Florida in 1821 – A Woman of Color Tests the System – by James Cusick and Jason Zappulla


A free woman of color
Above – Image of a well-to-do free woman of color (detail) from a Mexican casta painting. Ilona Katzew, La Pintura de Castas: Representaciones Raciales en el México del Siglo XVIII (Turner, 2004)

One of the odder episodes in Andrew Jackson’s brief tenure as governor of Florida was the court case brought by Mercedes Vidal, a resident of Pensacola and free woman of color.  She was the daughter of a Spanish official, don Nicolas Maria Vidal, former acting governor of Spanish Louisiana from 1799 to 1801, and she approached one of Jackson’s colleagues, H.M. Brackenridge, with a petition to have her inheritance case reviewed.

She charged that lands and assets belonging to her and her sister, Caroline, were being unfairly embargoed by the head of the Forbes & Co. Indian Trade Company, John Innerarity, who was both the executor of her father’s estate and a claimant on debts owed by the estate.  Specifically, she wanted Innerarity to surrender $4,126 in funds which she felt was owed to her and her sister.

The case had already been in adjudication for more than seven years, and the case dossier was in the possession of the Spanish military officer that Jackson had just replaced as governor – colonel José Maria de Callava.

Jackson agreed to take up the case, although his reasons for doing so are obscure.  It is possible, as suggested by historian Sherry Johnson, that he had known Nicolas Maria Vidal and that his code of honor compelled him to address a petition from his daughter.  He also had no liking for either Callava or the Forbes Company, and was always quick to suspect Spanish officials and their allies of false dealings.

In any event, the case uncovered the tensions between the old and new order in Florida, with the Vidals caught in the middle as Jackson and Callava both sought to enforce their vested powers.  Jackson demanded the case files, which Callava refused to surrender, noting they were part of the official record of the Spanish government in Florida.  In a heated (and according to some witnesses obscenity-laced) confrontation, Jackson put the former Spanish governor under arrest, lodged him in Pensacola’s jail, confiscated the court files, and ruled in Vidal’s favor!  He told Innerarity to justify his actions in withholding legal documents in the adjudication of the case and ordered him to pay the claim of the Vidal heirs.

Congressional Globe
As reproduced in the Congressional Globe, the petition of Mercedes Vidal, presented to H.M. Brackenridge.

The Vidal case “made headlines,” as they say, mostly due to the resulting scandal over the imprisoning of Callava; but it also forced a reassessment of the court case.

Read an Account of the Confrontation between Jackson and Callava

The ultimate results, however, did not benefit  Mercedes Vidal.  Although she got her day in court through perseverance, an American court concluded that all of her inheritance had been eaten up in debt.  She was just the first of many free people of color who would have to navigate the uncertain waters of the courts during the 1820s and 1830s in defense of their land and property rights.