Tonyn and the British, the rumored rebel invasion of East Florida did not occur in 1775; instead, loyalism in the province was bolstered by an influx of refugees, most from Georgia and the Carolinas. Tonyn encouraged immigration by offering land grants to Loyalists, promising to make East Florida “an asylum to the friends of the [British] Constitution.” The majority of immigrants were small farmers eager to escape rebel persecution, but several planters came to the province with their slaves, along with some merchants and Anglican ministers. Parliament’s prohibition on the rebellious colonies’ right to trade with the rest of the British Empire spurred the growth of agriculture and the production of naval stores for export to the West Indies and to supply the royal navy, allowing most Loyalist newcomers to support themselves.[8]

The influx of refugees created an administrative problem for Tonyn. While East Florida had an abundance of land, much of it had been granted to absentee owners. The governor referred the problem to officials in London, where it was decided in March 1777 that the ownership of any granted lands that had remained empty or undeveloped for three years or longer reverted to the crown. This upheld Tonyn’s policy of granting portions of the absentees’ holdings to refugees. The governor also intervened to prevent food shortages while the new arrivals established farms. Many immigrants had brought provisions and livestock with them to East Florida, while loyalists in some of the revolted colonies managed to ship grain to St. Augustine. However, military officials seized much of these foodstuffs on the grounds that they violated the parliamentary embargo on trade with the rebels. On his own initiative, Tonyn issued licenses to loyalists that enabled them to circumvent the embargo and thus provide urgently needed food supplies for the province’s inhabitants.[9]

The anticipated rebel attack on East Florida became increasingly likely in the spring of 1776. rebels from Georgia destroyed several plantations on the St. Mary’s River in May, and launched additional raids in July and August. The main invasion began in the latter month, under Maj. Gen. Charles Lee, commander of the Continental Army in the Southern Department. Lee’s Georgians, South Carolinians, and Virginians managed to advance a detachment as far south as the St. John’s River, where they plundered some plantations, but the main force never proceeded farther than Sunbury, Georgia, where sickness and supply shortages forced them to halt.[10]

The rebels’ actions spurred Tonyn into taking measures he had promised more than a year earlier to secure the province. In August, the same month as the rebels began their ill-fated invasion, Tonyn organized a battalion of militia for provincial defense. He planned to raise four companies from among the residents of St. Augustine, two of settlers along the St. John’s River, and four companies of blacks. Lieutenant Governor Moultrie was appointed colonel commanding the unit.[11]

By this time Tonyn considered Moultrie to be reliable in his loyalty to Britain, because of the lieutenant governor’s role in political disputes that had nearly fractured the provincial government. Tonyn informed Lord George Germain, Dartmouth’s successor as head of the American Department, in April that “since my arrival in this province I have labored most assiduously to extinguish the jarring flames of party and faction by every lenient measure.” The effort had failed, and Tonyn suspended Chief Justice Drayton for what the governor considered improper conduct, noting that a longstanding “enmity had subsisted between Mr Moultrie and Mr Drayton.” Tonyn hoped that Drayton’s suspension would serve as a lesson to Andrew Turnbull, who had angered the governor for various reasons, including collaborating with Georgia rebel Jonathan Bryan to make a private purchase of Indian land. Turnbull instead vocally supported Drayton, and in a meeting of the provincial council, became involved in an argument with Moultrie during which Turnbull declared “that America was in the right, the King’s ministers in the wrong, that Lord North would answer with his head.” Shortly afterward, Turnbull left the province.[12] Moultrie’s opposition to Drayton and Turnbull apparently reassured Tonyn that his lieutenant governor was trustworthy.

Tonyn had also been working to maintain a strong alliance with the Creeks and the Seminoles, who were nominally still part of the Creek confederacy, since he believed Indian assistance was crucial to his province’s defense. On April 20 he wrote to David Taitt, Southern Indian Superintendent John Stuart’s deputy to the Creeks, to warn about possible rebel efforts to win over that nation. Tonyn urged Taitt to take steps to maintain Creek support for Britain.[13] Two months later, Tonyn wrote to Maj. Gen. Henry Clinton, who commanded the land force of a British expedition to the southern colonies, asserting that “the assistance they [the Indians] would be of to His Majesty’s service is very great. … The Americans are a thousand times more in dread of the savages than of any European troops. Why not avail of their help?” Tonyn complained that both Stuart and British officials were too slow in employing the Indians, and declared that even though East Florida’s garrison consisted of only part of the 14th Regiment, “three small companies of the 16th regiment,” and three companies of the 60th, some of these troops and the Seminoles could, by attacking Georgia, create “a powerful diversion” to assist Clinton’s operations.[14] The Seminole leader, Ahaya of Cuscowilla, known to the British as Cowkeeper, was a staunch ally of the crown and had pledged to assist in the defense of East Florida.[15] Clinton did not follow Tonyn’s advice, but Germain did express his pleasure at “the favorable disposition” of the Indians in a letter to the governor and praised Tonyn’s willingness to assist the army in its operations.[16]

Although the governor undertook defensive preparations, his views regarding the use of Indians and regulars to strike Georgia demonstrated his preference for taking the offensive against the rebels. In February 1776, Tonyn had asked Thomas Brown, a South Carolina loyalist who had escaped to St. Augustine after surviving a violent attack by the rebels, to assess “the disposition, strength and resources of the inhabitants upon the frontiers” of the southern provinces to determine what assistance British forces might receive if they mounted an attack in the backcountry. Brown observed that “an attempt to raise the friends to government” without Indian assistance “will not only be attended with extreme danger, but perhaps [be] impracticable.” However, Brown believed that a strong force of Loyalists and Indians would be able to recruit “2 or 3000 men in South Carolina … in the course of a month,” adding that Georgia “from its defenceless state will make but a poor resistance; by its reduction, the province of South Carolina may be attacked in the weakest part.” Brown recommended the capture of Augusta, Georgia, and Fort Charlotte in South Carolina to open a line of communication from North Carolina to East Florida and provide bases for further operations.[17]

Tonyn’s did not put Brown’s plan into effect, but his long service in the British army did not make him inflexible with regard to military tactics, rather, he “adapted with startling flexibility to the type of warfare he was required to wage.” Using his authority as commander-in-chief of his province, the governor organized refugee volunteers into two battalions of provincial troops, the South Carolina Royalists, and the East Florida or King’s Rangers, commissioning Brown lieutenant colonel commandant of the latter unit. In October 1776 Brown struck into Georgia, burning rebel plantations at Beard’s Bluff and south of the Altamaha River.[18]

Brown undertook another raid in February 1777, leading a mixed force of Rangers and Indians to raid into Georgia with support from 160 regulars from the St. Augustine garrison. Brown’s party captured Fort McIntosh on February 18 before the regulars arrived; the troops then skirmished with rebel forces while pushing to the Altamaha River, allowing Brown to round up some two thousand head of cattle to feed East Florida’s populace before the British withdrew.[19]

The supplies obtained by Brown did little to ameliorate the hunger and difficult living and working conditions that plagued the Minorcan laborers at Turnbull’s New Smyrna plantation. Turnbull’s overseers continued their policy of harshly treating the workers. Rumors circulated that the dissatisfied Minorcans were seeking aid from the rebels in Georgia, leading some nearby planters to advise Tonyn to prepare to confine the workers if the rebels or Spaniards invaded East Florida. The Minorcans sent two delegations to St. Augustine in March and April 1777 to lay their complaints before the governor. Tonyn ordered Attorney General Arthur Gordon and Chief Justice Henry Yonge to investigate the situation, with the result that the provincial court ordered the Minorcans released from their indentures. Turnbull’s attorneys reluctantly complied, and most of the workers moved to the vicinity of St. Augustine, where the governor provided them with land. Tonyn had judiciously eliminated a potential internal threat to East Florida’s security and ended the abuses practiced at Turnbull’s plantation.[20]

Turnbull, however, simmered over this perceived injustice, and in December he complained to Germain of what he considered Tonyn’s authoritarian policies. Tonyn, declared Turnbull, had chosen “to interfere in a most arbitrary and illegal Manner between the Proprietors and Settlers at Smyrnea, which not only deranged the affairs of the Settlement at that Time, but also established a firm Belief among these Men (being all brought from despotick Governments) that the Governour of the Province had all Power over them, and not the Proprietors.” As a result, Turnbull claimed, when he returned to East Florida he found some of the workers had become “idle and mutinous.” He added that Lieutenant Governor Moultrie and other provincial leaders “were present, when the first Attack was made on our Contracts and private Property by Govr. Tonyn.” Although Turnbull claimed that he had “resolved to live on good Terms with the Governour,” he had now concluded that Tonyn had the fixed intention “of breaking up the Smyrnea Settlement in the Hopes, as I was then informed, that he and his Connections would have the Advantage” of relocating “the most industrious of these Families” to their own plantations, in order to profit from the Minorcans’ labor.[21] Germain did not respond to Turnbull’s complaint.

The governor did not need such distractions, because Brown’s successful March raid convinced the rebels to mount another invasion of East Florida in the belief that the seizure of St. Augustine would end the threat from the southward. With the reluctant concurrence of Maj. Gen. Robert Howe, the new commander of the southern Continental Army, a two-pronged land and sea force set out, with the former reaching the St. Mary’s River on May 12. Two days later, Indians captured over one hundred horses from the rebel camp, and the American commander, Col. John Baker, shifted his camp to Thomas Creek. Brown attacked the two hundred rebels on May 17 with an equal number of Rangers and Indians, forcing the invaders to retreat into a detachment of one hundred British regulars sent to cooperate with Brown. Three Americans were killed and thirty-one captured, and when the seaborne units reached Amelia Island the next day, the overall commander of the invasion force, Col. Samuel Elbert, decided that the operation stood no chance of success. He ordered a withdrawal on May 26.[22]

With the rebel threat ended, Tonyn ordered Brown to resume the attacks on Georgia, and the Rangers and Indians made repeated forays into the southernmost rebel state. Georgian Joseph Clay complained in late September that the raiders had “for some Months past been continually making incursions into our State,” and “not the smallest Check has ever been given to these People.”[23] Tonyn, still eager to carry the war to the enemy, was not satisfied. In December he wrote Germain that it was “a matter of great concern to me that a thousand men should remain in inaction in this province … while a contemptible lawless rabble ingloriously exult in the subjection and ruin of the friends of government in Georgia.”[24]

Brown’s successes continued into 1778; his greatest victory was the capture of Fort Barrington on the Altamaha River on March 13. The Rangers and Indians’ operations reinforced Tonyn’s conviction that his forces alone were capable of subduing Georgia. The following month he wrote to Gen. Sir William Howe, emphasizing the “numberless inconveniences from acting always on the defensive.” Tonyn suggested that with the troops in the St. Augustine garrison, along with “the Rangers and Indians, the province of Georgia may be taken in possession.” After that was accomplished, communications could be opened with the loyalists in the South Carolina backcountry, and if they proved sufficiently numerous, “I apprehend that province would soon be compelled to subjection,” the governor declared.[25]

Howe, who had recently resigned the command in America, did not reply to Tonyn’s proposal, and meanwhile the rebels mounted yet another invasion of East Florida. This time the operation began more successfully, when rebel troops dispersed a party of Rangers, forcing Brown to abandon and burn Fort Tonyn on the St. Mary’s River. On June 30 Brown’s Rangers, assisted by some regulars, repulsed a party of some one hundred mounted Georgians. After several weeks of occasional minor skirmishing, the rebels retreated on July 14. In his report to Germain, Tonyn praised the performance of the Rangers and Seminoles in repelling the invasion, and informed the American Secretary that he would “meditate on the necessary preparations for the conquest of Georgia and Carolina when Lord [Richard] Howe and Sir Henry Clinton’s operations are turned that way, that all our assistance may be in readiness.”[26]

No sooner had the rebels left East Florida than Brown renewed his attacks on Georgia. “We are again very much infested with Tonyns Banditti Stealing our Horses & Negroes & doing us all the Mischief they can,” Clay lamented in early September. Later in the month, he reported that “the Floridians & Indians by their Robberies & Murders keep us in a continual State of Alarm.”[27]

The rebel threat to East Florida was eliminated when a British expedition from New York captured Savannah in December. In January 1779 these troops were reinforced by units from St. Augustine. With his province now secure, Tonyn was able to report to Germain in July that “many industrious persons have by planting considerably increased their fortunes,” and that exports of timber, naval stores, and other goods were thriving. The governor was less pleased by the inhabitants’ demands for a provincial legislature, which Tonyn attributed to “the factious and disaffected.” Yet he noted that this “malignant spirit hath almost subsided,” and expressed a hope that an elected assembly could prove beneficial. The governor added that he continued to promote privateering and that East Florida’s privateers had not only “accumulated wealth” but seriously distressed the rebels.[28]

In January 1780, Germain instructed Tonyn to proceed with electing an assembly, and advised the governor that the legislature’s first priority should be to pass a law to provide revenue for the province’s expenses, which had been paid by the British government since East Florida had been established.[29] By December, Tonyn had still not called for elections, although he told Germain that “the growth of the province depends much upon” the creation of a legislature. The governor reported that abundant crops of corn and large herds of cattle had resulted in a drop in food prices, but complained that since the British capture of Charleston in May 1780, much merchant shipping had been diverted to that port and at St. Augustine “there is a great quantity of naval stores on hand for want of ships to carry them off.” He also reported that Lt. Gen. Charles, Earl Cornwallis, had exiled some thirty prominent South Carolina rebels to East Florida, and assured the American Secretary that “these incendiaries can do little mischief here.”[30]

One reason for Tonyn’s delay in calling for the election of a legislature may have been the growing threat to East Florida following Spain’s entry into the war in 1779. In addition to a possible seaborne threat from the Spanish base at Havana, Cuba, a military expedition from New Orleans had begun the conquest of neighboring West Florida. Lt. Col. Alured Clarke, whom Cornwallis had assigned to direct the defense of Georgia and East Florida, visited St. Augustine in August 1780 and reported that “with the addition of a few redoubts … and a supply of such ordnance stores as appear deficient,” the town would be in “as good a state of defence as the nature of its situation … will admit of.” Clarke was less impressed with the provincial troops in the garrison, describing them as “totally undisciplined, and not the most trusty.” He also asked Cornwallis to “adopt some mode of preventing any difficulties that might otherwise arrise between Governor Tonyn and myself relative to the command in East Florida, for, though nothing but the greatest kindness and civility has yet taken place between us,” Clarke’s concerns about his relationship with the governor had been aroused on his arrival, when Tonyn informed him that “it was customary for the Governor to take the command when a brigadier [general] was not in the province.”[31] Cornwallis assured Clarke that “there can be no doubt” of the command “being vested in you.”[32] Nevertheless, Tonyn clearly still understood his role as commander-in-chief of the province in a literal sense.

Security issues were not Tonyn’s only concern, for Turnbull was still assailing the governor for the loss of his labor force at New Smyrna. Turnbull had again gone to England after his 1777 visit to East Florida, but by March 1780 he was back in St. Augustine, from whence he wrote to the Earl of Shelburne to complain that his settlement had been “most insidiously broke up in my Absence from the Province by Govr. Tonyn, plundered afterwards by American Privateers, and partly burnt by a Rover from Cuba.” The frustrated planter added that “I have long wished to finish my Affairs here, that I might quit a Province, where great Wrongs (added to every kind of Protection having been repeatedly refused to me by Govr. Tonyn) convinced me, that I was an Object of his Resentment and Oppression.” Turnbull stated that he had complained repeatedly to Germain of the injustices he had suffered from “Tonyn and his Tool Moultrie,” without ever receiving a reply, and asked Shelburne to recommend him to Cornwallis, in hopes of obtaining a civil appointment in another province. In another vitriolic passage, Turnbull wrote that if the current king’s ministers were replaced by honest men, he would like Shelburne to “influence a Removal of such a Tyrant and Oppressor from this Government.”[33]

After the British captured Charleston, South Carolina, in May 1780, Turnbull settled there, and apparently Shelburne did intercede with Cornwallis, who appointed Turnbull’s eldest son Nichol commissary of provisions. The appointment angered Tonyn, who informed Cornwallis that the elder Turnbull had been overtly sympathetic to the rebel prisoners exiled to St. Augustine and told the general “that I could have wished that some of His Majesty’s well affected subjects had been rewarded with the appointment … instead of Mr [Nichol] Turnbull, who with his father have been in constant opposition to Government.” Tonyn’s assessment of the Turnbulls’ political opinions was accurate, for both remained in America after the war.[34]

After this round of controversy involving Turnbull and his son, Tonyn shifted his attention to the possibility of a Spanish attack on his province. In January 1781, Thomas Forbes, who had been sent to Havana to arrange the exchange of twenty-five prisoners from the 60th Regiment, returned with intelligence of Spanish activities in Cuba and West Florida. Lieutenant Colonel Clarke pronounced Forbes “a sensible young man” and was convinced of “the authenticity of his information,” which Tonyn relayed to Cornwallis. According to Forbes, the Spaniards were “confident of success” in their operations against Pensacola, and were therefore “determined to attack this province, for which purpose preparations are making, and four ships of the line, three frigates, and twelve new gallies, each … calculated for the East Florida navigation, it was thought might be ready to sail in March with six regiments and irregulars together amounting to five thousand men.”[35] To augment the province’s defenses, Tonyn held a conference with the Seminoles and gave them a generous quantity of presents, for which he requested reimbursement from the army. The Seminoles gave Tonyn “the strongest assurances of friendship and assistance against all our enemies,” and agreed to post lookouts along the coast southward from St. Augustine to warn of any approaching naval force.[36]

Tonyn also found time at last to proceed with the election of a legislature, and he informed Germain on July 30, 1781, that “the representatives in the Commons House are the most respectable of the inhabitants and well affected to His Majesty’s person and government, and have fully evinced by their conduct in a legislative capacity the sincerity of their warm professions of loyalty.”[37]

At the time Tonyn wrote, however, the military situation had taken an unfavorable turn for the British. Spanish forces captured Pensacola in May to complete their conquest of West Florida, while Brown had been forced to surrender the post at Augusta, Georgia, in June, thus confining the British in that province to the coast. Facing threats from Spain in the west and by sea from Cuba, and from the rebels by land from the north, Tonyn took measures to insure Indian assistance and strengthen the militia, but found himself thwarted by a shortage of funds for the Indian Department and a lack of cooperation from army officers, who refused to provide arms and gunpowder to the militia or provisions for the Indians. The prospects for a successful defense of the province in case of invasion appeared bleak to Tonyn.[38]

Fortunately for the governor and East Floridians, the feared invasion never materialized. However, as the war drew to a close following Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, the peace negotiations produced a result that military operations had not accomplished: the treaty between Britain and Spain ceded both East and West Florida to the Spaniards.[39] Although no definitive treaty had yet been signed when the new British commander in North America, Gen. Sir Guy Carleton, arrived in New York in 1782, he nonetheless ordered the evacuation of all British posts in the South, including St. Augustine. A few months later, after considering the complexity of relocating so many Loyalists, Carleton changed his mind and decided to hold St. Augustine. On June 20 Maj. Gen. Alexander Leslie, who had replaced Cornwallis in command of the southern theater, relayed Carleton’s new instructions to Tonyn. Carleton’s “enquiries into the strength and situation” of St. Augustine, Leslie wrote, had convinced him that it could be defended for some time, “which might afford a more favourable opportunity for the Inhabitants to make an advantageous disposal or arrangement of their property, in case a future necessity should require the relinquishment of the Province, and at the same time afford a convenient refuge” for the loyalists who were about to be evacuated from Georgia.[40] Tonyn shared the good news with members of the council and assembly on July 23, and the two houses in turn sent an address to Tonyn praising his leadership and asking him to express their gratitude to Carleton and Leslie.[41]

By November 1782, Tonyn reported to the Earl of Shelburne that 2165 Loyalist refugees with 3340 slaves had arrived in East Florida from Georgia and South Carolina, in addition to “many hundred” who had come earlier, “driven from their homes … without provisions, money, clothing or implements of agriculture, and in the most deplorable circumstances.” The governor had provided them with food and tools from the garrison’s stocks, so that they were presently “doing well.” He was providing land to the more recent arrivals, but worried that the provincial economy was endangered because “no merchants will purchase” East Florida’s products “owing to the want of shipping and the consternation occasioned by the alarm of evacuating the province.” Tonyn urged the government to contract with “intelligent merchants” who could purchase the large quantities of turpentine and lumber awaiting export. The military situation also vexed Tonyn, who noted that there were only four hundred provincial troops available to defend East Florida, and called attention to “several inconveniences which have arisen from the extensive authority exercised by the commanding officers of His Majesty’s troops in this province and the circumscribed power of the civil governor.” He reminded Shelburne that he was still an army officer, “animated with military ardour and ambitious of serving my country in that capacity”; Tonyn did not think such a role was “incompatible” with his position as civil governor and instead observed that if his authority was reduced by the actions of other officers in the province, it might prove harmful to the king’s service.[42] The governor had not relinquished his belief that he was and should continue to be East Florida’s commander-in-chief.

By the time the final treaty was signed in 1783 ceding East Florida to Spain, more than 12,000 Loyalists had resettled in the province. News of the cession struck a cruel blow to their morale, as they had been working to establish themselves in East Florida in the belief that Britain would retain the colony. Tonyn remarked that the people were “quite at a loss how to dispose of themselves.” The Spanish government generously allowed those who wished to leave the time needed to settle their affairs, and until November 1785, when the final evacuation occurred, Tonyn governed East Florida jointly with Vizente Manuel de Zespedes, with the Spaniard working from St. Augustine while Tonyn moved to the St. Mary’s River. The two governors were able to cooperate fairly well despite their complex situation.[43]

For more than a decade Tonyn had provided East Florida with forceful, capable leadership, even if he had alienated many people by his independent, even stubborn, manner. Tonyn had kept East Florida in the British Empire until the peace treaty ceded the province to Spain. He had successfully if harshly dealt with the internal political threats posed by Drayton and Turnbull, defended his province from three rebel invasions, strengthened alliances with the Indians and created provincial forces that carried the war to the enemy, resolved the plight of the Minorcans, and established a legislature. Almost all of this had been accomplished without direction from his superiors in London, who were preoccupied with issues in other theaters of the conflict. Tonyn may have been abrasive and reluctant to include others in his decision-making, yet his accomplishments made him the most successful royal governor on the North American mainland during the Revolution. Certainly, none of his counterparts accomplished more with so few resources.


[1] Daniel S. Murphree, “Patrick Tonyn,” in H.C.G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, eds., Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 55 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004), 4-5; J. Leitch Wright, Jr., Florida in the American Revolution (Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1975), 1-2.

[2] Wright, Florida in the Revolution, 3-7, 15; Burton Barrs, East Florida in the American Revolution (Jacksonville, FL: Guild Press, 1932), 3.

[3] Wright, Florida in the Revolution, 17-18.

[4] Ibid., 20-21.

[5] Patrick Tonyn to the Earl of Dartmouth, July 1, 1775, in K. G. Davies, ed., Documents of the American Revolution, 1770-1783 (Colonial Office Series), Vol. 11 (Dublin: Irish University Press, 1976), 30-31.

[6] William H. Drayton to William Drayton, July 4, 1775, in Davies, Documents, 11: 36-37.

[7] Tonyn to Dartmouth, September 15, 1775, in Davies, Documents, 11:107-109.

[8] Wright, Florida in the Revolution, 22, 23-24; Wilbur H. Siebert, Loyalists in East Florida, 1774-1785: The Most Important Documents Pertaining Thereto Edited with an Accompanying Narrative, 2 Vols. (Deland: Florida State Historical Society, 1929), 1:23-24.

[9] Siebert, Loyalists in East Florida, 1:48-50; Carole Watterson Troxler, “Refuge, Resistance, and Reward: The Southern Loyalists’ Claim on East Florida,” Journal of Southern History, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Nov. 1989), 569.

[10] Martha Condray Searcy, The Georgia-Florida Contest in the American Revolution, 1776-1778 (University: University of Alabama Press, 1985), 34-36, 43-44, 50, 54-56, 61-62; Charles E. Bennett and David R. Lennon, A Quest for Glory: Major General Robert Howe and the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 48-50.

[11] Tonyn to Lord George Germain, August 21, 1776, in Davies, Documents, Vol. 12 (1976), 186-187.

[12] Tonyn to Germain, April 2, 1776, in Davies, Documents, 12:104-105.

[13] Tonyn to David Taitt, April 20, 1776, in Davies, Documents, 12:108-110.

[14] Tonyn to Henry Clinton, June 8, 1776, in Davies, Documents, 12: 147-150.

[15] John Stuart to Germain, Novembera 24, 1776, in Davies, Documents, 12:253.

[16] Germain to Tonyn, June 12, 1776, in Lord George Germain Papers, Vol. 4, William L. Clements Library, Ann Arbor, MI.

[17] Thomas Brown to Tonyn, February 1776, in Davies, Documents, 12:69-73.

[18] Searcy, Georgia-Florida Contest, 37-38, 68; Edward J. Cashin, The King’s Ranger: Thomas Brown and the American Revolution on the Southern Frontier (New York: Fordham University Press, 1999), 49, 59, 61.

[19] Searcy, Georgia-Florida Contest, 84-88; Cashin, King’s Ranger, 61-62.

[20] Kenneth H. Beeson, Jr., “Janas in British East Florida,” Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. 44, Nos. 1 and 2 (July-Oct., 1965), 131-132.

[21] Andrew Turnbull to Germain, December 8, 1777, Germain Papers, Clements Library.

[22] Searcy, Georgia-Florida Contest, 89, 92-96; Bennett and Lennon, Quest for Glory, 62; Charles C. Jones, Jr., The Life and Services of the Honorable Maj. Gen. Samuel Elbert of Georgia (Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1887), 12.

[23] Joseph Clay to Henry Laurens, Septemer 29, 1777, in Joseph Clay, Letters of Joseph Clay, Merchant of Savannah, 1776-1793, in Collections of the Georgia Historical Society, Vol. 8 (Savannah: Georgia Historical Society, 1913), 40.

[24] Tonyn to Germain, December 26, 1777, in Davies, Documents, Vol. 14 (1976), 275-277.

[25] Thomas Brown to Tonyn, March 13, 1778, and Tonyn to William Howe, April 6, 1778, in Sir Guy Carleton Papers (Headquarters Papers of the British Army in America), Vol. 9:1014, Vol. 10:1073, microfilm, David Library of the American Revolution, Washington Crossing, PA.

[26] Brown to Tonyn, June 30, 1778, Carleton Papers, 11:1247; Cashin, King’s Ranger, 77-78; Searcy, Georgia-Florida Contest, 142, 144-147; Tonyn to Germain, July 24, 1778, in Davies, Documents, Vol. 15 (1976), 168-169.

[27] Clay to Henry Laurens, Sept. 9, 1778; Clay to John Lewis Gervais, Sept. 25, 1778, in Clay, Letters, 106, 109.

[28] Tonyn to Germain, July 3, 1779, in Davies, Documents, Vol. 17 (1977), 155-156.

[29] Germain to Tonyn, January 19, 1780, in Davies, Documents, Vol. 18 (1978), 40-43.

[30] Tonyn to Germain, December 9, 1780, in Davies, Documents, 18:252-255.

[31] Alured Clarke to Lord Cornwallis, August 20, 1780, in Ian Saberton, ed., The Cornwallis Papers: The Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Theatre of the American Revolutionary War, 6 vols. (Uckfield, UK: Naval and Military Press, 2010), 2:292-293.

[32] Cornwallis to Clarke, September 5, 1780, in Saberton, Cornwallis Papers, 2:302.

[33] Turnbull to the Earl of Shelburne, March 14, 1780, Earl of Shelburne Papers, Vol. 66, Clements Library.

[34] Tonyn to Cornwallis, November 24, 1780, in Saberton, ed., Cornwallis Papers, 3:433-434.

[35] Clarke to Cornwallis, January 26, 1781; Tonyn to Cornwallis, January 29, 1781, in Saberton, ed., Cornwallis Papers, 5:332, 337.

[36] Tonyn to Cornwallis, May 5, 1781, in Saberton, ed., Cornwallis Papers, 5:353.

[37] Tonyn to Germain, July 30, 1781, in Davies, Documents, Vol. 19 (1979), 204.

[38] Tonyn to Germain, December 31, 1781, in Davies, Documents, 19:290-292.

[39] Wright, Florida in the Revolution, 122-123.

[40] Alexander Leslie to Tonyn, June 20, 1782, Alexander Leslie Letterbook, microfilm, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia.

[41] Tonyn to the East Florida Council and Tonyn to the East Florida Assembly, July 23, 1782, and the Address of Both Houses to Tonyn, August 16, 1782, Leslie Letterbook, SC Dept. of Archives and History.

[42] Tonyn to Shelburne, November 14, 1782, in Davies, Documents, Vol. 21 (1981), 136-137.

[43] Tonyn to Thomas Townshend, May 15, 1783, in Davies, Documents, 21:167; Wright, Florida in the Revolution, 135, 138.

One thought on “Patrick Tonyn: Britain’s Most Effective Revolutionary-Era Royal Governor

  • Nicely done, Jim.
    Tonyn (pronounced Tone-N, as I recently learned at the UF library) is one of those interesting but very important characters who have remained in relative obscurity. John Moultrie, Jr., is another. But you show that despite being on the very fringes of the British empire Tonyn was very much in-the-loop with his government’s and army’s heavy-hitters. In addition to your given reasons for his delay in calling for an election of a legislature, it may also be that he was procrastinating long enough to keep his enemies out of power by waiting until they had left or were discredited.

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