News from the Courthouse
Greetings from the Wakulla County Courthouse. As your Clerk of Court, I am thankful to live with you and work for you in this wonderful county, one with so much history.
As those of you regular readers know, I am coming to the end of a series of articles on a historic land transaction called the Forbes Purchase. This was the first time in history the property you live on was sold or bought! I have gotten record feedback on this series of articles, and I really appreciate it.
Keep in mind that if you have not read the earlier articles in this series, you may go to the Clerk website (wakullaclerk.com) and choose the historic tab on the left side of the main page to read the earlier articles.
We rejoin the story in the year 1828, where the new owner of the land, Mr. Colin Mitchel, was struggling to clear title to the land he bought in 1821, right before the US took control of Florida from Spain. His request before the US Congress had not been ruled on.
Regarding his land claim, "the buck had been passed" from the US Land Commission to Congress and on to the territorial courts (Florida would not become a state until 1845). Another way of saying this is the Forbes Purchase land claim had now visited all three branches of government since the US acquired Florida from Spain just 7 years earlier.
The Superior Court of Middle Florida heard the case, and made a somewhat surprise ruling. After all the arguments were presented, the Judge in the case was inspecting the documents and became troubled by a watermark he noticed. He based his ruling invalidating the claim on that, a point not raised by the US government attorneys during trial, and with no chance of explanation by the plaintiff, Mitchel.
Mitchel appealed this to the US Supreme Court in 1831, as Florida territory had no other appeal courts at that time. To appreciate the Supreme Court battle, one must know about the main characters in the courts, a fascinating group indeed.
The US Attorney General was Roger B. Taney. One of the most outspoken opponents for his appointment as Attorney General was an opposing attorney on the Forbes case, who was also a US Senator.
Mr. Taney’s real claim to fame was that, within weeks of the Supreme Court decision on this case, President Andrew Jackson (remember the role he played in the story earlier when he was a US General) would successfully appoint Mr. Taney to become the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court himself!
Richard Keith Call, also representing the US government side, was a Tallahassee resident, an up and coming star in Florida politics. He was very involved in the development of lands around Tallahassee and would soon become governor of the Florida territory (Florida would become a state in 1845).
His involvement with the trial work at the Superior Court level on this case was significant. He also had a past with one of the other attorneys for the plaintiff, in that the Colonel had beaten him in a race for Congress from the Florida territory. These attorneys for the United States, who opposed the claim of ownership by Mr. Mitchel, were good litigators, but they were up against some of the best legal talent of the day.
For the defense, Mitchel and Co. had Colonel Joseph White, who was a delegate for the Florida territory to Congress and an expert on Spanish land laws and their translation. He lived in the Monticello area and ironically, had served on the US Federal Land Commission, which had refused to rule on the land claim back in 1824.
And we all have heard of Daniel Webster, a US Senator from Massachusetts and one of the top attorneys in US legal history. He was a leading member of the Whig party, opposing President Andrew Jackson’s Democratic party every chance he got. His exploits in the courts were legendary!
The chief justice of the US Supreme Court was John Marshall, one of the last surviving founding fathers of the Country and a friend and fellow federalist to Daniel Webster. He was on record just a couple of years earlier having ruled that Indians were not capable of deeding property (other than by treaty to the government, which was OK), so this appeal was an uphill battle.
This was the last case Chief Justice Marshall would rule on, as he passed away not long after the ruling.
As to the appeal itself, there were many trial delays by the US attorneys, most of which dealt with their attempts to search for an obtain any records from Havana, Cuba that pertain to the Spanish government and this land transaction. The US Attorneys produced some 45 documents the Justices would not give them any more time to continue looking, and these Spanish documents were rejected by the Supreme Court.
In January of 1835, the Supreme Court said enough delaying had gone on and heard the case. In March of that year, the Supreme Court reversed the lower Superior Court, and validated the property ownership of the Forbes purchase, this finally clearing the title, but with a hitch…a very important exception!
Much of the legal rationale behind the Supreme Court ruling rested on the fact that it was not up to the US government to approve the original transfer of land from the Indians, but rather to validate the approval of the Spanish government on this transaction under Spanish law.
After all, Spain controlled Florida at the time of the transfer so they were deemed valid under the “laws of nations” and the treaty that the US executed with Spain in acquiring Florida. In other words, if the laws of Spain recognized the Forbes Purchase as valid at the time of transfer, it was required by US law and by treaty with Spain in the acquisition of Florida to be treated as valid for Mitchel and Co.
Back to the exception mentioned in the Court ruling, the decision was that all the Forbes purchase properties were officially owned by the successors to the Panton Leslie and Co. EXCEPT for a quantity of land known as the St. Marks Reserve. The US would keep for itself the fort and adjacent property (for strategic military purposes), but this boundary of the Forbes Purchase was yet to be resolved per the order of the US Supreme Court.
This exception was a big deal as the owners had plans and persons living at St. Marks already and had big plans for the area. The way the Supreme Court ruled, Mitchel and company stood to lose more than 1000 prime acres depending on how they could resolve this final matter, so they would continue to work on a favorable resolution.
But since it had been around 10 years since they had sold any land of the Purchase, Mr. Mitchel would also finally move ahead with plans to sell real estate and finally make money.
At this point, the firm once again changed the name. The new firm was the Apalachicola Land Company, and this time, they took in shareholders, many of them from New York. Many of these investors had no idea what our fine marshland and swamps were worth down here!
I know I indicated in the August article that I should finish the story in September, but there is just not enough room in the Times to accommodate the rest of the story this month, so you will have to read the finale next month. Please forgive me!
Thank you for reading and please pray for peace and for those that sacrifice to protect and serve us. Make sure you and your friends are registered to vote. Our Supervisor of Elections tells me you only have until October 9th in order to vote in the General Election. Until next month, this is news from the Courthouse.