Florida’s Union Bank

Florida’s habit of booming and busting stretches far back, much farther than the land boom of the 1920s many Floridians already know about. One of the most controversial busts happened shortly after Florida became a U.S. territory. Like most frontier societies with a future, Florida was full of eager settlers with a vision. And visions require money. In the agricultural economy of the Old South, much of the wealth was tied up in land, slaves, and the capital goods necessary to grow crops. Even the wealthiest planters relied heavily on credit to do business, because there just wasn’t much cash to be had. So what do you do when you need better access to cash and credit? You build a bank, of course!

This building served the Union Bank of Florida, two of its predecessor banks, and a freedmen's savings bank opened after the Civil War (Tallahassee, circa 1870s).

This building served the Union Bank of Florida, two of its predecessor banks, and a freedmen’s savings bank opened after the Civil War (Tallahassee, circa 1870s).

The Spanish had barely weighed anchor and left Pensacola before efforts began to get a bank established in Florida. Military Governor Andrew Jackson forwarded a petition of Pensacola citizens to the federal government asking for a branch of the United States Bank. Their request was denied. A number of Floridians also attempted to have the territorial government charter a bank, but Governor William Pope Duval vetoed every proposal, believing banks to be monopolistic.

William Pope Duval, Florida's first territorial governor (in office 1822-1834). Date of painting unknown.

William Pope Duval, Florida’s first territorial governor (in office 1822-1834). Date of painting unknown.

After the U.S. weathered its banking crisis and the United States Bank was no more, credit and cash-hungry planters renewed their demand for some kind of bank in Florida. In 1828, enough support developed in the territorial legislature to pass a charter for the Bank of Florida at Tallahassee. Lawmakers would charter a total of 18 banks between 1828 and 1839, but the most interesting (and most infamous) of these was the Union Bank of Florida, also established at Tallahassee.

John Grattan Gamble, one of the principal founders of the Union Bank of Florida (circa 1830s).

John Grattan Gamble, one of the principal founders of the Union Bank of Florida (circa 1830s).

The Union Bank, chartered in 1833, was founded by a group of planters led by John Grattan Gamble of Jefferson County. Gamble and his associates believed if they could only get enough capital to bring their land under full cultivation, they could quickly make a tremendous amount of money. The first problem, however, was to get enough capital to start the bank.

Gamble and his associates used a common scheme of that era to finance the new bank. First, the planters purchased stock in the new institution by mortgaging their land and slaves, the most valuable assets they owned. Operating cash came from the sale of thousand-dollar bonds guaranteed by the territorial government, redeemable in 1860 with six percent interest. Gamble intended to go abroad and drum up more capital from foreign investors. Surely they would recognize the potential of an untapped agricultural paradise like Florida. What could possibly go wrong?

A $1,000 bond of the territorial government of Florida, designed to capitalize the Union Bank (1835).

A $1,000 bond of the territorial government of Florida, designed to capitalize the Union Bank (1835).

A lot could go wrong, and a lot did go wrong at the Union Bank. The bank’s officials were the ones who determined how much a stockholder’s land was worth, and therefore how much stock he might receive in return for mortgaging it, and how much money he might borrow from the bank. This almost immediately led to charges of favoritism. Some of Gamble’s friends and family received larger amounts of bank stock and credit than other planters with the same amount of collateral. Lots of folks had paid into the scheme to get the bank started, but only a few were receiving any benefit.

Moreover, the Panic of 1837 and a severe drought in 1840 combined to tax the bank’s resources to the maximum. The law prohibited the bank from increasing its capital through more bond sales, which left the bank unable to pay its debts to its stockholders or on the territorial bonds that had originally funded its creation. The territorial government was left holding the bag for these latter obligations. When it became clear in 1843 that the Union Bank would not recover, the legislature suspended its banking authority by law.

A check from Union Bank president John Grattan Gamble to the Phenix Bank of New York, dated August 2, 1836. Not longer after this, the bank's credit would drastically drop and its checks and currency would be widely rejected.

A check from Union Bank president John Grattan Gamble to the Phenix Bank of New York, dated August 2, 1836. Not long after this, the bank’s credit would drastically drop and its checks and currency would be widely rejected.

The Union Bank may have passed away, but the building lived on to serve many useful purposes in Tallahassee. From the end of the Civil War until 1879 it served as a savings bank for freedmen. At other times it served as a feed store, shoe factory, coffee house, art gallery, locksmith’s shop, and even a church.

The Union bank building showing its age (circa 1920s).

The Union bank building showing its age (circa 1920s).

By the mid 20th century, however, the building was showing signs of neglect. Local historians and preservationists succeeded in having the building recognized as a historic landmark in 1967. The building’s location on prime Tallahassee real estate, however, threatened its continued existence. To save the building from being demolished for a parking lot, a group of local citizens and the state government teamed up to raise $40,000 to have the Union Bank building moved to its present location on Apalachee Parkway. It now houses Florida A&M University’s Black Archives Research Center.

Preparing to relocate the Union Bank building to its new home on Apalachee Parkway (1971).

Preparing to relocate the Union Bank building to its new home on Apalachee Parkway (1971).

Moving the Union Bank building (1971).

Moving the Union Bank building (1971).

What are the oldest buildings in your Florida community? Search for photos of these and other historic Florida structures in the Florida Photographic Collection.

The Union Bank building after restoration (circa 1990s).

The Union Bank building after restoration (circa 1990s).

Florida’s Own Prime Meridian

Every day, knowingly and more often unknowingly, we cross boundaries. We drive from one county into the next, we step across property lines, and we move in and out of the corporate limits of cities and towns. Visitors to Tallahassee’s recently renovated Cascades Park frequently cross a very important Florida boundary, now marked with an impressive new monument. It’s Florida’s own prime meridian, the initial point in the grid on which virtually all land surveying in the Sunshine State is based.

Brass plate marking the exact point at which Florida's prime meridian crosses its base line. All of the six-mile square townships comprising the state's land survey system are named in relation to this point. The point is located in Cascades Park, Tallahassee (photo 2014).

Brass plate marking the exact point at which Florida’s prime meridian crosses its base line. All of the six-mile square townships comprising the state’s land survey system are named in relation to this point. The point is located in Cascades Park, Tallahassee (photo 2014).

Initiating a system for identifying and selling land was a high priority for Florida’s earliest leaders. Settlers would be unlikely to take a chance establishing themselves in the new territory if there wasn’t a way to ensure the security of their title to the land they purchased. By the time Florida became a U.S. territory, the federal government already had a go-to method for measuring out new land. Called the Public Land Survey System, it called for the new territory to be divided into six-mile squares called townships, which were each further divided into 36 smaller one-mile squares called sections. Land grants for businesses, homesteaders, or government entities could then be sold off by the section or parts thereof.

An early map of Township 1 North, Range 1 West, encompassing much of western Tallahassee. The map delineates the 36 one-mile square sections within the township, as well as numerous individual parcels of land that had already been purchased (1853).

An early map of Township 1 North, Range 1 West, encompassing much of western Tallahassee. The map delineates the 36 one-mile square sections within the township, as well as numerous individual parcels of land that had already been purchased (1853).

The first step in laying out a township grid was to select a spot for it to start. When the order came down in 1824 for the surveying process to begin in Florida, the Surveyor General appointed for the territory, Robert Butler, had not yet arrived. Furthermore, territorial governor William Pope Duval was away from Tallahassee in conference with local Native Americans. Territorial Secretary George Walton, then, had the honor of selecting the location. How he made his selection is not precisely known, although some interesting stories have emerged over time. Probably the most popular version holds that while transporting a stone monument to the designated site it fell off its wagon about 200 yards short of its destination. Because of its immense weight, the legend explains, the stone was too heavy to put back onto the wagon, and consequently it was left where it fell and that became the point of beginning for Florida’s township grid. The story has a nice ring to it, but evidence suggests that the point was originally marked with a wooden stake, not a stone.

 

Robert Butler, Florida's first Surveyor General. Butler had served as a military aide to General Andrew Jackson, and would establish one of the earliest plantations in the Tallahassee area on the southwest shore of Lake Jackson (photo circa 1860).

Robert Butler, Florida’s first Surveyor General. Butler had served as a military aide to General Andrew Jackson, and would establish one of the earliest plantations in the Tallahassee area on the southwest shore of Lake Jackson (photo circa 1860).

 

George Walton II, son of the George Walton who signed the Declaration of Independence and became Florida's first Territorial Secretary (circa 1821).

George Walton II, son of the George Walton who signed the Declaration of Independence. He served as Florida’s first Territorial Secretary (circa 1821).

After the original point was established, surveyors began the lengthy process of establishing a north-south meridian and an east-west base line, dividing the territory into quadrants. The southeast quadrant contains the vast majority of Florida’s territory, as it includes the entire peninsula. As more townships were surveyed out in relation to these lines, the General Land Office began granting land to homesteaders and other buyers. The original point of beginning for the grid remained fairly obscure for the rest of the nineteenth century. In 1891, the City Commission of Tallahassee passed a resolution asking the General Land Office to establish a more elaborate monument marking the spot. The GLO gave orders for such a monument to be installed, and a local surveyor named John Cook identified a point on which to set it. This monument, however, for some reason appears never to have been placed. The one that existed before the Cascades Park renovation was erected by the Florida Legislature in 1925.

Blueprints for new monument to mark the original point of beginning for Florida's township grid - the meeting place of the original prime meridian and base line (1925).

Blueprints for new monument to mark the original point of beginning for Florida’s township grid – the meeting place of the original prime meridian and base line (1925). Located in Box 1, folder 1 of Series 1152 (Subject Files of the Secretary of the Florida Senate), State Archives of Florida.

 

The 1925 prime meridian marker in Cascades Park (1955).

The 1925 prime meridian marker in Cascades Park (1955).

Today, Florida’s prime meridian is proudly displayed as a valuable historic site. Cascades Park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, in part due to the presence of the prime meridian marker. When Cascades Park was renovated, the old 1925 concrete monument was removed and taken to the headquarters of the Florida Surveyors and Mappers Society in Tallahassee. The new monument, installed flush with the surrounding walking space, has been incorporated into an elaborate plaza that emphasizes the importance of the point for all of Florida.

The prime meridian plaza at Cascades Park in Tallahassee (2014).

The prime meridian plaza at Cascades Park in Tallahassee (2014).