The Case of Florida’s Missing Real Estate Records*
Most Florida lawyers are probably aware of the historical connection between
Florida and Spain. The chain of title to some Florida real estate runs back to a
beginning with a Spanish land grant. Perhaps only a few Florida lawyers know
that Spain claimed sovereignty in Florida for nearly 300 years—longer than the
United States has held the peninsula so far.1 Probably only a tiny handful of
Florida lawyers are aware of the mystery that surrounds the missing real estate
records that Spain was supposed to turn over to the United States, but did not.
The two principal cities in Spanish colonial Florida were St. Augustine and
Pensacola. Travel between these two sites was very difficult—either a long
voyage around the Keys or an arduous overland trip through a frequently hostile
wilderness. Quite naturally, Spain developed the administration of “La Florida”
by dividing it into two parts: East Florida and West Florida. Consequently,
colonial government offices were situated in Pensacola (West Florida) and St.
Augustine (East Florida) and resulting governmental files, documents, and
archives began accumulating in each location. Spanish officials in both
Pensacola and St. Augustine reported to and received instructions from more
senior colonial administrators, often located in Havana, Cuba.
To best understand Florida’s colonial history, it is useful to recall that
Spain was once one of the world’s greatest military and economic powers with an
empire that stretched across the Atlantic and the Pacific reaching the
Philippines, and included most of what is now Central and South America and much
of North America as well. Spain’s history reveals many exploits of epic
proportions including, for example, Cortйz’s conquest of the Aztec Empire in
Mexico, Pizarro’s parallel triumph over the Inca nation in Peru, and DeSoto’s
march of exploration from Florida to the Mississippi River. Spain’s very
considerable power probably peaked in the latter years of the 16th century.2
Many Spanish officials, administrators, and military officers were very proud of
their nation and its accomplishments. Indeed, critics of Spanish authority
probably perceived an attitude of imperious arrogance liberally distributed
throughout the Spanish domain.
By the early years of the 19th century, however, Spain’s prominence on the
international stage was declining. At this juncture, the interests of the newly
emerging United States and those of the Spanish colonial province of Florida
became heavily entangled. In 1817, the U.S. appointed Andrew Jackson as
commanding general of an American army with a mission to improve protection to
U.S. settlers living near the border of Spanish Florida. This action resulted
partly from complaints from American settlers that their lives and property were
repeatedly jeopardized by attacks from Seminole Indians. Clearly, there were
atrocities committed by both settlers and Indians, but one of the most
provocative incidents was an attack by Indians on a boatload of soldiers and
their dependents, on the Apalachicola River in late 1817.3
During the ensuing months, General Jackson marched his soldiers into Spanish
Florida, battled and chased the Seminoles further south into the peninsula,
captured Spanish garrisons at St. Marks and Pensacola, and court-martialed and
executed two British nationals for aiding the Seminoles. In 1818, Jackson
triumphantly withdrew from Spanish Florida, ending what is known to history as
the First Seminole Indian War. (There were two more later, for a total of three
Seminole Indian Wars.) Looking back at this situation, it now seems clear that
Jackson’s incursion into Florida signaled the beginning of the end of the
Spanish era. The very next year, 1819, U.S. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams
and Spanish diplomat Don Louis De Onis negotiated a treaty ending the long
tenure of Spain in Florida. This treaty was subsequently and duly approved by
the U.S. Senate and Spanish authorities. In 1821, General Jackson, who was by
then appointed governor by President Monroe, returned to Florida from Tennessee.
That July, a formal military ceremony was held in Pensacola and Governor Jackson
officially took possession of “La Florida” on behalf of the United States.
The central terms of the treaty that accomplished this land transfer are
remarkable and, to be blunt, very one-sided in favor of the Americans. Some
authorities describing the treaty report that the U.S. agreed to pay Spain the
sum of $5,000,000 for Florida. This is not technically correct. Instead, what
the U.S. promised was to pay debts owed by Spain to various third party
claimants up to a total sum of $5,000,000. This is considerably different from a
cash deal. Furthermore, the treaty granted the U.S. the sole right to judge
whether the third party claims were legitimate, and even if they were, the U.S.
retained an option to pay the claims using bonds with future maturity dates
instead of paying in cash.
Can you imagine selling your house to a buyer on these terms? If you did, the
transaction would go something like this: 1) You transfer title to the buyer,
but get no direct payment. 2) Instead, the buyer runs a series of ads in the
local newspaper to see if anyone claims you owe them money. 3) The buyer alone
decides whether any claims are valid, but still does not actually have to pay
them immediately—even if they are genuine. 4) Finally, the buyer can give bona
fide claimants promissory notes to pay the claim in the future, up to a total
Why would Spain agree to terms like this? Perhaps as a “face saving” device,
the treaty afforded the Spanish crown a better arrangement at the time than a
potential future outright seizure of the province by the Americans. After all,
Jackson’s army had already run roughshod in the territory before. That was
humiliating enough, and who could say whether it would happen again, perhaps on
a more permanent basis. So Spain signed.
Consider, however, the effect of these developments on Spain’s colonial
officers in Florida at the end of a long line of Spanish grandeur. The treaty
(Article 2) required them to turn over:
Archives and Documents, which relate directly to the property and sovereignty
of said Provinces, are included in this Article. The said Archives and Documents
shall be left in possession of the Commissaries, or Officers of the United
States, duly authorized to receive them.
Did the Spanish colonial officials fully cooperate and abide by the express
terms of the treaty? The short answer is: No, they did not. Perhaps they were
resentful regarding the one-sided nature of the treaty, or perhaps some were
spiteful due to wounded pride on losing Florida. Maybe incompetence or
corruption played a part. For these reasons, or perhaps others, Spain’s colonial
officials did not transfer a full and complete inventory of their real estate
records to the U.S. Ownership of hundreds of parcels and some vast tracts of
Florida land, with corresponding livelihoods and fortunes, frequently depended
on these land titles.
The Nature of the Problem
A core principle of American jurisprudence when acquiring jurisdiction over
territory from other sovereign nations was that legitimate individual landowners
from a previous regime should be afforded protection for their private property
rights.4 One of the delicate and contentious points of the treaty that
transferred Florida addressed this issue. It is found in Article 8, as follows:
Article 8: All the grants of land made before the 24th of January 1818 by His
Catholic Majesty or by his lawful authorities in the said Territories ceded by
His Majesty to the United States shall be ratified and confirmed to the persons
in possession of the lands, to the same extent that the same grants would be
valid if the Territories had remained under the Dominion of His Catholic
Majesty. But the owners in possession of such lands, who by reason of the recent
circumstances of the Spanish Nation and the Revolutions in Europe, have been
prevented from fulfilling all the conditions of their grants, shall complete
them within the terms limited in the same respectively, from the date of this
Treaty; in default of which the said grants shall be null and void. All grants
made since the 24th of January 1818 when the first proposal on the part of His
Catholic Majesty, for the cession of the Floridas was made, are hereby declared
and agreed to be null and void.
Notice that this article of the treaty highlights a dilemma faced by the U.S.
On one hand, the U.S. government wanted to obtain title over as much of the
Florida territory as it could for its own use and purposes; but on the other
hand, the federal government was committed to treating private property owners
justly, even when their claims arose under Spanish authority. The mechanism for
resolving this conflict of interest was spelled out in Article 8 of the treaty.
The parties agreed that January 24, 1818, would be a cut-off date. If the
Spanish Crown, or other lawful Spanish authority in Florida, made a grant before
that date, then the U.S. agreed to recognize the legitimacy of claims to land
arising thereunder. If a Spanish land grant was made since January 24, 1818,
however, such a grant would be “null and void.” Consequently, the U.S. would end
up owning the land covered by grants of this latter type.
This situation was ripe for abuse. Look at it from the Spanish viewpoint. “La
Florida” was being lost anyway—and under an “unfair” treaty to boot. Spanish
officials, from the king on down, might easily be tempted to pass as much
Florida land as possible to their friends, supporters, business associates,
family, or even to themselves, since otherwise it would end up in the hands of
the U.S. government.
Disputes regarding alleged Spanish misconduct in this area surfaced almost
immediately, even before the treaty was ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1821.
Consider the comments of U.S. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams on this
subject, as recorded in his diary on February 22, 1821, the day the Senate
ratified the treaty:
This day, two years have elapsed since the Florida Treaty was signed. Let my
sons, . . . meditate upon all the vicissitudes which have befallen the treaty. .
. . Let them remark the workings of private interests, of perfidious fraud, of
sordid intrigues, of royal treachery, of malignant rivalry, and of envy masked
with patriotism, playing to and fro across the Atlantic into each other’s hands,
all combined to destroy this treaty between the signature and the ratification,
and let them learn to put their trust in the overruling providence to God. I
considered the signature of the treaty as the most important event of my life. .
. . It promised well for my reputation in the public opinion. . . . but
materials in the hands of my enemies to dose me with poison extracted from the
laurels of the treaty itself. An ambiguity of date, which I had suffered to
escape my notice at the signature of the treaty, amply guarded against by the
phraseology of the article, but leaving room to chicanery from a mere colorable
question, was the handle upon which the King of Spain, his rapacious favorites,
and American swindling land jobbers in conjunction with them, withheld the
ratification of the treaty, while Clay and his admirers here were snickering at
the simplicity with which I had been bamboozled by the crafty Spaniard. . . . 5
One source explained the Secretary of State’s initial difficulties as
It had been agreed by Adams and Louis de Onis that after January 24, 1818,
the Spanish government would grant no more lands, and that if lands were granted
after the stipulated date, they would be null and void. In December 1820, Adams
discovered the existence of three tremendous grants made by Spain after January
24, 1818, but predated in order that they would appear legal. Adams and Onis
immediately exchanged notes couched in the most polite diplomatic terms but with
a distinct note of ire on the part of the New Englander. The Spanish government
eventually and reluctantly cancelled the grants, but, if Mr. Adams’s immediate
problems with the Florida purchase agreement seemed to be at end, the future
still held many vexations for those who would implement the treaty.6
Secretary Adams was not the only American official expressing misgivings
about Spanish land grants and the lack of observance of treaty terms. Only five
months after receiving possession of Florida from Spain at Pensacola, President
Monroe “reported to Congress that the Spanish officials ‘not only omitted, in
contravention of the order of their Sovereign, the performance of the express
stipulation to deliver over the archives and documents’ but that they had
defeated every effort of the United States to obtain them.”7
It seems that Spanish officials in Florida had sent over 730 “bundles of
government records relating to the Spanish provinces of Louisiana, West Florida
and East Florida” to Havana, Cuba, two years prior to turning over Florida to
the Americans. Also, the U.S. Secretary of State sent an agent, Colonel James
Gant Forbes, to Havana on the dual mission of making diplomatic arrangements to
transfer Florida to General Jackson and to recover the documents sent to Havana
regarding Florida. Although Florida was, of course, transferred, the documents
remained in Cuba since Forbes was unable to retrieve them for the U.S.8
Over the next decade or so, the U.S. made repeated efforts, with little
success, to recover missing Florida archives and real estate records from
Spanish authorities. Ready availability and access to complete and authentic
real estate records were critically important to Florida courts and land
officials. Without them, they faced not only the possibility of fraudulent land
grants initiated by Spanish officials, but also the risk of false real estate
documents submitted by land speculators and sharp dealers entering the new
territory. Without the original real estate records to compare against spurious
claims and documents, separating the false from the bona fide would prove to be
a time consuming and formidable task, which contained a variety of twists and
Following the typical pattern for assimilating new acquisitions, Congress
initially organized Florida with a territorial form of government. This model
provided for a territorial governor, legislature, and court system—all of which
operated under general supervision and control from Washington. This period
lasted from 1821 until 1845 when Florida was admitted to the Union as a state.
Accordingly, most of the initial grappling with real estate problems fell to
territorial officials, land commissioners, and especially to the territorial
courts. It is probably not an exaggeration to suggest that Florida’s territorial
courts were choked with real estate cases. Decisions from both the territorial
courts and the state courts could, in appropriate cases, be appealed all the way
to the U.S. Supreme Court. For example, between 1832 and 1853, the U.S. Supreme
Court published opinions deciding almost 50 different cases involving disputes
over Florida real estate and Spanish land grants.9 These cases represent only
the tip of an iceberg of such cases, since many more were no doubt resolved in
the system at lower levels.
Because of the volume of Spanish land grant cases and the pressure to get
them resolved, considerable effort was expended by the U.S. to get a full and
complete accounting of the Spanish archives relating to Florida real estate. The
U.S. did obtain some Spanish real estate records, and the territorial officials
in Florida began working with what they had, but they consistently sought access
to the complete archives. As an example of the issue involved here, one source
reported as follows:
Investigations by this commission revealed wholesale fraud, including forgery
of every description. After the Louisiana Purchase some Spanish officials,
visioning the probability of the annexation of Florida as the next step in the
“Manifest Destiny” policy of expansion of the United States, and the subsequent
rise in land values, saw to it that their friends were rewarded with extensive
grants which otherwise would have been transferred to the public domain of the
United States. A notorious example was offered by the claims of Vicente
Sebбstian Pintado, surveyor of Louisiana and the Floridas from 1801 to 1818, who
was well posted on the available lands and their relative values. His
preposterous claims included the entire unoccupied waterfront of Pensacola and
large areas of that town as well as four miles of Santa Rosa Island extending
from bay to gulf, and large tracts nearby. The character of these claims,
reported the commission, “is calculated to create a presumption of fraud. . .
Consequently, the federal government was sympathetic to the plight of the
territorial authorities. As previously noted, President Monroe sent James Forbes
to Cuba in 1821 to arrange the transfer of Florida and to get the missing
records. Forbes succeeded only with the transfer arrangements, so a second
diplomatic attempt to get the archives was launched in 1822. A U.S. Naval
officer, Captain James Biddle of the frigate Macedonian, was dispatched to
Havana to get the archives, but his efforts were no more successful than those
Undaunted, the U.S. continued its diplomatic efforts to obtain the records.
Altogether a total of six diplomatic missions would be attempted, including
those of Forbes and Biddle. Next, in 1824, Thomas Randall was sent to Havana.12
The Captain General/Governor of Cuba at the time was Francisco Dionesio Vives
who had, by coincidence, been the Spanish minister in Washington, D.C., in 1821,
when the treaty transferring Florida was concluded.13 At first Vives said the
matter was closed, and no Florida archives were in Cuba. After repeated urging
by Randall, Vives finally ordered a search, but subsequently told Randall that
the search was “fruitless.”14
About three years later, the U.S. again tried diplomacy to get the archives.
This time, in 1827, the U.S. Secretary of State sent Daniel P. Cook to Havana
mainly to investigate the island’s military preparedness for a potential attack
perhaps being considered by Mexico, Colombia, and England.15 Obtaining the
Florida archives was a collateral duty for Cook, but unfortunately, all he
received—like Forbes, Biddle, and Randall before him—was “soothing expressions
and plausible excuses.”16
In the meantime, in one of those unexpected turns that history sometimes
produces, Andrew Jackson became President and took the oath of office in 1829.
Jackson, of course, was well versed in Florida matters. Jackson did not mince
words, and he was accustomed to getting what he wanted. He decided to send one
of his proteges, Richard Keith Call, to Havana to get the archive records. (Call
was very active in Florida affairs and would himself later become a Florida
territorial governor.) The Secretary of State gave Call instructions to tell the
Spanish authorities that, “we have an undoubted right . . . to demand and
receive . . . all original archives and documents . . . important towards a fair
and legal adjustment of private land claims. . . .”17 Call arrived in Havana in
January 1830, and after some initial wrangling with Governor Vives, did manage
to pry some documents loose from the authorities related to major claims
involving the Arredondo grant, Panton, Leslie & Co., and the Forbes
According to one authority,
Further investigation convinced Call that there were in Havana many documents
which, if returned to the United States, would safeguard the public domain
against claims based on fraudulent sales and gifts of land. Upon his return to
Florida he urged that another appeal be forwarded to His Catholic Majesty King
Ferdinand VII. Such a request was made by President Jackson. It produced a royal
order dated February 15, 1832, for the delivery of the remaining Florida
Although Call achieved more success than his predecessors, the U.S.
continued to believe that there were many more Florida archive documents
remaining in Cuba. It was hoped that the Spanish Royal Order of 1832 (requiring
the delivery of archive documents according to the treaty) would finally produce
compliance. With this in mind, a new diplomatic mission was commissioned in
1832.20 This was the sixth diplomatic effort to obtain Florida records, and it
would prove to be the final one. Jeremy Robinson was appointed as a special
agent by the Secretary of State to accomplish this task. Robinson was well
seasoned and experienced in international affairs.21
Robinson prepared well for his trip. He first went to Florida to visit and
confer with knowledgeable people such as Thomas Randall in Tallahassee, Richard
Keith Call in Marianna, and several others in Pensacola.22 He arrived in Cuba in
mid July 1832.23 Even though the Secretary of State who appointed him suggested
that Robinson could accomplish his mission in Cuba in about two months, he wound
up staying there two and one-half years. Even that period was abruptly
terminated by Robinson’s death while still on the island.24
Reviewing Robinson’s letters and reports back to the U.S. during his extended
time in Havana opens a window through which conditions surrounding Florida real
estate records and Spanish stewardship of them may be observed. While Robinson
was in Cuba, one particular lawsuit over a Spanish land grant was under review
by the U.S. Supreme Court involving an extremely large tract of land.25
Approximately 1,250,000 acres of North Florida land were at stake, and Richard
Keith Call had advised Robinson that his primary goal in Cuba was to acquire
real estate records which would help the U.S. with this suit and keep this vast
area in the public domain.26 This great parcel, which covers all of at least one
county and parts of other counties in modern North Florida, is known to history
as the “Forbes Grant” and can be seen on the 1841 Florida map approved at that
time by the state’s surveyor general (see page 11). The plaintiff in the
lawsuit, Colin Mitchell, sought a clear title to this huge tract.
In due course, Robinson developed a decidedly negative attitude with regard
to Mr. Mitchell. In fact, one commentator said
Mitchell was, according to Robinson’s observations, the powerful evil force
at work to prevent the accomplishment of the archive mission. A partner in John
Forbes & Company, Florida traders, Mitchell maintained a large trading
business in Havana, . . . When his overtures to Robinson were coldly rebuffed,
he became vindictive, according to Robinson, spread malicious rumors, and used
his money and influence to frustrate efforts to secure the Florida papers.
Robinson and Cleveland soon became convinced that Mitchell had bribed Spanish
functionaries to forge and alter records to assist him in his suit before the
supreme court of the United States.
It was Mitchell’s connection with the Florida trading house of John Forbes
& Company that gave Robinson acute concern in his search for the Florida
archives. This company was the successor of Panton, Leslie & Company . . .
Robinson’s patriotic ire was aroused when he learned that through this company
the Spanish government had secretly supplied the Indians with goods, arms, and
munitions of war, that with the connivance of officials of this company a spirit
of hostility had been fomented against the aggressions of Georgia backwoodsmen,
and that as a result many of his fellow citizens had been killed. . . . As
Robinson peered farther into the dark recesses of land entanglements, he noted
that John Forbes and his partners in the Company had demanded indemnification
for the various losses sustained, . . . It was pointed out in confidence to
Robinson by Calderуn, one of the Spanish commissioners, that such transfers of
land were illegal, . . . Calderуn’s inference was that at least forgery had been
practiced to complete titles to such lands.
Robinson reported: Each day furnishes additional evidence, amounting to
mental and moral conviction, of collusion between the former Governors and
Intendents of Louisiana, the Floridas and Cuba, and the British mercantile house
of Panton, Leslie & Co., and John Forbes and company, late of Pensacola,
proof whereof may possibly be obtained and transmitted to the Department of
Robinson’s death ended his service in Cuba, and the abrupt termination of his
work may have had a direct connection to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in
Mitchell v. U.S., 9 Peters 711 (U.S. 1835). The Court ended up ruling in favor
of Colin Mitchell, giving him title to land worth a great fortune.28 Robinson’s
efforts in Cuba were summed up by one authority as follows:
One of Robinson’s first conclusions was that his investigations had uncovered
uncontrovertible evidence that many of the Florida archives to which the United
States Government was entitled were in Havana despite avowals to the contrary;
that no effort to obtain them had been spared by commissioners from the United
States; and that Spanish officials in Cuba had not obeyed instructions from the
Spanish crown demanding delivery of the archives. Although he did not succeed in
sending back to Washington a single original document, he exposed fraudulent
claims, brought clearly to light the corrupt conditions surrounding his
investigations, and sent to Washington various inventories of Florida papers, a
copy of a report of two of the Spanish commissioners, including communications
from the last Spanish governors, Callava and Coppinger, and several related
statements. The meticulously detailed diaries, notes, and letters he left
contain valuable lists of documents which he examined and selected for return to
the United States. Robinson did not possess the forceful personality of Call and
unfortunately quarreled with nearly everyone with whom he worked, bored his
listeners by talking too much, and was not entirely consistent. But his intense
loyalty, persistence, and almost fanatical devotion to duty enabled him to
render services without which facts about the Florida archives in Havana might
still be in the realm of the unknown.29
Finally, Robinson himself is reputed to have said that, as proof of
fraud, some of the papers were
obviously antedated—altered—distinguished by erasures of dates, and filling
up the spaces with others so as to make them conform to the Treaty of
Washington, but above all the documents were written on paper of recent
manufacture, made posterior by several years to the dates indicating the period
of the transactions . . . . Yet all duly signed and authenticated . . . by the
After Robinson’s death but before the Supreme Court ruled in Mitchell,
the U.S. Consul in Havana, Nicholas Trist, and Edward Wyer, a special messenger
sent down from the U.S., put together a group of some 45 documents from the
archives and sent them back to the U.S. for use by the Supreme Court in its
deliberations. The Court was not persuaded by this information to rule in favor
of the government.31
Several issues have puzzled persons reviewing Robinson’s work in Cuba. One
issue that stands out is the possibility of diplomatic dissembling by the
Spanish government. Recall that, pursuant to a request from the U.S., Spain
issued a royal order in 1832 requiring compliance with the treaty and delivery
of the required Florida archives to the U.S. It would seem that an order of this
type would have greatly facilitated Robinson’s work in Havana. Since this was
obviously not the case, Robinson apparently developed certain misgivings about
the terms of the royal order. Based on “hints” he received from Cuban officials,
Robinson suspected that the order may have contained a “secret clause” not
disclosed to the Americans, which actually instructed Spanish officials in Cuba
not to follow the order’s directives. It appears that a ploy similar to this was
used on another occasion to conceal certain Spanish real estate records sent to
Cuba from Louisiana.32 It appears that, with the passage of time, the
determination of the U.S. to obtain the Florida archives from Cuba slowly waned
as the remaining cases in litigation concluded and real estate titles were
Statehood and Thereafter
Florida’s territorial period came to a close in 1845 when statehood was
achieved. By that time the majority, but certainly not all, of the claims to
Florida land arising from Spanish land grants had been resolved. Prodigious
efforts had been made by persons on the federally appointed land commissions in
Florida, the territorial courts, Congress, and the federal courts to decide
these vexing problems.33 Fortunately Spain’s colonial officers in Florida had
not sent all of the Florida archives to Havana, and the American officials
tasked with resolving land claims in Florida did the best they could with the
archive records they had.34
Yet, whatever became of the missing records that American diplomats tried so
hard to retrieve from Cuba in the 1820s and 30s with so little success?
Obviously, after the passage of over 170 years, some records may well have been
lost, damaged, or destroyed. Indeed, one incident of this nature even involves
alleged piracy on the high seas. In 1818 (prior to the treaty transferring
Florida), a Spanish official left Pensacola on the schooner Peggy with 17 boxes
of archive documents (probably including some real estate records) bound for
Havana. Before arriving, the Peggy was “. . . attacked and captured by the
corsair General Umber (Humbert)” sailing out of Buenos Aires.35 There are
conflicting reports about whether some papers or even some boxes were destroyed
by the pirates.36 There was also a reported fire at the house of the Spanish
Treasurer at Pensacola in 1811. The papers belonging to his office in the house
According to a researcher working in the early years of the 20th century,
many of the Florida archives in Cuba were transferred from the island to Spain
in 1888 and 1889.38 These, of course, have generally been available to
researchers doing work in Spain in subsequent years. There is, however, good
evidence that at least some archive documents relating to Florida real estate
remained in Cuba and were never transferred to Spain.39
Having reason to believe that Florida real estate records still exist in the
Cuban archives is one thing, but seeing them and perhaps photocopying them is
another. Yet, just such an initiative is now possible. The University of Florida
and the Cuban National Archives signed an agreement in March 2001, allowing
certain researchers the opportunity to travel to Havana and begin copying a vast
store of historical documents known as the Notary Protocols (about the
equivalent of 40,000 books today).40
Florida possesses a long and fascinating history, including the state’s legal
and real property heritage. As the preceding pages have demonstrated, real
estate speculations and associated shenanigans are nothing new under the Florida
sun. Even though the Spanish crown has not been sovereign in Florida for over
170 years, subtle reminders of the Spanish influence still remain, and that is
as it should be. Florida lawyers who are conscious of their state’s legal
history are likely to be better equipped to participate in shaping its legal
1 See www.oldcity.com/his2.html, St. Augustine, Florida’s History, History
and Culture, which states that Don Juan Ponce de Leon claimed Florida for Spain
on March 27, 1513; and St. Augustine was founded in 1565.
2 See E.B. Potter and Chester W. Nimitz, Sea Power 30 (Prentice-Hall, 1960),
which states, “Historians of later times recognized that the catastrophic
failure of the Armada marked the beginning of Spain’s decline.”
3 Clifton Paisley, The Red Hills of Florida, 1528–1865 47 (1989).
4 U.S. v. Juan Perchman, 7 Peters 51, 32 U.S. 51 (1833) at 86–87.
5 George C. Whatley and Sylvia Cook, The East Florida Land Commission: A
Study in Frustration, 50(1) Florida Historical Quarterly 39 (1971).
6 Id. at 40.
7 A.J. Hanna, Diplomatic Missions of the United States to Cuba to Secure the
Spanish Archives of Florida, Hispanic American Essays 208–09 (A. Curtis Wilgus,
ed.) (reprinted 1970).
8 Id. at 209.
9 Examination of U.S. Supreme Court records by the author.
10 See Hanna, supra note 7, at 211.
11 Id. at 210–11.
12 Id. at 211.
13 Id. at 212.
17 Id. at 214.
19 Id. at 215–16.
20 Id. at 217.
22 Id. at 217–18.
24 Id. at 228.
25 Mitchell v. U.S., 9 Peters 711 (U.S. 1835).
26 See Hanna, supra note 7, at 218.
27 Id. at 219–22.
28 See supra note 25.
29 See supra note 7, at 228–29.
30 Id. at 230.
31 Id. at 232.
32 Id. at 233.
33 For further information about the land commissions, see Whatley and Cook,
supra note 5.
34 Persons interested in following the historical trail of the archives which
came into American possession might review an article by Irene A. Wright
entitled, The Odyssey of the Spanish Archives of Florida, Hispanic American
Essays 169 (A. Curtis Wilgus, ed.) (reprinted 1970).
35 Roscoe R. Hill, Descriptive Catalogue of the Documents Relating to the
History of the United States in the Papeles Procedentes de Cuba, Carnegie
Institution of Washington (1916), pp. xx-xxi.
37 Id. at xix.
38 L.M. Pйrez, Guide to the Materials for American History in Cuban Archives
76–79, Washington, D.C. (1907).
39 Felipe Zapata Casanova, Catalogo Sumario de los Fondos Existentes en el
Archivo Nacional, Imprenta del Archivo National, La Habana, Cuba (1958). The
Research Library of the St. Augustine Historical Society holds this small book
published in Havana in 1958 (the year before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959)
which is a Summary Catalog of certain documents in the Cuban National Archives
at that time. Under the heading of “Floridas” for the period 1737–1823,
documents are listed under the sub-heading “Solicitudes de tierra” which can be
translated as “requests for land.” Copies of these documents may be included
within a microfilm collection called the “Cuban Papers (1762–1824)” at the
Historic New Orleans Collection. Their Web site (www.hnoc.org/hnocmss.htm) says
the Cuban Papers, “contain official correspondence between governors and
district commandants about Indians, commerce, census records, and Acadians;
economic data from reports and account books and maritime information on the
port of New Orleans; and correspondence touching all aspects of the colony’s
economic life and development.” The Catalog in the St. Augustine library also
confirms that most of the documents under the heading of “Floridas” were
transported to Spain in 1888.
40 University of Florida Launches Plan to Preserve Historic Archive on
Spain’s Role in the New World, www.napa.ufl.edu/2001news/cubalibrary.htm. It is
very likely that additional Florida real estate records can be found among these
papers which recorded the operations of a new world empire over the course of
centuries. U.F. researchers are currently making plans for photocopying efforts,
but clearly much more remains to be done. According to the U.F. Web site,
private funding is needed for this project, so interested persons should be
aware of that aspect of the research.
Glenn Boggs is a professor at Florida State University’s College of Business.
He is a 1975 honors graduate of FSU’s College of Law and a 1968 graduate of the
U.S. Naval Academy. After admission to the Bar in 1976, he spent a year in
general practice and later served as unlicensed practice of law counsel with The
Florida Bar. In 1981, he joined the faculty at Florida State University where he
teaches law-related classes to business students.
*This article was originally published in The Florida Bar Journal, October
2003, Volume LXXVII, No. 9.