Florida Memory is excited to announce that the papers of Florida’s third and fifth territorial governor Richard Keith Call are now online and accessible for viewing. The collection was made available for digitization with the assistance of the Florida Historical Society, which holds the original documents.
Call was twice the territorial governor of Florida (1836-1839, 1841-1844), as well as a general in the state militia, a state legislator, and a Congressional delegate for Florida prior to statehood. The documents in this collection illuminate several aspects of our state’s territorial and early statehood history, including territorial politics, the challenges of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), and the emergence of Florida as a state. Moreover, the collection provides intriguing portraits of Call and his family, whose personalities and contributions make this a most useful addition to the State Library and Archives’ Florida Memory website for researchers and Florida history enthusiasts.
Although Call is most often remembered for his service as a military commander and governor, his Florida journey began much sooner, before the territory was a United States possession. Call accompanied General Andrew Jackson on his controversial invasion of Spanish Florida (1818) during the First Seminole War, and defended the general against the criticism that followed. Although the Spanish government protested Jackson’s intrusion, it was at that time in no position to force a showdown over the matter. Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1819, and following ratification of the transaction in 1821 President James Monroe appointed Jackson to become the state’s provisional governor. At Jackson’s request, Call went to Pensacola to prepare for the general’s arrival. Call and Jackson both had hoped that President Monroe would appoint Call as the Secretary of West Florida, but Monroe chose instead to appoint George Walton, II of Georgia to that post, citing the fact that he had already granted Call the favor of a commission as captain in the Army at a time when the military was downsizing.
Despite this setback, Call served the young territory in a number of other ways. He represented Pensacola in the legislative sessions of 1822 and 1823, with broad support from his constituents. In 1823, Call was elected as Florida’s delegate to Congress. Although as a territorial representative he was unable to vote, Call worked diligently on behalf of Florida’s interests. He persuaded Congress to provide a quarter section of land for the territorial capital that would eventually be built at Tallahassee, and he argued for bills excluding foreign commercial fishermen from Florida waters and authorizing the layout of new public roads in the territory.
Following a period of indecision over whether to run again for Congressional delegate, Call left Washington and returned to Florida in 1825 as the receiver of public monies for the government land office in Tallahassee. He also pursued a lucrative law practice, and used the proceeds from both of his positions to buy up public lands in the fertile Middle Florida region, especially in Jefferson and Leon counties.
Although Call was generally popular, he was known for having a terrible temper at times, and he was not entirely without enemies in Florida. Call’s political opponents often made thinly veiled jabs at the cluster of officials close to him at the government land office, referring to them as “the land office circle” or “the Nucleus.” Perhaps Call’s most ardent enemy was Colonel Joseph M. White, who had replaced him as Florida’s Congressional delegate in 1825. Call and White had been on the outs for years, but the politics surrounding that election made matters much worse. The two politicians traded insults that ultimately drove them to the brink of a duel, which they avoided only through careful negotiations and the assistance of several intermediaries.
Andrew Jackson, who had been elected President of the United States in 1828 and again in 1832, appointed Call territorial governor of Florida in March 1836, elevating him to the highest political post of his career. Call’s first administration was dominated by the difficulties of the Second Seminole War that had begun in 1835. As an increasing number of settlers moved into Florida, they came into conflict with the resident Seminole Indians, who still occupied much of the territory. The federal government struggled to resolve the problem diplomatically, but ultimately tensions broke out into open conflict. The United States Army entered Florida and attempted to pacify and expel the natives, but they refused to go quietly.
The conventionally trained Army and its commanders were ill-equipped to deal with the situation, and months passed with little progress to show for their efforts. Governor Call fumed over the delays in bringing the war to a close. He called the Army’s performance disgraceful, and complained that the Navy had done little to stop maritime trade between the Seminoles and foreign powers. Firmly believing that he could do what the regular generals had thus far failed to do, Call wrote directly to President Jackson outlining a plan for victory. In June 1836, the governor got his chance. Secretary of War Lewis Cass informed him that he would have command of the militia and enlisted forces in Florida. It was, of course, an unusual situation for a sitting governor to take the field as commander in such a broad operation, but Call set himself to the task with enthusiasm, calling for supplies and reinforcements from other states as he prepared to march.
For all his confidence, Call’s performance as a commander was mixed, and following a series of questionable moves in central Florida, President Jackson and Benjamin F. Butler, Jackson’s acting Secretary of War, elected to relieve the governor of his command. Call was hurt by the episode, especially since he believed his friend Jackson had made his decision without having heard all the facts of the case. The two were never as close afterward.
Call’s political fortunes also began to sour around this time. Martin Van Buren succeeded Andrew Jackson to the presidency of the United States in 1837, which left Call without one of his most powerful allies in Washington. Furthermore, the governor made something of a nuisance of himself with continued critiques of the federal government’s efforts to end the Seminole War in Florida. The changing political landscape of the times played a role as well, as the lines between parties became firmer and Call and Van Buren found themselves on opposites of the developing political spectrum. In 1839, the President appointed Robert Raymond Reid to succeed Call as territorial governor of Florida. Call felt snubbed, but he understood that party politics had been to blame.
Call campaigned on behalf of William Henry Harrison, who succeeded Van Buren to the presidency in 1841, and Harrison promptly restored Call to the territorial governorship of Florida. The problems of Call’s second term were mostly economic, as the territory’s banks had gotten themselves into serious debt through irresponsible speculation and poor management. Foreign bondholders were putting increasing pressure on the territorial government for some kind of solution. Call worked with the legislature to hammer out a way of resolving these debts without bankrupting the government or tarnishing the credit of the territory. As the end of Call’s term approached, he began hearing rumors that President John Tyler would not reappoint him. These reports turned out to be true, and in August 1844 John Branch succeeded him as territorial governor.
Meanwhile, Florida’s territorial delegate David Levy and his political allies had convinced Congress to elevate Florida to statehood. On March 3, 1845, Florida became the 27th state in the Union, necessitating an election for a new state governor and legislature. Call had already determined not to run for the office of governor, but a group of petitioners urged him to stand for election, and he did. The Democratic party, whose national leaders had been at odds with Call for some time, held the political high ground in Florida at the time, and Call was defeated in favor of William Dunn Moseley, who took office June 25, 1845.
Relieved of political office, Call turned his attention to his law practice and the cultivation of his land. By this time he had purchased a second plantation, Orchard Pond, located north of Tallahassee, where he began conducting agricultural experiments in order to find an alternative to hemp fiber that could be raised in Florida. One of his most promising leads came from a species of yucca called “bear grass,” which he promoted.
Call’s final major contribution to Florida politics occurred in connection with the secession crisis that preceded the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War. In the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, Democrats across the South began gathering in state conventions to discuss the possibility of leaving the Union rather than stay and face the chance that slavery might be undermined. Call, while a staunchly conservative slaveowner, considered secession a dangerous path for Florida to take. Although he was not selected to represent Leon County in Florida’s secession convention, he took to the press with an appeal calling for calm and cautious action rather than a hasty or rash response to the national situation. Call’s suggestion went unheeded, and the convention voted on January 10, 1861 for Florida to secede from the United States. Ellen Call Long wrote in her book Florida Breezes that upon being told by some of the delegates what they had done, Governor Call raised his cane above his head and said, “And what have you done? You have opened the gates of hell, from which shall flow the curses of the damned, which shall sink you to perdition.”
Governor Call died September 14, 1862 at The Grove, his first plantation, located in Tallahassee. This house, later owned by Governor LeRoy Collins and his wife Mary Call Collins, a descendant of Governor Call, is now owned by the State of Florida and operated by the Division of Historical Resources in the Florida Department of State. Once opened to the public in fall 2014, The Grove will feature educational exhibits on all three of its meticulously restored floors, as well as the surrounding grounds.
In addition to the topics discussed here, Governor Call’s papers contain a number of materials relating to his eldest daughter, Ellen Call Long, who was an avid writer and historian of Florida, as well as other members of his family. Click here to access the full collection.