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Panton, Leslie and Co.

Panton, Leslie and Company, established in 1783 and headquartered in Pensacola from 1785-1830, was the Sears and Roebuck of its day, dealing in a variety of goods and servicing over a large geographical area. The company had trading posts scattered as far north as Memphis (then known as Chickasaw Bluffs) and as far west as New Orleans, including posts at Mobile and at several locations in Florida, the Bahamas, and in the Caribbean.

William Panton and John Leslie were merchants from Scotland who emigrated to Georgia. When the American Revolution heated up, they—being Loyalists—relocated to St. Augustine in British East Florida. Accompanying them were other Scots including Thomas Forbes, William Alexander, and Charles McLatchy. They were all experienced merchants involved in the Indian trade, and together they formed Panton, Leslie and Company (known as John Forbes and Company after 1805).

By the time the Company received its license in 1783, British East Florida had again become Spanish East Florida, and in 1784 we find John and Thomas Forbes, William Alexander, and William Panton joining other loyalists in the Bahamas. In 1785, however, William Panton and John Forbes relocated again to Pensacola and established the Company’s headquarters there.

By 1795 the company had a monopoly on the Indian trade from present day Memphis to St. Augustine, possibly due to the fact that one of their Pensacola stockholders (or partners according to one source) was Alexander McGillivray, chief of the Creeks. They also traded with the Seminoles, Upper and Lower Creeks, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Cherokees, and other Indian tribes. Even though under Spanish domination, many of these tribes preferred British goods, and the Panton-Leslie Scots were favored traders. As a result, by the late 1700s, the Company had annual business activities that exceeded $200,000.

In 1795, when the northern boundary for the Floridas moved up to the 31st parallel, Natchez and St. Stephens in Alabama became part of the United States, making it harder for the Company to collect money owed to it by those residing in that area, especially the Indians. However, through negotiations between the Company and the U.S. Government, arrangements were made for such debts to be paid through the transfer of property rights. As a result, Panton-Leslie was able to acquire, at one time, over three million acres of land.

The territory of what we now know as the State of Florida was, for most of the 2 centuries between 1565 and 1819, a Spanish colony, or rather two colonies—East Florida, centered on St. Augustine San Augustin in Spanish), and West Florida, centered on Pensacola (Panzacola in Spanish). The one exception was East Florida between 1763 and 1783. After being a loser in the Seven Years War (French and Indian War), Spain ceded East Florida to Britain in 1763. Britain, being the loser in the American Revolution, ceded it back to Spain in 1783. The brief time during which East Florida was a British colony coincides with the time of the American Revolution. For geo-political reasons, East Florida became a haven for loyalists fleeing the southern colonies of the Carolinas and Georgia. After 1783, these loyalists found themselves living in Spanish territory. Many left, but some chose to remain. Ironically, their ancestors later became American citizens in the State of Florida.

Between 1783 and 1818, border hostilities smoldered between Spanish Florida and the US State of Georgia (which initially stretched westward all the way to the Mississippi River and northward to the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers). White settlers moving into Georgia’s interior aggressively pushed Indians off of their ancestral lands and tested the frontier borders between Georgia and Florida. Spain considered the settlers’ actions to be provocations threatening to Spanish sovereignty. Part of the Spanish response was designed, by giving gifts and encouraging trade (especially providing the Indians with guns, ammunition, and gunpowder), to obtain the ongoing friendship of Indians living on their side of the border and to encourage Indians living in the “wilderness” beyond to resist the expansion by Georgians. Thus, governmental relations with Indian tribes became a centerpiece of foreign policy for both Spain and the US.

By 1818, frontier hostilities had mushroomed into international conflict. Hotheaded General Andrew Jackson, choosing to interpret his military orders expansively, invaded Spanish West Florida, capturing both St. Marks (San Marco in Spanish) and Pensacola. Thereafter, West Florida remained de facto American territory. East Florida was ceded to the US the following year in 1819. In 1795, the border between Florida and Georgia had been set farther south, in Jay’s Treaty between Spain and the US, at the 31st parallel. This reduced the size of Florida but regularized the border line. After 1819, Americans from both Georgia and Florida jointly participated in the dislocation, relocation, and annihilation of the Indians. By 1838, most of the remaining Indians in the Southeast were forced to follow a “Trail of Tears” to be “resettled” in Oklahoma Territory. Florida remained a frontier territory until finally becoming a state in 1845.

Characters in the Panton & Leslie Drama—both individual and institutional

William Panton (1842?-1801): Born in Scotland; immigrated to Charleston, SC by the 1760s; became a coastal trader, soon moving his operation from Charleston to Savannah, GA. He was a staunch loyalist before, during, and after the American Revolution. This caused him to move his operation again, by 1775, as the Revolutionary conflict was starting, to St. Augustine, East Florida, then British territory and not a part of the American rebellion. His trading operation prospered, and he decided to remain in Florida when it again became Spanish.

Sometime in the 1770s, he met John Leslie (1749?-1803), another Scotsman who came to the southern British colonies, became a trader, operating independently of Panton, was also a loyalist, and also moved to St. Augustine. (John’s brother Robert Leslie (1758?-1798) was also involved, especially in the company’s Bahamas shipping operations.) In 1783, Panton and Leslie established a joint trading company that would continue in operation until the early 1840s. By 1784 they were expanding both into the Bahamas and to St. Marks (once a sizeable coastal port town south of present-day Tallahassee). By the late 1780s, Panton and Leslie moved their operations to Pensacola in West Florida, also continuing to trade out of St. Marks.

Early in their trading careers (separately, going back to their American colonial days), Panton and Leslie had found the same lucrative niche for their trading operations—1) providing supplies and munitions to colonial governments (mostly early, to the British, but later, as well, to the Spanish) and, more importantly, 2) trading with the Indian tribes of East Florida and West Florida. In what was largely barter trading, the Indians sold mostly “skins” (that is, furs and deerskins) and in return received various supplies, including especially salt, rum, coffee, and munitions. For some time, the traders ran a triangular shipping operation, selling “skins” in London, picking up manufactured goods in London and agricultural goods in the West Indies (especially New Providence and Nassau in the British Bahama Islands), and delivering these goods to warehouses in East and West Florida, from which they were sold to Indians or to the colonial government.

By the mid 1790s, the shifting complexities of hostilities in Europe among Spain, Britain, and France severely limited the number of Spanish ships that could transport goods from London to Florida, first to two and then to one per year. During this period, Panton & Leslie’s ships plied mostly the route between Florida and the Bahamas. At its height (around 1800), the company was running 15 ocean-going ships plus numerous coastal boats. It had offices in London, Nassau, Havana, St. Augustine, New Orleans, and Mobile. It also had agents along the St. Johns River in East Florida, at St. Marks, near the mouth of the St. Mary’s River (now the boundary between Florida and Georgia), and at trading sites on the lower Apalachicola River and lower Mississippi River.

Although Panton and Leslie’s main business was the Indian trade, they took advantage of opportunity as it presented itself. For example, they occasionally brought ships full of slaves into Pensacola and perhaps to other ports. The company also owned at least one plantation with its own slaves, a rice plantation along the middle St. Johns River in East Florida.

As a part of doing business as traders, the Panton & Leslie company needed to acquire land in a variety of places. This necessitated additional dealings with the Spanish authorities, who controlled land grants. The papers contain a number of documents pertaining to the settlement of Panton land claims by Spanish officials. The Spanish were crafty in this respect. By retaining title to the lands on which the company leased space for stores and warehouses, governmental authorities maintained the option of “evicting” them at will.

Judging from the papers, Panton was clearly the “front man” and probably the “brains” of the trading operation. Leslie seems to have been involved in more of the detailed business of shipping and trading. Panton was reputed to be a shrewd—but scrupulously fair—businessman. He was operating not in an open, free market but in a closely regulated market, especially so because he was dealing directly with colonial governments, Indian nations, and merchants in foreign countries.

Relationships with the colonial government (first British and then Spanish) were perhaps similar to those between modern US military contractors and the Pentagon. Relationships with foreign-country merchants were regulated by the mercantile laws, in this case, of both Spain and Great Britain (regulations on what goods from one country could legally be transported by ships of what country to what other country). Relationships with Indian nations were regulated by treaties and by the Indian policies of the current colonial government. These dynamics made the trading operation, in effect, an aspect of governmental foreign policy as well as mercantile commerce.

Throughout his long trading career, Panton was amazingly consistent in his primary goal in life—to make money. To succeed at making money, he sought to negotiate and maintain monopoly trade arrangements with the colonial government of the time. Secondarily, he remained a devoted British loyalist, but he tried hard to submerge this motivation in order to ingratiate himself with Spanish colonial officials for the benefit of his business, which required him to take an oath of allegiance to the king of Spain (but not to become Catholic).

Despite his best efforts, American settlers and traders kept intruding into “his” territory, jeopardizing “his” monopolies and his profits. By 1794, he was petitioning the Spanish government either to buy out his Indian trading business (for 400,000 pesos) or to grant him a 10-year loan of the same amount to make his continuing the business profitable. Although he raised this issue at least once more, in 1797, the Spanish successfully stalled him off, and he and Leslie kept the business going for the rest of Panton’s life.

After Panton died in 1801 (he died at sea, but he was at sea trying to get medical assistance, in Havana or the Bahamas, as his health was failing), the company soon lost its trading monopolies. It continued in business, under the management of brothers John and Thomas Forbes, who had been involved in the company under Panton. But it gradually declined, having lost its colonial “patron,” and finally was dissolved in the early 1840s, just before Florida became a state. The papers continue until 1853.

Colonial Florida government: Both British and Spanish colonial policy in Florida included a strong effort to keep surrounding Indian nations “happy,” meaning peaceful and friendly. As the colonial government saw it, “happy” Indians would be less of a frontier threat to their own land-hungry European settlers and citizens, nor would they as easily be enticed to ally with other governments on their borders, meaning especially Georgia as a colony and later a US state. The colonial government sought to accomplish this purpose by negotiating treaties and then by encouraging and funding trade with the Indians, meaning that some of the “trade” items were gifts. Because of the importance of their Indian policies, the colonial government sought to maintain strict control over the Indian trade.

Besides seeking to maintain control over its own Indian policy, it was obligated to enforce its parent country’s mercantile laws. As political alliances shifted in Europe, Spanish officials in Florida found themselves changing their policies on whether English or French goods could be imported, along with Spanish goods. Great numbers of the papers consist of official documents and letters (in Spanish) by the major Spanish officials with whom Panton & Leslie worked for many years—especially Spanish governors in St. Augustine, Pensacola, New Orleans, and Havana, as well as royal officials in Spain. Additional quantities of papers consist of Panton & Leslie correspondence (in English) to and from these Spanish officials.

In the late 1790s, when Spain was at war with Britain, making money forced Panton & Leslie to try an economic arrangement antithetical to their political proclivities. They sought to convince the Spanish officials to allow them to do their annual shipping to and from London using neutral, meaning American-owned ships. Furthermore, Panton even took the step of swearing an oath of neutrality, in essence declaring himself to be siding with those hated Americans. This plan did not work out well at the time because Britain refused, officially at least, to accept neutral ships but would have been happy to allow British ships to carry the goods.

Colony of Georgia, state of Georgia, and US governments: During the Revolutionary War period, Georgia, as well as the Carolinas, sought to root out loyalists and to confiscate their property. Both Panton and Leslie were among those who left both personal and business property (as well as personal credits and debts) when they moved to East Florida. Georgia declared Panton a traitor and confiscated his property in 1778. In 1782, he was officially “banished,” along with numerous other loyalists. The papers include governmental documents on the confiscation of Panton property and on his efforts to sort out his business affairs and reclaim his property.

After Georgia became a state, it actively encouraged settlement in its interior, which soon brought conflict with Indians already living there. Georgia’s Indian policy was more bellicose and less diplomatic than Spanish Florida’s. This helped the Spanish to maintain friendly relations with the Indian nations to their north, as long as they kept up the flow of gifts and trade goods. It also led eventually to Andrew Jackson’s 1818 invasion of West Florida and Spain’s loss of all of Florida in 1819.

The new US government established in 1789 largely agreed with Georgians’ attitudes toward Indians, generally supported their expansionist activities, and encouraged American trade with the Indians, for purposes similar to those of the Spanish. As documented in the papers, President George Washington sought also to deal with the Indians through diplomacy and treaties. In August 1789, he established a three-man commission (General Benjamin Lincoln, Cyrus Griffin, and Colonel David Humphries), which he instructed to negotiate a treaty with the southern Indian nations, both to achieve some peace and stability in the western wilderness and to open the door for American trading opportunities with the Indians. This appears to have been a conscious ploy to both emulate and confront the Panton & Leslie trading monopoly on the Spanish side. The documents in these papers do not suggest much success on the part of the commissioners. Perhaps the only tangible result was a very strange, rather bogus “treaty” negotiated with US authorities in New York in 1791 by Alexander McGillivray (see below) on behalf of the Creek nation.

Indian nations: The Indians were motivated primarily to find ways to hold onto their lands and continue to live their Native American lives. By the late 18th Century, they felt that only by “playing ball” with the Europeans would they succeed in their goal. This meant negotiating and signing treaties that carved out parts of their land for European settlement and governing. It also meant relying on European traders for supplies they felt they needed to maintain their livelihoods and to protect themselves—and paying for these in the only way they could, by supplying something the European market wanted, which at this time was furs and skins from animals they trapped and shot.

The Indian nations learned the political “game” early and, where possible, sought to play one European government off against another, for what they hoped would be their own benefit. In the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, Seminole, Creek, Choctaw, Cherokee, and Chickasaw Indian tribes living in the territories then known as Florida and Georgia found themselves having to deal with both Spanish Florida and US Georgia governments, as well as these governments/’ traders and frontier settlers. The Indians tried hard to maintain their way of life but found themselves in a losing battle. Through all this, the Indian nations continued to interact among themselves through a complex, shifting mix of alliances, hostilities, and open warfare. The difference now was that Indian “foreign and military policy” became intertwined with European foreign and military policy.

The papers contain English-language abstract texts of a number of Indian treaties, both those negotiated by the British in East Florida starting in 1765 and later treaties negotiated by the Spanish and Americans. Panton paid special attention to these treaties, as they regulated his opportunities for Indian trading.

Alexander McGillivray: This almost fictional character was a half-breed who had become a Creek chieftain. Early on, he calculated that he and his Indian people would be better off if he worked closely with the Europeans. He did so partly by establishing a close but shady relationship with William Panton. The two became very close friends and sought over many years to help each other’s causes. By 1785, McGillivray had become a 1/8 owner in the Panton and Leslie company, although this fact did not become public until he got into trouble with the Spanish authorities and had to disavow it. He helped “grease” the Indian trade for his and Panton’s financial benefit.

He also was a “loose cannon” in the political game playing, actively arming and leading Indian bands friendly to the Spanish on raids into territory to the north, in areas that later became the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama (or were already a part of Georgia). For a time in 1778, it appeared that McGillivray was trying to establish a European-style independent Indian nation (which the Spanish perceived would somehow be pro-British) in the wilderness interior of disputed Spanish-US territorial jurisdiction. These activities gave the colonial rulers major headaches, as documented in the papers, and they sought to “neutralize” him by restricting his authority to trade and to act on his own.

In the early 1790s he again took independent action, actually negotiating a treaty of sorts, in New York in 1791, between the Creek nation and the US government. The Spanish never recognized this as a valid treaty, and it appears the Americans didn’t trust McGillivray either. Through all this, the Spanish understood that he, in cooperation with Panton, was providing a valuable, irreplaceable service to the Spanish with quiet trading and noisy political shenanigans. So, when he died in 1793, they were sorry he was gone. Panton was more directly aggrieved, having lost a close friend and valuable trading colleague. When difficulties arose about where the half-breed could be buried, Panton had him interred in his own backyard.

William Bowles: This adventurer was another interesting loose cannon in the Panton & Leslie story. Although, like Panton, a dedicated loyalist during the Revolution, after 1783, Bowles sought his “fortune” and political revenge by turned to Britain against Spain and Panton. A freelance “troublemaker” apparently financed by private interests and (unofficially) the governor in the British Bahamas, he tried at least twice to upset the Panton & Leslie monopoly on the Florida Indian trade by raiding the company’s St. Marks warehouse. In 1792, he plundered the warehouse, using the goods inside as “gifts” to Indians he was trying to organize into an independent Indian-nation alliance (cooperating at this point with Alexander McGillivray, although the latter was working with Panton), to use mostly to destroy the Panton & Leslie company. With this, the Spanish authorities had had enough.

After many intrigues, he was lured on board a Spanish ship and taken to New Orleans. Although not actually a “prisoner,” (as he kept pointing out in his complaints), he was jailed as the only way of keeping him securely. As the wheels of the Spanish bureaucracy slowly turned, he was transferred first to Havana and later to Cadiz, Spain, where he was kept under house arrest (now an ocean away from his few faithful Indian followers). Later, he was exiled to the Spanish Philippines, but in 1798, he escaped, returning to London and then to the Bahamas, where he proceeded to enact a rerun of his own previous act.

Once again, he allied with the Creek Indians; once again, in 1799, he captured St. Marks with the intent of destroying the Panton & Leslie operation (this time forcing the Spanish garrison to surrender). This time, the Spanish took the fort back by force, but Bowles escaped, only to be captured again, finally, in 1801. This time, the Spanish was locked up in Castel El Morro in Havana, where he languished until he died in 1805. Bowles was an amazing character who lived a larger-than-life life (as did others in this drama). His specialty was lying—to others and to himself—to manipulate his way to the most advantageous result he could accomplish. The papers document well that he was a consummate con-artist. But ultimately, when he lied to others, they ceased believing him. And when he lied to himself, he fell into traps that led him to prison.

Around the edges, other loose cannons lurked. One was a man named Wellbank, one of Bowles’ lieutenants. Sometime after their 1792 raid on St. Marks, when Bowles was in prison in Spain, Well bank apparently thought up a scheme to capture Panton, to be exchanged for Bowles’ freedom. Apparently, the plot was never hatched.

Yet another loose cannon turned up in 1794, a certain “General” Elijah Clark, a Georgia backwoods adventurer, who apparently assembled an irregular band of Georgian and Indian fighters to engage in raids along the Georgia-Spanish border, all in the cause of (white) Georgian expansion. A year later, their cause was helped by the redrawing in Jay’s Treaty of Florida’s northern boundary at the 31st parallel, leaving only a thin strip of land along the Gulf Coast in Spanish hands (now the Florida “panhandle”). Clark dropped in and out of the papers rapidly and apparently never did any serious harm to the Panton & Leslie Company.

The Drama—more fantastic than fiction

The drama of the Panton & Leslie story is revealed by untangling the complex interactions among the characters. Researching the papers promises rich rewards from such untangling. Whether a researcher is seeking information on colonial British or Spanish colonial government, on European settlement of the Old Southwest frontier, on the politics and violence of Indian-European relations in the decades before and after 1800, or on the policies, practices, and intrigues of trading in a colonial/Indian environment on the southern frontier, he or she will find much of interest in these papers.

A few examples and comments may illustrate why “untangling” may be the operative verb and “intriguing” an appropriate adjective to keep in mind as a researcher approaches these papers:

Going beyond trading to “military” activities: Panton’s vocal support for the loyalist cause, as well as his desire to make money, led him beyond trading, in 1781, to parlay his business of supplying British military needs in St. Augustine into a couple of temporary “naval” operations to assist in making prisoner-of-war exchanges between British and Spanish combatants. For this service, Panton’s company was, of course, paid by the British. Spain had declared war on Britain in 1779 and was clandestinely supplying arms to the Americans. Although it never became directly involved militarily in America, it appears to have engaged British ships at sea, leading to the need to exchange prisoners. Not long after the war, Britain was gone from Florida, and it was the Spanish who were paying Panton, Leslie and Company to trade with the Indians.

Indian trading preferences: As merchants, Panton and Leslie had to sell goods the Indians wanted. For some time since 1763, the Indians had been receiving British-made goods, which they thought were of superior quality to goods they started receiving from Spain and France after 1785. Panton continued trading through London but had to wrangle with the Spanish authorities (as mentioned above) to allow British goods to be landed in Spanish Florida, in apparent violation of Spain’s mercantile laws and the current distribution of its political friends and enemies in Europe.

Gaining a monopoly at Mobile: A competing company, known as Mather and Struther, had negotiated a trade monopoly at Mobile (later in Alabama). As Panton and Leslie expanded their operations into West Florida and later moved their headquarters to Pensacola, Panton was intent upon adding the Mobile market to his own monopoly. The process of obtaining this goal took years but was ultimately successful. Success required currying favor with Spanish officials in both New Orleans and Pensacola. It also required showing Mather and Struther up as less competent. An opportunity arose for such a maneuver when the latter company was unable to meet a particular demand for supplies and munitions. Panton saw his opportunity, supplied the goods, sowed uncertainty among Spanish officials about Mather and Struther’s ability to meet their Indian trade needs, and ultimately prevailed in 1788. Later, other traders sought to “horn in” on the company’s monopolies, and Panton was kept busy persuading the Spanish officials not to change the status quo.

Paying duty on goods shipped into West Florida: In St. Augustine, Panton had not had to worry about import duties. East Florida did not charge any such duties. However, West Florida had for some time been charging a 6% duty on incoming and outgoing goods. When Panton began expanding his operation westward, he first began trading at St. Marks. When he opened business there, the Spanish had designated St. Marks as a part of East Florida, hence no duty. However, in 1788, for reasons apparently unrelated to Panton & Leslie, the Spanish transferred St. Marks to the jurisdiction of West Florida, hence a duty.

For some time after the transfer, Panton apparently conveniently neglected to pay the duty in St. Marks. When the Spanish realized what was happening, they insisted not only that Panton pay the duty but that his ships stop in Pensacola, to make sure the duty was collected. Panton disputed this both officially (in the papers) and by diversionary action, clearly feeling entitled to continuing his company’s “deal” with the Spanish colonial government for a no-duty trade monopoly. In the long run, Panton won this battle, as he did so many others, by patient diplomacy (call it wheeling and dealing) combined with shrewd business practices. For Panton, the obvious profit-making incentive of not paying the duty was intertwined with his political agenda. By reducing his costs, he could undersell the hated American traders and perhaps deter the expansion of Americans into “his” and Spanish trading territory.

Dangers to the monopoly: Throughout his business career, Panton had to work constantly to maintain the monopolies he had so carefully negotiated. The papers reveal how frequently he and his company’s “legitimacy” was on the line.

During British rule in East Florida, he was busy developing a reputation and negotiating monopolies. Here, he had the advantage of being a Scottish native and vocal British loyalist. His relationships with Spanish rulers in East and West Florida and Louisiana were more tenuous. At first, he had to reestablish with the Spanish the monopolies he had enjoyed under the British. That accomplished, he had to maintain them, and then he sought to expand them westward across Florida and beyond.

Under Spanish rule, he was always susceptible to suspicions—he had been pro-British; he was a Protestant; he had perhaps too much influence over the Indians, especially through his shady relationship with Alexander McGillivray; he was a self-serving merchant potentially liable to make money at Spanish expense, or at the expense of the Indians he claimed to be helping. For years, Panton steadily and fairly successfully maneuvered through the minefields of intrigue. Only after he died in 1801 did the magic of his management fall way from the company’s operations.

Indispensability of Panton: Most of the Spanish officials did not really trust Panton and from time to time contemplated ending their relationship with him (Governor O’Neill of West Florida, in particular, was convinced that Panton was working for the British, the Indians, and especially for himself, against Spanish interests). Nevertheless, they never went that far, realizing what an invaluable service he was providing to them, in a more effective manner than anyone else seemed capable of doing. So, Panton kept on getting rich, and Spain kept on using him as a major pawn in its relations with the Indian tribes and, by extension, with other governments on its colonial American borders and in Europe.

Still, by the 1790s, Panton was being worn down by the political intrigues, bureaucratic hassles, and economic losses resulting from frontier violence and maritime disasters. His strategy was to petition the Spanish Crown to buy out his “monopoly” or to loan him the equivalent of the value of his business to remain in business. Although Panton was also constantly seeking various ways to obtain indemnity compensation for his various losses, his “buy or loan” proposal does not appear to have been just a ploy. He honestly “wanted out.” However, the Spanish still found him to be indispensable, and they never let him off the hook, to the end of his life in 1801.

A Chapter of Panton, Leslie and Company
By Robert S. Cotterill (pdf)

Panton, Leslie and Company
Indian Traders of Pensacola and St. Augustine by J. A. Brown (pdf)

Continuity in Commerce
Development of the Panton, Leslie and Company Trade Monopoly in West Florida by Thomas D. Watson (pdf)

William Panton
A biography by Marie Taylor Greenslade (pdf)

Panton, Leslie & Company
Herbert J. "Jim" Lewis, Birmingham, Alabama

Panton, Leslie & Company, established in 1783 by Scottish merchants William Panton, John Leslie, and Thomas Forbes, was a major mercantile firm that played a significant role in shaping political and military events along the United States' border with colonial Florida in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. By 1795, the company had a virtual monopoly on trade with Native American groups in the Southeast, stretching northward from its headquarters in Pensacola to Memphis (Chickasaw Bluffs) and westward to New Orleans. The company also had a major post located in Mobile as well as posts in the Bahamas and other parts of the Caribbean. Panton, Leslie & Company traded European-made goods—primarily guns, powder, flint, and rum—to the Indians for deerskins, furs, bear oil, honey, and other foodstuffs. Several Native American tribes ceded land over the years to the United States and used the proceeds to satisfy their debts to Panton, Leslie & Company. This scheme resulted in the United States acquiring millions of acres of land within the current boundaries of Alabama and Mississippi.

The principal founder of the company, William Panton, was born in Scotland around 1745 and immigrated to North America in 1765. By 1774, Panton had become a partner in the Savannah, Georgia, trading firm of Moore and Panton. The next year, Panton was appointed by the British governor of East Florida as the colony's official trader with the Creek Nation. Soon thereafter, he formed his own trading house with Thomas Forbes in Savannah known as Panton, Forbes and Company. At the outbreak of the American Revolution, Panton and Forbes remained loyal to Great Britain and were forced to move their business to St. Augustine in British East Florida. In retaliation for their support of the British, the United States confiscated their property in Georgia and South Carolina.

In 1783, fellow Scots William Alexander, Charles McLatchy, and John Leslie joined the firm, which was renamed Panton, Leslie & Company. By this time, the Revolutionary War had ended, and Great Britain had ceded Florida to Spain. The Spanish government initially asked the company to leave but soon recognized its value as an intermediary to the Native American groups of the region and also realized that there were no experienced Spanish traders to take its place. The Spanish government then granted the company a monopoly on trade with the Indians in Spanish East Florida and a tax-free status on imported goods. In 1785, the company relocated to Pensacola, where it dominated the trade with the Indians in West Florida. In 1792, Thomas Forbes's younger brother John, John Forrester, and John Leslie's brother Robert joined the firm. The company sent John Forbes to Mobile to open a post to oversee trade with the Indians in that area. At the height of its trading efforts, for several years the company in Pensacola annually took in some 250,000 deerskins, which in turn were sent to London to be used in the manufacture of leather goods.

The company's influence with Indians in the Southeast undoubtedly was due in large part to its relationship with Alexander McGillivray, an important leader of the Creek Nation born to a Scottish trader and a Creek woman from the powerful Wind Clan in 1750 at Little Tallassee near present-day Wetumpka in Elmore County. Many historians believe that McGillivray, the leading chief of the Upper Creek towns along the Alabama, Coosa, and Tallapoosa rivers, was a silent partner in the company. In any event, it was a Creek force led by McGillivray that thwarted the efforts of William Augustus Bowles, a former British army officer living in the Creek Nation, to end the company's monopoly of the Indian trade. In January 1792, Bowles led a Creek force that looted and took over the company's store in San Marcos (now St. Marks), Florida. As a result, McGillivray and his men assisted the Spanish in arresting Bowles, who was ultimately imprisoned far away in the Spanish Philippines.

In addition to trading with the Creeks, the company also traded with the Seminoles, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Cherokees. Opposed to the expansion of the United States, the company's initial partners used their influence with these tribes to advance Spanish territorial claims against the United States and urged the Indians to resist white settlement and attempts by the United States to acquire land. As the newer partners, who were less hostile to the United States, gained control of the company, they pressured the Indians to sell their land in the hopes that the Indians might use the payments to pay off the debts (more than $200,000 by 1800) that the company had allowed them to accumulate. Increasing Indian indebtedness to the Panton, Leslie & Company resulted in a triangular scheme negotiated by the company and the U.S. government whereby the Indians would cede lands to the United States for cash, the Indians would use the cash to satisfy their debts to Panton, Leslie & Company, and the company would then release it claims against the Indians. The company did not, however, recover all of the monies owed it immediately because some Indians did not use the payments for their lands to repay their debts.

The company reorganized as John Forbes and Company in 1804 after the deaths of William Panton and John Leslie, with William Simpson and James Innerarity joining the remaining partners, Thomas and John Forbes. Overburdened by the time spent collecting debts owed by their Indian trading partners, the company began to scale back its Indian trade. At about the same time, it expanded its interests by opening trade with Spanish colonists in Florida, Texas, Lousiana and the Yucatan, and Americans living in the area north of the 31st parallel in present-day southern Alabama and Mississippi. By 1812, the Indian trade, which had been the source of the company's fortune, was no longer even its principal source of income. In addition to its declining trade with Native Americans, the company's fortunes suffered from the increasing rivalry between Spain and the United States in Florida and from the Creek War of 1813-14. Despite these setbacks, the John Forbes and Company reduced much of the Indian indebtedness and became the largest landowner in West Florida.

In 1818, the company was turned over to John and James Innerarity, and by 1821 its trade was restricted largely to Pensacola and Mobile. The company ceased to do business in Pensacola in 1830 when John Innerarity purchased most of the company property for his own use, leaving James Innerarity as the sole surviving partner. The company remained on the tax rolls in Mobile until James Innerarity died in 1847. The University of West Florida's Pace Library contains an extensive collection of papers of the Panton, Leslie and Company, which provide a detailed view of almost every aspect of frontier life in British and Spanish Florida as well as the interaction of the colonial governments with Native Americans in the bordering southeastern states.

Additional Resources

Bense, Judith Ann, ed. Archaeology of Colonial Pensacola. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1999.

Coker, William S., and Thomas D. Watson. Indian Traders of the Southeastern Spanish Borderlands: Panton, Leslie & Company and John Forbes & Company, 1783-1847. Pensacola: University of West Florida Press, 1986.



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