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Local Author Solves William H. Chase Mystery

You may have driven down Chase St. in downtown Pensacola many times, without thought to where the name came from. It was named in honor of William Henry Chase, who oversaw the construction of Fort Pickens and other forts along the Gulf Coast in the 1800s.

Chase also served as chairman of the board of the first Bank of Pensacola, which opened in 1832. He was chaired the board of the first railroad built out of Pensacola. Chase also started Southern Insurance Company, the first insurance company in Pensacola. These are all details uncovered by Dave Walby, a local author who writes about historical events related to Fort Pickens.

“What I couldn’t believe was that nobody in the historic society, there’s no history background of where he’s buried, and here was a guy who built Pensacola. The federal money that he brought into Pensacola is what made Pensacola an industrial complex. From 1828 to 1856, when he was here, Pensacola went from a village to being the largest industrial city in the state of Florida,” Walby said.

Walby took interest in Chase and the lack of information available about him after he began volunteering at Fort Pickens. Through research, Walby found out that Chase belonged to a prominent family in Boston. His grandfather, Thomas Chase, owned a distillery there and participated in the Boston Tea Party. Chase’s great aunt was married to John Hancock, the first signer of the Declaration of Independence. Another grandfather was the first governor of Pennsylvania.

“Chase himself married a woman in New Orleans in 1824,” Walby said. “He was working in new Orleans at the time as an engineer. He graduated from West Point at the age of sixteen in 1815, and he worked as an engineer ever since then. So in 1824, he was down building forts and canals in New Orleans and he met Anne Paul Matthews.

Matthews’ father was George Matthews, who served as the first Supreme Court justice in the state of Louisiana. He was appointed by Thomas Jefferson. Matthews inherited a Spanish land grant from his grandfather of around 20,000 acres. The property was eventually inherited by Matthews’ daughter and her husband, William Chase.

“Three of their plantations, as a matter of fact, are still family-owned,” Walby said. “There’s one in LeCamp, Louisiana, which is just south of Alexandria, and it encompasses about 6,000 acres of sugarcane. There is also the Butler-Greenwood Plantation in St. Francisville, which is still owned by Mrs. Butler, who is a direct relative of his.”

Despite all the information about William Chase’s life, his burial place had not been determined. Walby set out to search for the grave and found it in St. Francisville. While there, he spoke with Mrs. Butler, who told him that she had donated Chase’s letters to Louisiana State University.

“She gave me permission to see the letters, and I went to the Sullivan Archives in LSU, and here are all these letters that he wrote, from 1828 all the way up to 1869, that I could just go through, and are all reprinted in the book,” Walby said.

Walby says that one area of dispute concerns the validity of the portrait of Chase that the West Florida Historical Society maintains. During his interviews with direct relatives of Chase, Walby saw the portrait that has been in the family’s possession since 1830.

“The picture that I have actually has written instructions on the back of being shipped from Pensacola, with the Matthews name on it, to C.L. Hardy, who is married to Chase’s granddaughter in Alexandria, and their family still has that painting,” Walby said.

The original portrait remains with the family, but a copy was recently installed during a celebration at Fort Pickens for public viewing. More information on Chase and Walby’s book is available at the Fort Pickens Visitor Center.

Katya Ivanov, WUWF News