Florida’s Underground Railroad (Part Three)

The Black Seminoles

Many might assume that the Underground Railroad traveled in one direction: north to freedom, away from slavery and the plantations of the South. Few realize that runaway slaves also fled south into Florida for almost two centuries before the Civil War.

In recognition of Black History Month, this three-part series of blog posts introduces aspects of resistance to slavery in Florida history. We conclude with the story of the Black Seminoles.

Runaway slaves forged close alliances with the Florida Seminoles in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Historians struggle to find an appropriate term for persons of African descent living in Seminole Country. In Florida, these people came to be known to historians as “Black Seminoles” or “Seminole Maroons.”

Excerpt from a map of Florida by H.S. Tanner (1823) showing Suwannee Old Town, situated on the path from Tallahassee to Alachua

Excerpt from a map of Florida by H.S. Tanner (1823) showing Suwannee Old Town, situated on the path from Tallahassee to Alachua

Prior to the Seminole Wars, Black Seminole communities could be found near Old Town on the Suwannee River, north of Tampa at Pilaklikaha, and near modern day Sarasota at a settlement sometimes referred to as Angola. Other smaller Black Seminole settlements existed throughout this range.

Excerpt from “A Map of the Seat of War in Florida,” by Captain John Mackay and Lieutenant J. Black, U.S. Topographical Engineers (1839), showing battles and natural features near Pilaklikaha

Excerpt from “A Map of the Seat of War in Florida,” by Captain John Mackay and Lieutenant J. Black, U.S. Topographical Engineers (1839), showing battles and natural features near Pilaklikaha

On several occasions Seminoles and their African allies banded together in the defense of their homelands.

In 1812, a combined force of Africans and Seminoles repelled Georgians known as the “Patriot Army” who intended to capture slaves and seize parts of Spanish Florida for the United States.

The success against the Patriot Army was followed by a series of defeats. On July 20, 1816, the Americans destroyed the “Negro Fort” on the Apalachicola River. The fort, built by the British in the closing stages of the War of 1812, held hundreds of defenders who were killed when a heated cannon ball blew up the powder magazine.

The American drive to acquire Florida caused further hardship for Black Seminoles. After Andrew Jackson’s slave raid into Spanish Florida, also known as the First Seminole War (1816-1818), most Africans abandoned their towns along the Suwannee River and took refuge further south in the remote interior sections of central Florida.

The number of runaway slaves in Florida increased when the United States acquired Florida from Spain in 1821. As planters from Georgia and the Carolinas arrived in northern Florida, some of the people they held in bondage escaped and joined the Seminoles. Article VII of the treaty made at Camp Moultrie in September 1823 compelled the Seminoles to be “active and vigilant” in preventing runaway slaves from entering their territory. Moreover, the treaty required Seminoles to “apprehend and deliver” fugitive slaves to federal agents.

Excerpt from “Treaty with the Florida Tribes of Indians,” also known as the Treaty at Camp Moultrie or the Treaty of Moultrie Creek, September 18, 1823

Excerpt from “Treaty with the Florida Tribes of Indians,” also known as the Treaty at Camp Moultrie or the Treaty of Moultrie Creek, September 18, 1823

Seminoles and Black Seminoles pushed back when American officials attempted to enforce the Indian Removal Act in Florida. In late 1835 and early 1836, Seminoles and their African allies launched a series of raids on U.S. Army fortifications and attacked sugar plantations in East Florida. Africans enslaved on these plantations fled during the chaos and in many cases joined the Black Seminoles.

These events marked the beginning of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), the longest and costliest American Indian War in U.S. history. Because of the prominent role of Africans in the conflict, General Thomas Sidney Jesup famously proclaimed, “This is…a negro, not an Indian war.” Historians consider this statement reflective of southern plantation owners’ fears of the Seminole Wars erupting into a broader slave rebellion.

Abraham, a Black Seminole interpreter, figured prominently in the tense negotiations during the early stages of the Second Seminole War.

Abraham, intrepreter and war leader (circa 1837)

Abraham, intrepreter and war leader (circa 1837)

Abraham delivered messages on several occasions to General Jesup from principal Seminole leaders and also participated in talks with U.S. military officials. In the entry below from his field diary, dated March 18, 1837, Jesup mentions spending the “whole evening” in conference with Seminole leaders accompanied by Abraham.

Jesup diary, March 18, 1837

“Micanopy and Aligator, with Abra[ha]m spent the whole evening with General Jesup.” [pg. 75-76]

“Micanopy and Aligator, with Abra[ha]m spent the whole evening with General Jesup.” [pg. 75-76]

The end of the Seminole Wars in 1858 struck a major blow to the aspirations of runaway slaves in Florida. No longer able to find freedom in Seminole Country, runaway slaves increasingly sought the Underground Railroad or, during the Civil War, service in the Union Army as the path to escape slavery.

To learn more about the African peoples who resisted slavery in the southeast, visit the National Park Services’ Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor website.

Florida’s Underground Railroad (Part Two)

Fort Mose

Many might assume that the Underground Railroad traveled in one direction: north to freedom, away from slavery and the plantations of the South. Few realize that runaway slaves also fled south into Florida for almost two centuries before the Civil War.

In recognition of Black History Month, this three-part series of blog posts introduces aspects of resistance to slavery in Florida history. This post describes Fort Mose, the first legally-sanctioned free-black community in what is now the United States.

Africans resisted slavery from its inception in the Americas. From the mountains of Jamaica and Brazil, to the swamps of Florida, Africans formed independent communities and forged alliances with Native peoples. In the United States before the Civil War, thousands of slaves sought freedom north of the Mason-Dixon Line as well as in Canada, with Native American societies in the South and West, and even in the Bahamas. Africans found refuge in Abolitionist-minded communities, particularly in New England, or, in the case of Florida, with the Seminoles.

Before Florida became a territory of the United States, Spanish Florida offered a haven for freedom-seeking people.

“Plano de la Ciudad y Puerto de San Agustin de la Florida,” by Tomas Lopez de Vargas Machuca (ca. 1783)

“Plano de la Ciudad y Puerto de San Agustin de la Florida,” by Tomas Lopez de Vargas Machuca (ca. 1783)

Fort Mose, perhaps the best known free-black community in what is now the United States, traces its roots to the late 1600s. In the 1680s, the Spanish organized an African militia unit in St. Augustine to help protect against raids and, in 1693, King Charles II of Spain established legal sanctuary for runaway slaves who reached Florida. Though not all blacks in Florida obtained freedom, the policies of the Spanish government provided a path out of slavery.

Free blacks established Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose just north of St. Augustine in 1739. The settlement contained Fort Mose, depicted on the map above as “Fuerte Negro,” and the homes of its defenders and their families. On several occasions the free-black militia participated in the defense of their city against English and Native American invaders.

In 1763, at the conclusion of the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years’ War), the residents of Fort Mose left Florida for Cuba with the Spaniards and Christian Indians (Apalachee and Timucuan) living in St. Augustine before the war; some Africans returned when Spain resumed control of Florida in 1783.

In Black Society in Spanish Florida, historian Jane Landers documents several African-owned plantations in East Florida during the Second Spanish period. Some grants, such as the one below awarded to Prince Juan Bautista Wiet (or Witten), resulted from loyal service to the Crown.

Petition by Prince Juan Bautista Wiet, St. Augustine, November 1795

Petition by Prince Juan Bautista Wiet, St. Augustine, November 1795

Freedom in Spanish Florida required military service and acceptance of Catholicism. Many free blacks continued to practice a mixture of African-based and adopted foreign beliefs. Africans living in the Spanish colonies also joined secular and religious mutual aid organizations known as cabildos and cofradías.

Much is written on the role of African men in Spanish Florida, particularly their military service in defense of St. Augustine. African women also contributed to the economy, owned land, and engaged the Spanish legal system to their benefit. As with men, African women did not enjoy the same social status as white residents of Spanish Florida, but their conditions and potential for economic advancement exceeded those of many Africans in the Americas until the late 19th century.

To learn more about the African peoples who resisted slavery in the southeast, visit the National Park Services’ Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor website.

Florida’s Underground Railroad (Part One)

Harriet Tubman’s Florida Legacy

Many might assume that the Underground Railroad traveled in one direction: north to freedom, away from slavery and the plantations of the South. Few realize that runaway slaves also fled south into Florida for almost two centuries before the Civil War.

In recognition of Black History Month, this three-part series of blog posts will introduce aspects of resistance to slavery in Florida history. We begin towards the end of the story with the Moses of the Underground Railroad.

Harriet Tubman, from a woodcut (ca. 1865)

Harriet Tubman, from a woodcut (ca. 1865)

Harriet Tubman, known as “The Conductor” of the Underground Railroad, spent time in Florida during her years of fighting for freedom. Born into slavery in Maryland, circa 1820, Tubman escaped in 1849 or 1850. She made numerous return trips to the South in order to free relatives and complete strangers alike. Tubman and her associates relied on a series of safe houses along the Underground Railroad. These stopping points represented a network of Abolitionists committed to aiding escaped slaves in pursuit of freedom. Scholars estimate that Tubman personally conducted at least 300 slaves to freedom in the 1850s and 1860s.

Excerpt from the letterhead of the British & Foreign Antislavery Society on a letter to Florida Governor John Branch, October 8, 1844

Excerpt from the letterhead of the British & Foreign Antislavery Society on a letter to Florida Governor John Branch, October 8, 1844

Because of the Fugitive Slave Act, passed in 1850, the final destination for many runaways was Canada. Enforcement of the Act in northern cities and towns meant living in fear of roving slave catchers and the possibility of re-enslavement.

Tubman’s reputation for successfully transporting slaves to freedom became such that the Maryland Legislature at one point offered $12,000 for her capture; slave owners in the area raised the bounty to $40,000.

Tampa newspaper advertisement offering a reward for the return of a runaway slave (November 17, 1860)

Tampa newspaper advertisement offering a reward for the return of a runaway slave (November 17, 1860)

In addition to her clandestine activities, Tubman served in an official capacity during the Civil War as a nurse, cook, and spy for the Union War Department. She cared for soldiers with herbal treatments and using skills honed on the Underground Railroad she helped emancipate African-American men for service in the Union Army.

Excerpt from “Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1861-1865: General Topographical Map, Sheet XII” (ca. 1865), showing northeast Florida

Excerpt from “Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1861-1865: General Topographical Map, Sheet XII” (ca. 1865), showing northeast Florida

In Florida and South Carolina, the men recruited by Tubman conducted raids and guerilla warfare against plantations along the St. Marys and St. Johns Rivers. They carried off additional slaves as well as goods to aid in the war effort and in several instances exchanged fire with Confederate troops. Tubman accompanied the men on some of these expeditions and reported the intelligence gathered to Union officers.

So valuable was her service, the federal government authorized a pension for Tubman after the Civil War. Harriet Tubman would have been a remarkable person during any period in history. It is especially significant that a woman, illiterate and born into slavery, accomplished so much and that field commanders during the Civil War sought the knowledge and assistance of an African-American in the war to end slavery.