[ed. note: With the 200th anniversary of the destruction of the Negro Fort on the Apalachicola coming up this summer, I have reprinted this article about how the Spanish attempted to compensate the Innerarity brothers for their loses incurred due to the Spanish allowing the British to build the so-called Negro Fort in Spanish East Florida. The Spanish land grant was invalidated by the Federal judge in Pensacola and he justified his action by citing the terms of the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819]
The Long Road To the American Acquisition of St. Andrews Bay
A title search for any deed to any piece of property in the Panama City area is a strange mosaic of clues to a long story that goes back over two centuries and includes international intrigue, complex individual and international interests, the long delayed settlement of St. Andrews Bay, the preservation of Florida’s public domain and the sovereignty of the United States. The oldest deeds in the Panama City area only go back to 1835 yet Spain turned the land over to the U.S. in 1821 so why did it take Florida’s land hungry pioneers fourteen years to gain title to some of the best unsettled land on the shores of one of the most important and beautiful harbors in all of frontier Florida?
When the federal government tried to settle the Spanish land claims in Florida, they discovered that St. Andrews Bay was part of the largest Spanish land grant in all Florida history which claimed the entire seacoast and all the bayshore from present-day Apalachicola west to East Pass at present-day Destin. The United States always delayed land sales until all Spanish land grants had been legally recorded or invalidated. This particular Spanish land grant was issued in 1818 by the Captain-General of Cuba to the John Forbes & Co., a mercantile firm of Scottish Indian traders based in Pensacola and Mobile who had received a permit from the Spanish to conduct a monopoly on trade with the Southeastern Indians. This huge land grant was compensation for the company’s services to the Spanish government of West Florida and for the losses it incurred during the 1814 British invasion of West Florida during the War of 1812. Until the litigation concerning this Spanish land grant was settled, none of present day Bay County’s land could be placed in the public domain and be offered for sale to Florida’s frontiersmen.
A drawing of the John Forbes and Co. warehouse on the waterfront in Pensacola.
A photograph of the John Forbes & Co. complex on the waterfront in Pensacola
John Forbes & Co. deserved some sort of compensation because the Spanish government welcomed the British army and navy into West Florida and allowed them to establish British martial law in Pensacola under which John Forbes and Co. suffered greatly.
The name, John Forbes & Co., was adopted by the old company of Panton, Leslie & Co., in 1804 when it reorganized after the death of the original Scottish partners, William Panton of Pensacola, Thomas Forbes of the Bahamas and John Leslie of London. The Spanish government confirmed all of the privileges of the old company to the new one. The new principal partners, John Forbes, James Innerarity and John Innerarity were tied to the old partners by kinship but were decidedly more pro-American than the original partners. It is not that the new partners necessarily changed their political allegiances but more importantly, American rule appeared to be inevitable and certainly promised to be better for their business if they were able to sell the land they had acquired from the Indians with the approval of the Spanish government.
James Innerarity, head of Forbes & Co. in Mobile, negotiator of the Forbes Purchase east of the Apalachicola and first American mayor of the City of Mobile
John Innerarity, head of Forbes & Co. in Pensacola
In the spring of 1814, the British navy and marines arrived off the coast of Northwest Florida and in preparation for the invasion and conquest of New Orleans attempted to incite a general slave and Indian uprising similar to the one that had previously gripped Haiti. This proposed slave insurrection along the Gulf Coast was designed to incite terror in the general populace, to target the women and children of the settlers for slaughter and to engage American forces which would otherwise be used in defense of New Orleans.
The British chose to build the fort that would support this war effort at the John Forbes and Co. store on the east bank of the Apalachicola River at Prospect Bluff located about thirty miles north of the present day town of Apalachicola. Even though all of the partners of John Forbes and Co. had been born in Great Britain, they did not welcome the British invasion of their adopted homeland and the British military men considered the John Forbes and Co. partners to be American spies.
A map of the Forbes Purchase showing the location of the Prospect Bluff store on the 1.25 million acres the company received from the Creek Indians in 1804 to clear the Indians' debt to the company.
The Brits picked John Forbes and Co. clean during their one year stay in Northwest Florida. The company’s slaves taken by the British created the greatest monetary loss for the firm but the British also took John Forbes & Co. cattle, horses, mules and gunpowder. The company store at Prospect Bluff was closed and replaced by a fort to protect the Indians and Negroes recruited to the British cause.
When John Forbes retired from the company and moved to Cuba in 1818, he used the move as an opportunity to appeal to a Spanish government superior to the one in Pensacola for the losses the company experienced in West Florida at the hands of the British during the War of 1812. Forbes successfully convinced the Captain-General of Cuba, Don Jose Cienfuegos, to invoke an 1815 royal ordnance meant to increase the population of Puerto Rico to justify giving John Forbes and Co. title to all the land between the Choctawhatchee and the Apalachicola Rivers south of a line running from the mouth of the Choctawhatchee east to the point where Sweetwater Creek enters the Apalachicola River. This grant included over 1.5 million acres of land and encompassed all of present-day Bay County along with the entire seacoast between present-day Apalachicola and Destin.
When you look at I.G. Searcy’s 1829 Florida map, the first American map of the Florida Territory, the entire Washington County portion of the map around St. Andrews Bay is labeled “Innerarity’s Claim”. This was the Spanish land grant of John Forbes and Co. and the Innerarity brothers of Mobile and Pensacola were in 1829 the controlling partners of John Forbes and Co. These Scottish brothers had taken over John Forbes and Co. after Forbes retirement in 1818 and his subsequent death in 1823.
In the early years of the Florida Territory, land ownership controversies like “Innerarity’s Claim” were the most pressing problems facing the government. On May 22, 1822, Congress created a Board of Commissioners on Land Claims for Florida which validated Spanish land grants of less than 1000 acres. Wealth in Florida was defined by land ownership so administration of the land claims commission as well as the offices associated with the public land system became the road to prosperity for many of the recently arrived Americans who owed their appointments to these offices to their association with Florida’s first territorial governor, General Andrew Jackson. The land claims commission could not rule on a grant as large as “Innerarity’s Claim” so in 1828, Congress passed a law allowing claimants of grants this large to file suit against the United States in the Superior Court of the district where the disputed land was located. With this law, the stage was set for a showdown between the Inneraritys and Andrew Jackson’s cronies who had used Old Hickory’s influence to gain their positions in Florida’s courts and land offices.
Richard Keith Call
Even though he was a partner with James Innerarity in the purchase of property on Santa Rosa Island, lawyer Richard Keith Call was the last person Innerarity needed to see representing the United States when his case came before Judge Henry M. Brackenridge’s Pensacola courtroom in the fall of 1830. Call had been appointed by President Jackson to assist government attorneys in these larger Spanish grant lawsuits. Through service as Florida’s delegate to Congress, two terms as the Florida Territorial governor and as Receiver of Public Monies at the public land office in Tallahassee, Call had become an expert on Spanish land grants and was convinced that all of the Spanish land grants issued in the last days of the regime were frauds. Besides being suspicious, in his commercial role as a land speculator, Call understood that preserving land in the public domain would mean that in the long run it would be cheaper to buy the property at the public land office than from private owners. In preparing for the case in 1829, Call received a federal commission that paid him to sail to Havana in pursuit of original documents pertaining to the case.
Call was the fifth government official sent to Cuba since 1821 to retrieve Spanish archives of Florida which had been taken out of the country in violation of the 2ndarticle of the Adams-Onis Treaty in which the U.S. acquired Florida from Spain. This February 22, 1819 treaty required that all documents relating to property were to be left in the possession of “officers of the United States.” For whatever reason, Spanish officials began exporting Florida archives to Havana immediately after the treaty was confirmed and had no intention of turning over one paper to an American official yet holders of Spanish land grants in Florida were constantly presenting original and copied documents from Cuba in Florida courtrooms to support their cases. Men like R.K. Call were convinced that the holders of Spanish land grants were cheating the U.S. government out of land that was rightfully its own and were able to present original and verified supporting documents in Florida courts because they bribed the Spanish officials in Havana in order to get them.
Because Call requested only the documents he needed for his land grant cases and did not demand all of the Florida archives illegally held in Havana be returned to the United States, he was successful in getting original documents and verified copies for the first time after four previous attempts failed to acquire a single piece of paper.
With the documents he desired, Call returned to Pensacola and when the court heard the case, he produced the original document where he showed Judge Brackenridge that the actual date of the land grant had been altered in order to make it conform with the provision in the treaty that made it illegal to make land grants in Florida after January 24, 1818. On the date on the original document a line had been drawn through “March” and the word “January” written above it. So by a matter of days, the company lost the land grant that compensated it for all its wartime losses. This was a catastrophic defeat for John Forbes & Co. but a triumphant defense of the public domain of the United States. Indian title to the land had already been extinguished in 1823 by the American Treaty of Moultrie Creek with the Seminoles so in 1831, Robert Butler, the Surveyor-General of Florida, ordered surveys of the townships surrounding St. Andrews Bay to begin and by 1834, the land of present-day Bay County was being purchased at the Tallahassee land office. For the first time in American History, citizens who had been living on the shores of St. Andrews Bay for decades as squatters were able to exercise their pre-emption rights to the land they had improved and purchase their property for about two bucks an acre.
Forbes Street in present day downtown Apalachicola Leslie Steet in present day downtown Apalachicola Panton Street (sign misspelled) in present day downtown Apalachicola
A model of the Forbes and Co. warehouse in present day Pensacola