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Politics

'Burnfoot': Thomas Brown and the American Revolution in East Florida

July 4, 2019 - 8:00am
Thomas Brown
Thomas Brown

Despite repeated efforts from the newly formed United States, East Florida remained in British hands during the Revolutionary War. Much of the credit for East Florida not being the fourteenth stripe on the flag has to go to Thomas Brown, one of the more intriguing leaders in the southern theater of the war. 

Born in 1750 in Yorkshire to a prominent merchant family, with an older brother set to inherit their father Jonas’ holdings, Brown looked to the New World to advance his interests. Despite being in his early 20s, Brown led more than 150 emigrants to serve as indentured servants--most from Whitby in Yorkshire and the Orkney Islands in Scotland--to the newly opened Ceded Lands in Georgia. Arriving in the colonies at the end of 1774, Brown established Brownsborough outside of what is now Augusta, Georgia. Settling in to study law and become a gentleman planter, Brown looked like one of the future leaders of the colony.

But Brown started his new life just as the Revolution was spreading throughout Georgia and the other colonies. As the political debates intensified, Brown started getting active and called for the colony to remain loyal to England, making him a target of advocates for American independence, with some of them even insisting he was the illegitimate son of the hated Lord North, King George III’s prime minister. 

At the start of August 1775, more than 125 Sons of Liberty stormed Brown’s plantation and demanded he join their side and renounce his support of the king and Parliament. Despite being threatened with violence, Brown refused and the crowd descended on him after he went inside to arm himself for protection. One of the Sons of Liberty hit Brown’s head with a rifle butt, fracturing his skull, leaving him defenseless and semiconscious.

While the mob ransacked his house, Brown was dragged to Augusta and tortured. The Sons of Liberty tried Brown to a tree, lit a fire under his feet which led to the loss of two toes, tarred and feather his legs and scalped him three or four times. Brown wrote his father that he was “insensible” for two days after the attack and he had problems walking for months afterward. The attack impacted Brown for the rest of his life. Decades after the attack, Brown suffered from migraines as the result of being scalped and his skull being fractured. 

Despite their efforts, the Sons of Liberty actually made Brown--who they dubbed “Burnfoot”-- something of a sympathetic figure and, despite his youth, he took on a leading role as the Revolution began. Being attacked galvanized Brown and turned him into one of the leading Loyalists in the South. Only weeks after being attacked, Brown was trying to rally residents of the South Carolina backcountry against the Patriots. William Henry Drayton, one of the leading Patriots in the Carolinas and later a member of the Continental Congress, warned that Brown was “as dangerous a man as any in this Colony.”

Brown soon proved Drayton correct. When Lord William Campbell, the royal governor of South Carolina, fled the colony to head to St. Augustine in early 1776, Brown was either with him or not too far behind him.  Brown drew close to Patrick Tonyn, the governor of East Florida, who became something of a mentor to the young Loyalist. With Tonyn’s encouragement, Brown drafted the core of a plan for the British to regain the South by having an army in the area working closely with local Native Americans and rallying Loyalists throughout the region. While the British bungled their first effort in the region when the Americans defended Charleston in 1776, Brown’s plan garnered the attention of George Germain, Lord North’s Secretary of State for America.

Outside of helping draft the British strategy in the region, Brown did his part to enact it. In 1776, Brown was one of the chief points of contact for the British with the Creeks, trying to encourage them and later the Cherokees to work against the Americans. 

Brown also raised a mounted unit of Loyalists which was eventually dubbed the King’s Rangers which proved instrumental in defending East Florida from American attacks. Despite American efforts to invade East Florida each year in 1776, 1777 and 1778, the British and Loyalists were able to successfully defend the region. Brown and the King’s Rangers--also known as the Florida Rangers--were instrumental in the British successes, playing key roles at the battles of Thomas Creek in 1777 (near modern-day Callahan) and Alligator Creek Bridge (also in or around Callahan) in 1778. The British victories in both battles helped ensure they would control the area for the rest of the war. When the British headed north at the end of 1778 as part of the successful campaign to capture Savannah, Brown returned to Georgia where he played a leading role in trying to pacify the area and restore the royal government. 

In the final years of the war, Brown played something of a leading role in the South. He served as the British superintendent to the Creeks and the Cherokees and led efforts to defend Augusta. In that role, he played an infamous role in Georgia history for his role in the hanging of 13 Americans. But Edward Cashin, who wrote an excellent history on Brown, insisted the Loyalist did not overstep his boundaries, especially as the Americans had violated their parole after being captured earlier in the war. Regardless, Brown’s reputation in Georgia never quite recovered. Brown eventually surrendered Augusta to Light Horse Harry Lee in June 1781 and headed back to East Florida. Still, Brown showed a remarkable knack for leadership, working with the Creeks and Cherokees while directing a unit of exiles who were far from home, including former slaves and Loyalists from the Carolinas and Georgia.

Brown returned to East Florida and looked set to resume his dreams of being a gentleman planter and a leader of the colony. He held high office, sitting on Tonyn’s council and holding thousands of acres off the St. Johns River. But Brown's dreams--like those thousands of other Loyalists who fled to East Florida--were shattered when the British handed the province over to Spain as part of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Brown helped the transition efforts as the Spanish took over the Floridas. 

While he kept attempting to be compensated for his losses in Georgia and East Florida, for the most part, Brown was able to obtain his dreams. After leaving St. Augustine, Brown build a plantation on Abaco Island in the Bahamas where he served in the  Bahamian legislature and clashed with Lord Dunsmore who served as governor, the same role he had held in New York and Virginia before the Revolution. Still, while he married a considerably younger woman and had children, Brown didn’t find a way to settle down until his old age, moving to Grand Caicos and, later, to St. Vincent to further expand his holdings. That last move got Brown in trouble and he spent two years in prison in England after being convicted on fraud charges over a dispute over lands. Still, by the time he was released and returned St. Vincent, despite his wife’s early death and the continued headaches, Brown seems to have found something of a measure of peace at the end of his restless life. He died in 1825 after having achieved his dream of being a leading planter more than half a century after he first left England. 

Still, Brown never quite buried his anger towards what had happened in Georgia and the loss of his property outside Augusta and in East Florida. In 1814, as the British fought another war with the United States, Brown offered his services to the crown, wanting to renew his ties to the Creeks and Cherokees. 

“I commanded them as Superintendent and left their kings and warriors to battle in twenty five different actions with invariable success,” Brown boasted. “There is no person in Great Britain who possesses interest and influence to detach these Indians from the Americans except myself.”

That last point was debatable some thirty years after Brown left the American South but it does show the old Loyalist remained a relentless fighter. Certainly, Brown’s relentless efforts against the Americans was one of the chief reasons why East Florida didn’t end up as one of the first states in the new republic. 

Kevin Derby can be reached at kderby@sunshinestatenews.com. He is starting his PhD in Leadership at the University of the Cumberlands this fall and focusing on leadership in the American Revolution in the South. 

Comments

very cool, as a native, its nice to see some old Florida history... Thanks.

Great work! Always enjoy reading your pieces on Florida history!

The Florida Panhandle should be divided up between Alabama and Georgia.

nice

Thank you for delving into this convoluted period and especially touching on the Creek saga. Did you come across any interactions other William Panton? Best of luck in Cumberland.

Thanks for the kind words. Brown and Panton did work closely together, especially with the Creeks and with Tonyon, Leslie, Forbes. Panton is a fascinating (if annoyingly elusive) figure whose fingerprints are all over Florida and the Southeast in the latter decades of the 1700s.

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