James Grant (1720-1806) only served as Governor of British East Florida for seven years, but his impact continues to reverberate through our state’s history. For Grant laid the foundations of Florida’s borders, commercial agriculture economy, and plantation era during his tenure. Today, we will be taking a look into Grant’s governorship.
Born the son of a Scottish laird, Grant left college at 21 to begin his military career. He first became an ensign in the First Highland Battalion and then a commissioned captain in 1744. His regiment fought in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). By 1757, Grant made major in the 77th Royal Regiment of Foot, which served in Ohio Country, the Appalachians, and Caribbean during the French and Indian War (1754-1763).
East Florida Governor
Grant received his governorship of British East Florida on November 1, 1763, but did not arrive in St. Augustine until August 1764. Grant came to Governor’s House with an entourage that included three French-trained chefs. He found “a New World in a State of Nature,” which he energetically tried to transform into a thriving outpost of the British Empire.
To encourage settlement in East Florida, Grant resolved to set an example himself by becoming a “spur to people who I thought slow and dilatory.” In practice, this resulted in Grant establishing Villa Plantation – located in today’s Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve. On his estate, Grant enslaved seventy people of African ancestry, who made him the most profitable indigo producer in the colony. Soon, British planters followed his example in using their enslaved and indentured laborers to clear forests, drain marshes, and cultivate agricultural fields.
For his vision to succeed, Grant needed Creek raids against the British to cease. In November 1765, Grant with British officials and fifty Creek leaders held a congress at Fort Picolata. John and William Bartram, who also attended, described the negotiations lasting several days and concluding with pipe smoking, drumming, gifts, and the firing of guns.
The resulting treaty designated lands west of the St. Johns River and south of Lake George as Creek. Settlers could move westward as long as the British maintained peace. To the north, the St. Marys River formed the Florida-Georgia border. Grant continued to build his relationships with the Creeks through a series of congresses, gift-giving, and judicial work.
Despite his efforts, Grant relied heavily on South Carolina for supplies, settlers, capital, and ideas. Grant’s papers at the National Archives of Scotland are filled with the flow of commerce and politics between both colonies. Grant even filled his council – who assisted in legislative matters – with friends and political connections mostly from South Carolina.
Grant’s council allegedly did much of their work over dinner and many drinks. From Grant’s own accounts, he described parties that lasted until 6 A.M. and kept a detailed record of libations consumed each day. This hospitality extended beyond his Council. In 1765, he notably entertained the Seminole leader Cowkeeper (also known as Ahaye) and his sixty attendants over an eight-day visit to St. Augustine.
In 1770, Grant became the 11th laird of of his family’s estate Ballindalloch. Then, in 1771, illness – described as a “bilious fever” – forced him to return to Scotland. Although Grant never returned to Florida, he remained owner of Villa Plantation until he sold the land and people for £4,795 in 1784. For the next two decades, he continued to receive payments on principal and interest generated by the transaction.