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.

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).