John Forbes was born in Gamrie Parish in Banffshire, Scotland, to James Forbes and Sarah Gordon. His father's farm, the Mains of Aberdour, overlooked the North Sea and was four miles west of Pitsligo Castle. In the late 1770’s, his elder brother Thomas (circa 1758 – 1808) joined their maternal uncle John Gordon in Charleston, South Carolina. Gordon had arrived in around 1760, created the trading company James Gordon and Company, and hired William Panton as a clerk in 1765. The Gordon’s company dissolved in 1783 and Panton created Panton, Leslie and Company with fellow Scotsmen Thomas Forbes, John Leslie, William Alexander and Charles McLatchy. The new company expanded into Florida and dominated the Indian trade from St. Augustine to Pensacola.
From 1513 through 1763, Florida had been under Spanish rule. In 1763, Spain traded Florida to Great Britain in exchange for Cuba, which had been captured by the British during the Seven Years' War. The British divided the territory into East Florida and West Florida, which extended to the Mississippi River. As Loyalists, the frontier colonies of East and West Florida declined to send representatives to the Continental Congress and condemned 1776 Declaration of Independence. As an ally of the new United States, Spain captured Pensacola from the British in 1781.
Panton, Leslie and Company traded primarily with the native nations of Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Choctaw. Creek Indians had migrated into Florida and formed the Seminole tribe. The Panton trading posts sold a wide variety of merchandise to the Indians. Thomas Forbes prepared a list in 1783 of "Articles of British Manufacture absolutely necessary for the Indians inhabiting the Western frontier of East & West Florida in North America." This included woolen goods, linen and cotton goods, silk handkerchiefs, saddles, leather shoes, rum, brandy, salt, rifles and muskets, lead in bars and bullets, and, mostly importantly, gunpowder. The Native Nations traded for the British goods with deerskins, which required gunpowder to hunt and kill deer.
These Native Nations had served as British allies against both Spanish and Anglo-American forces during the Revolutionary War. With much of their land under Spanish control, the Nations felt abandoned. In late 1782, many Native Nation representatives travelled to St. Augustine to seek reassurances from British officials about their future security against the American westward expansion. To allay their fears, the East Florida British governor granted a license to Panton, Leslie and Company to continue in the Indian trade.
However, the 1783 Peace of Paris ended the Revolutionary War and returned all of Florida to Spanish control. Panton, Leslie and Company, convinced the Spanish government that their services were critical to the security of both Floridas and the prevention of United States expansionism. This was the political and economic environment when John Forbes joined Panton, Leslie and Company in 1784. With the endorsement of the Spanish government, the company expanded the number of their trading outposts, especially in West Florida. John Forbes became a partner in 1792 and, after William Panton's death in 1801, he created John Forbes & Company with the assets of its precursor trading firm.
The southeastern Native Nations became dependent on manufactured goods but could not supply enough deerskins to support their needs. Like other frontier traders, John Forbes and Company also handled bills of exchange with their London factors and advanced cash and credit as needed. By 1803, the Native Nations racked up large debts: the Creek (including the Upper Creek, Lower Creek, and Seminoles) owed $113,512, Choctaw owed $46,091, Chickasaw owed $11,178, and the Cherokee owed $2,358. In addition to the trading deficits, John Forbes insisted that the Lower Creeks and Seminoles owed his company a large debt due to their two robberies of the trading post on the Wakulla River in 1792 and 1800.
U.S. government representatives met with John Forbes and discussed using his company as an intermediary with the Native Nations. Forbes was encouraged to accept land grants in exchange for settling the debts with the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Cherokee. In 1804, Forbes discussed the plan with Henry Dearborn, the U.S. Secretary of War. Dearborn approved the plan and the fee of $77,000.
Forbes successfully negotiated the land grants, which were endorsed in 1805. He negotiated second series of transactions in 1810 that would transfer tracts of land that were contiguous to the prior grant. The U.S. signed separate treaties with each of the tribes, and the land cessions that totaled about 8,000,000 acres were approved between 1805 and 1814. The Creeks ceded land in Georgia between the Oconee and Ocmulgee rivers, the Choctaw ceded land between the Alabama and Pearl rivers, and the Chickasaw and Cherokee ceded holdings north of the Tennessee river.
What became known as the Forbes Purchase equaled over 1.4 million acres acquired by Forbes and Company, making it the largest land grant in Spanish Florida. The land grant ran from the barrier islands of Apalachicola Bay to the Upper Sweetwater Creek in present-day Liberty and Leon Counties and comprised all of the present counties of Franklin and Liberty, as well as a large part of the counties of Gadsden, Leon and Wakulla.
John Forbes had attempted to generate a profit for his firm by selling land to settlers. He also had attempted to secure direct payments of cash or land from the Spanish Crown, but neither of these strategies was fruitful. In December, 1817, John Forbes sold most of the lands his company had acquired east of the Apalachicola River for $66,666 to two merchants from Savannah and Cuba named Richard Carnochan and Colin Mitchel. He and his partners maintain possession of about 25,000 acres, including Forbes Island in the Apalachicola River. The War of 1812 and its aftermath ended John Forbes and Company’s trade with the Native Nations. Forbes gradually retired from company business and died in Cuba in 1823.
Unfortunately for Carnochan and Mitchel, the land grants generated years of litigation and legislation. The validity of Spanish land grants was challenged and Congress authorized the creation of a Board of Commissioners for both East Florida and West Florida. In 1824, the Board of Commissioners reported that the Native Nations “collectively have no fee simple right to lands within the Floridas” and so could not convey them to John Forbes and Company. However, in 1828, Congress enacted legislation that allowed Florida land claims in excess of 3,500 acres to be adjudicated in the territorial courts, with the right of appeal to the Supreme Court. That same year, Mitchel filed suit with the Superior Court for the Middle District of Florida and argued that the Native Nations “had the right to convey the said lands, for that they were the original possessors, and possession was guarantied to them by the treaty of 1784, and other treaties.” In 1835, the United States Supreme Court decided in his favor in the case of Mitchel v. United States.
Today, the Forbes Purchase is memorialized with Forbes Island in the Apalachicola River and with Forbes Street in downtown Apalachicola, Florida.
For more information, see Indian Traders of the Southeastern Spanish Borderlands: Panton, Leslie & Company and John Forbes & Company 1783-1847, by William S. Coker and Thomas D. Watson.