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Looking forward to Florida

The Legal Genealogist‘s time in Oregon is drawing to a close after a spectacular trip yesterday to Crater Lake and what promises to be equally terrific today — a trip to the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

Between a great visit with the Rogue Valley Genealogical Society and some great scenery and wildlife, this has been a wonderful opportunity to get to know a part of the country where I hadn’t been before.

FloridaBut tomorrow it’s off to a much different part of the country — a part that wasn’t originally part of this country, not even part of the British colonies.

Tomorrow, I head off to Tampa, Florida, for the 2016 annual Fall Seminar of the Florida Genealogical Society (Tampa), co-sponsored by the Hillsborough County Public Library Cooperative.

The all-day program Saturday at the Robert W. Saunders, Sr., Public Library is themed “Ladies, Losers, & the Law,” and the topics are “‘Don’t Forget the Ladies’ – A Genealogist’s Guide to Women and the Law,” “How Old Did He Have to Be,” “Rogues, Rascals, and Rapscallions: The Family Black Sheep,” and “Facts, Photos, Fair Use: Copyright Laws for Genealogists.” Sure hope to see you there!

So… what about early Florida law anyway?

It may not be what you think.

Because Florida wasn’t part of the United States at all for a lot longer than most people think.

Florida was originally settled by the Spanish, and didn’t become British until 1763 when France, Spain and Britain signed the Treaty of Paris to end what was known as the French and Indian War. In exchange for Spanish control over Havana, Cuba, Florida was ceded to Britain, which divided the area into two territories: East and West Florida.1

But it didn’t stay British all that long. In 1781, while the British were focusing on trying to end the Revolutionary War, Spain invaded Pensacola, and in 1783 captured St. Augustine. As a result, both East and West Florida were ceded back to Spain by the British.2

And that didn’t last all that long either. Americans moved into West Florida after the Revolution and, in 1810, rebelled against Spanish rule. The United States claimed the area from the Mississippi River to the Perdido River as part of the Louisiana Purchase, and various negotiations over Florida’s status persisted into the early 19th century. By 1818, the issue had become critical when General Andrew Jackson seized Spanish forts in West Florida as part of the Seminole Wars.3

The status of Florida was finally settled by the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819, also called the Transcontinental Treaty. Ratified in 1821, the treaty gave the United States territorial control over both East and West Florida in return for American assumption of $5 million in liability for damages done by Americans who had rebelled against Spain.4

So we have a legal system that was Spanish, then English, then Spanish, then American — and even then not fully American, because the law guaranteed certain rights that folks had had under Spanish law and said it would apply Spanish law in resolving disputes.5


Where do we even begin?

We begin, of course, with Spanish Florida law. Florida’s early legal development was controlled by Spanish law, and particularly Las Leyes de Las Indias — the Laws of the Indies.

The initial Law of Burgos signed by King Ferdinand II of Aragon in 1512 dealt principally with the relationship of the Spanish crown and its colonists with the native peoples of the new world. Originally limited to Hispaniola and later extended, the code created groups of native peoples called Encomiendas with strict rules governing the amount of work, pay, food, housing, and hygiene of the workers and their families. Natives were to be protected, but converted to Catholicism. The code was often ignored, and was revised in 1542 and 1552 based on opposition from Spanish colonists.6

This was the law in effect when Florida was first settled.

Then in 1573, Philip II of Spain issued a set of 148 ordinances that became the heart of what became known as the Laws of the Indies. In substantial detail, the ordinances spelled out the precise location for each settlement that would be approved by the Spanish crown, how many people would be required, the topography and proximity to water and more. The ordinances set out the political organization of all new towns in Spanish America, and continued the general rules of the earlier codes that native populations should be approached in friendly ways and not mistreated. Both basic town planning and municipal government in Spanish America was heavily controlled by the Ordinances.7

This compilation was followed, in turn, by a compilation of existing and new laws for the government of all Spanish colonies in the New World, announced by Charles II of Spain in 1681. Called the Recopilación, it was the end result of work to compile the laws that began as early as 1624. The final work contained 6377 laws in 218 chapters in nine books: church government and education; the Council of the Indies; political and military administration; colonization and municipal government; provincial government and courts; natives; criminal law; finance; and navigation and commerce. The Recopilación was criticized for internal inconsistency, but was nevertheless the most comprehensive colonial legal code ever produced.8

As I said… whew.

What an amazingly complex legal hisory…

But that complex legal history gives us what we as genealogists all love…

It gives us records.

Tomorrow: a sneak peek at some of the best of those early Spanish Florida records.


  1. See “European Exploration and Colonization,” Florida History, Florida Department of State ( : accessed 28 Sep 2016).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. See “Acquisition of Florida: Treaty of Adams-Onis (1819) and Transcontinental Treaty (1821),” Office of the Historian, US Department of State ( : accessed 28 Sep 2016).
  5. See e.g. Article 8, Adams-Onis Treaty (1819); html version, Avalon Project, Yale Law School ( : accessed 28 Sep 2016).
  6. See Francisco Macías, “The Laws of Burgos: 500 Years of Human Rights,” In Custodia Legis, posted 27 Dec 2012 ( : accessed 28 Sep 2016).
  7. See “Philip II and Laws of the Indies,” Colonial Havana: The Geopolitics of Piracy, Early Urbanization, and Women of Nineteenth Century Havana ( : accessed 28 Sep 2016).
  8. See “Spanish Law in America and Colonial Administration,” California’s Legal Heritage, The Robbins Collection, University of California at Berkeley ( : accessed 28 Sep 2016).
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