The new territory of Florida entered the American Union with a population that still represented the core of its colonial population under Spain. Although American settlers would quickly migrate to Florida in search of land – the population rose from 8,000 people to 34,730 in just 10 years – both Pensacola and St. Augustine retained much of their former character. Spanish administrative and military personnel left Florida; but Spanish, French, and British inhabitants remained, as did the Minorcan population of St. Augustine, and a small but vibrant sector of free people of color. All faced challenges in subsequent years.
The social hierarchy of the Territorial Period saw the former governing body of Spanish bureaucrats and military officers replaced by attorneys, planters, and aspirants to office. Key posts went to those who held influence with the national administration of President James Monroe.
But a good deal of local power still rested in the hands of the earlier Florida gentry – merchants, cattle barons, and planters of various national origins. Minorcans, for example, sometimes felt “pushed out” by the surge of American newcomers – but they entered government and the professions, gradually reinforcing their social position, and their customs, music, and culture would long give St. Augustine its unique character.
Free people of color, most of whom lived in St. Augustine, Pensacola, and Fernandina, had a more precarious social position under the new order. They were apprehensive about American law and worried about maintaining their rights to citizenship and property under the new government. Approximately 150 free Blacks left Florida for Cuba in the 1820s. Those that remained ultimately faced challenges against their property.
Anna Kingsley, a hero of the Spanish defense of East Florida in the War of 1812, was perhaps Florida’s most famous woman of color in the early 1800s. Born in the Senegal-Gambia region of Africa, she was captured by enslavers and sold to the Florida slave trader and plantation owner Zephaniah Kingsley. She became his enslaved common-law wife, gaining freedom through manumission in the early 1800s. After the 1821 transfer, Anna Kingsley continued to live in Florida, struggling to protect the property rights of herself and her children.
The family of a white English settler, George J.F. Clarke, the colonial surveyor general of Florida, faced similar issues. Clarke had eight children by his common-law wife Flora, a free Black woman – and four children whose mother, Hannah, was enslaved to the family of another settler, Catalina Benet. Clarke’s fairly high status as a resident of Spanish East Florida meant his children with Flora were part of the gentry; but he was concerned for what would happen to them under American laws, and felt it necessary to emphasize their free status and inheritance rights in his will; he also made provision for his family that was still enslaved.
From the Will of George J.F. Clarke (1834) – “I never have been married but I have eight natural children by a free black woman named Flora, now dead. These children all of adult age are: Felicia M.F. Garvin, widow of William Garvin; James F. Clarke; Thomas Clarke; Daniel J.F. Clarke; Joseph L Clarke; George P. Clarke; John D. Clarke; and William M. Clarke; all of whom I always acknowledged, freed, raised and educated as my children; and bestowed on them my surname, Clarke. The four children by a black woman named Hannah or Anna, belonging to Mrs. Catalina Benet, being minors, and not free, I will provide for them, and their mother by legacy apart. The eight others above named I declare to be my equal, full, absolute, and general heirs.”
Another major impact of the transfer was the rapid expansion of slavery. Florida had been a slave territory under Spanish rule, and for thousands of Black men, women, and children, the Americanization of Florida only further solidified a system that held them in bondage. In 1821, Florida’s enslaved population was about 4,000 people. In 1830 it was 15,501. Avenues to manumission began to disappear, and even before the 1821 transfer American forces or Native American forces allied to the United States had eliminated the two largest communities of Black maroons in Florida – the settlement at Prospect Bluff on the Apalachicola River, also known as the Negro Fort, a community of some 300 people, destroyed in 1816, and the settlement of Angola on the Braden and Manatee Rivers, of some 600-700 people, destroyed in 1821.
Slavery remained legal in Florida until the end of the Civil War. One man who lived through the entire series of changes in Florida from Spanish colony to re-admitted state during Reconstruction was Sitiki (also known as Uncle Jack). Seized by slave traders in West Africa as a youth, he became an enslaved domestic servant in St. Augustine, Florida, serving as the boyhood valet and companion to the young Buckingham Smith. Much of Sitiki’s life is chronicled in a memoir he wrote with Smith, a historian, and preserved in the Buckingham Smith Papers at the New York Historical Society.
In the 1840s, still enslaved, Sitiki established a Methodist Church for St. Augustine’s Black community, preaching the faith, and known to his congregation as “Father Jack.” After the Civil War, as a free person, he went on to become a credentialed Methodist minister and was featured in Harper’s Magazine in 1875. He was well-known in north Florida and when he died in 1882, 300 people, white and Black, attended his funeral. His full story is told in Patricia C. Griffin, Sitiki – Odyssey of an African Slave (University Press of Florida, 2015).