Florida’s Territorial Legislative Council met for the first time in the territory’s newly designated capital of Tallahassee in November 1824. In preparation for the meeting, local planters erected three log cabins to house the delegates. One of these cabins served as the meeting place for the delegates and thereby became Florida’s first Capitol building.
The inadequate size and temporary nature of the first Capitol led the Legislative Council to authorize the construction of a permanent two-story building to house Florida’s territorial government. The Council created a three-man commission to oversee the development of the new capital city and the building of one wing of the new Capitol building, which would be paid for from the proceeds of sales of city lots. Due to the importance of the Capitol project, Governor William Pope DuVal, Florida’s first territorial governor, proposed that one of the three commissioners be designated to manage the building’s construction. The cornerstone of the second Capitol was laid on January 7, 1826, but arguments over design and construction delayed the awarding of a building contract. In 1828, Commissioner John P. DuVal, the governor’s brother and the Tallahassee commissioner responsible for managing the building of the Capitol, awarded the construction contract to Benjamin G. Thornton and Jesse H. Willis of Leon County, who were supposed to complete the work for $23,000 ($17,000 for Thornton, the principal contractor, and $6,000 for Willis, who would supply the bricks).
Thornton and Willis’ contract proved to be an ill-fated enterprise, however; the Tallahassee city commission never had enough funds to pay them, and the Legislative Council never appropriated enough money. Thornton filed a lawsuit against the territory for payment, but his suit was rejected and he lost his fortune paying for the case and in subsequent litigation. Eventually, a jury ruled in Thornton’s favor after the Tallahassee city commissioners sued him for non-performance of work. The jury, however, did not award Thornton any money and the case continued until 1842 when the Legislative Council awarded him money in a relief bill. By that time, the Council had scrapped the second Capitol venture in favor of a new building project that resulted in the completion of the third Capitol in 1845, the year Florida achieved statehood.
In the following letter, William Wyatt, a building contractor and hotelier (who built and ran the Planter’s Hotel, one of Tallahassee’s earliest hotels), complains to Governor DuVal about losing the bid to build the second Capitol to Thornton and Willis. Wyatt later served as a delegate from Leon County to Florida’s 1838 constitutional convention and became a leader in Florida’s Whig Party. He eventually created a successful sugarcane plantation in Manatee County and died in 1850.1
1Allen Morris and Joan Perry Morris, comps., The Florida Handbook 2007-2008(Tallahassee: Peninsular Publishing Company, 2007): 265-270; John Kilgore, “Florida’s Capitol,” Tallahassee Historical Society Annual, vol. 3 (1937): 8-13; Bureau of Historic Sites and Properties, Division of Archives, History, and Records Management, Department of State, entry on William Wyatt in “The Delegates to the Saint Joseph Constitutional Convention 1838-1839” (July 1980).
The following transcription of Wyatt’s letter contains all of the original text (no changes have been made in spelling or grammar).
Tallahassee April 22 1828
To his Excellency William P. Duval
Governor of Florida
My proposals for building the capitol has this day been rejected by the commissioner of the city of Tallahassee, which was lower by 9,000 Dollars then the one given by Messrs Thornton and Willis, which he has accepted, and is about to close the contract with. I think that the interest of the Territory require that the capitol should be built on the best possible terms, at any rate the sum of nine thousand dollars should not be paid over and above, the amount I am willing to complete it for.
I will call the attention of Your Excellency to the 11 th section of a Law laying off the Town of Tallahassee when it is made the duty of the governor to correct any conduct of this sort by the commissioner, as well as to gain the interest of the Territory, in the erection of the public buildings. I have coppies of my proposals and can sadisfy you on this subject at any time.
Respectfully yr servt