Florida’s First Civil Governor

What do you know about territorial Florida’s first civil governor, William Pope DuVal? If you aren’t familiar with the governor’s backstory, you’re in luck. James M. Denham, Professor of History at Florida Southern University, has recently released a biography of DuVal entitled Florida Founder William P. DuVal, Frontier Bon Vivant. Moreover, Dr. Denham will be speaking about Governor DuVal and the book at Mission San Luis in Tallahassee on Friday, January 29th at 7:00pm. Admission is free; the details may be found on the Mission’s Events Calendar.

But who was William Pope DuVal, and how did he end up as Florida’s first civilian chief executive?

Governor William Pope DuVal (circa 1830).

Governor William Pope DuVal (circa 1830).

DuVal was born in 1784 at Mount Comfort, Virginia, not far from Richmond. His father was a lawyer, and at the age of 14 DuVal decided to follow the same career. He read law in Bardstown, Kentucky and was admitted to the bar at 19.

President Monroe appointed young DuVal United States Judge for the eastern district of the newly acquired territory of Florida in May 1821. John C. Calhoun, a friend of DuVal’s who was then serving as Monroe’s Secretary of War, had put in a good word for the young lawyer with the President. DuVal’s career took another fortunate turn the following year when President Monroe appointed him governor. DuVal took over administration of the territory from General Andrew Jackson, who had served as military governor until Congress could establish a civil government for the new province.

DuVal served four three-year terms (1822-1834) as governor, leading Florida through a variety of early challenges as a territory. The very act of administrating the new province was one of the toughest. Commercial and political activity was concentrated at Pensacola and St. Augustine, which were separated by nearly 400 miles of sparse wilderness. The trip between these ports by boat took nearly as long as a land voyage and had its own inherent dangers. The answer, territorial officials determined, was to construct a new capital someplace between the two main cities. DuVal appointed two commissioners, John Lee Williams of Pensacola and Dr. William H. Simmons of St. Augustine to determine the best location. Tallahassee was the result; DuVal proclaimed it the capital on March 4, 1824.

Replica of Florida's first capitol, established at Tallahassee in 1824. The replica was built by local Boy Scouts in honor of Florida's centennial celebration (1924).

Replica of Florida’s first capitol, established at Tallahassee in 1824. The replica was built by local Boy Scouts in honor of Florida’s centennial celebration (1924).

Governor DuVal was also at the center of one of the most contentious issues of Florida’s territorial era: banking. As is the case with most frontier societies, early Florida planters were in constant need of capital and credit to build up their plantations and create more wealth for themselves and the territory. The problem was that the basis for much of Florida’s existing wealth at that time was tied up in those same plantations, with no banking facilities to offer any liquidity. Leading citizens attempted on several occasions to get a branch of the United States Bank established in Florida, but nothing came of their efforts.

Meanwhile, Governor DuVal opposed the territorial legislature’s attempts to create a local territorial bank. He argued that the charters proposed by lawmakers lacked specific guarantees that notes would always be redeemed in specie upon demand. He also believed the charters should have contained provisions for forfeiture in the event of malfeasance by the bank directors, and that directors should be restricted from taking out large loans from their own bank. DuVal ultimately vetoed over a dozen bank charters in the 1820s. A few passed over his veto, but none lasted very long.

Then came the Union Bank, chartered in 1833 without a veto from DuVal. The Union Bank was an unusual institution, in that its stock was to be secured by public bonds. In other words, the territorial legislature was so desperate for capital that it allowed a private bank to do business supported by the credit of the territory itself! The scheme worked for a while, but mismanagement, the Panic of 1837, and a severe drought in 1840 combined forces to ultimately doom the bank and attract a Congressional investigation.

A bond drawn on the credit of the Territory of Florida and put at the disposal of the Union Bank. Notice that the bond is signed by Governor William Pope DuVal as chief executive of the territory (1834).

A bond drawn on the credit of the Territory of Florida and put at the disposal of the Union Bank. Notice that the bond is signed by Governor William Pope DuVal as chief executive of the territory (1834).

By this time, DuVal had returned to private life, practicing law in Florida until he moved to Texas in 1848. He died while on a trip to Washington, D.C. on March 19, 1854, and was interred in the Congressional Cemetery.

DuVal’s name is commemorated in a number of place names around the state (usually without the capital “V”). Streets carrying the name Duval may be found in Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Key West, Pensacola, and many other towns and cities. Duval County was named for the governor in 1822.

Find more images of Governor William Pope DuVal and Florida’s other governors by searching the Florida Photographic Collection.

When Florida Touched the Mississippi

The calm, winding Perdido River currently serves as Florida’s western boundary, but that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, for much of the 18th and early 19th centuries, Florida’s territory extended all the way to the Mississippi River!

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A County Governed by an Island

Thomas Paine once argued for American independence from Great Britain by declaring it was absurd for a continent to be governed by an island. Curiously enough, similar arrangements have occurred in Florida, albeit on a smaller scale and lacking the part about absurdity. Monroe County, for example, is headquartered at Key West, but possesses a great deal of territory on the mainland. If you count Amelia Island as a true island, you could say the same for Nassau County. What many folks don’t realize is that Dade County was once governed from an island as well.

A portion of J.H. Colton's 1853 Map of Florida showing Indian Key and vicinity.

A portion of J.H. Colton’s 1853 Map of Florida showing Indian Key and vicinity.

It’s hard to imagine Dade County without Miami at the center of its government, but that is indeed how it began. When the Legislative Council established Dade County with the Governor’s approval on January 28, 1836, it included all of the Florida Keys from Bahia Honda Key to the mainland. It also included a large chunk of the peninsula, with boundaries running from Cable Sable on the Gulf Coast north to Lake Okeechobee and then southeast to the Hillsborough River and the Atlantic Coast. Indian Key, which is located roughly between the Upper and Lower Matecumbe keys, became the inaugural county seat.

Aerial view of Indian Key (circa 1990s).

Aerial view of Indian Key (circa 1990s).

Indian Key might be small, but surely you’ve heard what they say about dynamite in small packages. The island was already inhabited, primarily by people associated with a wrecking business belonging to a man named Jacob Houseman. The Keys were notorious for their shipwrecks, and men like Houseman made a living from salvaging their cargoes. In 1828, Houseman petitioned Congress to make Indian Key an official United States port of entry. His supporting documentation claimed there were 47 people living on the island: 21 white and 26 black.

An image from Herper's New Monthly Magazine (1870-71).

An image from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (1870-71).

A serious calamity befell Indian Key during the Second Seminole War. On August 7, 1840, Seminole Indians attacked the island, killing several of its inhabitants and burning the buildings. With the county seat destroyed and abandoned, local government of Dade County essentially ceased. In 1841, the territorial legislature adjusted the jurisdiction of the Monroe County Superior Court so it could handle most of the cases arising in Dade County. The acting clerk of the Dade County Court wrote the governor apologetically in 1843, explaining that he had deviated from the law a great deal in conducting elections that year. The county seat was vacant, he explained, and hardly anyone was around to vote, let alone supervise a poll or canvass the results. Using his own money, then, the acting clerk procured a book, canvassed the votes, and made out the returns himself.

The legislature voted to legalize the clerk’s actions, but the lawmakers realized that something more had to be done. With Indian Key devoid of people or facilities for carrying on the administration of the county, the local government needed a new location. On March 9, 1844, the legislature voted to move the seat of Dade County to Miami, where it remains today.

Map of Indian Key (1840).

Map of Indian Key (1840).

Indian Key is now reserved as a state park. Visitors can take a boat or kayak out to the island when the waves are calm. Park officials have recreated parts of the original street grid, and interpretive markers explain the unique history of the island.

Richard Keith Call Collection Now Online at Florida Memory

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.

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Tallahassee Designated Capital of the Florida Territory

On March 4, 1824, Governor William P. Duval issued a proclamation designating Tallahassee capital of the Florida territory.

Tallahassee was chosen as the location best suited for the territorial capital because it lay about halfway between Florida’s two principal towns: Pensacola and St. Augustine. Prior to Duval’s proclamation, territorial leaders alternated between Pensacola and St. Augustine for the first two sessions of the Territorial Council. Travel by land was long and arduous as no complete road linked East and West Florida. The treacherous journey by sea through the Florida Straits convinced Florida’s leading politicians of the need to establish a new seat of government within reasonable overland travel of its major settlements.

Excerpts from The Territorial Papers of the United States, Volume XXII: The Territory of Florida, 1821-1824, compiled and edited by Clarence Edwin Carter (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1956), 854-855.

Excerpts from The Territorial Papers of the United States, Volume XXII: The Territory of Florida, 1821-1824, compiled and edited by Clarence Edwin Carter (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1956), 854-855.

Excerpts from The Territorial Papers of the United States, Volume XXII: The Territory of Florida, 1821-1824, compiled and edited by Clarence Edwin Carter (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1956), 854-855.

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