Fatio v. Dewees
About This Case
In 1838, the Florida Territorial Court of Appeals considered the case of Francis P. Fatio v. Philip Dewees. The case, which originated in the St. Johns Circuit Court, involved a complex legal battle over land held by the Dewees family since the 1790s.
Both parties in this case represented families with established roots in Florida. The Francis P. Fatio named in this case was the son of Francis P. Fatio Sr. The elder Fatio originally came to East Florida from Switzerland during the British period (1763-1783). He acquired plantations and slaves and became involved in the colonial government. Fatio remained in Florida following the retrocession of Florida to Spain in 1783. In the first decade of the 19th century, Seminole warriors raided Fatio’s property and carried off slaves on more than one occasion. Because of his tenure in Florida and his political connections, Fatio ranked among the largest land owners when, in 1821, the territory became part of the United States.
Andrew Dewees, Philip’s father, came to Florida from South Carolina in the 1790s and received a grant of land from the Spanish government. Offering land grants to prospective settlers was the primary means by which the Spanish sought to populate the Florida frontier. The Spaniards hoped to create a buffer of plantations to squeeze as much profit as possible from the land in Florida. These plantations might also have served as an impediment to the expansionist Americans as well as the Creeks and Seminoles who controlled Florida’s interior into the early 19th century.
This case involved a dispute over property along the St. Johns River included in the Spanish grant to Andrew Dewees. In 1831, Francis P. Fatio the younger sued the heirs of Dewees in the Florida Territorial Court of Appeals in order to reverse a ruling made by the Eastern District (St. Johns) of that judicial body.
The case hinged on the legality of a sale made by Catalina, wife of Andrew Dewees, to the firm of John Forbes & Company in 1811, after her husband’s death in 1794. Under the terms of the will of Andrew Dewees, Catalina received title to half of the lands included in the estate. The other half of the estate went to the children of Andrew Dewees and their heirs.
The heirs of Dewees filed, successfully, an action of ejectment against Francis P. Fatio who had leased a portion of the land in question from John Forbes & Company. To substantiate their claims, the heirs of Philip Dewees produced documents confirming the original Royal Title, certified and dated May 4, 1804, as well as records relating to the estate of Andrew Dewees and the subsequent sale of lands therein to Forbes.
After seven years of appeals and retrials, the jury determined to award the land to the heirs of Andrew Dewees based on the evidence that the transaction between Forbes & Company and Catherine Dewees did not include the children’s portion of the estate as stipulated in the will. About 1,800 acres of land reverted back to the heirs of Dewees and Fatio was evicted from the land.
This case is an example of the complexities of the law as it related to property, especially real estate claimed prior to the acquisition of Florida by the United States. Learn more about lands held by the Fatio and Dewees families in the Spanish Land Grants Collection.