William Augustus Bowles (January 16, 1792)

On this date in 1792, William Augustus Bowles and his band of followers seized control of the Panton, Leslie & Company trading post on the Wakulla River.

William Augustus Bowles (ca. 1795)

William Augustus Bowles (ca. 1795)

William Augustus Bowles arrived in Florida as a British soldier during the Revolutionary War. He defected from Pensacola in about 1778 and sought refuge in the Creek Indian country. During his time among the Creeks, Bowles apparently married Mary Perryman, a daughter of Lower Creek headman William Perryman. Bowles used this union as the basis for his claim to exert political influence among the Creeks, later proclaiming himself “Director General of the Muskogee Nation.”

In 1783, Bowles left North America for the Bahamas. There, he solicited support for a plan to challenge the Indian trade monopoly exercised by Panton, Leslie & Company in Spanish Florida.

Detail from the Forbes Purchase Map (1817) showing the confluence of the St. Marks and Wakulla Rivers

Detail from the Forbes Purchase Map (1817) showing the confluence of the St. Marks and Wakulla Rivers

In January 1792, Bowles and his adherents—made up of disaffected whites, runaway slaves and a few Seminoles—attacked the Panton, Leslie & Company trading post on the Wakulla River. Bowles briefly seized the store, shown on the map above as “Old Store,” located about four miles upriver from Fuerte San Marcos de Apalache, before walking into a trap set by the Spanish. The Spanish first sent Bowles to Cuba, and later imprisoned him in the Philippines. Little did the Spanish know it would not be the last time they would encounter William Augustus Bowles.

Eight years later, having escaped from the Philippines, Bowles again launched a plan against the Spanish and Panton, Leslie & Company, this time striking at Fuerte San Marcos de Apalache. In early 1800, he took control of the fort for several weeks before being ousted by Spanish reinforcements from Pensacola. Bowles evaded capture by Spanish authorities until 1802. In 1805, he died at Castillo Morro in Havana, Cuba.

British Intrigue and the Events at Prospect Bluff

Although not part of the United States during the War of 1812, Florida witnessed its share of fighting between Spanish, British, American, African and Native American belligerents involved in the protracted conflict.

Conventional histories of the War of 1812 end the conflict with Andrew Jackson’s campaign against Pensacola and New Orleans in 1814 and 1815. However, for African and Native American peoples in the southeast, the war continued after the fighting ceased between the British and the Americans.

In the summer of 1814, several British vessels arrived at St. George Island along Florida’s Gulf Coast. They carried supplies for the construction of a fort along the Apalachicola River. In the waning stages of the War of 1812, the British hoped to continue the conflict in Spanish Florida with the help of Native Americans and Africans hostile to the United States.

Map of the Forbes Purchase (ca. 1820). In the lower left portion of the map is St. George Island. The “Negro Fort” was located on the Apalachicola River near Prospect Bluff.

Map of the Forbes Purchase (ca. 1820). In the lower left portion of the map is St. George Island. The “Negro Fort” was located on the Apalachicola River near Prospect Bluff.

Prior to the War of 1812, several agents of the British Empire, most notably William Augustus Bowles, attempted similar schemes to enlist black and Indian allies in armed struggle against the Americans with the goal of wresting control of Florida away from the Spanish. Bowles seized the Panton, Leslie & Company trading post on the Wakulla River in 1792. Panton, Leslie & Company, a Scottish-owned firm, enjoyed a monopoly over the Indian trade in West Florida. The Spanish granted the firm these rights as they were unable to satisfy Creek and Seminole demands for trade goods themselves. The Spaniards apprehended Bowles and sent him to a prison in the Philippines.

William Augustus Bowles (ca. 1795)

William Augustus Bowles (ca. 1795)

The intrepid Bowles escaped incarceration and returned to Florida in 1800. This time he besieged Fuerte San Marcos de Apalache, forcing the Spanish to withdraw. Shortly thereafter, an expedition sailed from Pensacola and expelled Bowles. He was later captured by the Spanish, who imprisoned him in Havana, Cuba, until his death in 1805.

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