WPA History of the Spanish Land Grants

The following is the original Introduction to the Spanish Land Grants in Florida, a five-volume transcription and abstraction of the Spanish land grants created and published in 1942 by the WPA's Florida Historical Records Survey, under supervision of the State Library Board. While historian Louise Biles Hill wrote the Introduction specifically as a guide for readers of that original publication, it is still useful as an extensive history of the creation, use and preservation of the Spanish land grants. Until the State Archives of Florida made them available online, the WPA's publication was the main source for researchers on the Spanish land grants and the Second Spanish Period Florida (1783-1821). For more recent research on these materials and the Second Spanish Period, see Published Works.


  1. Introduction
  2. The Spanish Archives
  3. British Land Grants in Florida
  4. Spain's Land Policy
  5. Board Of Commissioners--West Florida
  6. Board Of Commissioners--East Florida
  7. Final Disposition Of Land Claims
  8. Reasons For Non-Confirmation

Board Of Commissioners--East Florida

[view image]

The three commissioners appointed for East Florid were Davis Floyd, William F. Blair, and Alexander Hamilton. At the first meeting of the Board on August 4, 1823, Floyd was elected chairman and Francisco Jose Fatio was appointed secretary. John Lowe was appointed messenger; Joseph Lancaster was sworn in as deputy to the secretary. (98)

The board adopted unanimously the following regulations:

"All persons claiming title to lands under any patent, grants, concession, or order of survey, will make a brief statement, by Memorial, setting forth the situation, boundaries, and if possible, the deraignment of title, to the Lands claimed, and by whom granted, and by what authority, and whatever the same be the whole or part of the original grant."

"All cases where grants have been mad eon conditions it will be necessary to show the nature of the conditions, whether they have been performed and if not the reasons why they have not been complied with."

"Where lands are claimed by actual settlers, without grants, concessions, patents, on orders of survey, the same must be declared, occupancy stated distinctly, together with the nature of the evidence, in support of the claim; and whether the said possession ever was and in what manner acknowledged or sanctioned by the Spanish government."

"In all instances where claims are made in virtue of British Patents, grants, etc., the claimants must describe in what manner they claim, whether as original patentees or Grantees or by assignment, also whether they are in actual possession, and if out of possession that they claim 'bona fide' as American Citizens."

"All original documents if in possession of the claimants must be exhibited and in other cases certified copies, the Memorial, order of Survey, Survey and confirmation, together with the translations of the same."


98. "Record Book No. 8. Minutes of the Board of land Commissioners for East Florida, Aug. 4, 1823, to Nov. 30, 1827," pp. 1, 3, cited hereafter as "Record Bk. 8, E. Fla."

p. xl

[view image]

"Claimants must show whether they were actual residents at the time of the cession and where they now reside." (99)

Rules adopted by the Board for its guidance included, among others:

"Resolved that claimants be not required to produce their title papers translated into the English Language, but in all cases be permitted to file the original documents—the Honorable Alexander Hamilton dissenting."

"Resolved, that hereafter whenever a claimant of Land shall present his evidence of title to the Secretary of this Board desiring to bring the same before the commissioners, it shall be the duty of said Secretary without any fee therefore, to put the same in the form of a Memorial, containing in substance what has already been required by the resolution of this Board. And that the said Secretary be authorized too obtain from the Printer in this city One thousand blank copies of said form & authorize said printer to present his account therefore, before this board who will direct the said account to be paid out of any monies which may come into their hands for appropriations — or in case of none such will certify said account to the Treasurer of the United States."

"And be it further ordered that the Secretary be required to deliver one of these printed forms to any person or persons applying for the same." (101)

On three occasions the following resolution was offered before it was adopted on November 28:

"Resolved that claimants desiring to obtain the testimony of any witness residing without the Territory of Florida shall file with the Secretary their Interrogatories; and that the District Attorney under the direction of the Board shall if required, annex Cross Interrogatories, on behalf of the United States—and that in all cases where the Witnesses are residents within the Territory, the claimant may file depositions taken 'Ex parte' as the said witnesses are subject to the jurisdiction of the Commissioners: leaving it optional with the Claimants to procure by filing interrogatories, and that a commission


99. Ibid., pp. 1-2

100. Ibid., p. 3

101. Ibid., p. 6

p. xli

[view image]

with the interrogatories so annexed shall be directed to any person authorized to administer oaths, sealed by the Secretary and delivered to the party so making application and it shall be the duty of said person to take the answers of said Witness to all such interrogatories and none other, and to certify the same, and whether the said Commission was sealed when delivered." (102)

On December 9 it was ordered that "the Rules of evidence governing Courts of Law, govern the Board for the future—viz., that the party calling the Witness, first examine him, & then turn him over to the District Attorney, and when he has finished the Board can ask him any pertinent question which they conceive to have been omitted; but the party examining the witness, cannot be interrupted without he is putting an improper question—Mr. Hamilton dissented as to any restraint on the Board in its examination." (103) The Board adjourned sine die on February 9, 1824. (104)

The difficulties with which the commissioners had to contend were enumerated in their report at the end of the year. The law required that all Spanish documents be translated and recorded, but allowed only one secretary. No means of collecting fees for translating papers for claimants having been provided by Congress and the fees being too small to justify collection by the orderly processes of law, no funds from that source were available for employing additional clerks. To meet the situation the commissioners required the secretary to hire an assistant, Joseph B. Lancaster, and pay him from his own salary. Lancaster,


102. Ibid., p. 19

103. Ibid., p.160

104. Ibid., p. 189

p. xlii

[view image]

resigned on December 8, and Lewis Huguon was appointed in his place. After adjudication began the services of the secretary were necessary to record the evidence of titles and the commissioners were compelled to pay the salary of a second assistant, John M. Lawrence, to take the minutes. (105) The number of claims was too great for the commissioners to dispose of them in the time allowed, under the conditions stipulated in the law, there being something like 600 by February 21, 1824. Property owners in St. Augustine and Fernandina were disgruntled because they were required to exhibit their titles, Section II of the treaty seeming to imply that all private claims in those towns were accepted as valid, only the public property being transferred to the United States. (106) They accordingly held mass meetings and petitioned Congress to exempt them from the necessity of exhibiting their titles, and the Board agreed to submit the question to the Secretary of the Treasury. No reply had been received at the end of the year and the claims had not been considered. (107)

The Board had other troubles which prevented its functioning smoothly. It moved its offices twice—from Government House to a house belonging to Joseph Sanchez, then back to Government House. (108) It was unable to obtain certain documents from the Public Archives and was compelled to issue a subpoena duces tecum to William Reynolds. (109)


105. Ibid., pp. 158-159

106. DG, III, 759-760

107. Ibid.

108. Ibid., pp. 770, 777, 788.

109. "Record Bk. 8, E. Fla." P. 8

p. xliii

[view image]

The same procedure was necessary even after the Secretary of State instructed him to deliver the documents. (110) And finally there was such a divergence of opinion between Hamilton and the other commissioners as to procedure (111) that Hamilton refused to participate in the sessions and bombarded President Monroe, Secretary of Treasury Crawford, Secretary of State Adams, and the chairman of the house committee on public lands with serious charges against his colleagues and those in charge of the Public Archives. (112) After Hamilton ceased to participate (113) the two commissioners adopted the rule that in cases of disagreement between them the claims with all the facts should be reported to Congress for disposition. (114)

As former United States district attorney for East Florida, Hamilton was on the ground when he was appointed to the Board, and on June 7, before the other commissioners arrived, he appointed a secretary, Peter Lynch, to receive land clams. When the organized on August 4, it dispensed with Hamilton's appointee, chose Fatio secretary, and ordered all papers that had been filed returned to claimants "to be presented in proper order." (115)

Whether or not friction was first caused by Hamilton's officiousness in beginning the work before the Board had organized and inserted


110. DG, III, p. 788

111. "Record Bk. 8, E. Fla.," pp. 159, 160, 162, 165, 170, 173, 176.

112. DG, III, 725 et seq., 762, et seq., 892 et seq.

113. He continued to attend the meetings of the board.

114. "Record Bk. 8, E. Fla.," p. 185

115. Ibid., pp. 2, 5

p. xliv

[view image]

in the newspapers the necessary instructions to claimants, the minutes show that there was seldom agreement between Hamilton and his colleagues. He complained of "the important and procrastinated situation of the business of the commission," or the failure of the Board, as he saw it, to adopt certain principles to govern their decisions, and of the "illegal and improper manner in which the Minutes were kept on loose sheets." On December 9 the Board ordered the secretary to record the minutes in a "well-bound book," as the law required. (116)

The Act creating the Board for East Florida had not defined "actual settlers." The majority of the Board defined the term as meaning persons actually settled within the province at the time of the exchange of flags but not necessarily on the land claimed. Hamilton did not agree with the definition (117) and neither did Congress, for the following year, in an Act to extend the time for the settlement of private land claims in Florida, it defined actual settlers as those who were in the cultivation or occupation of the land at or before the date of cession. (118)

The more serious charges made by Hamilton were in regard to 1. the careless and haphazard manner in which he said the public archives were kept, which had resulted in one or more documents being altered, one stolen and another substituted, and the dependence of the Board on such an office for transcripts or certified copies instead of insisting upon the original documents; and 2. fraud in connection with the


116. Ibid., p. 159

117. Ibid., p. 170

118. U.S. Stat. at Large, IV, 7.

p. xlv

[view image]

favorable action of the Board on McIntosh, Segui, and Arredondo claims. (119) Hamilton was skeptical of the testimony of George J.F. Clarke, surveyor-general under the Spanish government, and of his "pretended deputy, Burgevin," the latter of whom he characterized as "contemptible." He commented on Clarke's "extravagant pretensions and inconsistent representations, with a memory on some subjects singularly tenacious, and on others peculiarly forgetful." (120) Hamilton resigned on March 31, 1824, but a month later withdrew his resignation until the end of the session of Congress that his communication might in the meantime "have official importance." (121) The committee on public lands did not sustain Hamilton, but it recommended that the President give the Board instructions as to its powers and duties and adopt such measures as were necessary for the safe-keeping of the archives. (122)

At the end of the year the Board reported to Congress the principles


119. Hamilton stated to the Secretary of the Treasury that he would go from St. Augustine to Charleston and there hold himself in readiness should his presence be required in Washington in connection with his charges. An aftermath of Hamilton's sojourn in Florida was three court cases. Two of the cases, filed Feb. 9, 1824, were for libel in the sums of $10,000 and $20,000 in connection with his alleged candidacy for territorial delegate to Congress and a petition to the president signed by a number of persons for his removal as a member of the Board of Land Commissioners. —Alexander Hamilton v. Eusebio Gomez and Alexander Hamilton v. Eusebio Gomez and Joseph H. Hernandez, File H 3, Superior Court, St. Johns County, Fla. In the third case Hamilton brought suit for damages in the sum of $1,600 against the master and commander of the sloop "Rapid" for loss of his trunk and law books when the sloop burned at Charleston wharf on July 6, 1824. — Alexander Hamilton v. Alexander G. Swasey, File H 10, Superior Court, St. Johns County, Fla.

120. SG, III, 764 et seq., 892 et seq.

121. Ibid., 766, 866. Hamilton's charges and law suits have been included as a possible assistance in interpreting certain claims.

122. Ibid., p. 863.

p. xlvi

[view image]

upon which it had based its decisions: 1. the aw of the Indies; 2. royal orders; 3. decrees and regulations made and published by the local governors; and 4. customs and usages which prevailed in the various offices of the territorial [Spanish] government. (123) Another principle upon which they acted was acceptance of royal titles granted without conditions and of those granted after January 24, 1818, provided the latter's conditions were fulfilled before that date. (124)

Early the following year Congress increased the work of the commissioners by adding another class of claimants. There was in the Territory of Florida a large number of settlers who had no titles to show for the lands they occupied—renters, squatters, or purchases of lands with doubtful titles. The majority of these were probably citizens of the United States. To retain and do justice to these settlers Congress by the "Donation Act" of May 26, 1824, authorized the commissioners "to receive and examine all claims founded on habitation and cultivation of any tract of land, town or city lot or outlet by any person being head of a family and 21 yeas of age," who on February 22, 1819, the date of the signing of the treaty, "actually inhabited and cultivated such tract of land, or actually cultivated and improved such lot, or who, on that day, cultivated any tract of land in the vicinity of any town or city, having a permanent residence in such town or city." To such persons they were to grant certificates of confirmation not to exceed 640 acres.


123. Ibid., p. 725

124. Ibid., pp. 1-10, 725, V, 394.

p. xlvii

[view image]

The Act provided also that the commissioners were to receive claims to land founded on habitation and cultivation commenced between February 22, 1819, and July 17, 1821, the date of the abstract of all such claims to the Secretary of the Treasury. Claims merely reported upon were to be laid before Congress "with the evidence of the time, nature and extent of such inhabitation and cultivation…and extent of the claim," but no claim was to be received, confirmed, or reported in favor of any person who claimed any tract by virtue of any written evidence of Title from either the British or Spanish governments. (125)

Davis Floyd and William W. Blaire, commissioners for East Florida, met on March 29, 1824, pursuant to the law of the February 19 which extended the time limits for the settlement of private land claims in East Florida to January 1, 1825. (126) Congress having failed to make an appropriation for employing assistant clerks, the services of the minuting secretary and the messenger were discontinued. (127) Through April to August the Board had often to adjourn for lack of a quorum, due to Blair's illness. (128) On August 24 George Murray, who had been appointed "vice for William W. Blair", was present for the first time; (129) and on September 29 William Henry Allen, who had been appointed on August 12 as the third member of the Board, was in attendance. (130)


125. U.S. State. At Large, IV, 47.

126. Ibid., pp.6-7.

127. "Record Bk. 8, E. Fla.," p. 191.

128. Ibid., p. 223.

129. Ibid., p. 226.

130. Ibid., p. 258.

p. xlviii

[view image]

On December 28 the Board adjourned sine die. (131) In its report, dated January 1, 1825, the Board stated that it had found it impossible to complete the work within the time specified by law. The Commissioners explained that property had often been conveyed one, two, three, or even four times and petitioners had frequently received grants at certain places, changed their minds and had surveys made elsewhere, which made the examination of claims exceedingly tedious. They had employed an additional clerk [probably Thomas Murphy] for the past three months who so far had revived no pay, and he had been able within that time to record only 34 claims, since they averaged 21 pages each. There were 1,104 claims filed during the year, of which 80 were still under advisement. (132)

On March 3, 1825, an Act of Congress extended the time of the commissioners for East Florida to the first Monday in January, 1826, and made appropriations for two additional clerks.

The Board in West Florida having in large part completed its work, the Act directed the commissioners there to deliver all records and evidence relative to land claims to the Register and Receiver of the Land Office in West Florida, who should examine and decide the remaining claims subject to the rules which had governed the commissioners. (133)

On March 28 the Board for East Florida met with Davis Floyd, George Murray, and William H. Allen, commissioners, and Francisco Jose Fatio, secretary, present. Thomas Murphy and Lewis Huguon were appointed


131. Ibid., p. 287

132. DG, IV, 157-158

133. U.S. Stat. at Large, IV, 125-126.

p. xlix

[view image]

assistant clerks. (134) Sessions were held in Jacksonville on May 16 and several times thereafter for the convenience of claimants. (135) It adjourned sine die on December 30, 1825. (136) Its reports of January 1 and 31, 1826, showed more than 500 claims yet undetermined. (137) The Board was criticized in the press, being charged with allowing counsel to appear for claimants and for itself with the object of killing time and prolonging its life. Floyd made a spirited defense to the Secretary of the Treasury and related the difficulties under which the commissioners had labored. He charged that doubtful claims had been held back by their owners and criticisms against the Board made in the hope that "the business might fall into more favorable hands." (138)

There is no doubt that the commissioners for East Florida had a far greater task than did those for West Florida. The number of claims in East Florida was greater, the claims were more complicated and it may have been that the commissioners were less systematic in handling them. It would seem also that friction among themselves retarded the work. The remaining claims were disposed of by the Register and Receiver of the Land Office for East Florida. (139) Charles Downing and William H. Allen.


134. "Record Bk. 8, E. Fla.," p. 228.

135. Ibid., p. 303-305

136. Ibid., p. 355.

137. DG, IV, 275-277, 400-501.

138. Ibid., p. 507; Floyd's charges in 1826 seem to have been confirmed by R.K. Call's report nearly ten years later.—Infra, pp. lii-liii.

139. "Record Bk. 8, E. Fla.," pp. 357 et seq.