Saturday, August 22, 2015


On Monday afternoon, May 1, 1769, the ninth of Dauphin Island's nineteen armed amphibious invasions occurred with the violent eviction of West Florida Lieutenant Governor Montfort Browne's 4 employees from the island by two boatloads of men consisting of six British Mobilians and a slave led by Major Robert Farmar. Nobody was shot or killed but Browne's laborer, William Kimbe, was injured in the lower back by Major Farmar's "stout stick" and Browne's overseer, Richard Hartley, cut his cheek and tore his jacket when he attempted to come to Kimbe's aid plus both of them "were thrown bodily out of the house"; then had loaded muskets stuck in their faces and were threatened with being thrown into jail. This was but one episode in a seventy five year long legal struggle waged by Major Farmar and the heirs of his estate to lay claim to Dauphin Island. It is entirely possible that an entire forest of trees was consumed to produce all the paper necessary to print the efforts made by Major Farmar and his descendents to recover their claim to the island. For that reason this writer has found it impossible to write a brief description doing justice to the complexity of Major Robert Farmar's claim to ownership of Dauphin Island. It is therefore necessary to give the reader some background information.

Speculation in West Florida land offered a lucrative opportunity at the time of the advent of the Union Jack on Dauphin Island in 1763. Not only did Major Robert Farmar evict every French government official and French soldier from his new colony of West Florida but for over a year he was the head of the government and a willing customer for any emigrating Frenchman who might not be quite ready to pledge his allegiance to King George III and maybe have a little land to sell. Farmar claimed he never mixed public funds with his private fortune(acquired as prize money for his participation in the British conquest of Havana),however, he was forced to face a court martial that accused him of misuse of the British government's money and resources including embezzlement, profiting from public service and overcharging for profit.  By the time Farmar had settled into retirement at his home near present-day Stockton in the late 1770s, he had accumulated land title to over 10,000 acres of West Florida with the location of the parcels ranging from Natchez all the way to present-day Baldwin County. Some of the acreage to which Farmar contended he possessed clear title included most of Dauphin Island and three-eighths of Horn Island but as the reader will soon find out, Major Farmar's title to Dauphin Island was doubtful even during his lifetime. Those doubts certainly did not matter to the descendants of Major Robert Farmar and when the United States finally raised its flag over Mobile Bay in the spring of 1813, the U.S. commissioners charged with resolving private land claims found that many Farmar descendants had returned to Mobile and were prepared to argue that they possessed a clear title to Dauphin Island, Horn Island as well as the remainder of the land composing Major Farmar's 10,000+ acre estate.

When Major Robert Farmar arrived on Dauphin Island in the fall of 1763 he began to mix his private business with his military service as the military head of the new British colony of West Florida which at that time included all the land south of the 31st parallel (a part of which now serves as our Alabama-Florida line fromFlomaton to the Chattahoochee River) between the east bank of the Mississippi River and the Chattahoochee/Apalachicola River. Major Farmar set his eyes on Dauphin Island because of its abundant fresh drinking water, its strategic importance at the mouth of Mobile Bay and also for its potential as a cattle pen protected from raiding Indians by the water surrounding it. Up until that time, the area around Mobile Bay had never produced any form of cash crop for export other than the furs and skins traded from the Indians. The most valuable commodities from West Florida were live cattle (salt beef, tallow, hides) and lumber (tar, pitch, turpentine). Dauphin Island produced both commodities and had a harbor where these products could be readied for transportation to other ports. Dauphin Island was also an important "lightering" port for not only Mobile but for the entire coasting trade. Prior to the dredging of the ship channel, ocean going ships could not make it to Mobile or any other port on the Mississippi Sound. Ships drawing more than 13 feet of water could not cross the Sand Island bar and only very shallow draft boats could make it all the way to the wharf in Mobile.  Cargo had to be transferred to shallow draft vessels around Dauphin Island in order for it to be delivered to the inland ports. In addition to that, Dauphin Island was the home of the harbor pilots who could safely guide ocean going ships across the bar and into the harbors of Mobile Point and Dauphin Island so that their cargoes could be transferred to the shallow draft vessels.

Very soon after his arrival in West Florida, Major Farmar showed his interest in Dauphin Island when he immediately assigned a corporal and six men to a station on the island to assist the French pilot who was the only resident. He also succeeded in obtaining bills of sale for most of the island from Frenchmen living in Mobile and also bought all the livestock on the island which included seventy-six cattle and three pigs. He had this livestock exchanged for two male slaves named Peter and Prince. At about the same time, the newly appointed Lieutenant Governor of West Florida, Montfort Browne, had selected Dauphin Island as the location of the royal grant of acreage he'd received for the settlement of English and Irish emigrants he planned to recruit to sail to West Florida. On February 5, 1765, Major Farmar went before the Governor of West Florida Johnstone's council and challenged Lieutenant Governor Browne's royal order for acreage that Browne wanted to be located on Dauphin Island. Farmar had a chance to present his proof of purchase including his bills of sale and a petition for a formal grant of the island. The council rejected Major Farmar's evidence and ordered that Browne's petition to be granted Dauphin Island be accepted but they gave no reason for making their decision.

If you look at George Gauld's 1768 Dauphin Island map, you'll see a spot marked at about the location of the Indian Mounds which is labeled "Lt.Gov. Browne". This was probably the location of the house occupied by Browne's overseer, Richard Hartley.

Lieutenant Governor Browne moved very quickly to occupy the island. He ordered a corporal's guard to the island and seized about 100 head of cattle grazing there.

Major Farmar never accepted Governor Johnstone's decision against his ownership of the island but he was too busy to do anything about it. He was tied up during most of 1766 leading a military expedition up the Mississippi River to the Illinois country. When he returned, he was facing the court martial related to his alleged financial malfeasance during his tenure as military governor of West Florida in 1763-64.

King George III removed Governor Johnstone from office in 1767 and even though Lieutenant Governor Browne took Johnstone's place at the West Florida capital of Pensacola, Farmar was finally able to direct more attention to his Dauphin Island interests after he was acquitted of all his court martial charges on April 20, 1768. Farmar was elected to represent Mobile in Pensacola's colonial assembly in January of 1769 and by the beginning of April of that year, West Florida had a new governor in John Eliot. Governor Eliot immediately ordered an investigation of Lieutenant Governor Browne's administration and that was all Farmar needed to justify his forced eviction of Browne's men from Dauphin Island. Little did Farmer know when he set sail for the island from Mobile on May 1, that his new ally, West Florida Governor John Eliot, would commit suicide the next day.

Auburn professor Robert Rea in his book, MAJOR ROBERT FARMAR OF MOBILE, includes an excellent, detailed description of the violent eviction Major Farmar led to get the "trespassers" off of "his" island.

"On Monday, May 1, 1769, having returned to Mobile from Pensacola, Farmar gathered several determined friends aboard two boats and sailed down to Dauphin Island. His own party consisted of Dougal Campbell, now a Mobile merchant but formerly commissary at Mobile and one of Farmar's witnesses in the late court martial; Henry Litto or Latto, formerly skipper of the sloop JAMES, and much indebted to Farmar for employment; William Harris; and a Negro servant. On Dauphin Island were Richard Hartley, Browne's resident manager; William Kimbe, a laborer; Hartley's servant Robert Love; and a female housekeeper. At about two o'clock these men were seated at dinner in Hartley's house when they heard distant musket fire. Hartley dispatched Love to see if the shots might indicate the presence of a band of Indians, but the servant returned to report the approach of a boat. Hartley and Kimbe went down to the shore to meet their visitors and invited them to the house. Campbell told Hartley that they had come for oysters, and both parties began to walk up the beach to Hartley's house, formerly the residence of the harbor pilot. Shortly after leaving the beach, Hartley and Kimbe saw a second party of armed men who had apparently landed elsewhere. These were James Waugh, George Martin, and Thomas Gronow, good Mobilians who were no friends of Lieutenant Governor Montfort Browne. Martin and Gronow reached the house ahead of the others, forcibly ejected Deborah Coughlin, the housekeeper, from the house and began to throw furniture out the door. Litto and Harris rushed to join their confederates and slammed the door against the confused pair of Browne's men.

"Turning to Farmar, Hartley asked if they had come to rob him, to which the major replied that the island was his. Together they entered the house, Hartley protesting and Farmar proclaiming his right to everything in sight. As kitchen furniture and utensils were rapidly disappearing out the window, Hartley ordered Kimbe to recover them, but Farmar and his friends seized Kimbe, and the major forcefully applied the end of his stout stick to the small of Kimbe's back (causing considerable pain, according to Kimbe's later account). Hartley grabbed at Farmar, but the others roughly seized him, tearing his jacket and cutting his cheek. Both of Browne's men were thrown bodily out of the house. George Martin then kept them at bay with his leveled musket. Hartley demanded to see Farmar's authority for such highhanded action, but the major refused him any satisfaction and threatened to lay Hartley by the heals and send him to jail. Nor would Farmar even allow Hartley to leave his bed and chest in the house, safe from rain, though the poor fellow was permitted to deposit them in an open shed. Hartley and Kimbe soon withdrew from the scene, though they did not leave the island until Sunday, May 28. Some of Farmar's party remained at the overseer's house throughout the month."

When Brown got the news of Farmar's actions, he contacted his attorney general and depositions were taken on June 12 with a grand jury being impaneled in Pensacola to inquire into the Dauphin Island affair on Friday, June 30. The jury heard witnesses and found "the Entry and Detainer to be forcible." On July 12, Chief Justice William Clifton ordered the restoration of Montfort Browne's property on Dauphin Island.

It appears that Major Farmar finally accepted the fact that Dauphin Island was not to be his but that did not stop his daughter from investigating the chances of recovering the island from the Spanish in 1800 and later "the heirs of Major Robert Farmar" to attempt on multiple occasions from 1813 until 1834 to attempt to secure private land claims for Dauphin Island from the land commissioners of the U.S. Congress. Finally on January 1, 1834, Commissioner William Crawford reported to Congress that the Farmar heirs had forfeited their claim to Dauphin Island and "do not appear to be entitled to confirmation under any law of the United States."

No comments:

Post a Comment