Land surveying is a precise business, at least most of the time. The goal of the surveyor is to show as accurately as possible the boundary lines of a person’s property, usually in relation to a written legal description. Surveyors will readily tell you that is both a science and an art, but there’s one Florida surveyor who took that idea to a whole new level. Take a look at this survey plat drawn by Robert McHardy in 1818:
If you’ve seen a modern survey plat, you’ll recognize that this goes above and beyond showing someone where the boundaries and corners of their property are. That begs the question, who was Robert McHardy, and why did he take such an elaborate, colorful approach to land surveying?
Robert McHardy was born in Montrose, Scotland in 1776. As young adults, he and his brother James worked for a mercantile business, sailing back and forth between Scotland and Charleston, South Carolina and the West Indies. In the late 1700s, the two brothers decided to strike out on their own. They moved to Nassau in the Bahamas and set up their own firm. Business was good for the McHardys until around 1800 when a family friend failed to repay a fairly large loan. Robert, having just married and looking to get his finances back in order, decided to take advantage of a trend that was taking place just across the water in Spanish Florida.
Since taking Florida back from the British in 1783, Spanish authorities had been trying to convince settlers to move into the province and make it profitable. They offered to let the people who moved in during the period of British ownership keep their land, but they had to take an oath of fidelity to the Spanish Crown, which at the time also meant converting to Catholicism. Many of the British settlers chose not to accept these terms, and instead moved north into Georgia or to British islands in the Caribbean, especially the Bahamas.
Seeing that the religious requirement was the main stumbling block, the Spanish tried offering Florida land to Irish Catholics, but only a few families took advantage of the program. In 1790, the King issued an order inviting non-Spanish individuals to settle in Florida regardless of their religion. New immigrants would be offered “head rights,” meaning they would receive free land based on the number of persons–slave or free–that they brought into the province to establish a plantation. That offer was awfully tempting for British nationals like Robert McHardy in Nassau. In 1802, he and his wife Mary and their young family moved to Spanish Florida with their nine slaves, which entitled them to a sizable chunk of land to begin farming. The McHardys initially settled with a cluster of other Bahama transfers near New Smyrna, but they later acquired property near Mary’s father around present-day Tomoka, where they set up their main planting operation.
McHardy’s luck was hard in the decade that followed. Five of his six children died, as did his wife Mary. The one child who survived, John Bunch Bonnemaison McHardy, was sent to live with his mother’s relatives in Nassau. In 1812, McHardy became embroiled in the disturbance that came to be known as the “Patriot War.” A group of Georgians, with the tacit approval of the United States government, invaded Spanish Florida aiming to seize it and transfer it to United States control. The effort failed, but not before the so-called Patriots caused plenty of damage to the plantations of settlers who didn’t join their cause. McHardy was British and had a lot in common with the Americans, but he chose to support the Spanish administration in St. Augustine rather than endorsing the rebels’ plan to annex Florida to the United States at that time. In return, the Patriots ransacked his plantation at Tomoka, knocking down his fences and destroying his crops. They also took McHardy prisoner, although he was later released. McHardy would later be awarded damages from the United States government for his trouble, although he had been dead for years by the time the litigation was complete.
Things began looking up for Robert McHardy after these trying years. In 1816, he remarried to Caroline Williams, one of his neighbors in the Tomoka area. He also began surveying for the Spanish government, who by this time was giving away land grants for a variety of reasons. The old head rights system was still in play, but a person could also obtain land grants for government or military service, or for starting a mill or cattle ranch. Once a person had applied for one of these kinds of grants, they had to present their paperwork to the public surveyor, who would then lay out the boundaries and corners of the land. George J.F. Clarke was the public surveyor at St. Augustine from 1811 until the end of Spanish rule in Florida, but he had a number of surveyors working under him at his direction. McHardy was one of them.
McHardy’s survey plats are the most colorful and detailed maps found in the Spanish land grant records at the State Archives. Surveyors were given a detailed set of instructions explaining exactly what was supposed to be included in the plats, but McHardy went beyond just showing the compass bearings and distances that defined a piece of land. He used color and illustrations to convey the shape of the terrain, marking out forests, swamps, pine uplands, buildings, roads and canals.
Marking the location of corners was particularly important. Today’s surveyors use metal rods or concrete monuments to mark corners, but this system was impractical in the 1810s, long before modern metal detectors and measuring devices were available. Instead, surveyors like McHardy used trees for property corners. They would shave the bark off one or more sides of the tree and carve letters into it. On the excerpt from the survey plat below, for example, you can see the phrase Pino Marcado B, meaning “pine marked B.” This enabled the landowner (John Bolton in this case) and his neighbors to know exactly where the corner of the property was located. Pine trees appear to have been the most common boundary marker, but in looking through the records you also see oak trees and even royal palm trees on occasion.
The level of detail in Robert McHardy’s survey plats was especially helpful because in those days there was no reliable grid system to use to describe the exact location of land. Latitude and longitude could be calculated, but not with anywhere near the kind of precision needed for land surveying. The land measurement system we use today–the Public Land Survey System–was only established after the United States acquired Florida, so that wasn’t available either. In the absence of anything better, McHardy’s careful representation of the physical appearance of a piece of property helped the government, the owner and his neighbors understand where the property was in real space.
All that being said, McHardy’s plats are far from perfect. Since his time, the terrain has changed considerably and many of the parcels of land shown on his maps have been transferred many times and divided into pieces. So if you’re a genealogist, a local historian or just plain curious, how can you tell where a former Spanish land grant was located? The State Archives is working to make it easier to do just that!
When the United States acquired Florida, one of the first priorities was to start selling land to settlers so they could move in and develop the territory. That meant measuring the land into some kind of system so pieces of it could be accurately described. The government had a system in mind already, but there was a problem. In acquiring Florida from Spain, the Americans had promised the Spanish that they would respect any legitimate land titles granted to individuals during the time the Spanish owned the territory. Those grants came in all kinds of crazy shapes and sizes–nothing like the grid-based parcels the Americans planned to sell. To avoid accidentally selling off land that rightfully belonged to landowners left over from the Spanish period, the American government surveyors had to show exactly where those Spanish land grants were in relation to the new grid system. Accordingly, many of the township plats around Pensacola and northeastern Florida look like this:
Many records relating to the Spanish land grants have been available on FloridaMemory.com for years, but up to this point they have only been searchable by the name of the person claiming to own the land as of the 1820s, plus geographic terms typical for that time period. We’re now in the process of cross-referencing between the Spanish land grant records, township plats like the one above and a variety of other documents to pinpoint exactly where each of the 1,000-plus Spanish land grants were located. Soon, you’ll be able to browse a modern map of Florida, zoom in on whichever area you like and see the Spanish land grants located there. You’ll also be able to search for grants by county, the nearest town and other criteria. These changes will make it easier to use the collection for family and community history research. We hope you’ll also take some time to simply enjoy the colorful maps in the records, like those drawn by Robert McHardy.