Sons of Liberty in St. Augustine

Sons of Liberty in St. Augustine 2

During the era of the American Revolution, British East Florida was not exempt from the fervor of anti-British sentiment. With the Revolutionary War having already begun, February 27, 1776 saw a clandestine meeting take place in the Ancient City at Wood’s Tavern, located at the present-day site of the Trinity Episcopal Church’s thrift shop. This supposedly impromptu gathering of citizens met to discuss concerns about the leadership of Governor Patrick Tonyn. The only known attendee at this meeting was the Secretary of the Colony, Dr. Andrew Turnbull of the New Smyrna plantation.

Turnbull insisted the crowd allow him to conduct the meeting so that their protests might be brought before King George III. During the course of this meeting, he revealed the results of the grand jury brought against Chief Justice William H. Drayton by Governor Tonyn. Turnbull, who was a member of the grand jury, produced a written declaration of Drayton’s testimony, which was not yet officially public.[1] Tonyn believed that as an official, Turnbull’s actions at Wood’s Tavern that evening greatly influenced the crowd to rally against the governor.

Upon seeing the testimony, the attendees of the meeting demanded a written declaration against Tonyn’s alleged mismanagement of the government and dictatorial behavior. All seventy-four men present that night signed the document.[2] The next day, Turnbull boldly informed Tonyn of his intentions, presenting him with the document signed the night before, though it was only an unsigned copy.[3] Given armed rebellion in the northeastern British colonies, this meeting deeply concerned Governor Tonyn. He earlier suspected treasonous actions, stating in a letter to Lord Dartmouth, on November 1, 1775 that “I am perfectly informed that Doctor Turnbull, Mr. Penman, with a few more of the Chief Justice’s Creatures, are intriguing and endeavouring to raise a Faction…[t]he Chief Justice and Clerk of the Crown [Turnbull] compose the Juries of such men, as always to have a Majority.”[4] The meeting at Wood’s Tavern confirmed Tonyn’s suspicions: Dr. Turnbull was East Florida’s Samuel Adams, and the governor would not stand for such rebellious behavior.[5] On March 4, 1776, Governor Tonyn brought charges of sedition against Dr. Turnbull, seeking his suspension from colonial office.[6]

In a letter sent eleven days later, Dr. Turnbull not only openly discussed what took place on the night of February 27, he admitted to his role in the meeting. He even went so far as to threaten Tonyn’s position as governor, boasting that he not only had the ear of the King, but the clout to have Tonyn recalled to London. Governor Tonyn’s response, sent on March 18, saw the governor firmly stand his ground.[7] As the colonial governor and a significant landholder in East Florida, Tonyn held the upper hand. On March 22, he officially accused Dr. Turnbull of forming a faction to hinder the government in time of war. By March 30, both Turnbull and Drayton bribed a ship’s captain and fled to London.[8]

Turnbull returned to St. Augustine in September of 1777, only to find that the indentured Minorcans of New Smyrna had brought charges of cruelty against him, testifying to horrific conditions on his plantation.[9] Seeing the opportunity, Governor Tonyn sided with the Minorcans, dissolving the plantation at New Smyrna and exposing the scandal to all of London. With Dr. Andrew Turnbull’s reputation essentially destroyed, Tonyn suspended Turnbull once and for all from East Florida on January 30, 1778.

Written By: Dr. Roger Smith

[1] “The Turnbull Letters,” February 17, 1777, 2:168–77, PRO, CO 5/546, pp. 77–85.

[2] Siebert, Loyalists in East Florida, 1:34; see also “The Turnbull Letters,” 1:127–30.

[3] “Patrick Tonyn to Lord Germain, March 22, 1776,” PRO, CO 5/556, pp. 25–28.

[4] “Patrick Tonyn to Lord Dartmouth, November 1, 1775,” PRO, CO 5/556, p. 39.

[5] As a royal governor, Tonyn was kept abreast of the events of the day by frequent correspondence from Whitehall. As there was no newspaper in the colony until the early 1780s, printed news of colonial events reached St. Augustine via the South Carolina Gazette. Given the volatility of that colony, these stories would be inclined to relate news of seditious activities from both views – depending upon which army governed the colony at the time of print. Governor Tonyn accused William H. Drayton of using the Gazette to reveal important information to the American Patriots concerning East Florida. Searcy, The Georgia-Florida Contest, 54.

[6] “The Turnbull Letters,” 1:126.

[7] “Patrick Tonyn to Dr. Andrew Turnbull, March 18, 1776,” PRO, CO 5/556, pp. 97–100; “The Turnbull Letters,” 1:132–35.

[8] “The Turnbull Letters,” 1:143. This is a much more flagrant act of misconduct than it appears. This was an era when only men of means were making such journeys—men who typically held prestigious positions within the colonial governments, such as Drayton and Turnbull. With communications across the Atlantic being so slow, one could only take such a voyage if the colonial governor was aware of his absence and able to take the appropriate measures to compensate for his absence. The presence of such men in the colony was considered important enough that often replacements were named upon their departure.

[9] “Letter from Colonel Henry Yonge to Governor Tonyn, August 8, 1777,” and “Letter from Governor Tonyn to Lord Germain, August 8, 1777,” PRO, CO 5/557, pp. 420–22.