Forbes Bluff

The lower St. Johns River was transformed dramatically following the arrival of thousands of Loyalist refugees from Georgia and South Carolina. Dozens of new farms were carved from the forests, St. Johns Town became a sizeable settlement, and speculators like Governor Tonyn and Denys Rolle began buying land on both sides of the river expecting property values to rise. By the time the last of the Loyalist refugees settled at homesteads in East Florida following the evacuation of Savannah and Charleston, more than 10,000 people, free and slave, had migrated to the province. The sound of axe and hammer and saw could be heard everywhere along the waterways. Thousands of acres of newly cleared farm fields replaced the pristine forests. Commerce was also stimulated by the thousands of barrels of tar and turpentine and the logs and sawed lumber exported each year to the West Indies via the St. Johns River.

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Forbes Bluff can be seen in the distance, beyond the bridge and Mill Cove, on the south bank of the St. Johns River (to the right).

William Panton and Thomas Forbes and Company, successors to the Spalding Trading Stores, purchased Forbes Bluff (today known as Fulton ) and built warehouses and wharves to accomodate the naval stores trade. Forbes Bluff was adjacent to Hester's Bluff/St. Johns Town across Shipyard Creek and Shipyard Island. In the late 1760s, several parcels of this shore property were granted in tracts of 200 and 300 acres to Robert Stewart, Gabriel Cooley, Joseph Chetwood, John Rodun, Adam Bachop, and the Reverend John Forbes. Most of these small grants were purchased by Alexander Gray, a successful plantation agent for numerous London grantees and a man with a keen eye for valuable tracts.

After Gray's death by suicide in 1773, the planter John Tompkins bought the tracts at auction and held them until 1781, when he sold them to William Panton and Thomas Forbes. The other partners in the firm were William Alexander, William Forbes, John Leslie, and Alexander McLatchee. Panton and Forbes had been successful Indian traders operating out of Charleston, with trade stores in the interior of the southeastern British provinces. Loyal to Great Britain during the American Revolution, Panton and Forbes moved to St. Augustine in 1775, purchased the businesses and real estate of James Spalding and Roger Kelsall, including the Spalding Lower and Upper Indian Trade Stores. In addition to stores in the Indian trade, Panton and Forbes also owned more than fifty slaves and operated rice and other plantations in East Florida. In the 1780s they invested heavily in naval stores trade operations centered on 3,000 acres in the vicinity of Forbes Bluff and the Lower St. Johns River basin.

Forbes Bluff was to the right of Shipyard Island and Sawmill Creek, shown in the center of this photograph, and following the St. Johns River to the west toward today's Mill Cove. Known today as Fulton, it was in the 1780s recognized as Forbes Bluff and the center of the naval stores industry maintained by the Panton and Forbes Company.

On 300 acres adjoining Forbes Bluff slaves owned by the company (in 1784 they worked fifty-one slaves here) cleared, fenced and cultivated provisions crops and exploited choice stands of timber. Improvements at the site prior to the 1781 purchase included a dwelling house, overseer's house, corn and Negro houses and other buildings.

Nearby was a five-square-acre lot fronting the river which Panton and Forbes ditched and embanked. They also constructed a large wharf able to accommodate "ships of any burthen able to enter the river to lie," and two warehouses, each measuring twenty-four by twenty-four feet, with lofts above, and four sheds for lodging naval stores, each measuring sixty by nineteen feet. An additional storehouse, eighteen feet long by twelve feet wide, was built. With their additional storage facilities at Turpentine Island near the entrance to the river, Panton and Forbes Company was clearly the major firm involved in shipping naval stores in East Florida .

Across the river from Forbes Bluff, on the north shore of the St. Johns River , Panton and Forbes acquired 500 acres of pine land used to produce naval stores. The company also owned a valuable lot in St. Augustine with houses used in the mercantile trade, and numerous rural plantations used to grow rice and other crops. The principal business of Panton and Forbes, however, was Indian trade, which continued under the Spanish government. When the Spanish arrived, Panton and Forbes broke up their plantations and shipped the slaves to New Providence in the Bahamas .

Map of Forbes Bluff

Map of Forbes Bluff River Marsh

Bibliographic Information

A Note On Sources

T77/19/15 & 14/1 & 1/1, the Memorials of William Panton, Thomas Forbes, William Alexander, William Forbes, John Leslie, and Alexander McLatchee. Panton and Forbes eventually became Panton and Leslie. William S. Coker and Thomas D. Watson, Indian Traders of the Southeastern Spanish Borderlands: Panton, Leslie and Company and John Forbes and Company, 1783-1847 (Pensacola, 1986), is the most helpful secondary source. T77/18/32-Samuel Shephard; also T77/23/fragments.