Spanish Land Grants

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

British Land Grants in Florida

By the Treaty of Paris which in 1763 ended the Seven Years War, Spain ceded to Great Britain the province of Florida. In the war with Spain during the American Revolution, Great Britain lost West Florida to Spain and in 1783 ceded to her both Floridas. In these twenty years of British occupation the government made rapid progress in colonization, granting thousands of acres of land. The treaty of 1763 and instructions to British governors promised to Spanish subjects recognition of all authentic titles to immovable property. To those who wished to remain in Florida the British government offered liberty in their Catholic religion. Those who preferred to emigrate were given eighteen months in which to dispose of their property, provided they sold to British subjects. There was no difficulty over the private property in St. Augustine but when Jesse Fish and John Gordon acquired ten million acres of land to dispose of for Spanish citizens, in addition to the property in St. Augustine, the British government disallowed the sale. The Spanish civilian population had been too small, the British government felt, to have acquired authentic titles to that quantity of land. (28) These lands were later granted to British subjects.


28. Charles L. Mowat. East Florida as a British Province, 1763-1764. PhD thesis in University of Minnesota Library, 1939, pp. 6, 336. Emigration was encouraged by the Spanish government which provided settlements for its subjects in Cuba and sent a commissioner to Florida to make valuation of property favorable to the owners, the government making up the difference between the valuation and the price received.—Ibid., p. 24.

p. xv

In line with their usual policy toward the Indians the British in 1765 made a treaty with them in which a definite boundary was fixed. By the terms of the treaty the area south of St. Marys River and east of the St. Johns River, together with the entire coast line, was opened to colonization. (29)

Land in Florida was offered to settlers by the British government under the so-called "family right," to be granted by the councils of East and West Florida. The head of a family could obtain 100 acres and for each member of the family, whether white or black, 50 acres. If a family could cultivate more, a patent for an additional amount up to 1,000 acres would be issued, with other grants if conditions were fulfilled. The number of acres to be cleared or drained each year and the number of livestock to be maintained were specified. Grants were laid out in parallelograms, the front measuring one-third of the length. That the choicest locations might not be monopolized by the few, the length extended inland rather than along a highway, river, or creek. (30) Quitrents of one half-penny per acre were required after the first two years of grace.


29. Spain never made formal treaties with the Indians, although the Law of the Indies recognized the right of Indians to the land they occupied and used. When a village site or other Indian land was taken, they were compensated with lands elsewhere, or individual grantees purchased the Indian titles. — Eighteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, 1896-97. Part 2. "Indian Land Cessions in the United States." Complied by Charles C. Royce, pp. 539-42. See also a discussion of the subject in G&S, VIII, 259, and R. K. Call's caustic criticism of the decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Mitchell et al vs. U.S. in Ibid., pp. 256-260.

30. G&S, V, 757.

p. xvi

Grants of 20,000 acres or more were made only by Orders of the King in Council, to those who petitioned the Board of Trade promising to settle a specified number of families upon the land within a given time. On such grants quitrent was payable on half the acreage after five years, on the whole after ten years." (31)

In the decade following 1765 the Council of East Florida made 576 grants on "family right" totaling more than 210,000 acres, and 114 grants, totaling 1,443, 000 acres, by the King in Council. After the American Revolution began Florida became the mecca for loyalists from the southern colonies, who were offered land free of quitrents for ten years. (32) Among those receiving large grants from the British government were Denys Rolle (33) and Dr. Andrew Turnbull. The latter established at New Smyrna 1,400 Minorcans, Greeks, and Italians, the largest initial American colony in the history of what was later the United States. (34)

Six steps were necessary in making an English grant under "family right": 1. application to the register and council, the applicant stating the size of his family and the number of slaves he posses, if any;


31. Charles L. Mowat, "The Land Policy in British East Florida," Agricultural History, Vol. XIV (April 1940), p. 75.

32, Ibid., p. 77; Wilbur H. Siebert, Loyalists in East Florida, 1774-1785, 2 vols., Deland Fla., 1929, cited hereafter as Siebert, Loyalists.

33. Carita Doggett Corse, "Denys Rolle and Rollestown, A Pioneer for Utopia," Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. VII (Oct. 1928), pp. 115-22.

34. Carita Doggett Corse, Dr. Andrew Turnbull and the New Smyrna Colony of Florida, Jacksonville, Fla., 1919.

p. xvii

2. a warrant of survey, signed by the governor and addressed to the surveyor-general, empowering him to make a survey in proportion to the size of the petitioner's family;

3. a precept, signed by the surveyor-general authorizing a deputy surveyor-general with plat of survey;

4. a fiat signed by the attorney-general authorizing a grant to be made;

5. a grant, signed by the governor and embodying the conditions; and

6. registration of the grant in the register's and auditor's offices, with copies of entries supplied to the treasury and commissioners for trade and plantation in London. (35)

The Spanish population in East and West Florida in 1763 numbered about 7,000 practically all of whom left when the English took possession. (36) In 1783, when Spain regained the province, the population of East Florida alone numbered 17,000. Of those only 450 whites (37) and 200 negroes remained.

The definitive treaty between Great Britain and Spain in 1783, following in principle that of 1763, provided that subjects of the former should


35. G&S, V, 757

36. Three men who were out searching for their horses when the last boat sailed were left behind.—Wilbur H. Siebert, "Slavery and White Servitude in East Florida, 1726 to 1776," Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. X (July, 1931), pp. 3-23.

37. The majority were Minorcans whom Dr. Turnbull had brought over for his colony at New Smyrna; they were Roman Catholics and had been subjects of Spain before Great Britain acquired the Island of Minorca.—Siebert, Loyalists, I, 208-209.

p. xviii

have eighteen months in which to sell their property, recover their debts, and transport themselves and effects from East Florida. (38) The time was later extended but in 1786 a royal order of the King of Spain decreed that those who had been inhabitants of Florida under English authority might remain and be protected in their possessions on condition that they take the oath of fidelity, which meant also embracing Catholicism, and not attempt to augment their land holdings or leave the province. All who did not accept these conditions were to depart within thirty days. (39) The conditions were accepted by some and their land titles were confirmed by the Spanish authorities and later by the United States Boards of Commissioners. Those who refused the terms left the province, in many instances abandoning their property, as many had done in 1783, because of their inability to sell it in the time allowed them.


38. The Definitive Treaty of Peace and Friendship Between His Britannick Majesty and the King of Spain Signed at Versailles, the 3rd of September, 1783 (London, 1783), Article V, p. 10

39. G&S, V, 761-762.