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

Reasons For Non-Confirmation

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There were numerous reasons why certain land grants in Florida were

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not confirmed; some of the less obvious reasons are given below.

Often claimants had not filed within the prescribed time, which expired November 1, 1827. One such person was Antonio Pania (Pancia?) (146) who the Board remarks had according to witnesses fulfilled every requirement for a donation grant and had cultivated the place for 12 or 15 years, but filed his claim in September, 1828. (147) The same was true of John Hall, (148) of whom the commissioners' decree said "…if his claim had been filed in time we would confirm it; but it was presented to this Board in September, 1828." (149)

Sometimes there was a suspicion of fraud. Of one such claim the commissioners said, "…This paper is filed in the office of the archives, where it originally should have been, if the claim is genuine. The paper presented to us is claimed to be the original, and proof of the signature of Kindelan was tendered to this Board, but not received." The Board noted also that the land lay within the Indian boundary in which grants were almost never made by Spanish governors, but "above all, the grant is dated on the 15th May, 1815, by authority of a royal order of 29th of March preceding, which was transmitted from Madrid by way of Havana, and communicated to the governor of this place by the captain-general, Apodaca, by a letter bearing the date of 7th July, 1815, nearly two months after the date of the grant…" (150)


146. Infra, Unc. P 1

147. DG, V, 410.

148. Infra, Unc. H 16.

149. DG, V, 410.

150. Ibid., p. 397

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The grants of Governor Coppinger and the surveys of George J.F. Clarke shortly before the cession were looked at askance. Although instructions to the surveyor-general directed him "when called on by any person to measure and bound lands…to require his title of property or grant from the government…," and to keep regular books in which his surveys were to be recorded, he testified before the commissioners that he possessed authority to survey without a special order, that he located wherever the claimant pointed out, that he kept no regular books of survey after the summer of 1817, and that he did not consider the governor's order obligatory. (151) Clarke issued a number of certificates of survey, alleging "disposition of S.S. (Su Senoria, His Excellency) of October 20, 1817," for which no authorization from the governor could be found. (152)

Often conditions had not been fulfilled. Both British and Spanish grants as a rule carried conditions with respect to occupation and cultivation, the number of acres which should be cleared or drained within a given period, the number of cattle that should be pastured, or the establishment of a saw or grist mill, and the treaty permitted the same length of time for such conditions to be fulfilled in the event circumstances had previously prevented their fulfillment. (153) Many who presented


151. G&S, VI, 57.

152. Infra, S 29; T 27; W 13, 21, 23, 24, 25. Although Clarke's explanation to the Commissioners of verbal instructions from the governor to himself does not appear in the Spanish Land Grants, he must have made such explanation. Francisco Roman Sanchez states that during the MacGregor invasion Governor Coppinger assembled the militia in the square in Fernandina on October 20, 1817, and urged the men against the invaders; the Governor confessed that he had no money to pay them, but promised to each a service grant based on the headrights, Infra, Vol. V, p. 24 and footnote.

153. The U.S. was bound after the cession to the same extent that Spain had been bound before ratification.—U.S. v. Wiggins, 14 Peters 334.

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claims had made no effort either under the Spanish government or under that of the United States to fulfill the conditions of their grants.

Sometimes royal titles were granted after January 24, 1818, when there was no evidence of occupation or even a conditional grant previous to that date. For example, Joseph M.. Hernandez (154) received a grant on April 6, 1818, and two days later a title in absolute property. (155)

Often the surveys were not in agreement with the terms of the grants. The Supreme Court held that surveys to have validity must have been in conformity with the grants on which they were founded. (156)

Certificates issued by Thomas Aguilar as Spanish government secretary were questioned by the board, particularly by Alexander Hamilton, and later by government counsel in cases before the courts. Here the Board was not sustained, the Supreme Court deciding in several cases that Aguilar's certificates were valid evidence (157)

Sometimes surveys had been made and certified only by private surveyors, the claimant offering no other evidence. The Supreme Court held that the certificate of a private surveyor purporting to show that he had permission from the governor to make a survey was no evidence of the fact, but that plats and certificates of the surveyor-general, because of his official capacity, should be given the credence that would have been accorded them by the Spanish government. (158)


154. Infra, Unc. H 21

155. DG, V, 397

156. US v. Forbes, 15 Peters 173

157. U.S. v. Wiggins, 14 Peters 325; U.S. v. Delespine, 15 Peters 226; U.S. v. Acosta, 17 Peters 16.

158. U.S. v. Hanson, 16 Peters 196.

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There remain to be mentioned those British claims for lands which British subjects were unable to dispose of at the time of the retrocession of the province to Spain in 1783. They were brought forward after the cession of Florida to the United States, but were not confirmed by the Boards of Commissioners or by Congress. Even William Drayton's claims failed of confirmation, although his difficulties with Governor Tonyn, which resulted among other things in the loss of his position as chief justice of East Florida, were in large part due to his sympathy for the patriot cause in the American Revolution. The law of Congress under which the Board was organized in 1822 instructed the commissioners 1. to ascertain how far the British claims were valid under the law of nations and 2. how far they had been considered valid under the Spanish government if satisfied of their validity, the claims were to be confirmed. (160)

English claimants did not pretend that their claims were valid under the Spanish government, but endeavored to avail themselves of the jus postliminium as laid down in Vattel and other writers on international law, by means of which person and things taken by the enemy might be restored. Overton and White, in their report of January 20, 1825, on the British claims went into the subject thoroughly, showing that according to Vattel the principle which the British invoked could only have been made to operate in favor of British claimants had Florida


159. Infra, Unc. D 23-38

160. U.S. Stat. at Large, III, 709-718.

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been restored to England rather than sold to the United States, which was not a party to the war between Great Britain and Spain In addition, the treaty of 1783 between Great Britain and Spain recognized the claims by providing that subjects of the former should have eighteen months in which to dispose of them.

Furthermore, the commissioners expressed the opinion that had these claims been presented to the Spanish government before the cession of Florida to the United States, Spain would have pronounced them null and void. That the claims were not presented was evidence in their judgment that the English themselves thought so.

The commissioners pointed out also that the conditions of the English grants were not fulfilled under the Spanish government and quoted Blackstone as authority for this fact alone as being evidence that the claims were at least voidable. They expressed the opinion that even under English law the claims would not be recognized. Spain regranted the lands claimed by those British subjects who left their lands in Florida after 1783 and "if Spain could regrant them and sell them at public auction, the United States, as the successor of Spain, are entitled to all the advantages resulting from a similar disposition of the property." They concluded that the British grants which were not confirmed by Spain are "forfeited, void, and of none effect. (161)

Louise Biles Hill

Manuscripts Editor


161. G&S, IV, 250-253. For a list of English claims, see Ibid., p. 250 and Infra, Unc. T 28-43.