Friday, October 01, 2021 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

Rival claims to the land of South Carolina sparked hostility between England and Spain that shaped the first seventy-eight years of the colony’s existence. While officials in Charleston considered the inhabitants of La Florida to be jealous rivals, Spanish officials in St. Augustine saw Carolinians as habitual trespassers. To improve our understanding of that formative era, we need to consider both sides of the territorial dispute that endured from 1670 to 1748. Spain held a better claim to the contested territory, but stubborn British colonists eventually forced their Spanish neighbors from the mainland of North America.

In last week’s program, we traced the origins of Spanish claims to a broad swath of North America. From 1513 to 1670, the Spanish crown claimed all of the land from the Florida Keys to Chesapeake Bay as a broad territory called La Florida. In 1663, King Charles II of England granted the northern half of that same territory to the Lords Proprietors of Carolina, and then enlarged the grant in 1665 to include the Florida capital of St. Augustine. Spain was outraged by this usurpation, but the two nations settled a compromise in the summer of 1670. Three months after a small group of English settlers established Charles Towne on the Ashley River, the Treaty of Madrid required Spain to acknowledge all those lands in America “which the king of Great Britain and his subjects do at present hold and possess.”[1]


Although the Treaty of Madrid did not articulate a precise boundary line between the two colonies, Spain continued to claim all of the land from the Florida Keys to Santa Elena, including what is now called St. Helena Sound in modern Beaufort County. Spanish maps of that era placed the new frontier at 32 degrees, 30 minutes of latitude north of the equator, but English colonists continued to point to the Carolina charters of 1663 and 1665 that granted them territory down to 31 degrees and then 29 degrees respectively, some 250 miles south of Charleston.[2]

As a result of these differing interpretations of the 1670 Treaty of Madrid, the people who inhabited South Carolina and La Florida during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries lived a state of near constant anxiety. The governor of Florida mobilized a fleet in the summer of 1670 to destroy the new English settlement on the Ashley River, but the arrival of a hurricane forced the Spanish ships to retreat to St. Augustine. A smaller expedition in 1671 also failed, and Spanish officials subsequently gave up hope of dislodging their English neighbors from Charleston. They continued to hope, however, that the Carolinians would honor the Treaty of Madrid and confine their colonial activities to the lands north of Santa Elena.[3]

The early English settlers in Carolina, on the other hand, were determined to possess the land lying south of Charleston. They saw the Spanish in Florida not as neighbors but as obstacles to the future prosperity of South Carolina. On several occasions during the 1670s and 1680s, English colonists encouraged their Native American allies to raid the northernmost Spanish missions in what is now coastal Georgia. Spanish officials reciprocated with similarly disruptive tactics. After a group of Scots settlers established Stuart Town on Port Royal Island in 1684, Spanish forces sailed up the coastline from St. Augustine in 1686 and eradicated the town constructed within the Spanish territory of Santa Elena. Colonial officials in Charleston wanted to dispatch a retaliatory expedition in 1687, but the Lords Proprietors scuttled the plan and prevented the outbreak of an international conflict. England and Spain formed a brief partnership during the Nine Years’ War of 1688–97, during which time Spanish and English diplomats in Europe politely argued about the possession of the borderlands in what is now southern Georgia and northern Florida.

When a new war broke out between England and Spain in 1702 (called Queen Anne’s War in North America), the government of South Carolina launched a series of bloody raids into Florida to destroy Spanish missions and sack the city of St. Augustine. Their goal of driving Spanish colonists from the mainland ended in failure, however, and Spanish forces, aided by French and Native American allies, retaliated in 1706 by invading Charleston harbor in an equally unsuccessful raid (see Episode No. 1). To help protect the colonial capital from future violence, the South Carolina government chartered the town of Beaufort on Port Royal Island in 1712. One year later, the crown government of Great Britain negotiated a new peace treaty with Spain. In Articles 2 and 8 of the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, Britain and Spain agreed to restore “the ancient boundaries of America as they were in the time of King Carlos II” (Charles II of Spain, whose death in late 1700 sparked the war).[4]

Like the 1670 Treaty of Madrid, the imprecise text of the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht engendered contrasting interpretations in Florida and South Carolina. The Spanish government followed a literal interpretation of the 1713 treaty and insisted that it restored the Florida-Carolina border to the line demarcated by the treaty of 1670. The provincial government in South Carolina, on the other hand, ignored both treaties and insisted that the presence of settlers around the new town of Beaufort gave them a right to claim all of the land on the north side of the Savannah River and beyond.[5] This Anglo-centric viewpoint was contrary to the spirit of the treaty of 1713, but the British government in London wasn’t paying close attention. South Carolina was still a proprietary colony at that time, owned and managed by a group of absentee investors. The royal government trusted the Lords Proprietors to ensure that their tenants complied with the treaty, and consequently there was very little oversight.

Following more than a decade of warfare on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, the Spanish government was too weak and too poor in 1713 to mount an aggressive campaign against South Carolinians who continued to trespass into the northernmost part of La Florida. Instead, officials in St. Augustine encouraged their Native American allies to harass the English settlers around Port Royal Harbor, formerly known as Santa Elena. Spanish encouragement of Native American violence against South Carolina settlers in the months after the conclusion of Queen Anne’s War contributed significantly to the outbreak of the Yemasee War in 1715. In April of that year, an inter-tribal collective of Spanish-allied Indians attacked plantations around Beaufort and Colleton County and murdered more than two hundred white settlers. The survivors packed up and retreated closer to Charleston for several years, during which time the land between the Edisto and Savannah Rivers was virtually deserted.[6]

The Lords Proprietors of Carolina were too detached from the day-to-day operations of their colony to offer any meaningful assistance during the Yemasee War. As shareholders, they expected the Carolinas to generate revenue and were not inclined send money or resources to help the colonists defend themselves against angry neighbors. Instead, they contemplated a proposal from a Scottish aristocrat named Robert Montgomery, the 11th Baronet of Skelmorlie. Sir Robert proposed in early 1717 the creation of a new colony, called Azilia, to act as a buffer between the Spanish at St. Augustine and the British settlers at Beaufort. If the Lords Proprietors would grant to him all of the unsettled part of South Carolina between the Savannah River and St. Simons Island, Montgomery promised to fill the territory with Protestants immigrants who would protect South Carolina from further Spanish harassment.[7] The Proprietors complied in June 1717 by granting the proposed tract to Montgomery and raising him to the title of “Margrave of Azilia.” Montgomery failed to settle the territory within the specified time-frame of three years, however, and thereby forfeited his grant. The Margravate of Azilia appears on a few maps printed the 1720s, but it otherwise disappeared from our collective memory.[8]

Lingering tension between Spain and Britain led to a renewed period of warfare between 1718 and 1720, known as the War of the Quadruple Alliance (Spain vs. Britain, France, Holy Roman Empire, and Dutch Republic). British subjects in South Carolina feared another Spanish attack, just like in 1706, but most of the hostility in this part of the empire was confined to the Caribbean Sea. Nevertheless, anxiety about Spanish incursions into South Carolina, and the colony’s lack of adequate defenses, fueled the bloodless coup that toppled the proprietary government in Charleston in December 1719. In the weeks after the successful coup, the leaders of the rebel government wrote to the King of Great Britain and asked him to take control of South Carolina.

In the late summer of 1720, the crown of Great Britain agreed to send over a new governor appointed by the king and to take the province of South Carolina under its authority. The crown thus inherited a troubled colonial venture, the history and operations of which the king’s ministers had an imperfect knowledge. When John Barnwell of Beaufort suggested building a chain of forts to protect South Carolina’s southern frontier from Spanish incursions, the British government agreed to fund just one on the Altamaha River near modern Darien, Georgia. Francis Nicholson, South Carolina’s first “provisional” royal governor, arrived in Charleston in May 1721 with a company of British soldiers who proceeded 130 miles southward to the Altamaha River and built a wooden outpost called Fort King George.[9]

On three occasions between 1722 and 1724, the Spanish governor of Florida sent emissaries to Charleston to complain about what they considered the illegal placement of the new British fort on the Altamaha River. Governor Nicholson received the Spanish diplomats with due hospitality, but repeatedly refused to negotiate or discuss South Carolina’s claim to the territory that now forms the state of Georgia. After the Spanish ambassador in London complained loudly to his British counterparts in 1724 about the presence of Fort King George, the crown contemplated the best manner of addressing the overlapping boundaries of South Carolina and La Florida. Rather than determining a solution at the highest levels of government, however, the kings of Great Britain and Spain both agreed to send instructions to their respective governors in Charleston and St. Augustine to settle the location of the territorial boundary line themselves.[10]

At a tense diplomatic meeting held in Charleston in September 1725, visiting Spanish emissaries insisted that the Treaty of Madrid in 1670 had fixed the boundary between La Florida and South Carolina at 33 degrees 30 minutes north latitude. Fort King George on the Altamaha River was certainly within the territory of La Florida, as was the town of Beaufort in the Spanish domain of Santa Elena. Furthermore, said the Spanish negotiators, the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht ordered both Spain and Great Britain to return to the territorial boundaries held before the commencement of the war in 1701. If the people of South Carolina did not honor the spirit and the letter of these treaties, then the King of Spain promised to use all means in his power to secure his rightful property.

In response to these legitimate claims and veiled threats, South Carolina officials simply shrugged their shoulders. Governor Nicholson had recently returned to England, leaving Arthur Middleton (1681–1737) to preside over the provincial government. Middleton told the Spanish emissaries that he had received no instructions from King George to settle the boundary, and, as acting governor, he lacked authority to discuss such a monumental topic. After politely thanking the two Spanish emissaries for visiting Charleston with thirty servants, President Middleton promised to send word to St. Augustine as soon as he received proper instructions from King George. Instructions from London arrived about a month later directing the acting governor to settle the boundary with La Florida, but Middleton and the provincial government refused to discuss the matter with their Spanish neighbors. Three months after the fruitless meeting in Charleston, the contested Fort King George on the Altamaha River burned to the ground in a mysterious fire.[11]

The ownership of Fort King George was the focus of most Anglo-Spanish conversations of the 1720s, but the wooden fort was a synecdoche for the larger issue of the contested territory lying between St. Augustine and Santa Elena (Beaufort, South Carolina). While Spanish officials repeatedly pointed to the boundary line established by the international treaties of 1670 and 1713, South Carolina’s provincial government countered by invoking the broad domain granted to them by King Charles II in 1663 and 1665. In response, Spain argued that the English king had no right to grant land he did not possess. South Carolina had no valid rebuttal to this observation, but asserted that the occupation of Fort King George demonstrated possession of the land, and therefore gave them a right to claim the entire territory in question. We might render the South Carolina argument in modern language using the following words: Y’all weren’t really using that territory, so we moved in and now it’s ours.

The wooden fort on the Altamaha River was of negligible strategic importance, but it held great symbolic value. When Fort King George burned in December 1725, President Middleton summoned the South Carolina General Assembly to appropriate funds for its immediate reconstruction. “As possession gives a right in this case,” said Middleton to the Assembly, “so abandoning what we have [held] so many years is tacitly giving that right away.”[12] At stake was not just the land adjacent to the fort, but South Carolina’s claim to all of the land lying to the south of Edisto Island. In a letter written after the Spanish conference of 1725, President Middleton told the British Secretary of State that any acquiescence to Spanish demands would spell the end of South Carolina. If the British government accepted the logic of the Spanish claim to the contested territory, said Middleton, “the Spaniards may as well claime all the lands within a few miles adjacent [to Charleston], as those lyeing on the Allatamahaw River.”[13]

While the Spanish ambassador in London continued to complain to his British counterparts about Fort King George during the late 1720s, other international events distracted attention away from the controversial border between La Florida and South Carolina. Spain’s fervent desire to repossess Gibraltar, which the British had captured in 1704, led to a state of quasi-war between 1727 and 1729. This brief Anglo-Spanish War did not affect most of the other British colonies on the continent of North America, but it proved to be a very tense and confused time for South Carolinians.

Spanish authorities in Florida during the 1720s encouraged their Native American allies to harass British settlers around Santa Elena (Port Royal), and encouraged enslaved South Carolinians to run away to Florida, where they could gain freedom by converting to Catholicism. The government of South Carolina responded in the spring of 1728 by sending a military expedition under Colonel John Palmer into northern Florida. Palmer’s bloody raid decimated Native America communities allied with the Spanish, but did not touch any European colonists. South Carolina forces stood within sight of the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine but did not fire a shot. Without a formal declaration of war, the British subjects were restrained from harming any of the subjects of the King of Spain.[14]

Because of political foot-dragging in London, South Carolina’s transition from a proprietary colony to a royal colony took nearly a decade to complete. The provincial government in Charleston ground to a dysfunctional halt in 1727, and the colonial legislature barely functioned for the next three years. While the South Carolina economy was circling the drain, so to speak, during the period of quasi-war in the late 1720s, British officials debated the future of the troublesome colony. To resolve its congenital flaws, the crown adopted two measures that radically altered the course of South Carolina’s history.

First, the king’s ministers completed their long negotiations with the Lords Proprietors of Carolina to officially purchase the entire colony—including North Carolina—in late 1729. Royal Governor Robert Johnson arrived in Charleston in December 1730 to inaugurate a new period of unprecedented political, economic, and cultural stability in South Carolina. Secondly, the colony’s new owner, King George II, authorized his ministers to transform the long-contested southern half of South Carolina into a separate colony. Following several years of negotiations, the king issued a charter in the spring of 1732 for the new province of Georgia, which encompassed all of the land between the Savannah River and the Altamaha River. Like the ephemeral plan for Azilia in 1717, Georgia was created out of the contested and unsettled part of Carolina that the King of Spain still claimed.

The arrival of the first Georgia settlers in early 1733 brought much relief to the people of Charleston and Beaufort, who breathed easier knowing that Spanish officials in St. Augustine would henceforth direct their anger at the newly-created town of Savannah. The King of Spain was, of course, outraged by this new chapter of British trespassing within the ancient boundaries of La Florida, but South Carolina was not entirely out of danger. During the mid-1730s, the Spanish ambassador in London complained loudly about the creation of Georgia and repeated Spain’s claim to all of the land up to and including the harbor of Santa Elena, as determined by the 1670 Treaty of Madrid. This contentious issue, combined with Spain’s desire to regain Gibraltar and ongoing Spanish hostility to British ships in the Caribbean, pushed both nations to the brink of war.

The British ministry of the mid-1730s was reluctant to go to war with Spain and explored various compromises to settle their differences. Because the creation of Georgia offended the Spanish crown, Britain considered the possibility of abandoning its claim to that long-contested territory in order to avoid war. Parties in both Georgia and South Carolina argued against such a conciliatory strategy, however. South Carolinians had defended their right to trespass on La Florida for nearly seventy years, and they weren’t inclined to abandon that long tradition. Through his governor in St. Augustine, the King of Spain renewed the old practice of enticing enslaved South Carolinians to escape to freedom in Florida. This effort to antagonize and destabilize the British colony sparked the bloody uprising known as the Stono Rebellion of September 1739. Weeks later, Britain and Spain declared war on each other and commenced a long conflict commonly known as the War of Jenkins’ Ear, or La Guerra del Asiento.

Immediately after hearing about the declaration of war in Europe, the governments of South Carolina and Georgia began collaborating on a plan to capture St. Augustine and dislodge Spanish colonists from North America. Their joint expedition against the capital of La Florida embarked in the late spring of 1740 and ended in a confused and acrimonious failure in front of the Castillo de San Marcos. Embarrassed military leaders in Charleston and Savannah spent the next several years blaming each other for the continued threat of Spanish aggression in the region.[15]

While Spanish forces planned their revenge for the raid on St. Augustine, an engineer in Havana named Don Antonio de Arredondo was busy preparing another sort of weapon. After combing through centuries of archival documents, Don Antonio compiled a long history of the Spanish claim to the disputed territory of Georgia and South Carolina. Arredondo’s “Historical Proof,” or “Demostración Historiographica,” completed in the spring of 1742, presented a comprehensive exposition of Spain’s right to claim the territory now called Georgia and the southern part of South Carolina called Santa Elena. When Spanish officials presented this compelling narrative to their British counterparts for review, their response was predictably belligerent. Unable to offer a rebuttal equal to the breadth and logic of Arredondo’s work, Britain elected to sustain its claim to the disputed territory by force. The two nations were then at war, and the outcome of that contest would determine the fate of the contested land.[16]

In retaliation for the joint South Carolina and Georgia raid against St. Augustine in 1740, Spanish forces from Havana and St. Augustine embarked on a poorly-executed and unsuccessful invasion of St. Simons Island in the summer of 1742. That raid did little to advance the Spanish claim to Georgia, and most of the War of Jenkins’ Ear in this theater took place on the high seas between British and Spanish privateers. The international conflict dragged on until the autumn of 1748, when the combatants resolved their differences in the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. In the ninth article of that treaty, Britain and Spain agreed to return to the boundaries of their territories at the beginning of the war.[17]

Like the Treaty of Madrid in 1670, in which Spain acknowledged England’s possession of the northern half of Carolina, the 1748 peace treaty represents a major landmark in the history of the Palmetto State. By agreeing to return to the status quo ante bellum, Spain finally relinquished its long-held claim to Santa Elena and all of the land south of Edisto Island. The Spanish crown also recognized Georgia as a legitimate British territory, but government officials in London agreed that Georgia colonists would not venture south of the Altamaha River. The southernmost sliver of the modern state of Georgia was left vacant in 1748 as a neutral ground on the north side of the diminished Spanish province of La Florida.[18]

Spain maintained a colonial presence on the continent of North America after 1748, of course, but South Carolina was on the periphery of that continuing narrative. Our neighbors in Georgia bore the brunt of sour relations with Spain during another international conflict called the Seven Years’ War in Europe and the French and Indian War in the American colonies. Although France was Britain’s main adversary during that war, Spain joined the fray in 1762 and soon afterwards lost Cuba to a British invasion. In the Treaty of Paris that ended the war in 1763, Spain agreed to cede the remainder of La Florida to Britain in order to regain Cuba. As English-speaking settlers established the new British colonies of East and West Florida, Spanish-speaking colonists bid farewell to a territory claimed by the King of Spain for 250 years.

The international treaty of 1748 represents an important but overlooked landmark in the history of South Carolina and neighboring states. By ceding its long-held claim to the southern half of South Carolina (including the modern state of Georgia), Spain closed a turbulent chapter in the early history of the Palmetto State. In the generations after the treaty of 1748, English-language narratives of South Carolina’s colonial history presented a decidedly Anglocentric view of the topic that ignored the Spanish perspective. The tenacious rivalry with La Florida, which had been a defining feature of the state’s formative years, was pushed to the margins of our collective memory.

My goal in presenting this two-part overview of the competing territorial claims of La Florida and South Carolina was to establish a contextual framework for future programs that focus on smaller topics. Spanish-speaking people, including those of European, Native American, and African descent, contributed to the early history of South Carolina from the earliest days of the colony’s existence. Because their individual stories are often clouded by the Anglo-Spanish rivalry that characterized much of this state’s early history, we must learn to see beyond that colonial-era bias. By including a variety of Hispanic perspectives in present and future narratives, I believe we can enhance our collective understanding of this community and restore balance to the larger history of our state and nation.



[1] George Chalmers, ed., A Collection of Treaties between Britain and Other Powers, volume 2 (London: John Stockdale, 1790), 37 (emphasis added).

[2] In his 1742 report on the contested border, Antonio de Arrendono repeatedly cited the latitude of 32 degrees 30 minutes as the line of division. See Herbert E. Bolton, ed., Arredondo’s Historical Proof of Spain’s Title to Georgia. A Contribution to the History of One of the Spanish Borderlands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1925), 113, 125, 140, 144, 146, 149, 153, 154, 187.

[3] See José Miguel Gallardo, ed., “The Spaniards and the English Settlement in Charles Town,” South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 37 (April, July, October 1936), 49–64; 91–99; 131–41; Verner W. Crane, The Southern Fronter, 1670–1732 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1928), 9–10.

[4] The text of the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, 2 July 1713, appears in Chalmers, A Collection of Treaties, 2: 40–107.

[5] See Bolton, Arredondo’s Historical Proof, 177–79.

[6] For more information about the Yemasee War, see Larry E. Ivers, This Torrent of Indians: War on the Southern Frontier, 1715–1728 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2106); William L. Ramsey, The Yamasee War: A Study of Culture, Economy, and Conflict (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008).

[8] Charles Christopher Crittenden, “The Surrender of the Charter of Carolina,” The North Carolina Historical Review 1 (October 1924): 394–95.

[9] See Lawrence Rowland, et al., The History of Beaufort County, 1514–1861 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996), 102–8; Joseph W. Barnwell, “Fort King George: Journal of Col. John Barnwell (Tuscarora) in the Construction of the Fort on the Altamaha River,” South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 27 (October 1926): 189–203.

[10] Spanish emissaries from St. Augustine visited Charleston in February 1721/2, August 1722, and in February 1723/4. The Duke of Newcastle sent instructions to the governor of South Carolina in a letter dated 2 June 1725, which transcribed in the microfilm collection of South Carolina records in the British Public Records Office, volume 11: 199.

[11] The text of Arthur Middleton’s conference with Don Francisco Menéndez Marquéz and Don Joseph Primo de Rivera, 6–10 September 1727 (Old Style), appears in the manuscript Journal of His Majesty’s Council, No. 3, pp. 74–102, held at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. The text of Middleton’s letters to Governor Nicholson and the Duke of Newcastle, 10 September 1725, appear on pp. 105–11. Middleton reported the destruction of Fort King George to Governor Nicholson in a letter dated 13 January 1725/6, transcribed in the microfilm collection of South Carolina records in the British Public Records Office, volume 12: 1–6.

[12] Alexander S. Salley Jr., ed., Journal of the Commons House of Assembly of South Carolina, November 1, 1725–April 30, 1726 (Columbia: South Carolina Historical Commission, 1945), 77–78.

[13] Arthur Middleton to [Duke of Newcastle], 10 September 1725, is also transcribed in the microfilm collection of South Carolina records in the British Public Records Office, volume 11: 335–37.

[14] In a conversation with South Carolina President Arthur Middleton in September 1725, Spanish emissary Don Francisco Menendez Marques said the King of Spain had ordered the governor of Florida to detain and convert slaves who fled from South Carolina. When Middleton asked how long he had possessed such orders, Don Francisco replied “twenty odd years.” See South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Journal of His Majesty’s Council, No. 3 (1725–26), page 93.

[15] John Tate Lanning, ed., The St. Augustine Expedition of 1740: A Report to the South Carolina General Assembly Reprinted from the Colonial Records of South Carolina (Columbia: South Carolina Archives Department, 1954).

[16] Bolton, Arredondo’s Historical Proof (see above).

[17] George Chalmers, A Collection of Treaties between Great Britain and Other Powers, volume 1 (London: John Stockdale, 1790), 424–67.