Bastille Day, or French National Day, received more attention from Americans than usual this year with our participation in the events on Friday. When crowds in the streets of Paris stormed Bastille Prison on July 14, 1789, it marked the turning point in the French Revolution.
At the time, residents of St. Augustine and northern Florida were fretting about their own problems, threats and upheavals. One Floridian remarked that he was “so in fear of both the Indians and the Americans.” It is such a good, descriptive remark about the time that I used it as the title of book chapter.
The day before Bastille Day, Richard Lang, magistrate of the St. Marys River district, sent a report to Vicente Manuel de Zespedes, governor of Spanish East Florida. Regular readers might recall that Spain had regained the Florida peninsula from Great Britain following the American Revolution. The narrow St. Marys River, the international boundary between Spanish East Florida and U.S. Georgia, was not much of a barrier between persons on both sides of the river who still held mutual resentments from Revolutionary days.
Violence between Indians and Georgians over Indian lands located in middle Georgia spread south and into East Florida. Lang reported Indians had appeared at the home of the St. Johns River ferry operator the Cow Ford (downtown Jacksonville), who had earlier refused to carry them across the river. There, they broke household items and threatened the ferryman’s wife with knives. Even more frightening was the treatment given a “Mr. Clark,” visiting on the St. Marys. The Indians burned out Clark’s eyes, saying that he “was a Virginia man and it was good to kill him.” River residents wanted Spanish soldiers to defend them and they wanted to defend themselves, as well. “Can there be no stop put to these evils; whether we much stand in our own defenses or give entirely up?” asked the river residents.
Both the white river residents and the Indians wanted answers from the governor — who had none. Both were concerned when American troops gathered along the St. Marys in 1790. To the Indians chiefs, Governor Zespedes could only say that it was the right of the United States to maneuver its soldiers within its own borders. But the deciding of the “borders” of U.S. lands was at the heart of the Indian’s concerns.
James Allen, a person hardly known to us nor to his contemporaries, fomented much of the trouble in the region at that time. Allen, a trader, lived on the “upperest” part of the St. Marys River, almost out of reach of officials. His isolated location allowed him to trade at will for his own benefit, dealing in the goods and property with anyone with little care of how the items were acquired. Allen was often the destination for stolen property, especially horses and cattle. He had the support of Creek Indians and with Indian assent lived near or within Indian land. It seems out of character that he actually appeared in person in 1789 to be counted in the census of the river residents.
Allen refused to cooperate with messengers sent to him by Richard Lang. He told them that he had little business with Lang and if the magistrate wanted information that Lang could come to him, not vice versa. Lang asked the governor for guidance in handling “such a man who flies in the face of authority. He breaks the law every day by selling horses and cattle that are then shipped to Cumberland Island (Georgia).”
When Spanish officials tried to remove Allen from East Florida, he refused to comply and Allen’s Creek friends came to his defense. A letter sent from the chiefs and signed with their marks asked “why he cannot stay there in peace? He has been a good friend and he supplies us with our needs.” Rustling and other theft were mixed in with the international issues.
The river residents stayed anxious for many months. The residents of St. Augustine, although at a distance, knew that animosities could reach them as well.
In 1790, Creek chiefs signed a treaty in New York City (then the national capital) with the United States regarding Indian lands. The border residents got a reprieve from problems, but not resolution, for the Georgians were irate with the treaty. They did not intend to acquiesce to decisions and agreements of the new national government.
Spanish East Florida would hear from the Georgians again.
Susan R. Parker holds a doctorate in colonial history.