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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Pioneer Tallahassee

I went over to Lakeland recently for another of the excellent history lectures at Florida Southern College. This one celebrated a book by my friend Mike Denham -- on which he’s labored for 23 years. He’s published three others while working on this close-to-his-heart baby, which required spending summer research time in Kentucky, Texas, and Tarrytown, New York. It is a biography of William DuVal – whose name was spelled that way, not as in modern Duval County. I’m looking forward to reading it and shall tell you more about it later.

William DuVal was Florida’s second territorial governor, following the brief tenure of Andrew Jackson, who was appointed by President James Monroe when Spain ceded Florida to the United States. I’ve written before about Rachel Donelson Jackson, who left their Tennessee home, The Hermitage, for the only time in her adult life when she came to the capital of Pensacola to be Florida’s first first lady for four months of 1821. Neither of the Jacksons wanted to stay, though, and President Monroe appointed William DuVal of Kentucky in 1822. Dr. Denham’s biography, of course, covers many more years of DuVal’s life, but I want to focus on Tallahassee’s pioneer days – and especially on the strong connection between it and the federal government.

Like the nation’s capital, Florida’s capital was very much planned to be the seat of government. Washington, DC, was laid out in 1800 and Tallahassee in 1824. Neither place was analogous to Boston, Baltimore, and other capital cities that had grown up with their own commercial purposes: instead, Washington and Tallahassee were built from scratch, in marshes and forests with no previous inhabitants. Washington was chosen because that’s where George wanted it: the site is just a few miles up the Potomac from Mount Vernon. Tallahassee was chosen because it was halfway between the two Spanish capitals at Pensacola and St. Augustine. To be sure, it once had Native American settlers who called it “old fields” because of the soil’s fertility.

Not surprisingly, there soon was something of a land boom in the area nearby, including the new counties named for Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson. John Adams, the second president, was not popular in the South, and no county is named for him; Monroe got the county in the far south, where Key West became militarily strategic to enforcing the Monroe Doctrine that dealt with Latin America. The town of Quincy, near Tallahassee, does denote John Quincy Adams, the Massachusetts man who was president between Monroe and Jackson. Except for the two Adams guys, all were Democrats.

But perhaps the most important factor in the early connection between Washington and Tallahassee was that what we call the War of 1812 ended in 1815; because the Napoleonic wars in Europe ended the same year, the new United States was truly at peace for the first time in many decades. The result was a reduction in the military -- and unemployment for many of the sons and grandsons of the nation’s founders. Thus the Virginians who dominated the federal government looked to the new territory of Florida to build careers for their offspring.

President Monroe, a Virginian, took a surprisingly personal interest in this – and even more surprisingly, he often cited the wives of male jobseekers as the reason for his recommendations. He wrote to Governor DuVal, for example, that he would like to find a place for “Mr. Hackley, whose wife is the sister of the Govr of Virginia.” Monroe listed other men who were willing to move to Florida because, even though they came from prestigious families, “these people are quite literally poor.” The trend continued after Monroe left office in 1825, with powerful people in Washington sending the young and aspiring to Tallahassee. Many of these new Floridians intended to collect a paycheck from the federal government, but some came on their own initiative to invest in this new and very different opportunity. That was especially true in the case of women, who need not apply for government jobs.

* * *

Jefferson County’s first recorded land purchase, in 1825, was by Elizabeth Gamble Wirt. Although this would seem a case of an independent woman, the facts were that she was the mother of twelve and married to William Wirt, the Attorney General of the United States. He held this position during the administrations of the nation’s fifth and sixth presidents, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams – while dreaming of Florida and his intended utopia, “Wirtland.”

He and Elizabeth stayed in the Washington/Baltimore area, but their oldest daughter, Laura, moved to Florida’s Monticello in 1827, soon after marrying Thomas Randall. This was another case of women obtaining jobs for their husbands: doubtless Laura’s father, head of the Department of Justice, had something to do with the fact that Thomas Randell was appointed as a judge in the new territory. Other female influence can be seen in that Laura’s uncles, Robert and John Gamble, also moved with their families. Sisters moved, too, and briefly tried to run a school in the wilderness.

Elizabeth Wirt, whose name was on the 1825 deed, did not make it to Florida until twelve years after she bought the land, and William never did. He was an extravagant spender, and Elizabeth tried in vain to curb his debts. She brought in income, too. In 1820, for example, she was “copying letters and [legal] opinions..., preparing papers for settling accounts, [and] negotiating for the plowing and planting of an oat field.” Once when he was in Boston, she wrote: “I will not attempt to pass these off for letters... They are merely hasty memorandums of Business.”

Daughter Laura Wirt Randall died after bearing at least four children during seven years in Monticello. Her husband then moved himself and the children to Tallahassee. This probably indicates that his often-pregnant wife had been the primary plantation manager, while he worked in government. It was much like the business relationship of parents William and Elizabeth Wirt: he was a government employee, while she managed private enterprises.

When she finally got to Florida in 1837, Elizabeth Wirt was a widow with debts -- but she nonetheless built a plantation called Wirtland. Tallahassee’s Ellen Call Long, the daughter of Florida’s last territorial governor, was a teenager at the time and recalled Elizabeth Wirt’s unusual touch with chickens: “The hennery was a neatly white-washed latticed shed, down the centre of which were two or three tiers of shelves, divided... to form neat rows of nests..., and these were curtained with colored calicoes of pink, blue, and red, all neatly hemmed and finished. It was odd, but it was nice.”

By encouraging her hens to lay eggs in the henhouse rather than in the woods and by using other agribusiness creativity, Elizbeth Wirt restored the family fortune. During the twenty years between her husband’s 1837 death and her own in 1857, she built an estate of some $70,000. Legal battles over her will, however, went on to the 1890s -- decades after Elizabeth Gamble Wirt went to her well-earned rest.

* * *

The undisputed head of the new capital’s society was Catherine Willis Gray Murat. Her maternal great-grandmother was George Washington’s sister, while her paternal great-grandmother had been his godmother. The oldest of the eight children of Byrd and Mary Willis, she was called “Kate” and grew up wealthy near Fredericksburg, Virginia. She married young, but her husband, Atchison Gray, died within a year and she returned to her parents’ lively home. Her father later acknowledged that he wasted the family fortune: “I was an idle fellow, fond of fox hunting, racing, and convivial parties, paid no attention to plantation business... In 1825, finding that things were getting worse and worse, I sold off, paid off, and came off, to...Florida.”

The family settled in a log house on Monroe Street -- and the next year, in the wilds of pioneer Tallahassee, Catherine married the presumed heir to the French throne. He was Prince Achille Murat, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte and son of the king of Naples (then a separate Italian kingdom). Exiled from Europe after Napoleon's fall, the prince had gone to St. Augustine in 1824; unimpressed with it, he moved on to Tallahassee, where he met the young widow from Virginia; they wed on July 12, 1826.

Despite their prestigious lineages, however, the Murats were relatively poor. When he tried to persuade his mother, Queen Caroline of Naples, to send him money, the prince apparently thought it necessary to explain that he had not married a wealthy woman: “my wife did not bring me a cent as a dowry,” he wrote. He then went on to complain that although “she has some property of her own, which in accordance with the law of this country, is now mine,” that “property” was largely in the value of ten slaves, “seven of whom are children who have to be fed and do not bring in any income.”

With the labor of these slaves, they carved a plantation in Jefferson County. Trees had to be cut and trails created to reach such unsettled places, and families -- including those with a legitimate claim to the French throne -- lived in huts for years while land was cleared, crops planted, and finally, a fitting home erected. But they carried in their minds another sort of world, as the prince pointed out: “Beneath the roof of this wild habitation, you will find a family almost as well brought up and educated as many in Boston and New York... The women, above all, support these privations with a patience truly angelic, softening by their presence the natural wilderness.”


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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