BOOK REVIEW: East Florida in the Revolutionary Era 1763-1785 by George Kotlik (Athens, GA: NewSouth Books, University of Georgia Press, 2023)
Historian and JAR contributor George Kotlik’s new book, East Florida in the Revolutionary Era 1765-1785, explores a topic that he considers to be on the fringe of Revolutionary War scholarship: East Florida. There is a dearth of information about East Florida’s situation during the Revolution, which is unfortunate because the area was of vital importance to both the rebels and the British. The British wanted to control East Florida because its ports served as privateering bases to use against the French in any upcoming conflict, and they wanted to eliminate the Spanish threat to the colony of Georgia. The American rebels saw East Florida’s possession by the British to be a major threat to the security of the new nation. George Kotlik’s short and interesting narrative explores the settlement of East Florida, the people who figured in its Revolutionary War history, and why the area was crucial to all sides.
East Florida was one of the spoils of the French and Indian War, coming into Britain’s possession in the 1763 Treaty of Paris. It had been a Spanish colony, and the Spanish settled the city of St. Augustine, East Florida’s capital. It was a struggling and neglected settlement when the British took over. The first royal governor of East Florida, Gen. James Grant, had to set up a functioning civil government, establish good trade relations with the indigenous peoples, and fortify the Castillo de San Marcos. There was no lower house in East Florida’s government, unlike the thirteen British colonies to the north. When the Revolution started, East Florida became a haven for loyalist refugees and African Americas who were fleeing to British territory to fight on the British side in return for their freedom. The British valued East Florida because it provided necessary trade goods to the West Indies. Indians in the area were concerned about Americans’ insatiable hunger for land and therefore sided with the British.
The Continental Congress wanted East Florida taken, and General Washington originally assigned Charles Lee to head the operation. The Americans tried to invade East Florida three times in 1776 and 1777. British forces, with the combined strength of the Royal Navy and the Native Americans, were able to hold off the Americans. Kotlik provides a concise narrative of some of the major battles and settlements in East Florida: Amelia Island, New Smyrna, Thomas Creek, and Alligator Creek Bridge. By the spring of 1780, the tide was turning for the British in East Florida, who had to contend with a smallpox epidemic and the new threat from Spanish forces invading from New Orleans. East Florida was ceded to Spain in the 1783 Treaty of Paris. Some conspirators led by John Cruden hoped to oppose the transfer of the colony to Spain. The Native American forces who helped the British were infuriated over the loss of British assistance and trade, and what they considered to be broken promises.
The book’s conclusion focuses on the stories of three individuals who were important in post-war East Florida: James Grant Forbes, the mayor of St. Augustine who influenced the “Forbes Purchase” (Apalachicola National Forest); William Augustus Bowles, who set up trade between the Bahamas and the Native Americans and then tried to make Florida a British colony (State of Muskugee); and Zephaniah Kingsley, Jr., who founded a plantation on Fort George Island. East Florida refugees later travelled south and were the first to settle the Florida Keys.
Sadly, much of what constituted East Florida during the American Revolution is gone, according to Kotlik. That does not mean that the colony should be disregarded. It was a scene of fighting and was viewed by both the British and the Americans as strategically vital. Kotlik reminds the reader and historian that the lack of resources regarding East Florida does not diminish its role: “Contemporary scholarship’s failure to cover British East Florida in the American Revolution does not suggest that the province was unimportant. Far from it. Such a lack of coverage is a reminder for scholars to emphasize East Florida’s presence in the war that made America.” (page 11)