Smith on Denham, 'Florida Founder William P. DuVal: Frontier Bon Vivant'

James M. Denham
Philip Smith

James M. Denham. Florida Founder William P. DuVal: Frontier Bon Vivant. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2015. 456 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-61117-466-3.

Reviewed by Philip Smith (Texas A&M University) Published on H-Florida (March, 2016) Commissioned by Jeanine A. Clark Bremer

Governor Nimrod Wildfire, a Founder of Florida

Professor Denham has prepared a treat for Territorial Florida historians, and readers who enjoy political history in strong doses will be more than satisfied. It is a great pleasure to spend time with a scholar who has devoted so much effort to bringing together widely scattered evidence about a seldom studied figure and an era in Florida’s history that has only recently received greater attention.

William DuVal’s story is a lesson in national politics from James Monroe’s presidency to William Polk’s. His aspirations, achievements, and failures are vivid examples of the risks taken by an aspiring politician in Jacksonian America, through the Whig-Democrat split and the ultimate divide over the central issue that roiled a nation founded on legal inequality and human beings as property.

DuVal was from an old Virginia family that acquired land in Kentucky after the Revolutionary War. In 1799 William moved to Kentucky and made his home in Bardstown. After serving a term in Congress and military service in the War of 1812 in Indiana, DuVal accepted the territorial governor appointment and moved to Tallahassee in 1822, when it was not much of a town. Denham includes a wonderful comment about the new capital by Laura Randall Wirt. In 1827, five years after DuVal arrived, she wrote, “Tallahassee is a miserable looking place, certainly” (p. 127).

Reading the Florida Territorial Papers, one wonders why anyone would have sought a governmental appointment in the territory. Appointees were never recompensed promptly or adequately for their expenses, and diseases put families at great risk. After the death of a family member, DuVal lamented “this doomed land [where] I shall see the last of my children carried to the grave” (p. 296). These aspects of territorial political life are well illustrated in this fine new biography of Florida’s second territorial governor.

DuVal’s term in Congress introduced him to John C. Calhoun. Although DuVal sought Andrew Jackson as a mentor, he maintained a loyal link to Calhoun through changing political climates, and this would ultimately doom his career. One of the delights of this book is watching DuVal try to hitch his wagon to the right political star and to stay on the winning side of issues through times of great change in American politics, from the “corrupt bargain” election of 1824 to the nullification and bank crises and the rise of Whig opposition to Jackson. Through all of these Denham shows how DuVal maneuvered to maintain his position and his potential for higher office.

DuVal’s literary connections are fascinating. Apparently, his experience in the Kentucky borderlands, his transit through the mountains on his way to and from his family’s estate in Virginia, and his military experience in Indiana provided him with enough stories about life in the American West to intrigue Washington Irving, who knew DuVal in Washington, and who most likely based his stories in “The Early Experiences of Ralph Ringwood” (1835) on tales he heard from DuVal. Another writer, J. K. Paulding, may have made DuVal the model for Nimrod Wildfire in his play The Lion of the West (1831). Denham suggests that the qualities of Nimrod were part of DuVal’s political character as “a trickster, manipulator, even a deceiver under the mask of ‘hail-fellow-well-met’” (p. 18).

William P. DuVal was governor of Territorial Florida from 1822 to 1834. During these years, whites with their enslaved labor poured into the cotton lands of the central panhandle as soon as DuVal could remove the Indians. Soon, Florida recast itself in the image of neighboring slave states, and the influence of Florida’s former Spanish era declined. DuVal managed not only Indian removal but also much of the transition away from Spanish authority and customs, although elements of old Spanish norms persisted in St. Augustine and Pensacola.

Denham refers to one example of former Spanish and Caribbean influence when he cites “Zephaniah Kingsley’s controversial publications on relations among the races,” (p. 190). There is a long footnote but no explanation of Kingsley’s treatise. Thoughtful readers will know the argument made by Kingsley to preserve the rights of free nonwhite inhabitants and to foster a system that allowed for more liberal movement from enslavement to freedom. Kingsley’s argument was addressed to all southern slaveholders, but his treatise and a subsequent memorial to Congress on the same issue fell on deaf ears.

In the 1820s, Florida’s population in the old Spanish centers probably resembled that of New Orleans, but on a much smaller scale. Rachel Jackson, the wife of Florida’s first governor, wrote of Pensacola’s population, “Some speak four or five languages. Such a mixed multitude, you, nor any of us, ever had an idea of. There are fewer white people here than any other, mixed with all nations under the canopy of heaven, almost in nature’s darkness” (p. 48). Her words are a reminder of lingering Spanish and Caribbean influences.

When DuVal first arrived, the most numerous people in the territory were Indians, and one of the governor’s first goals was to manage the moving of natives from the rich soil of the panhandle’s black belt lands to the peninsula, a move that never satisfied the native population. Denham includes significant evidence that US authorities worried not only about the presence of blacks among the Florida Indians but also about collusion of these Indians with offshore Caribbean and Gulf sources who might disrupt American stability not just in Florida but potentially throughout the entire slave South. As we know, these concerns were very much alive during the Second Seminole War, and Denham does readers a favor by documenting how the revolutionary movement in Texas at that same time added to worries that foreign provocation might incite a wider uprising of slaves in the American South. The link between Florida and Texas is entirely appropriate, and that link was very personal for DuVal.

During the Texas revolution, two of DuVal’s sons were with the Kentucky Mustangs volunteers who were among the nearly four hundred who suffered defeat and surrender at Goliad. Most of these men were executed. One son was shot, and the other barely escaped. Duval County in Texas is named for the dead son, making this family one of few with counties named for them in two states.

DuVal praised the Texas revolution as a “triumph of Liberty” and as “the cause of human liberty, the cause of all mankind” (p. 237). Southern whites at that time understood their liberty in terms of slavery, and the revolution in Texas was about preserving slavery from Mexico’s antislavery policy. The Texas revolution was not just “a breakdown of comity” (p. 230). It was explicitly in support of slavery, and in that context DuVal’s sons and those Kentucky volunteers were not freedom-loving Americans. They were slavery-defending Americans, and they died in that cause.

After his governorship, DuVal moved back and forth from Florida to Kentucky, trying to regain his wealth and influence through law practice, service as advisor and land agent, and running for office. He remained hopeful about continuing his career in public service, but his political fortunes declined. At the end of his life, William P. DuVal moved to Texas, where another of his sons had settled. The former Florida governor took up law practice in Austin and traveled to Washington to represent Texans seeking compensation for losses to Comanche Indians.

While on that mission, DuVal died in 1854 at age sixty-nine in the nation’s capital. Professor Denham concludes, “Fortunately, DuVal did not live to experience his worst nightmare--the breaking up of the Union--and the ultimate defeat of the South he loved so much” (p. 355). It hardly needs to be added that for the enslaved and the dispossessed, the South that DuVal loved so much was anything but loveable.

The title describes DuVal as a Florida founder, and certainly he was in many ways. But it does raise the question of what kind of Florida he founded. DuVal was a political leader of land-hungry enslavers from the American states and a leader associated with Indian removal, and Denham does not gloss over these in giving readers a well-researched and strongly written account of how Florida’s native and colonial founders made way for a new Florida founded on principles its citizens still wrestle with today.


Printable Version:

Citation: Philip Smith. Review of Denham, James M., Florida Founder William P. DuVal: Frontier Bon Vivant. H-Florida, H-Net Reviews. March, 2016. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.