New World in a State of Nature; British Plantations and Farms on the St. Johns River, East Florida, 1763-1784

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Governor James Grant described East Florida as a “New World in a State of Nature” after viewing the St. Johns River basin in 1764. Prior to the governor’s arrival in Britain’s new colony in November 1764, only a handful of settlements had been established. Other than a few cattle ranches and farms in distant locations in north Florida, Spanish colonists from 1565 to 1763 had done little to alter the natural setting. Brush laden “old fields” where Native Americans had once harvested corn and other crops could be found near shell middens and ceremonial mounds beside the St. Johns River, but they were small tracts of one hundred or fewer acres and were widely scattered over a vast terrain. The travel journal recorded by John Bartram while he and his son, William Bartram, explored the shores of the St. Johns River in 1765 and 1766 confirms Grant’s conclusion that East Florida was primarily a pristine wilderness when the British arrived.

Governor Grant immediately began working to ensure economic success through cultivation of export crops like indigo and other agricultural products. Soon, British planters and their enslaved Africans began clearing forests, draining marshes, cultivating agricultural fields, and changing the face of the river forever. It was the British who brought commercial agriculture and the plantation era to East Florida. Their Spanish and American successors expanded the extent of developed land, and subsequent forms of economic development merely accelerated or elaborated the transformation.

This digital history website locates and documents many of the St. Johns River farms and plantations established on the St. Johns River between 1763 and 1784, the years Britain controlled East Florida. The owners of the estates, and the managers, and laborers they employed, are identified where possible, and the crops grown are documented. The major economic, social, political, and military events of the two decades that encompassed the American Revolution are discussed in the documentary evidence. Viewers will find narrative summaries as well as complete transcriptions of some documents, which contain abundant information on slavery and colonial agriculture. Bibliographic entries identify the sources of documentary evidence.