Captain Robert Bisset arrived in East Florida in 1767. Immediately upon his coming, he set to work on establishing himself as a planter. For seventeen years, between 1767 and 1784, he and his son established and managed several plantations around East Florida. Apart from colonizing the frontier province, Bisset’s presence in the historical record is more extensive than scholars have given him credit for. During the 1770s, he constructed East Florida’s southern road for £1,150. He was a loyalist during the Imperial Crisis and later Revolutionary War. In 1776 he signed an address of loyalty to King George III. That same year, he was appointed lieutenant colonel of East Florida’s militia. During the Revolutionary War, he made sure New Smyrna remained loyal by arming trustworthy settlers and disarming those suspected of harboring rebel sympathies. In 1777, Bisset believed that East Florida Governor Patrick Tonyn’s border war waged on the boundaries of Georgia and East Florida was of no “essential service.” Instead of continuing what he believed to be fruitless hostilities, Bisset favored capitulation with the Americans.
Bisset was an East Florida landholder of considerable standing, yet he is hardly mentioned in historical scholarship. His loyalist compensation claim provides a detailed inventory of his holdings. According to his claim, he owned 300 acres of land situated on the southern banks of the Mosquito or Hillsborough River. This was his principal settlement, called Mount Plenty or Palmerina. He received a certified land grant for this property from Gov. James Grant on November 2, 1768. He did not settle Mount Plenty for nine years, until 1777. This settlement was roughly fourteen or fifteen miles inland from the Inlet and ninety miles south of St. Augustine. A freshwater stream ran through the middle of the settlement. A mount was situated at the center of the property that commanded a twenty- to thirty-mile view of the surrounding region. An orange grove sat atop this hill. A nearby lagoon hosted a variety of fish including Sheepsheads, Bass, Trout, and Plaice. It was also home to plenty of Green Turtle. Upon Mount Plenty, Bisset constructed a dwelling house, a store house with lofts, a hen house, a stable, a corn house, a large barn, three sets of Indigo vats, a town of houses for seventy enslaved persons, and various tools of husbandry. Two watercraft resided on this property, one boat and one canoe. 143 acres were cleared, fenced, ditched, and drained. Bisset valued this settlement at £700. In 1779 a Spanish privateer plundered Mount Plenty. The raiders made away with seventeen or eighteen enslaved persons of African descent. Mount Plenty was abandoned after the raid and never resettled by Bisset, his enslaved, or any hired hands. Consequently, Bisset moved his enslaved persons from Mount Plenty to his Caledonia settlement on Pobolo Creek.
Bisset’s second land grant was made up of 1,000 acres. It existed at the head of the Indian River, two miles back from his Mount Plenty settlement. Bisset received an official land grant for this property from Governor Grant on January 4, 1768. Every acre of this property was swampland. It boasted a large orange grove. Bisset erected several buildings here, including a large corn and indigo house, a horse mill, a mill house to grind corn, two sets of indigo vats, and twenty “Negro houses.” 137 acres were cleared, ditched, drained, fenced, and divided. It cost a great deal of expense and labor to civilize. Enslaved persons from this settlement occasionally worked at Mount Plenty. Bisset valued this property at £1,000. Another 1,000-acre tract, Bisset’s third property, rested beside the second tract. About 800 acres of this property was swampland. He received a certified copy for this land grant on October 18, 1774 from Governor Tonyn. Bisset settled this land early in 1776. He built a road upon it to make travel easier across the swamp. He also constructed a corn and indigo house, a double set of indigo vats, a small overseer’s house, and twenty slave houses. He cleared, ditched, fenced, and divided about seventy acres of this land. Bisset valued this property at £700.
The fourth property boasted 1,000 acres. It resided by Spruce Creek and Dr. Andrew Turnbull’s possessions. Bisset secured a certified grant for this property on January 4, 1768 from Governor Grant. Bisset’s and Turnbull’s properties shared the same lagoon. Bisset’s property was four miles from the inlet. 400 acres of this lot was swamp; pineland also existed there. This lot was never cultivated. Bisset valued the entire property at £300. Another 500-acre tract, Bisset’s fifth property, was situated at the head of Dr. Cunningham’s swamp, six miles from St. Augustine. Bisset secured a certified land grant for this property on January 4, 1768 from Governor Grant. Swamp covered 200 acres of this lot. Two fields from the Spanish period were located here, one forty acres, the other thirty. The forty-acre field had houses built upon it. Under the Spanish, the field was settled, fenced, and planted. Bisset estimated that 130 acres of this property was untouched woodland. He never settled it. The land was eventually colonized by Charles Johnson in 1782, who cultivated fifty acres. Johnson never cut any wood there. Bisset valued this property at £400.
On April 18, 1771, Bisset secured a certified land grant for 5,000 acres from Governor Grant. This was his sixth land acquisition. The property was situated on the north side of Nassau River, just below the river’s first great fork. A creek ran through the middle of it. Tideland composed 2,000 acres of this tract. The rest was dotted with Yellow Pine. Bisset never settled this lot because of its location. During the Revolutionary War, rebel marauders raided East Florida’s settlements north of the St. Johns River. Due to the dangerous situation loyalists faced on the Florida/Georgia border, Governor Tonyn ordered all British subjects to retire to the east side of the St. Johns River. Bisset valued this tract at £2,000.
Two tracts of land formed the seventh property. One tract was 250 acres, the other 300. Bisset received an official land grant for these tracts on April 18, 1771 from Governor Grant. They were situated on the north side of Nassau River’s middle branch. 500 acres of this land was swamp and 50 acres woodland. Bisset never settled this land for the same reasons he did not settle property number six. Bisset valued these lots at £400 for both. Bisset’s final tract of land was a 200-acre tract located on the south branch of Pobolo Creek, about twenty-five miles north of St. Augustine. He secured a land grant for this tract on November 16, 1781 from Governor Tonyn. Bisset valued the land at £50. Upon this tract, he established his Caledonia Settlement. 115 acres of this lot was cleared, fenced, and planted. A dwelling house and several out houses were constructed here. In 1783 he owned seventeen or eighteen head of cattle, seventeen or eighteen working horses, and some hogs, all kept there. Altogether, he valued his animals at £150. He also owned various watercraft such as flats, boats, and canoes which he valued at £131. Six hundred barrels of turpentine were made at this settlement.
Bisset made turpentine which he sold to many East Floridians. In addition to selling, he and his son bought turpentine. His son, Alexander Bisset, sold 104 barrels of turpentine in November 1782 at £1 18s each.In January 1784, Alexander purchased sixty barrels of turpentine at 10s per barrel.In addition to turpentine, Captain Bisset’s settlements produced tar, lumber, and naval stores.
Between the elder Bisset and his son, together they enslaved 116 persons. The father enslaved 81, the son 35. Bisset claimed his 81 enslaved “should have brought him a clear income of at least £1,000 a year.”
Altogether, Capt. Robert Bisset owned nine different tracts of land in East Florida. Only four tracts were settled by him and his workforce. He owned 9,550 East Florida acres valued by him at £5,150. In total, his claims amounted to £6,831. He was granted £2,496 11s 11d. He left East Florida and returned to England in the spring of 1784. He resided in Cambridge St. James’s Westminster at the time of his claim submission to the East Florida Claims Commission. Unlike many East Florida landowners, Bisset was not an absentee planter. He cultivated what property he could. Looking back, he actively increased East Florida’s value by cultivating its wilderness. Bisset’s successful example of an East Florida plantation would have, in time, probably induced other prospective planters to invest in East Florida land. When examining East Florida’s British colonial history, Capt. Robert Bisset is often overlooked. Despite his obscurity, he was one of that province’s more well-established planters, occupying a place among British East Florida’s elite.
Patrick Tonyn to Lord George Germain, August 26, 1776, transcribed by Todd Braisted,The On-Line Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies, www.royalprovincial.com/military/rhist/eastflmil/eflmillet1.htm.
The Memorial of Capt. Robert Bisset, in Wilbur Henry Siebert, Loyalists in East Florida, 1774 to 1785 (Deland: The Florida State Historical Society, 1929), 2:250-251, 2: 256-257; Wilbur Henry Siebert, “Slavery and White Servitude in East Florida, 1726 to 1776,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 10, no .1 (July 1931): 16-17.
Mr. Alexander Paterson, Claimant, Sworn: December 13, 1786, in Siebert, Loyalists in East Florida, 2: 127. Other mentions of the Bissets’ turpentine can be found in: Mr. William Watson, Witness, Sworn, ibid., 2: 128; Mr. Henry Robertson, Witness, Sworn, ibid., 2: 129.
Mr. William Watson, Claimant, Sworn, Says: January 24, 1787, in Siebert, Loyalists in East Florida, 2: 159. Turpentine sold for cheap because loyalist residents liquidated their estates during the loyalist evacuation of East Florida. Many loyalists struggled to offload their property and so many were forced to sell their property at a fraction of its value. The Bissets apparently took advantage of this.