George Washington’s Land Interest in British West Florida, 1773-1774

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian George Kotlik.

After the French & Indian War, the British Crown sought to regulate colonial westward settlement and expansion. This was done for a variety of reasons. First, British ministers believed that westward expansion would require administration over newly acquired territory.[1] British leaders also feared that unrestricted colonial expansion could lead to ungovernable colonies who would, over time, seek to split with Great Britain.[2] Most importantly, Britain had acquired Florida and almost all of the territory under New France east of the Mississippi River at the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War. British ministers sought to redirect western settlement towards Canada and the Florida’s.[3] Regulation of western land settlement also protected Indian lands from white encroachments. This measure sought to prevent further Indian wars.[4] The impositions placed on westward settlement infuriated colonial land speculators who sought to gain much wealth in acquiring western lands. After the Great War for Empire, George Washington and other veteran officers of that conflict were awarded land in exchange for their services to the Crown.[5] Many eyed lands in the Ohio Country, but after the October 7 Proclamation of 1763, most acreage in that vast wilderness lay out of reach. The account of Washington’s interest in North America’s western lands is popular and well-known. However, lesser known is the former British officer’s interest in West Florida land.[6]

            The only mention of George Washington’s interest in West Florida land resides in Christopher B. Coleman’s article, “George Washington and the West,” Indiana Magazine of History 28, no. 3 (September 1932): 151-167. Coleman’s treatment of that topic is scarce. He only mentions one letter from George Washington to James Wood dated March 13, 1773. In this letter the two men talk of West Florida land and how Washington wants only the best available and, preferably, on the Mississippi River. Coleman briefly states how Washington was unable to acquire that land before he moves on to discuss the future United States Presidents’ land claims in other regions of North America. Thus, Coleman’s article does not provide the complete story of Washington’s interests in British West Florida. This article utilizes eight letters, seven of which have not been cited before in discussions on George Washington’s land interests in West Florida during the Imperial Crisis.

In 1773, George Washington’s friend, James Wood, left for West Florida to inspect the land there and secure some for Washington. In a letter dated March 13, 1773, Washington enclosed his instructions for Wood to follow when selecting land to purchase. According to the future Continental Army General, he wanted land on the river as opposed to lands removed from it.[7] He preferred a place not situated in low country or too high in the hills and, if possible, he wanted land far up the Mississippi because he heard rumor that the land was better there and the climate more temperate.[8] Washington sought to secure this West Florida land with grants awarded to him from his services in the French & Indian War.[9]

On March 25, 1773, Washington wrote a letter to Peter Chester, the governor of West Florida, concerning his interest and intent on acquiring West Florida land.[10] He also informed the governor of his arrangement with Wood to survey West Florida’s ungranted lands.[11] Of West Florida land, Washington intended to have 10,000 acres.[12] On March 30, 1773, Washington again wrote to Wood. This time he instructed Wood to locate land that would promise, in the future, to be the most valuable.[13] If Wood happened to find good land that was easily obtainable, he could increase Washington’s bid for land up to 15,000, 20,000, or 25,000 acres.[14] By September 12, 1773, Washington’s desire to secure land on the Mississippi fell through after its settlement by emigrants to that region.[15] At this point, Washington was uncertain about whether or not Wood would find land suitable to his provisos outlined in his March 13, 1773 and March 30, 1773 letters.[16] If Wood was not able to secure land in West Florida, Washington was prepared to look elsewhere.[17] Sometime in October or November, 1773 Washington heard from Wood who reported to him his findings in West Florida.[18] While he was in West Florida, Wood heard from Governor Chester that it was Lord Hillsborough’s opinion that provincial officers of the French & Indian War were not comprehended in the land grants issued by the October Proclamation of 1763.[19] Washington was thus barred from receiving land grants in West Florida issued for his service in the French & Indian War.

            Washington was furious. Of the decision to bar his settlement of West Florida on account of his services in the Indian wars as a provincial officer he wrote “I conceive the services of a Provincial Officer as worthy of reward as those of a regular one.”[20] On February 20, 1774, Washington wrote to Wood. The tone of his letter reveals someone who was just rejected but who tried to save face. According to Washington, accounts he read about lands on the Mississippi were contradictory.[21] Some reports of that country claim the region to be a new paradise, while others disparage it, claiming that it was unfit for anything but slaves and brutes.[22] Based on Wood’s descriptions of that province, wrote Washington, “I have no cause to regret my disappo{int}ment.”[23] Washington concluded his comments on West Florida by saying that Hillsborough’s decision not to grant him land was just proof of “his Lordships malignant disposition towards us poor Americans; founded equally in Malice, absurdity, & error.”[24] In a separate letter, Washington disparaged Hillsborough even further. In it he claimed Lord Hillsborough wielded a “Malignant disposition to American’s, & fraught with the most unjustifiable partiality.”[25] It is obvious in the language Washington used in his letters that he felt stung by the rejection he faced in West Florida. That rejection coupled with the loss of investment potential and economic opportunity made possible in the acquisition of West Florida land must have motivated the charged emotional response Washington penned in his letters following his failed land grab attempt. Washington would never come to possess West Florida land for as long as he lived.

            The significance of Washington’s anger directed towards Lord Hillsborough is an aspect of the Imperial Crisis that illuminates one of the causes that lead to the American Revolutionary War. Issues over land grants, evidenced by Washington’s experience in West Florida, points to one more source of frustration the colonists endured by Parliament during the Imperial Crisis. As Christopher Coleman states, “the hunger of Virginians for western lands and the English governments adverse policy of disposing of them is not usually given its due weight in statements of the causes of the American Revolution.”[26] Indeed, British policy restricting western expansion greatly hindered the economic opportunities available to enterprising American-born colonials. This is evidenced in Washington’s loss of opportunity from his inability to acquire land in West Florida.

Bibliography

Calloway, Colin G. The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Coleman, Christopher B. “George Washington and the West.” Indiana Magazine of History 28, no. 3 (September 1932): 151-167.

George Washington to James Wood, 13 March 1773. Founders Online. National Archives. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0148.

George Washington to James Wood, 30 March 1773. Founders Online. National Archives. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0156.

George Washington to James Wood, 20 February 1774. Founders Online. National Archives. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0367.

George Washington to Lord Dunmore, 12 September 1773. Founders Online. National Archives. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0246.

George Washington to Peter Chester, 25 March 1773. Founders Online. National Archives. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0154.

George Washington to Thomas Lewis, 17 February 1774. Founders Online. National Archives. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0360.

George Washington to William Crawford, 25 September 1773. Founders Online. National Archives. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0255.

George Washington to William Preston, 28 February 1774. Founders Online. National Archives. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0374.


[1] Colin G. Calloway, The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 92-100.

[2] Calloway, The Scratch of a Pen, 92-100.

[3] Calloway, The Scratch of a Pen, 92-100.

[4] Calloway, The Scratch of a Pen, 92-100.

[5] For more on George Washington’s land acquisitions see Christopher B. Coleman, “George Washington and the West,” Indiana Magazine of History 28, no. 3 (September 1932): 151-167.

[6] Calloway, The Scratch of a Pen, 92-100.

[7] George Washington to James Wood, 13 March 1773, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0148.

[8] George Washington to James Wood, 13 March 1773, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0148.

[9] George Washington to James Wood, 13 March 1773, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0148.

[10] George Washington to Peter Chester, 25 March 1773, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0154.

[11] George Washington to Peter Chester, 25 March 1773, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0154.

[12] George Washington to Peter Chester, 25 March 1773, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0154.

[13] George Washington to James Wood, 30 March 1773, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0156.

[14] George Washington to James Wood, 30 March 1773, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0156.

[15] George Washington to Lord Dunmore, 12 September 1773, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0246.

[16] George Washington to Lord Dunmore, 12 September 1773, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0246.

[17] George Washington to William Crawford, 25 September 1773, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0255.

[18] George Washington to James Wood, 20 February 1774, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0367.

[19] George Washington to Thomas Lewis, 17 February 1774, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0360.

[20] George Washington to Thomas Lewis, 17 February 1774, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0360.

[21] George Washington to James Wood, 20 February 1774, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0367.

[22] George Washington to James Wood, 20 February 1774, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0367.

[23] George Washington to James Wood, 20 February 1774, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0367.

[24] George Washington to James Wood, 20 February 1774, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0367.

[25] George Washington to William Preston, 28 February 1774, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0374.

[26] Coleman, “George Washington and the West,” 162.

*Bio

George Kotlik has contributed to the Journal of the American Revolution, The Hessians: Journal of the Johannes Schwalm Historical Association, the Armstrong Journal of Undergraduate History, The Seven Years’ War Association Journal, the Loyalist Gazette, and the New York History Review.

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1 Response to George Washington’s Land Interest in British West Florida, 1773-1774

  1. John Foskett says:

    Thanks for posting this. As you note, GW’s extensive land interests to the “west” of the new country and its connections to his policy are well-chronicled – see Autumn of the Black Snake, for one. I knew next to nothing about the West Florida interests.

    Like

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