Marco J. Giardino, PhD, NASA/Stennis Space Center
With minor assistance from
Russell Guerin, Hancock Count Historic Society
Ambrose Gaines is widely reputed to have been the first and most prominent citizen of Gainesville during the 19th century. In fact, on December 12, 1776, the British military surveyor, George Gauld, was granted 2000 acres on the east bank of the East Pearl River, which included the future site of the Town of Gainesville. The location of the Gauld claim was confirmed through a process developed at NASA which uses common points to fuse historic maps and plats to modern aerial and satellite photography. The process, called co-registration, began with digitizing the original Gauld plat, including the survey coordinates and a 1954 black and white aerial photograph taken over the Gainesville site. Using specialized software, plat was compared to the aerial photograph to identify features common to both such as river bends and tributaries. The points that are found on both images serve to rotate the original plat to overlie the aerial photograph. The results were checked against both the original survey coordinates and the modern latitude and longitude of Gainesville. In this way, we became convinced that the original Gauld Plat was located directly on the site that would become Gainesville.
To understand how Gauld came to own land along the East Pearl River, we need to review a few significant historic events. The British and their ally Prussia emerged victorious from the “Great War for the Empire” (1754-1763), known in North America as the French and Indian War (1756-1763). Spain joined the war on the side of France in 1762 and invaded Portugal, an ally of England. In 1762, British and American colonial forces had captured Spanish Havana.
At the Treaty of Paris signed March 10, 1763, France’s colonial reign in the New World ended. To reward Spain for her support during the war and to restore Bourbon political ties, Louis XV of France donated the Louisiana Territory, including the “Isle d’Orleans,” to his cousin, Charles III of Spain. The deal was announced in October of 1764, under the Treaty of Fountainbleau, which had been secretly signed in 1762 (Huber 1971; see Galloway, 1984, page 281 for the Act of Acceptance of Louisiana by Charles III of Spain November 13, 1762).
In order to recover Havana, the core of Spanish colonial power in North America, Spain immediately ceded a portion of her newly acquired colonies to Great Britain. Spain retained the Isle d’Orleans and the Louisiana territories west of the East Pearl River. Thus began the role of the East Pearl as an international boundary between colonial powers.
During this time, exploration and mapping of the Mississippi and Breton Sounds became a British military priority. George Gauld, the Surveyor for the British Government in West Florida (1764-1781), began mapping the northern Gulf Coast in 1768. George Gauld eventually surveyed, sounded, and charted Lake Borgne, Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Maurepas, the Rigolets, Chef Menteur, Pass Manchac, the Pearl River, Bonfuca creek, the Lacombe River, the Tickfaw River, the Natalbany River, and the Iberville River (Ware and Rea 1982). His cartographic efforts resulted in the most accurate and comprehensive products produced during the 18th century.
One possible explanation for Gauld’s excellence in surveying and mapping may be traced to his initial cross-Atlantic voyage to North America. Gauld made the crossing on the Tartar, sailing from Portsmouth, England for Barbados on March 28, 1764. It was during this trip that William Harrison finally proved the measurement of longitude. As Ware and Rae point out (1982, page 17): “the immediate importance of this historic event was not lost on George Gauld, as the records of his subsequent surveys and cartography disclose.”
On August 31, 1768 Gauld entered the Bay of St. Louis and described the land as “pretty good, especially for pasturage.” He also noted that the previous year several settlers had to leave the area to avoid bands of marauding Choctaws who were attacking settlers and killing cattle. It is probably not a coincidence that in the same year, 1767, the British government granted land along the East Pearl River to Jean Claude Favre of Mobile, accomplished interpreter of the Muskhogean languages. Jean Claude Favre was the father of Simon Favre, who became one the area’s most prominent citizens and is locally reputed to have been the first settler of European descent along the Pearl River. When his father was granted the 500 acres on the East Pearl River on December 18, 1767(Abstract of British Grants of Land in West Florida 1766-1777 Volume 15), Simon was seven years old. When Gauld surveyed the branches of the Pearl River around 1769, he recorded no European settlements on the East Pearl River in Hancock County, with the exception of the Favre Claim
In addition to surveying and mapping the newly acquired territory of British west Florida, the government encouraged the settlement of the region. The first governor of British West Florida, George Johnston, (1763-1766) provided free grants of land to retired British officers and soldiers so that each officer received 5,000 acres; captains were allotted 3,000 acres and soldiers 300 acres (Abstract of British Grants of Land in West Florida, 1766-1777, volume 15). (Note, however, that most of the British land grants along the Pearl were only 2000 acres; see below). As the American Revolution progressed in the northeast, many British citizens, veterans and loyal Tories found a safer haven in British West Florida and began settling in considerable numbers along the entire Mississippi, Alabama and Florida Gulf Coast.
Peter Chester, provincial British governor in 1773, pointed out, “Those tracts which have been applied for since my arrival in the Province, have only been Granted to such persons as gave me the strongest assurances, in Council, of their intentions to Cultivate and Improve them, excepting such as have been granted in consequence of His Majesty’s Orders inn [sic] Council, and in consequence of His Proclamation of 1763, to reduced Officers who had served during the late War in North America.”
The year 1776 was particularly busy for land grants along the Pearl River. On November 22, 1776, Peter Chester Esq., Captain General and Governor in Chief at Pensacola between 1770 and 1781, received 1000 acres, on the east side of the east branch of Pearl River, about 7 leagues from the mouth (Abstract of British Grants of Land in West Florida, 1766-1767, volume 15.)
British veterans who were granted land along the East Pearl included Edward Tyng (November 29, 1776) 2000 acres; George Gants (December 12, 1776) 2000 acres, John Meyer (December 12, 1776), John Payne and George Gauld. John Payne, Gauld’s assistant and pilot, also secured a 2000-acre grant on the Pearl River at this time. Payne’s claim was half a mile below the Gauld claim and a quarter of a mile from the Le Favres Plantation. On June 20, 1776, John Payne was removed from Gauld’s vessel to serve as the pilot of the H.M.S. Diligence, and took over the West Florida May of 1779 (Ware and Rea 1982: 173,185). Payne was killed on September 10, 1779 during a battle with a Spanish boat, the privateer Morris, commanded by an ex-British merchant, turned American naval officer, in service to the Spaniards (Ware and Rea 1982:212).
Gauld’s land grant in Hancock County consisted of 2,000 acres “on the Northeast side of the East Branch of the Pearl River about seven leagues the Mouth” (Abstract of British Grants of Land in West Florida, 1766-1767, volume 15). Gauld was very familiar with the offshore islands of Mississippi Sound, the river estuaries, and the settlements on their lower reaches; he was able, as few others could, to make a wise and enlightened judgment of the lands adjacent to these waterways.
In 1810, Ambrose Gaines received 500 arpens from the Spanish government and resided in the area which would eventually be named after him. The older British grants along the river were ignored, dismissed and otherwise erased from the Spanish deed books. Consequently, George Gauld’s ownership of Gainesville has taken a back seat in most local historic accounts to that of Ambrose Gaines.
Gainesville became the county seat for Hancock County and a courthouse was built in the center of town in 1845. The courthouse burned on March 31, 1853 and the county’s administrative operations moved to Shieldsboro. Gainesville continued to prosper for a short period during the middle of the 19th century. Logging, ship-building, brick manufacturing and commerce served as the principal activities during this time. Eventually, as the timber was exhausted, and the railroads replaced the steam and sailing ships, Gainesville decreased in importance. When NASA bought the land in 1962 for construction of the Stennis Space Center, the town of Gainesville counted less than 300 inhabitants. As the new Space Center was built, existing houses, cemeteries and buildings were either relocated or razed, leaving only archived records and buried artifacts as the last testament of a once vibrant southern town.
During recent archaeological research at Gainesville conducted by NASA, a few British period artifacts were discovered near the courthouse square. These finds were initially very puzzling, until archival research provided evidence of the early British occupation in West Florida. Now we can add one more illustrious personage to the history of Hancock County, particularly that which deals with the settlement of the East Pearl River, a historically significant body of water during the decades that preceded the incorporation of the area into the United States of America.
Abstract of British Grants of Land in West Florida, 1766-1777, volume 15 RG49 BLM, Division D, Private Land Claims #238; National Archives, Washington DC.
1984 Mississippi Provincial Archives: French Dominion, 1749–1763, Volume V Collected, Edited, and Translated by Dunbar Rowland and A. G. Sanders. Revised and Edited by Patricia Kay Galloway, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
1971 New Orleans: A Pictorial History New York: Crow Publishing
Ware, John D. and Robert Rea
1982 George Gauld: surveyor and Cartographer of the Gulf Coast Gainesville: University of Florida Press.