Five Women of British East Florida

Dorothy Murray Forbes by John Singleton Copley, c. 1759–1761. (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Mrs. David Simmons)

In the male-dominated historical record of East Florida during the era of the American Revolution, a few women stand out as noteworthy. Most women in eighteenth-century East Florida were from the working classes, of whom there are scant records of individuals or their accomplishments. A few had sufficient wealth and status, enough to leave behind some detailed information that survived. These women made substantial contributions to the social development of the rugged East Florida colony. According to historian Kathleen Wilson, women offered East Florida “civility, refinement, and sensibility . . . on behalf of the common good.”[1] Accomplishing more than that, women established a microcosm of British society in East Florida by creating a social order, a social scene, and a respectable British home.[2]

Mary Macklin

Mary Port was born in Southampton, Hampshire County, England on August 6, 1751. In her adolescence, Mary’s parents and her only sister died from natural causes. After her family’s death, she was given to a guardian who looked after her. Under her guardian’s care, Mary was arranged to be wed to Robert Adams, a ship captain who was old enough to be her father. In an act of defiance, Mary wed John Macklin, the brother of a friend. John travelled to Mary one day rather unexpectedly and, to her surprise, offered his hand in marriage. Mary agreed to tie the knot with John and shortly thereafter the newlyweds moved to Portsmouth where they opened a boarding house and furnished the parlor to serve as a perfume shop. They lived there for three years. During their time in Portsmouth, a grand naval spectacle occurred in 1773. King George III was in attendance. In her memoir, Mary recalled the regalia and magnificence displayed by the king’s guard.[3]

In 1774 the Macklins migrated to Charleston, South Carolina. According to Mary, “it was our intenshen to cary on a perfumery shop.”[4] During his time in Charleston, John was imprisoned twice because he refused to renounce his loyalty to Britain, swear fealty to the American States, and take up arms against King George III. John’s actions certainly did not win him any friends. He spied for the British, eavesdropped on conversations, and reported any seditious statements he came across. The second time John was arrested and sent to prison; Mary went with him. They were locked up for eight months.[5] When they were released, Mary heard rumors that her husband’s rebel captors treated him well. She feared John joined the rebellion. According to Mary, if this were true, “I would Never Never would Forgiven him.”[6] Because John could not secure a livelihood and the couple took on debt they could not pay, Mary and John were forced to leave South Carolina. They relocated to East Florida’s capital, St. Augustine, where John found work as a privateersman for the British government. He became a raider for Gov. Patrick Tonyn. At one point, John took command of a ship called Polly. He went on to serve in every major coastal engagement of the Revolutionary War’s Southern theater. On one of his adventures, he never returned to Mary. He survived the war, returned to England, and claimed compensation for his service in America. After her abandonment, Mary was placed in the care of a local family who took pity on her and brought her food and other necessities.[7] In time, Mary grew to depend on them. In 1784 Mary relocated to the Bahamas.[8]

Maria Gracia Dura Bin Turnbull

Maria Gracia Dura Bin Turnbull was the Greek wife of Scottish physician Dr. Andrew Turnbull. She was born in 1736 the daughter of a Greek merchant from Smyrna, Asia Minor.[9] Thanks to her aristocratic background, Maria frequented the Court of St. James and conversed with Queen Caroline.[10] She met Turnbull while he served as consul for the British Empire in Smyrna which was then under the Ottoman Empire. After their courtship, Maria agreed to accompany Turnbull to East Florida. Together they founded the colony of New Smyrna.[11] The couple transplanted over one thousand workers from the Mediterranean to work in the Florida wilderness. Because of what she perceived as her “superior” heritage, Maria socially ignored East Florida Governor Patrick Tonyn’s wife who did not share such an affluent and influential background.[12] During the Revolutionary War, unfriendly Indians and Georgian rebels threatened New Smyrna’s security. To guard against these threats, Maria outfitted a small vessel that was intended to take her and her family to the Bahamas.[13] In the end, she never used that ship. In 1783 Maria and her husband retired to South Carolina. Maria died in Charleston on August 2, 1798 at the age of sixty-two.[14] During her East Florida era, Maria spent much of her time suffering from illness and anxiety. Her husband’s poor relations with governor Tonyn exacerbated those conditions.[15]

Dorothy Murray Forbes

Dorothy Murray was born between 1743 and 1745. She was the eldest daughter of Scotsman James Murray of North Carolina and Boston. Her family was affluent by colonial standards. The mere legacy of an oil portrait done in her image is a testament to her father’s wealth.[16] On February 2, 1769 she married Rev. John Forbes of Boston. After their wedding, Dorothy relocated to St. Augustine. As she immediately found out, East Florida’s rugged frontier existence was vastly different than the civility she encountered in Boston. Despite her drastic lifestyle change, Dorothy quickly engrossed herself in St. Augustine’s society. Because her husband was a minister and government official, Dorothy was placed near the top of the province’s social hierarchy.

Life in St. Augustine was busy for the Forbes. By 1772 the couple had successfully produced two boys and Dorothy was pregnant with a third child. Compelled to be reunited with his daughter for the birth of her third child, James Murray travelled to St. Augustine in February 1773. Despite John’s protests, James managed to put Dorothy and her youngest son on a ship bound for the northern colonies. They left on April 27, 1773. Meanwhile, the eldest son stayed behind with his father. Dorothy would never see her husband again. During the Revolutionary War, she had little contact with John. Much of their correspondence was lost, intercepted, or stolen. Near the war’s conclusion, John and his eldest son traveled to England where the reverend died in 1783. News of her husband’s death in 1784 sent Dorothy to the Southern colonies. On that trip, she attempted to collect whatever she could for her father’s confiscated North Carolina properties and that of her late husband in East Florida. Settlement for the Forbes East Florida losses would not be paid until May 1789. Dorothy received £817, only a fraction of her total Florida losses valued at £5,475. After her southern adventure, Dorothy returned to Massachusetts and took up a house with her sister in Cambridge. She lived there for the rest of her life.[17]

Sarah Warner Fish

Sarah Warner was born in Newtown, New York, in 1751. When she was thirteen years old, her father took up a harbor pilot job in St. Augustine. Consequently, Sarah and her father relocated to East Florida in 1764. Four years later, Sarah married Jesse Fish, a man twenty-five years her senior. Jesse owned a lot of property in East Florida. Two years after their marriage, Sarah gave birth to a boy. She also gave birth to a girl named Fabiana Furman Fish who was usually called Phoebe.[18] Descriptions of Sarah depict a good-looking woman, but as historian Clara Kingston reminds us, Sarah’s beauty must be viewed through the lens of East Florida’s nearly all-male society. During her marriage to Jesse, Sarah allegedly caused much grief to her husband in his late years, both because of her looks and young age. Sarah’s alleged promiscuity purportedly caused her husband to retire and live like a hermit “to escape the distress she brought him.”[19] Whether or not Sarah was unfaithful to her husband remains unclear. Sarah resided with Jesse in East Florida throughout the province’s British period. For the rest of her life, Sarah devoted much of her time to her family. She died in 1824 at the age of seventy-three.[20]

Mary Evans

South Carolina native Mary Evans was thirty-three when she emigrated with her army husband to St. Augustine from Havana in 1763. Her husband’s last name was Fenwick. The couple were among the first settlers to emigrate to the newly-created British East Florida colony. Fenwick died sometime between 1763 and 1778. Consequently, Mary remarried Joseph Peavett, a man four years her junior. Peavett was a sergeant in the British army and served as paymaster for the king’s troops in East Florida. Disenchanted with military life, Peavett resigned his post to pursue business interests.[21] Together, he and Mary purchased a house in St. Augustine on St. Francis Street, across from the soldiers’ barracks. This building is now a tourist attraction and is known as “The Oldest House.” The couple converted the house into a tavern, inn, and trade store which over the years became very profitable. As their businesses thrived, Mary began a midwife career. Restricting her clientele to English women, she became famous throughout East Florida for her talent in her field.[22] Today, her legacy is closely attached to her midwifery. A contemporary portrait done in Mary’s honor depicts a pair of umbilical cord scissors sticking out of her pocket.[23] When East Florida was turned over to the Spanish, she chose to remain behind instead of evacuating with the British.[24]

On April 24, 1786 Mary’s second husband died. At the age of fifty-six, she married again, this time to John Hudson, a man half her age. They were wed on November 28, 1786.[25] John’s fondness for drinking and extravagance plunged the couple into bankruptcy. In much detail, their bankruptcy records outline the various properties owned by Mary’s estate.[26] In addition to these records, Mary Evans’ journal shows us what she was left with when all was said and done. In the aftermath of her bankruptcy, Mary still owned a house in St. Augustine, a second lot, a plantation of considerable size (one thousand acres), other lands, twenty enslaved people, and personal effects such as gold rings, expensive clothes, a private library, silverware, and mahogany furniture.[27]

The Spanish were more lenient in Mary Evans’ bankruptcy case than the British would have been if they had been in charge of the settlement. According to eighteenth century Spanish law, “women could inherit and hold property, and it could not be seized for the debt of their husbands . . . and with her husband’s written license, or power of attorney, a woman could enter into a wide variety of legal transactions.”[28] In Mary’s case, she employed an attorney, Don Mariano de Lasaga, who provided her with a voice of respect and equality—something she needed to navigate the legal waters surrounding her bankruptcy.

On the other side of the coin, women in eighteenth century English societies were not given the opportunity to enjoy respect and equality. According to Mary Beth Norton, men were the heads of household and they controlled its property. As such, “married women and their daughters were legally subordinate to husbands and fathers and were perceived solely as parts of households.”[29] Norton further claims, “women, even those who as widows assumed economic control of their households, could never take on the political functions of the head of the household.”[30] Based on the prevailing treatment of women in eighteenth century English societies, Mary Evans would not have received the same leniency under the English courts as she received under the Spanish.

At the end of their financial calamity, Mary and her husband retired to their plantation, New Waterford, residing just beyond St. Augustine’s city limits. John died on June 27, 1791. A year later, Mary died of illness on September 30, 1792 at the age of sixty-two.[31]

Conclusion

In 1977 Eugenia Price published Maria, a historically accurate novel based on Mary Evans’ life in St. Augustine during the British period. Prior to writing Maria, Price spent years conducting research, talking to historians, and perusing old records.[32] Apart from Price’s book, the women of British East Florida have been largely relegated to obscurity. They were mostly Anglo-Saxon descendants and they tended to come from the upper end of the socioeconomic strata. Some openly rejected rebellion during the Revolutionary War. It is safe to assume that they were all loyalists. Because a lack of definitive evidence exists for Sarah Warner Fish and Mary Evans that speaks to their political allegiance, the discovery of new sources may shed light on that aspect of their lives. Considering East Florida was a fiercely loyal province during the war, it is unlikely that these women were rebels or rebel sympathizers.

 

[1]Deborah L. Bauer, “’. . . in a strange place . . .’: The Experiences of British Women during the Colonization of East & West Florida,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 89, no. 2 (2010): 151.

[2]Ibid.,151.

[3]Daniel L. Schafer, “The Memoir of Mary (Port) Macklin,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 41 (2004): 109.

[4]Ibid., 110.

[5]James G. Cusick, “Two People, Two Stories,” El Escribano: The St. Augustine Journal of History 41 (2004): 101-103.

[6]Schafer, “The Memoir of Mary (Port) Macklin,” 111.

[7]Cusick, “Two People, Two Stories,” 103-104.

[8]Schafer, “The Memoir of Mary (Port) Macklin,” 115-116.

[9]www.findagrave.com/memorial/12776013/maria-gracia-turnbull.

[10]Carita Doggett Corse, ed., The Turnbull Papers(Jacksonville, 1940), 379.

[11]Carita Doggett Corse, Dr. Andrew Turnbull and The New Smyrna Colony of Florida (Florida: The Dew Press, 1919) 16-18.

[12]Corse, ed., The Turnbull Papers, 379.

[13]Andrew Turnbull to the Earl of Shelbourne, December 8, 1777, Corse, ed., The Turnbull Papers, 243.

[14]www.findagrave.com/memorial/12776013/maria-gracia-turnbull.

[15]Andrew Turnbull to the Earl of Shelburne, May 23, 1782, Corse, ed., The Turnbull Papers, 327.

[16]Dorothy Murray’s portrait is located in the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University.

[17]Jean Parker Waterbury, “John Forbes: Man of Cloth, of his Times, and of St. Augustine,” El Escribano: The St. Augustine Journal of History, 18 (1981): 4-5, 29-30.

[18]Phoebe’s birth date is unknown.

[19]Clara Talley Kingston, “Sarah Warner Fish,” El Escribano: The St. Augustine Journal of History 24 (1987): 66.

[20]Kingston, “Sarah Warner Fish,” 63-80.

[21]For a detailed list of Peavett’s business accomplishments see Patricia C. Griffin, “Mary Evans: Woman of Substance,” El Escribano: The St. Augustine Journal of History (1977): 3-4.

[22]Griffin, “Mary Evans,” 3-4.

[23]Karen Harvey, “Mary Evans,” in Five Women, Five Stories (Dynamic Living Press, 2009).

[24]Harvey, “Mary Evans.”

[25]Griffin, “Mary Evans,” 7.

[26]Domingo Rodriguez de Leon, “Bankruptcy Papers of Mary Evans, 1790,” Collection, The St. Augustine Historical Research Library, St. Augustine Historical Society, St. Augustine, Florida.

[27]Griffin, “Mary Evans,” 13-20.

[28]Jane Landers, “African American Women and Their Pursuit of Rights through Eighteenth-Century Spanish Texts,” Haunted Bodies, ed. Anne Goodwyn Jones (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998), 58.

[29]Mary Beth Norton, “The Constitutional Status of Women in 1787,” Law and Inequality: A Journal of Theory and Practice 6, no. 1 (1988): 8.

[30]Norton, “The Constitutional Status of Women in 1787,” 8.

[31]Griffin, “Mary Evans,” 11.

[32]Helen C. Smith, “Beloved Invader: A Yankee Author Finds a Wealth of Material In Georgia,” The Atlanta Constitution, May 10, 1977; Bob Smith, “St. Augustine, ‘The Perfect Setting’,” The St. Augustine Record, May 14-15, 1977.

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