East Florida only had one newspaper in the colony’s entire history. The newspaper went live during the final year of the American War for Independence. The East Florida Gazette, sometimes referred to as the East Florida Gazette Extraordinary, was founded in 1783 by Dr. William Charles Wells. Dr. Wells migrated to St. Augustine, the capital of East Florida, in January 1783 from Charlestown, South Carolina. A loyalist, Wells fled Charlestown in 1775 to Great Britain with his father, Robert Wells, a loyalist binder, book seller, and printer. William Charles Wells studied Medicine in London and Edinburgh where he received his M.D. before he returned to Charlestown in 1781 to follow in his father’s footsteps, becoming a bookseller and printer. By 1782 he was forced to evacuate Charlestown. On November 1782 he embarked for St. Augustine. He brought with him a printing press, a pressman, and “a considerable quantity of printer’s types,” all with the intent of starting a newspaper in East Florida. After some difficulty in assembling the press and with the help of an African American carpenter he got it up and running and on February of 1783, the first edition went live. The East Florida Gazette was printed at the Printing Office on Treasury Lane.Dr. William Charles Wells would later be joined in the editorial work of the East Florida Gazette by his brother, John Wells.
The paper was printed weekly from February 1, 1783 to March 22, 1784. While the British dominion in the frontier colony ended with the treaty of Paris in 1783, effectively turning the colony over to the Spanish, under the fifth article of the treaty the British were given eighteen months to settle debts, sell homes, and move out of East Florida. Under this stipulation the East Florida Gazette continued to be published into 1784. The British moved out of St. Augustine in March 1784, and under Spanish rule the East Florida Gazette was no longer published. Today, only three issues are still known to exist, for March 1, May 3, and May 17, 1783. The original copies reside in the British National Archives in Kew, outside of London, England. Photocopies are available at the Library of Congress and State Archive of Florida.
Of all the history that has been written about the American Revolution and of Florida during the British Colonial Period, little attention has been paid to the East Florida Gazette. In 1929, Wilbur Henry Siebert wrote about the Florida colonial paper and brought to light a special issue of the paper published on April 21, 1783. This special edition was called The East Florida Gazette Extraordinary and contained information on the peace between the Americans and the British government. Siebert described the Gazette in general as containing information dealing with theatrical performances held at St. Augustine, which included: “Zara,” “Douglass,” and “The Orphan.” Siebert’s two pages discussing the Gazette also covered the biography of the newspaper’s founder.
In 1943 further research was conducted by Charles Loch Mowat who provided a brief mention of the paper, who started it, where it was published, and how many issues were in existence during his time. Mowat was aware of the same three issues known to exist today. Outside of this information, Mowat’s work is lacking with regards to the contents of the newspaper. His book is otherwise very comprehensive and is an important reference on the British colonial period in Florida.
In the 1980s, Janice Potter and Robert Calhoon related to readers that the St. Augustine paper served as more than just a medium of communication between the journalists and the community. According to Potter and Calhoun, Loyalist newspapers such as the East Florida Gazette provided a sense of normalcy for the frontier community, far away from population centers. Newspapers also, Potter and Calhoon assert, did many other things: they stimulated the economy because their advertisements spurred trade; served as a medium between the colonial government and the population at large with the publication of government mandates and proclamations; allowed Loyalists to voice their opinions about the American Revolution in a printed forum; encouraged the British government to meet the needs of its subjects; and, at least near the end of the war, explored the reality of their self-pitying history in the American Revolution. Potter and Calhoon’s book is an invaluable source on the history of journalism during the American Revolution.
Twenty years later, Daniel Schafer briefly mentioned the Gazette. Shafer’s article offers the same general background information on the newspaper provided by Mowat, Potter, and Calhoon, but this time he tells the reader specifically what the newspaper wrote about. According to Shafer, the Gazette talked of reports discussing decisions made at the Royal Council and the Lower House of Assembly. War news on the American Revolution and other European conflicts were also mentioned. Shafer asserts that the influx of refugees from the northern colonies demanded a need for a colony paper. Beyond this nothing else is mentioned about the East Florida Gazette that has not already been said, although descriptions of the actual contents of the papers as well as the names of the various theatrical performances offers a new level of depth in understanding the Gazette and what it was like during its brief life.
All of the works discussed above offer a very introductory examination of the East Florida Gazette. But what about the American Revolution? Did the Florida-based paper cover Revolutionary War happenings? If so, what did it talk about? Siebert mentions that peace talks were covered and Shafer states that general war news was reported, but beyond that nothing is discussed pertaining to what was directly mentioned about the American Revolution in the East Florida Gazette.
The first of the only three available editions of the Gazette covers February 22 to March 1, 1783. Contained within this edition is a speech delivered by John Matthews, governor of South Carolina in 1783, to the South Carolina House of Representatives. In this speech, Matthews mentioned loyalist merchants of Charlestown and how a great many of them wrote to him asking that they be allowed to stay in the city until their wares were sold, after which they would depart. The governor left the fate of these merchants to be decided by the House of Representatives. Loyalists who decided to stay behind after the British evacuation were arrested and deported, excepting some who were friends to the newly formed state. Intelligence from American sources is featured in a section titled “Extracts from Rebel Papers,” which has accounts of the raids conducted by Loyalist militia leaders William “Bloody Bill” Cunningham and David Fanning who rode up on unsuspecting plantations which they “stript of every thing moveable.” Gallies and gun boats from St. Augustine were sighted within fifty miles of Charlestown. Near the back of the paper is an address to the House of Commons. William Pitt mentioned Spain’s secession of East Florida as not a terrible loss, arguing that West Florida was more important and valued more by the British empire than East Florida. Lord North countered this, claiming that East Florida was just as valuable if not more so after the British loss of West Florida. His rationale rested on the belief that East Florida and other colonies in the West Indies served to protect British trade in the region and would be a place of refuge from storms.
The next surviving paper is volume 1 number 14, covering April 26 to May 3, 1783. This issue devoted almost the entire front page to coverage of the British invasion and seizure of the Bahamas in 1783. In a separate section, Loyalist John Cruden posted a decree to the colony. He mandated that all persons in the colony who possessed slaves from “Carolina,” whether they were taken or escaped on their own since September 26, 1780, provide the names of the slaves to the British government so that their return could be processed.
Volume 1 number 16 of the East Florida Gazette covered May 10 to May 17, 1783. Patrick Tonyn, governor of East Florida during the American Revolution, issued a proclamation informing the Loyalist colony that Sir Guy Carleton had sent supplies to care for the refugees from the war. Additionally, Tonyn informed readers, transportation would be made available for the evacuees of the colony. Much of this edition covers parliamentary proceedings in the British House of Commons pertaining mostly to the peace talks between the United States and Great Britain. According to the paper, many parliamentarians were upset by the amount of possessions that were lost in the treaty—in the Treaty of 1783, Britain lost the Floridas, Cuba, Tobago, and Minorca, as well as the thirteen colonies. Lord North thought the Crown had lost too much. Discussion of the Loyalists and how they were to be cared for was also a talking point.
Upon the 1784 departure of the British from East Florida, Dr. Wells emigrated to London from St. Augustine. He went on to gain eminence as a physician and a scientist. He died on September 18, 1817 on the same street where his father and mother were buried. His brother, John Wells, emigrated to the Bahamas where he began publication of the Bahamas Gazette, a four page Loyalist newspaper published every two weeks. According to historian Thelma Peters, the Gazette was an important aspect of the cultural life of the colony for resettled loyalists. It also served as a connection to the outside world from the isolated islands. John Wells published the Bahamas Gazette from 1784 until 1799, the year of his death.
Loyalist journalism is an underrepresented facet of early American studies. The surviving editions of the East Florida Gazette, the only newspaper published in East Florida during the British colonial period, give a glimpse of what life was like for the residents in the frontier colony, demonstrating what type of information was available to its residents. Parliamentary proceedings, advertisements of merchandise, every day general colonial news, war news, and government edicts were all printed. The few surviving editions provide a glimpse into what news the editors deemed important and relevant to the inhabitants of a colony that would soon see the end of British rule.
1783 ushered in the era of the Second Spanish Colonial Period in Florida. The First Spanish Colonial Period was prior to the 1763 Treaty of Paris after which Spain turned Florida over to the British at the close of the Seven Years’ War.
Robert M. Calhoon and Janice Potter, “The Character and Coherence of the Loyalist Press,” The Press and the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn and John B. Hench, eds. (Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1980), 233-234.