Florida’s First Realtor – James Thompson

 

A real estate advertisement for land in Pensacola, West Florida was first published in the New York Journal on November 5, 1767, and was reprinted half a dozen times.  It appeared for the last time on March 24, 1768.  It is the first known private advertisement for real estate in Florida.

 

Map of the British Florida’s w/inset of Pensacola

 

James Thompson, the man who placed it, was not the first land speculator in Florida, but his solicitation of customers among the general public "Up North", his targeting of customers of limited means, and his care in representing property as attractively as possible, first resembles the modern stereotype of a Florida "realtor."

 

Pensacola Sunset – A Realtor’s Dream

 

Information on James Thompson’s early life and career is fragmentary.  He was born in Ireland in 1728, emigrated to New York at an unknown date, and established himself as a merchant.  In 1753, he married Catherine Walton.  During the Seven Years War, Thompson supplied flax seed to Charles McManus of Londonderry Ireland, drew bills on William Caldwell of the same Irish city, and imported wine from Messrs. Lemar and Hill of Madeira.  In 1762, he infuriated the British commander in chief in North America by trading with the French enemy on St. Domingue.  In 1764, he advertised that he had a cargo of indentured servants, both men and women, imported on the schooner Expedition, to sell.  The following year, he demonstrated a connection with Florida when he advertised that the Expedition would be sailing from New York to Pensacola and Mobile. The Expedition, which was captained by Joseph Smith, was probably owned by Thompson, and he probably went along on that voyage. The vessel  left New York in late October, 1765, and Thompson is known to have arrived in West Florida on November 22.

 

In Pensacola, he initially presented himself, surprisingly, as being the indentured servant of one William Satterthwaite, about whom little is known except that he owned a moderate amount of land and that he strongly resented the way in which Governor George Johnstone was administering West Florida.  Even in a pioneer colony, social distinctions were extremely important in the eighteenth century.  Usually, an indentured servant was in no position to acquire land for himself, until his period of servitude had expired.  Instead, his master would include him on his own petitions for crown land as a member of his “family,” and the servant would entitle him, as would a blood relation or a slave, to an extra fifty acres of land.  Thompson, however, was no ordinary "indentured servant."  He seems to have caused the provincial council, whose responsibility, among others, it was to consider applications for crown land, to doubt that he was a "servant" of any sort. 

 

On January 7, 1766, it granted him Pensacola town lot number 254.  It was on the eastern side of the town, was 80-feet-wide by 200-feet-deep, and faced Pensacola harbor.  It backed upon a swamp.  On February 25, the council granted him an additional fifty acres to the northwest of the town, on the condition that he was not Satterthwaite’s "servant."  The suspicion implicit in this proviso proved to be well founded, and, as a result, Thompson was disposessed of that tract on July 30.  It was given instead to Arthur Gordon, one of the more influential lawyers in West Florida, who proved that Thompson had been included in the "family" of Satterthwaite in a grant request of February 11, and thus had used up his land entitlement.

 

By then, none of that scarcely mattered to Thompson, because he had won the favor of the most important man in the colony, Governor Johnstone.  On July 28, Governor Johnstone appointed Thompson a member of the West Florida Council, thus conferring upon him the provincial equivalent of cabinet rank.  On the very same day of his appointment, he received a grant of land to the west of Pensacola, and on the 30th, the day when he lost title to one piece of land, he received title to two others: swamp land flanking the capital to its east and west, which had been forfeited by a Patrick Reilly because he had failed to develop his property.  Full title deeds to these lands would not be available until January 10, 1767, when it was discovered that, thanks to a clerk’s incompetence, the papers had been lost.

 

On occasion, few individuals could insistmore punctilious than Governor George Johnstone.  He might well have insisted that Thompson go through the tedious and expensive process of applying for the lands all over again.  Instead he and councillor Thompson withdrew from the meeting so that the rest of the council might decide, without undue influence, whether it would be acceptable to deliver the deeds to Thompson, or not.  They decided in his favor.  As the Governor recalled it for the benefit of Councillors not then present, Thompson had offered to take up neglected lots on behalf of numerous friends and kinsmen in New York, and was prepared to post bond to ensure that they were built-upon within one year.  Such a scheme was bound to interest Johnstone, who customarily gave strong support to any measures that would swell immigration to his colony.  That Thompson could post bond for his relatives indicates that he was prospering in Florida, as does the fact that, in 1767, he paid the poll tax on four slaves.  If they were able-bodied males, the slaves alone would have been worth 800 Spanish milled dollars.

 

The last occasion on which Thompson attended a Council meeting was March 9, 1767.  Governor Johnstone had left West Florida for good on January 13.  Before his departure, he had given Thompson a year’s leave of absence from his councillar duties so that he could return to New York.  Back in New York, Thompson placed the real estate advertisement for the Pensacola properties in the New York Journal. 

 

Many of the lots described in the ad were not his own.  It may be presumed that many of the lot owners were early settlers who had changed their minds about living in Pensacola, knew full well that they would not themselves develop their properties and, rather than forfeit them, would need to rent them.  Vagueness of description makes it difficult to associate the advertised lots to individuals with certainty.  One exception is François Caminada, a French Protestant in Louisiana, where he had lived since 1748.  Governor Johnstone had persuaded him to migrate to Pensacola, where he served on the Council briefly in 1765, before deciding to transfer his business back to New Orleans. 

 

Potential renters were instructed in the newspaper advertisement to apply either to Thompson in New York, or to David Hodge and George Raincock in Pensacola, whom he had provided, on March 24, with the power to act for him.  Both Hodge and Raincock were among Pensacola’s solider citizens. Hodge was a member of the Provincial Council, the owner of large acreage and an interprising merchant who traded with the Spanish colonies.  Raincock came from Liverpool, England.  In West Florida, he was a partner with William Godley in trade. In July 1772, Raincock acquired a l,000-acre plantation on the Amite River.  Later he became a justice of the peace.   At the onset of the American Revolution he would resign his seat on the West Florida Council to return to England.

 

Thompson’s advertisement is interesting as a guide to the state of development in Pensacola four years after the first arrival of the British.  He referred to a public market area, to swampland as having been entirely cleared, and to the successful cultivation and sale of a variety of garden fruits and vegetables. He mentioned ten streets named after contemporary British politicians and members of the royal family.  As Thompson was trying to attract customers, seeking to portray a growing and thriving community, he allowed himself to exaggerate.  Those streets that he called George, Charlotte, Prince’s, Granby, Pitt, Mansfield, Cumberland, and Johnson, which correspond to modern Palafox, Alcaniz, Garden, Intendencia, Government, Zaragoza, Baylen, and Barcelona streets, existed with buildings on them, but Grafton and Conway streets, which he also mentioned on an equality with the others, were proposed rather than actual. 

 

Plan of Pensacola in 1767

 

No map shows them as having buildings.  They were intended to run parallel with Prince’s Street at the north end of the town, but probably were no more than surveyor’s stakes in the sand.  At the same time, Pensacola undoubtedly had other streets which Thompson did not mention, but they were at the eastern end of the town where he had little property to rent.  Pensacola probably had a dozen or so recognizable and built-on streets, and it was reported in the spring of 1768 that nearly 200 houses had been erected in the town during the previous eighteen months.  This was a very considerable improvement upon the fort and a scattering of huts, which was all that Pensacola consisted of prior to 1763.

 

Thompson also exaggerated the prospects for market gardeners in Pensacola.  The high prices that he quoted for vegetables, poultry, and meat, which were meant to suggest the propect of prosperity to migrating New Yorkers, actually sprang from hardship and privation.  The summer of the year in which he published the advertisement was particularly arduous.  For months, there had been a lack of provisions of every kind, and had it not been for the arrival of a schooner from Philadelphia on June 6, 1767, there would not even have been any flour.

 

It is impossible to say how much success Thompson’s advertisements achieved.  The probability is little, although it is true that a surprisingly large number of New Yorkers were to be found among the later inhabitants of British West Florida, and some may have been inspired to go there by the attractive description of Pensacola written by Thompson, although a careful newspaper reader would have found plenty of other news to darken Thompson’s glowing picture.  Nevertheless, the flaw in Thompson’s scheme was that it depended for success upon the continued and steady expansion of Pensacola’s population.  If that had occurred, there might indeed have existed a great demand for rentable property, since land inside the Indian boundary was very limited.  In fact, although the initial development of Pensacola was rapid, the pace thereafter slowed for three reasons:

 

One was that the Spanish trade, which was seen as Pensacola’s main raison d’être, and which was a prime motive for early immigration, never acquired the hoped-for dimensions, with the result that many merchants left Pensacola.

 

A second reason for slow population growth, of which Thompson must have been aware, but about which he understandably wrote nothing, was that the mortality rate from disease was very high.  The climate of West Florida was particularly devastating to immigrants from colder regions.  In 1765, from a battalion of 500 soldiers, ten to twelve were dying each day at Pensacola.  Of six officers’ wives who came with the battalion, five were soon dead, and the other seemed ill beyond recovery.  Because of sickness, nearby Mobile in 1766 was deserted by all except a dozen families and the garrison.  A letter from Pensacola in August 1767, revealed a similar story: "It is very sickly here at present…many people have died this summer."

 

A third reason for population stagnation in Pensacola was that, in spite of Thompson’s tributes, its inhabitants had become aware that the richest soil of West Florida lay in the western portion of the province.  Those who wanted to prosper from farming migrated there.  

 

In any case, whether near Natchez or in Pensacola, land could be obtained for free from the crown; so there was no need to rent it.

 

On the expiration of his leave of absence, Thompson returned to Florida.  On November 28, 1768, with John Thompson, a kinsman, he successfully applied for 500 acres of land on the Escambia River near Pensacola, after which he vanished into obscurity, as far as West Florida was concerned.  In 1773, when his daughter Polly married in New York, a local newspaper referred to her father as “formerly of this city.”  Perhaps he remained on in the colony he did so much to publicize.

 

From an article by Robin F. A. Fabel, published in The Florida Historical Quarterly Volume 62 Issue 1

 

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