George Johnstone

George Johnstone (1730-1787) was the first governor of British West Florida, serving from October 1763 until January 1767, when he was removed from office by the English government. Johnstone is known for turning Mobile, Mobile County, and Pensacola, Florida, into prosperous business communities by promoting immigration, regulating trade, and organizing the layouts of each city. In addition, he significantly changed the borders of colonial British West Florida, redrawing the colony’s northern boundary thus influencing portions of the eastern boundary with present-day Georgia, and establishing the western boundary with present-day Mississippi through a 1765 treaty with the Choctaw Indians. Despite his positive contributions, Johnstone is also known for his propensity to engage in conflict and his disregard for authority and animosity toward settlers in the colony. Some scholars believe political bias towards his Scottish heritage caused his short governorship, and others attribute his short appointment to his desire to arrange a full-scale attack on the neighboring Creek Nation.

George Johnstone was born in 1730 in Dumfries, Scotland, to James Johnstone, Third Baronet of Westerhall, and Barbara Murray, daughter of the fourth Lord Elbank. He was one of four sons. He began his career at an early age in the British Merchant Navy before joining the Royal Navy in 1746. Toward the end of the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48), Johnstone commanded the HMS Canterbury, a small warship that he successfully defended during an attack on Port Louis, Hispaniola, on March 8, 1748. This act of naval prowess earned him a promotion to captain after he returned to Great Britain in 1760. Shortly after his promotion, Britain declared war with Spain on January 4, 1762, as part of the Seven Years War (known as the French and Indian War in the United States). The 1763 Treaty of Paris between France, Spain, and Great Britain effectively ended the war in North America for Great Britain and signaled the era of British dominance in North America. As part of the treaty, Great Britain gained territories previously held by France and Spain, including parts of the West Indies and West and East Florida and French possessions east of the Mississippi River.

On July 14, 1763, King George III nominated Johnstone for the governorship of West Florida.  Owing to a series of delays, including a broken leg, Johnstone did not arrive in West Florida until 1764. While he waited in Great Britain, a military government run by Col. William Taylor, under the orders of Gen. Thomas Gage, administered the colony. On September 21, 1764, Johnstone set sail from Jamaica to West Florida and arrived in Pensacola on October 21, 1764. He navigated several hardships, including an unpredictable and often unbearable climate, strained relationships with neighboring Native American nations, and poor communication networks across the colony.  

To improve the situation, Johnstone heavily relied on aid from a council and representative assembly. Although he depended on his appointed staff, Johnstone regularly fought with military leaders, whom he felt threatened his authority within West Florida. Despite his strained relationships with other British authorities, Johnstone successfully connected Pensacola and Mobile by road and organized the layout of each city. In addition, he increased immigration to West Florida by issuing land grants without the usual fees to retired British officers.

In 1764, Johnstone and other officials successfully lobbied to expand West Florida’s northern boundary from latitude 31˚ north, which had been established by the Proclamation of 1763 and is the latitudinal boundary between present-day Alabama and Florida. They suggested moving up the boundary to latitude 32˚ 28′ north. The western point of the new line began at the confluence of the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers near present-day Vicksburg and ran through a point near the confluence of Uchee Creek and the Chattahoochee River (then known as the Apalachicola River), in present day Russell County near Fort Mitchell. (Moving the boundary up, they argued, would provide the colony more productive land along the Mississippi River.) From that point, the boundary follows the Chattahoochee River to the Gulf of Mexico.

Johnstone also organized two congresses with neighboring Indian nations to discuss land grants and trade. Between March 26 and April 4, 1765, Johnstone held a congress with Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians at Mobile. Along with John Stuart, superintendent of Indian affairs for the Southern Colonies, the British brought experienced French political negotiator Henrí Montault de Monbéraut de Saint-Çivier of Polaminy. General Gage had recommended Monbéraut to Stuart because of his existing relationships with local Native American groups, and with the French. Monbéraut was a military officer and a previous French commander of Fort Toulouse (1755-59) whom the British had recently commissioned Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs for British West Florida.

The congress concluded with the Treaty with the Choctaws and Chickasaws at Mobile. It aimed to establish peaceful relations between the signatories, implement trade regulations to protect the Indians, firm up boundaries and provide a cession of Choctaw land in present-day southwest Alabama and southeast Mississippi to the English, and forbid English settlement on Choctaw lands along the Tombigbee River roughly north of present-day Coffeeville, Clarke County. The land cession would help establish the primary reference point for the Alabama-Mississippi border.

Johnstone’s first congress proved a success for the British, but he encountered difficulties in organizing a meeting with a leading Upper Creek chief, Yahatatastonake, to secure land around Pensacola. More widely known as The Mortar, he was closely allied with the French and distrustful of the English. With the help of Creek emissaries John Hannay and Thomas Campbell, Johnstone organized a second congress, this one with the Upper and Lower Creeks in Pensacola in May and June of 1765. Again present was Monbéraut who was well-acquainted with The Mortar, and he was able to persuade The Mortar and the Creeks to cede land to the British to secure Pensacola. The Treaty with the Upper and Lower Creeks at Pensacola also strove to establish peaceful relations between the signatories and implement trade regulations to protect the Indians. This cession has been more difficult for historians to identify but appears to have involved a strip of land 15 miles wide west of Pensacola.

The spirit of peaceful negotiation with the Creeks ended shortly after the second congress when two British traders were found murdered by members of the Creek Nation. In response, Johnstone began to strongly advocate for war with the Creeks. By 1766, however, Great Britain was severely in debt after years of overseas conflict. In addition, British authorities hesitated to engage in conflicts with Indian nations after the brutality of Pontiac’s War in 1763. Johnstone ignored commands to cooperate with the Creeks and requested more than 3,000 men for a war that he thought was inevitable. Great Britain denied the request as contrary to its Indian policy and because of the expense. While planning an attack on the Creeks, Johnstone continued to disagree with military leaders in West Florida. After he suspended the attorney general and brought charges against the chief justice, the government gave Johnstone six months to attend to his affairs in West Florida and return to Great Britain. In 1767, Johnstone’s appointment as governor of West Florida ended, leaving the lieutenant governor, Montfort Browne, as interim governor until the arrival of John Eliot.

Once he returned to Britain, Johnstone remained active in politics, serving as the director of the powerful East India Company and as a member of Parliament for Lostwithiel in Cornwall. As a member of Parliament, Johnstone supported conciliatory measures toward the American colonies and vigorously opposed the 1773 Tea Act but did not support independence. In addition, Johnstone strongly disagreed with enslavement and advocated for the removal of government interference with the East India Company. His stance on the latter likely prompted his appointment to the Carlisle Peace Commission in 1778; the commission was an unsuccessful attempt to negotiate an end of the rebellion in the American colonies. Johnstone briefly returned to the Royal Navy in 1779 and participated in the Battle of Porto Playa against the French. His poor performance, however, led him to return to Britain to continue his political career in Parliament in 1781. Johnstone married Charlotte Dee in January 1782 and the couple would have one son. He was elected director of the East India Company in 1784 and later retired because of illness. Johnstone died in Bristol, England, on May 24, 1787.

Further Reading

  • Fabel, Robin F.A. The Economy of British West Florida, 1763-1783. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988.
  • ———. Bombasts and Broadsides: The Lives of George Johnstone. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1987.
  • Hamilton, Peter J. Colonial Mobile. 1910. Reprint, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1976.
  • Johnson, Cecil. British West Florida, 1763-1783. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1971.

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George Johnstone

Courtesy of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery
George Johnstone