Legal historians have surmised that court records of the British province of East Florida (1763-1783) have been either lost or destroyed. This assumption was based on the poor conditions for survival of documents in Florida and statements made in the secondary literature on the province. Nonetheless, a significant number of documents related to the courts of British East Florida exist in the National Archives (Kew). These materials reveal an active legal culture using English law in a wide range of courts including (1) the Court of Common Pleas; (2) the Court of Chancery; (3) the Court of General Sessions of the Peace, Oyer et Terminer, Assize and General Gaol Delivery; (4) Special Courts of Oyer et Terminer; (5) the Court of Vice-Admiralty; (6) the Court of Ordinary; (7) the General Court; and (8) a District Court.
This article studies a portion of the documents related to the Court of Common Pleas to describe the nature of the court’s practice in civil litigation. It closely examines three cases for which sufficient extant pleadings permit the reconstruction of the general contours of recovery for breach of a sales contract through an action of trespass on the case, for contract enforcement through an action of covenant, and for recovery of a sum certain through an action of debt. The small window provided by these cases into the activities of this court reveals a heretofore unknown world of English common law in North America during and after the American Declaration of Independence. This new information supplements and challenges our established understanding of colonial law in North America in the revolutionary period and the use of law in the British Empire. This study illustrates the many opportunities these sources offer to legal historians of the period.