If you have ancestors in the earliest migration from America into the new territory of Florida you have a few options for attempting to identify them and when they may have entered Florida. Let’s start by doing a quick run through the history of the territory of Florida and how it became part of the United States then we will focus on the settlement of northwest Florida by American citizens.
The first recognized Europeans in what would become the State of Florida were Spanish explorers. This contact with the native peoples had a profound impact on the native population. The French also made an effort to settle in Florida at one of my old stomping grounds, Ft. Caroline near Jacksonville, but the Spanish responded quickly and the French were driven out. The Spanish established St. Augustine in 1565 and Pensacola in 1698. The French and Indian War (Seven Years War) was fought between 1756 and 1763 and led to the Spanish transferring Florida to the British. The British divided the colony in two. East Florida’s capital was at St. Augustine and West Florida’s capital was Pensacola. In the 1760s migrations of Muskogee (Creek) people from Georgia and Alabama increased and the American Revolution led to the Spanish reclaiming Florida in return for its nominal help during the Revolution.
For the next 38 years the Spanish were again in control of Florida. The First Seminole War led to Andrew Jackson’s excursion into Florida and ultimately led to the Spanish ceding Florida to the United States in 1821. However, it is obvious in looking at the few early records of the panhandle, Americans began moving into the area as soon as the war was over, likely anticipating the transfer and the availability of new lands. Though some of these families moved into the northern edges of the Florida panhandle, some remained at or near the Florida/Alabama border in what was then Conecuh Co, AL. At least fourteen men (families) appear in both the Conecuh Co, AL 1820 census and the 1830 Escambia Co, FL census. Most of these families were likely in the area of the upper Yellow River or on the upper Escambia River awaiting the transfer.
As is pointed out in the book, The Spanish Censuses of Pensacola, 1784-1820: A Genealogical Guide to Spanish Pensacola, the Spanish became concerned with the American migration into the upper Escambia River area without Spanish permission. These families were generally on both sides of the Escambia River between the Alabama border and Chumuckla. In the summer of 1820 the Spanish decided to try and do a head count and determine what these families were growing and raising. They found 380 whites, 73 blacks, 1,577 livestock, 1,160 hogs and 1,074 acres of land under cultivation. Unfortunately, the census was ended early due to heavy rains so we don’t have a complete record of the families who were located in this area in 1820. Some of the surnames found in this census who became early settlers of the panhandle include: Cobb, Campbell, Parker, Godwin, Spiers, and Wilkinson.
One of the best sources of early settlers of the Florida panhandle is the Congressional Record from May 26, 1824 in which claims to land in West Florida are listed, including names of claimants, number of acres cultivated, and the period of time in which the land was cultivated for each person listed. The majority of these men and their families migrated into Florida between 1819 and 1820. There are a total of 74 families listed in the Congressional Record in Escambia County, Florida whose land claim was recognized. These two pages from the Congressional Record are available through the link at the end of this article. It is important to remember that in 1823 there were only two counties in the panhandle: Escambia and Jackson. These two counties extended to the eastern boundary of the modern day counties of Jackson, Calhoun and Gulf. A good website for seeing the counties in any given year of our history is located at Map of U. S. – Florida.
1822 FL Geographical-Statistical-Historical Map (H.C. Carey)
Next Post (August 29th) I will be starting a series of posts on the community of Oak Grove, Okaloosa Co, FL, one of the earliest communities settled by Americans in the far Northwest Florida area.