Flashback Friday: British St Augustine and the growth of the city

St Augustine during the British period. This was the biggest growth spurt for the city until Henry Flagler came to town in the late 1800’s.

St Augustine was under British rule for a grand total of 20 years in its 460 year history. But the British left an indelible mark on the city that remains today.

The Seven Years War/French and Indian War ended formally on this day in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris. With this treaty Florida changed hands from the Spanish to the British.

The Seven Years War was the first truly world war which had battles in Europe, the Middle East and India as well as North America. In North America the war has been historically called “The French and Indian War,” but it was simply a theater in the larger world war between Britain and her allies versus France and her allies. The conclusion of the war left Britain as the lone global superpower.

The British had captured Havana during the fighting and the Spanish needing the important port back handed Florida over to the British in exchange for the return of Havana. This began a twenty-year period of British rule in Florida which may not seem like a long period of time but was critical in the region’s development.

Spain had long neglected the colony since Queen Anne’s War (1702-1711) instead choosing to abandon smaller settlements and fortify larger ones as military outposts. Florida, it has been justifiably claimed by historians entered a 50 year period of population and economic decline following that war. The colony was largely militarized and non-military related economic activity and settlement was halted, reversing a prosperous 1600’s in the region, when Florida was more developed than the English colonies to the north.  By 1763, only Pensacola and Saint Augustine remained permanent settlements and both had seen large depopulation since the beginning of the century (Pensacola had spent close to 30 years in French hands during the 1700’s). The British (from 1707 onward we use the term British as the Act of Union between Scotland and England is dated to then) quickly divided Florida into East and West with capitals at Saint Augustine and Pensacola.

While the British did not do a whole lot with Pensacola they did expand Saint Augustine dramatically, and the population swelled even further when loyalists from the Carolina’s and Georgia fled to the city during the American Revolution. The British gave generous land grants to move colonists from further north into Florida. As we discussed earlier in the week, Florida choose to remain loyal to the British Crown for reasons that in hindsight seem obvious with the lens of history.

They also looked to start new settlements in the east including the famous Andrew Turnbull settlement at New Smyrna Beach.

The Spanish joined the Franco-American side in the Revolutionary War in 1779 and recaptured Pensacola in 1781. They never made an attempt to recapture Saint Augustine, which by this time had become one of the most populated British outposts in North America (behind only Montreal, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Charleston) and those loyal to the crown fleeing the war further north generally found safe haven in the East Florida capital.

Many Tory colonists in Saint Augustine planned an invasion American held Georgia but the expedition seems to have never really begun. The Americans also contemplated a full-fledged invasion of Florida with the capture of St. Augustine in mind, but pulled back after defeat at the Battle of Alligator Bridge in what is today Nassau County. It would be the only fighting in the American Revolution of the soil of British East Florida.  The Americans would save their invasion for the next war with Britain a few decades later in 1814 under General Andrew Jackson who four years later more or less captured Florida (without authorization) for the United States.

The British departed Florida in 1783 but an indelible mark was left on the future US state. The economy had been diversified and new settlers had come. The beginnings of American Florida were now in place.

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