WPA History of the Spanish Land Grants

The following is the original Introduction to the Spanish Land Grants in Florida, a five-volume transcription and abstraction of the Spanish land grants created and published in 1942 by the WPA's Florida Historical Records Survey, under supervision of the State Library Board. While historian Louise Biles Hill wrote the Introduction specifically as a guide for readers of that original publication, it is still useful as an extensive history of the creation, use and preservation of the Spanish land grants. Until the State Archives of Florida made them available online, the WPA's publication was the main source for researchers on the Spanish land grants and the Second Spanish Period Florida (1783-1821). For more recent research on these materials and the Second Spanish Period, see Published Works.


  1. Introduction
  2. The Spanish Archives
  3. British Land Grants in Florida
  4. Spain's Land Policy
  5. Board Of Commissioners--West Florida
  6. Board Of Commissioners--East Florida
  7. Final Disposition Of Land Claims
  8. Reasons For Non-Confirmation

The Spanish Archives

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Archives in Tallahassee consists of dossiers, or expediente, containing the papers filed in evidence before the United State Board of Commissioners; books of record containing the minutes of the Boards; transcripts of original papers and translations of some of the transcripts; maps, plats, and surveys; and a large file of untranslated Spanish documents of a miscellaneous character, labeled "Spanish Protocols, 1804-19", consisting of wills, deeds, titles, testimony, and bills of sale. Many documents for claims in West Florida are unaccountably missing. The translator often found dossiers of West Florida which contained only a survey and a certificate from the Tallahassee land office for a patent.

Each separate land claim, with its supporting documents, is encased in a manila jacket on the outside of which appear the name of the claimant, his number within the letter of the alphabet in which his name belongs, the number of acres claimed, disposition of the claim, and page reference to American State Papers. (3)


3. This systematic arrangement was mace c. 1900 by Dr. S. B. Chapin, chief clerk of the surveyor-general's office, in R. L. Scarlett's administration — C 27, Vol. II.

p. iv

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A few dossiers (4) within their jackets contain only one document; others contain several, some as many as eighty-one. Especially is the number of documents large if the claim has been through the superior court of East of West Florida, to the Supreme Court of the United States, and by it remanded to the court of origin. A dossier may, therefore, contain: 1. a petition, or memorial, to a governor for land; 2. the governor's order for information concerning the petitioner; 3. a list of members of the family and slaves, with their ages; 4. a certificate of service from the petitioner's former captain; 5. a grant by a governor, by the intendant of the army, or by the captain-general of Cuba and the Two Floridas, or if an English grant, by a governor of East or West Florida or the British Privy Council; 6. attest of the government secretary or of the Havana College of Notaries, or, if an English grant, the attest of the recorder in West Florida or East Florida; 7. attest by the United States Trade Commissioner in Havana of copies of documents in Cuban archives required by the United States Boards of Commissioners if the grant was made by a higher Spanish official in Cuba, or attest by the United States Minister to Great Britain if the grant was made during the British occupation; 8. fiat of the English governor and attorney general in Florida; 9. warrant or precept or order of survey; 10. signed plats or unfinished plats unsigned and without data; 11. testimony that conditions of the grant were or were not fulfilled; 12. lease and release, under English law, by which property was sometimes leased one day


4. The term dossier rather than its Spanish equivalent, expediente, having been employed by the translator is continued in the published volumes.

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for so many shillings a year and sold to the same party the following day for so many pounds sterling "and one peppercorn when legally demanded"; 13. instructions to notaries at a distance for taking testimony of witnesses; 14. affidavit of character and tenure; 15. deeds of sale, gifts, wills, bequests, exchanges; 16. reports on auctions of land; 17. formal application to the United States Boards of Commissioners for recognition of the claim and the decree of the commissioners, or proceedings of United States courts; 18. translations and copies of documents from Spanish archives in the United States or in Cuba (5).

American court papers within a dossier are bound together with tape, a clip, narrow ribbon, or pins. The pieces in a large Spanish dossier are usually stitched with linen thread; in the smaller ones they are pasted together or attached by seals.

The documents described are filed in steel cabinets in the vault of the Field Note Division of the Florida Department of Agriculture in the capitol at Tallahassee where they are well protected from dust, vermin, and fire. They have not always been so protected. Due to the ravages of vermin, highly acid ink, much handling and undesirable methods of filing in the past, they are exceedingly fragile and some are undecipherable.

The path of the Spanish land grant archives in reaching in permanent home in Tallahassee was a devious one. The second article of the treaty


5. Infra., Unc. A 9

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of February 22, 1819, providing for the annexation of Florida to the United States, required that the archives and documents relating directly to the property and sovereignty of that territory be left in possession of officials of the United States. Two years prior to Spain's relinquishment of the Floridas a large number of such records were removed to Havana. Even after the transfer Spanish officials continued to remove documents contrary to the regulations of the treaty until prohibited from doing so by officials of the United States. A determined effort was made by the United States Department of State to have these papers returned. Six agents — Colonel James Grant Forbes, Captain James Riddle, Judge Thomas Randall, Honorable Daniel P. Cook, General R. K. Call, and Jeremy Robinson — were sent to Havana over a period extending from 1821 to 1834 in special missions for this purpose. Each agent was prevented from achieving results by delays and corrupt practices on the part Spanish officials and American land interests. Finally a total of 45 documents was returned but they proved almost worthless. (6a)

The following account of the early history of the documents in East Florida (6b) was given by Antonio Alvarez in testimony in a suit in the


6a. A. J. Hanna: "Diplomatic Missions of the United States to Cuba to Secure the Spanish Archives" in manuscript.

6b. The provinces of East and West Florida were established and the dividing line fixed at the Apalachicola River by the King of England in the Proclamation of Oct. 7, 1763.

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superior court of East Florida in 1833: The archives were forcibly taken from the Spanish secretary's office in St. Augustine by American authority at the time of the cession and were stored at the old customs house. A commission of five was appointed to examine them and select those claimed by the United States under the treaty. As he recalled the incident, the commission did not inventory the papers but made only a list of the bundles. Three of the members of the commission, according to Alvarez, were (Patrick?) Lynch, William Reynolds, and Anthelm Gay. The papers were then stored in an office "in the lower part of a building now occupied as a court house", and were cared for by Mr. (Edmund?) Law, (Lawyer and Notary). They next went to Mr. (James S.?) Tingle, (later Clerk of the Circuit Court) and in 1823 to William Reynolds, who the previous year, Alavarez said, was appointed Keeper of the Public Archives by the Governor and the legislature meeting in Pensacola. Some of the papers while in the possession of Reynolds were delivered to Dr. Edward B. Gibson and Dr. (W. H.) Simmons. From Reynolds the papers passed to (John or Thomas) Murphy, and were delivered to Alavarez himself in 1829 (as Keeper of the Public Archives), in boxes, by the U.S. Marshal. Alavarez also received an inventory made by Reynolds and himself. (7)

Alvarez seems to have been mistaken with reference to the role of the state in the appointment of keepers. In 1822, the Territorial


7. G&S, VIII, 271-73. For sketch of Alavarez' services to the Spanish government, see Vol. II, Con, A 7.


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Council passed an Act creating the offices of Keepers of the Public Archives, appointments to be made by the governor. On July 3, 1823, the Act was amended. On January 1, 1825, when there was a blanket repeal of a number of territorial laws, the Act of 1822 was continued in force, but on November 23, 1828, it was repealed. (8) William Reynolds was notified of his appointment as commissioner to have charge of the archives of East Florida on April 5, 1823, by the U.S. Secretary of State, with Antonio Alvarez as assistant. By Presidential appointment they were superseded the next year by Edward R. Gibson and W. H. Simmons, also appointed by the President. (9)

On March 3, 1825, Congress created the offices of Keepers of the Public Archives, to be located in St. Augustine and Pensacola. (10) To the East Florida office William Reynolds was restored by presidential appointment, with Antonio Alvarez again as his assistant. (11) In 1829 Alvarez was appointed Keeper and held the office until it was abolished in 1848. (12)


8. Territorial Acts, 1822 pp. 64-67; Ibid., 1823, pp. 117-118; Ibid., 1825, p. 303; Ibid., 1828, p. 208.

9. DG, III, 772; Minutes of the U.S. Board of Commissioners for East Florida — Ibid., IV, 290. The appointment of new commissioners may have been the result of the charges which Alexander Hamilton made against Reynolds and Alavarez in 1824.—Infra., pp. xliv-xlv.

10. U.S. Sta. at Large, IV, 126-127.

11. Minutes of the U.S. Board of Commissioners for East Florida —DG, IV, 280.

12. A photograph of Alvarez' commission, signed by John Quincy Adams as President and Henry Clay as Secretary of State, hangs on the wall of the "Oldest House" in St. Augustine. The original is owned by Mrs. Reyes of St. Augustine, who had it from a relative, Geronimo Llambias, who was the son of a sister of Alvarez. — Information supplied by Miss Emily L. Wilson of St. Augustine.

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The archives for West Florida which had not been sent to Havana were taken in charge by Gen. Andrew Jackson at the time of the exchange of flags and were for some time handled in much the same way as the East Florida documents. Certified copies of documents in the public archives pertaining to Spanish land grants, and in some cases the originals, were used by the U.S. Boards of Commissioners in East and West Florida and, with other documents in possession of the Boards, were by law turned over to the respective Keepers when the Boards and their successors, the Registers and Receivers and the Land offices in East and West Florida, had completed the work of adjudicating land claims. (13)

In 1844 Congress raised the question of dispensing with the offices of Keepers of the Public Archives in Florida and transferring the records to the office of the Commissioner of the General Land Office or to some public office in the Territory of Florida. The committee on public lands reported adversely and the resolution was tabled. (14) Four years later, however, in a deficiency appropriation, the offices were abolished, (15) and the Secretary of the Treasury, through the Commissioner of the General land Office in Washington, on October 16, 1848, instructed Antonio Alvarez and Joseph F. Caro, Keepers for East and West Florida respectively, to make schedule in duplicate of the archives in their possession and delivered, each, one of the schedules and the archives to Robert Butler, United


13. U.S. Stat. at Large, IV, 126, 202-203, 204, 285, 406.

14. Report No. 140, H. of R., 28th Congress, 1 session.

15. U.S. Stat. at Large, IX, 2156.

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States Surveyor-General for Florida, whose office was in St. Augustine. Each of the Keepers was to retain one schedule, signed by the Surveyor-General, as a receipt. (16)

Neither of the late Keepers complied and on May 7, 1849, Commissioner Young of the General Land Office instructed Benjamin A. Putnam, who had succeeded Butler, (17) to demand the archives for East Florida from Alvarez. (18) As for the West Florida archives, the Commissioner stated that he would instruct the clerk of the United States district court at Pensacola to demand and receive them from Caro and hold them at Pensacola until either the surveyor-general should be ordered by the Dept. of the Interior, which now had charge of the matter, to take possession of them, or until some other disposition should be made under the fifth section of the Act of Congress of March 3, 1849. This Act, making appropriations for the civil and diplomatic expenses of the government, directed, "That whenever it shall be shown to the President of the United States that the State of Florida has by law provided for the safe custody of the public archives, which were formerly kept at St. Augustine and Pensacola, it shall be lawful for him to cause to be delivered to duly authorized officers of the state, such of the archives as do not relate to grants of land which remain unconfirmed or unsurveyed, provided that the President of the United States may suspend the execution of this provision, if in


16. Richard M. Young, Commissioner of General Land Office, to Robert Butler — "Letters from Commissioner". Col. V. 1847-49, p. 505, in Field Note Division, Department of Agriculture, Tallahassee.

17. Ibid., p. 557

18. Ibid., pp. 583-87.

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his judgment the public interest requires it." (19)

The differences in the disposition proposed at this time by the Commissioner for the East Florida archives and those in West Florida was probably due in part to the fact that the former were in a "safe building, the property of the government," as stated by the Commissioner in letter of October 16, 1848, which building in all probability was Government House, where the Board of Commissioners had held its sessions, The commissioner authorized that the office of the archives should, after the delivery, be considered a part of the surveyor-general's office.

Another and probably a stronger reason for not insisting upon bringing the West Florida archives to St. Augustine as at first proposed was the evident opposition of state authorities to the plan. On January 11, 1849, the Florida legislature provided by law for offices for the Spanish Archives at St. Augustine and Pensacola, the appointment of Keepers for a term of two years to be made by the Governor and Senate. As soon as Congress should provide for transferring to the state the Spanish records and documents "which are now, or which have been, in the office of the Keepers of the public archives in the said cities of St. Augustine and Pensacola," the Keepers to be appointed under state law were "to ask for, demand and receive from the United Sates the records…which now are or have


19. Ibid.; U.S. Stat. At Large, IX, 370.

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been in the office" in East and West Florida (20).

On January 15, 1849, Joseph E. Caro was commissioned, by the State, Keeper of the West Florida Spanish Archives for a term of two years. (21) An act of the legislature in 1861 authorized Filo E. de la Rua, Clerk of the Circuit Court of Escambia County, "to hold, exercise and perform the duties of the office of Keeper of the Spanish Archives at the City of Pensacola, to which said office he has heretofore been appointed by the Governor and General Assembly of this State." (22)

In Ordinance Number 20 the Secession Convention of January 1, 1861, abolished certain Federal offices and ordained "that the Surveyor-General of the late Federal Government be instructed to deliver over to the Register of Public Lands at St. Augustine all the papers and property appertaining to said office,…" (23) The Constitutional Convention, on October 28, 1865, repealed the ordinances of the Secession Convention, including the one mentioned above. (24)

The archives for East Florida were delivered by Alvarez to the surveyor-general in St. Augustine on June 5, 1849, and on June 7, 1849, the surveyor-general reported the matter to Commissioner Young, stating that in accord with instructions he had had the files and furniture, which belonged to Alvarez, appraised. A requisition for $122 was issued in favor


20. Florida Acts, 1849, Ch. 281.

21. "Commission Records," Book D, p. 362, in office of Secretary of State, Tallahassee.

22. Florida Acts, 1861, Ch. 1296, sec. 1

23. Journal of the Proceedings of the Convention of the People of Florida…1861 (Tallahassee, 1861), reprinted (Jacksonville, 1929), p. 119.

24. Harry B. Skillman, comp. The Compiled General Laws of Florida, 1927 (Atlanta, 1929), p. 163.

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of Alvarez by the Commissioner. (25)

On June 22, 1869, Joseph S. Wilson, Commissioner of the General Land Office, Washington, instructed M. L. Stearns of Quincy, Florida, newly appointed surveyor-general for the state, to remove the surveyor-general's office to Tallahassee from St. Augustine, "the location of the office prior to the commencement of our late domestic difficulties in 1861." Seven days later the surveyor-general reported that he had arrived in Tallahassee on the 27th in his official capacity. Instructed to obtain for his office the Spanish archives stored in St. Augustine, Stearns found that the U.S. District Attorney, H. Bisbee, Jr. at Jacksonville, had never had them in his possession and had no knowledge of them. Stearns found them in the custody of J. H. Goss, Collector of Customs, Port of St. Augustine, who turned them over to him. There were seven large boxes but no invoice. (26)

When in 1907, the Federal government made known its intention to abolish the office of surveyor-general, a state law directed the Commissioner of Agriculture to take charge of all field notes, surveys, maps, plats, papers, and records, a part of which were those pertaining to Spanish land grants, and created the Field Note Division as depository. (27)


25. B. A. Putnam to Commissioner Young. — "Letters of Surveyor-General," 1849-1853, Vol. VIII, p. 10. Reply of Commissioner, "Letters from Commissioner," Vol. v, p. 641.

26. "Letters from Commissioner," 1869-1873, Vol. IX, pp.3-4; "Letters of Surveyor-General," 1869-1881, Vol. XI, p. 3; Stearns to Wilson, Ibid., p. 9

27. Florida Acts, Ch. 5611, No. 16, Acts of 1907, approved May 22; Twenty-fifth Biennial Report of the Department of Agriculture of the State of Florida: Land and Field Note Division…1836-1838. Tallahassee, July 1, 1938.

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