Black Seminoles, Maroons and Freedom Seekers in Florida, Part 2: The Beginning of Troubled Times
The Second Article of our Five Part Series
Part 1 of this series, Black Seminoles, Maroons and Freedom Seekers in Florida, Part 1: Early Freedom Seekers in Florida outlined the history of the earliest immigrants who came to Florida seeking freedom. This, Part 2 of our five part series, chronicles the establishment and destruction of the Negro Fort and the beginnings of the Angola plantation community.
1812: Turbulence Erupts in Middle Florida
Colonial struggles in the late 1700s led to England’s cession of Florida to the Spanish in 1783. During the second period of Spanish rule, Spain’s hold on Florida was even more precarious than it had been during the First Spanish Period. During what came to be known as the Patriot War of 1812, American settlers in Spanish Florida attempted to appropriate the already weakened Spanish government’s claim to East Florida, in order to annex the territory to the United States. On September 27, 1812 troops led by Colonel Daniel Newnan fought the Seminoles and Black Seminoles under King Payne near present-day Gainesville. The Seminoles and Black Seminoles stood their ground, but not without losses. After the Patriot forces retreated, King Payne likely died from wounds received in the battle (Covington 1993).
During Newnan’s three week campaign, the Black Seminole settlements attached to leaders Bowlegs and Payne were broken up. Their crops and trade skins destroyed, their cattle, horses and other livestock taken or destroyed; the Seminoles and Black Seminoles would have to rebuild their lives (Covington 1993).
Black Seminoles Separate: Some Migrate Southward
After the Patriot War broke up Seminole and Black Seminole settlements in the Alachua area, some of the Black Seminoles separated from their brethren in Middle Florida and migrated south to the area around Pease Creek (present-day Peace River) and Charlotte Harbor. A good number of Creek and Seminole refugees accompanied them. Whether or not there were established permanent Seminole settlements or Black Seminole settlements there before 1812, is not clear from the early accounts (Brown 1991).
Those who remained in Middle Florida moved their villages to more remote areas. A series of interrelated though somewhat dispersed settlements became the focus of Black Seminole life in the Middle Florida frontier.
In the area of the Alachua savannah around King Payne’s old community, a cluster of Black Seminole settlements sprang up after 1813 which were connected via a system of trails used by travelers of Middle Florida’s frontier. Here, Black Seminole inhabitants came into contact with white settlers, free and enslaved Africans and African Americans, Seminoles and other Black Seminoles. The central location of these villages allowed the Black Seminoles to participate in the growing frontier economy by hiring their services as frontier guides and interpreters. They also bartered surplus proceeds from agriculture and animal husbandry to neighbors, settlers and travelers. Itinerant traders often employed black interpreters as well (Wright 1986). The largest of these settlements was King Heijo’s Town, which was situated below King Payne’s old town (Mahon 1985).
The principal Black Seminole town on the Suwannee River was Nero’s Town. Covington (1993:45) describes Nero as a mulatto and a powerful civil and military leader among the local Black Seminoles. Nearby were several related Black Seminole villages which brought the total population of area to between 300 and 400 Black Seminoles. Nero’s town contained plank houses which were described as larger and better than those of the Seminoles at Bowlegs’ Town. The many inhabitants of this village complex cultivated rice, corn, peas, beans, potatoes, fruit and other subsistence crops. Wooden fences protected the crops from the cattle and hogs that villagers also raised (Brown 1991; Covington 1993).
The Establishment of the Negro Fort
During the War of 1812, the English had recruited plantation slaves in Georgia and Alabama to quit their masters and enlist in the British military. Many accepted the invitation, and in 1814 Colonel Edward Nicolls of the Royal Marines established the new recruits at a fort on Prospect Bluff, about twenty-five miles inland on the Apalachicola River. Several hundred blacks were among the 1,100 soldiers who manned the fort. At their village behind the fort, the soldiers maintained extensive crops for subsistence.
Andrew Jackson, commanding the Southern Military District, demanded that Spanish authorities in Florida intercede and drive the English allies at the Negro Fort from the frontier. The Spanish governor replied that he could not act unless on orders from the Spanish crown. He did send an emissary, Vicente Sebastian Pintado, to investigate and to attempt to recover any slaves of Spanish owners in East or West Florida.
Pintado, armed with a list of missing slaves of Spanish subjects, traveled first to Pensacola where he recovered 136 slaves. When Pintado arrived at the Negro Fort, Colonel Nicolls refused to allow any slaves to be forcibly removed. In the presence of Pintado, Nicolls paid each of the men Pintado had identified among the troops as the property of Spanish subjects. The troops were discharged, Pintado spoke with them, and persuaded twenty-eight of the 128 soldiers interviewed to return with him (Landers 1995:20-21).
After the British were defeated at the Battle of New Orleans in January of 1815, England thought it impolitic to continue to support the garrison at the Negro Fort. Nicolls received orders to withdraw his troops from the fort (Covington 1993). Upon his departure, Nicolls turned over the fort, its armaments and supplies to the black troops. The Fort hereafter became known to the Americans as the Negro Fort (Brown 1990:6).
The Negro Fort soon became a magnet for runaway slaves from surrounding American lands. As the numbers at the Negro Fort grew, the wary eyes of the United States government turned to Apalachicola. The presence of former English allies so close to American border lands was cause for American concern (Covington 1993; Knetsch 2003).
Destruction of the Negro Fort
General Jackson ordered General Edmond Pendleton Gaines to check this perceived threat to the United States’ border. Gaines ordered Colonel Duncan Clinch to erect a fort near the head of the Apalachicola River, above the Negro Fort. Navy gunboats transporting supplies to the new post had to pass the Negro Fort on their way up the Apalachicola River from the Gulf of Mexico. Garcon, the black commander at the Negro Fort, had threatened to sink any American vessels attempting to pass the fort (Covington 1993.)
When a party from the American gunboats went ashore near the fort to obtain drinking water, they were fired upon by the black troops, and all but one of their party was killed. The United States responded with military force. In the ensuing battle on the morning of April 27, 1816 a hot cannon ball from one of the American gun boats landed directly upon the powder magazine within the fort. The resulting explosion killed and maimed most of the 300 men, women and children who occupied the fort. Only forty of the fort’s occupants survived and some died soon after. Those who had not been at the fort but in the nearby village fled. Some settled in Middle Florida while others fled farther south to settle around Tampa Bay and at the Pease Creek villages (Knetsch 2003; Landers 1995).
The Establishment of the Angola or Sarazota Plantation Community
After Nicolls’ troops left the Negro Fort in 1815, Captain George Woodbine, who had served with Colonel Nicolls, departed with as many as eighty of the black inhabitants from the fort and sailed for Tampa Bay. They soon established a thriving plantation community, which became known as Angola, near the Manatee River and Sarrazota Bay (present-day Sarasota). This location offered access to the abundant marine resources such as fish, shellfish, turtle and manatee that abounded in the coastal estuaries, and also contained fertile soils for agriculture. Here the settlers became self sufficient and eventually prospered. As turbulence in the northern peninsula brought refugees fleeing south, Angola’s population grew. Brown has estimated Angola’s population to be nearly 700 souls at its height (Brown 1990; Covington 1993).
The original settlers of Angola encountered Seminole and Black Seminole groups who were already established in the Pease Creek area, as well as Spanish fishermen who resided on the Oyster River near the new settlement. The diverse groups who were Florida’s communities in the early 1800s enjoyed peaceful relations. Trade and barter among the various segments of Florida’s diverse populations benefitted all (Covington 1993; Brown 1990).
The First Seminole War: Continued Turbulence
The destruction of the Negro Fort angered some Mikasuki and Seminole leaders. Neamathla, the leader of the Mikasukis at Fowlton (near the destroyed Negro Fort) warned General Gaines that if any of his forces crossed the Flint River, they would be annihilated. Angered at such a threat, Gaines sent 250 men to arrest Neamathla. The firefight that ensued on November 21, 1817, marked the opening of the First Seminole War.
In retaliation, the Native Americans fired upon a party of forty who were traveling up the Apalachicola River to Fort Scott. All but six of the party were killed. Among them were seven soldiers’ wives. When word of the attack reached Washington, the War Department ordered Andrew Jackson to take command and bring the Native Americans under control. Jackson arrived at Fort Scott in January of 1818 and prepared to march upon the Seminole and Mikasuki towns.
News of Jackson’s impending attack reached the Seminoles and Mikaskuis before the troops did, however. Arriving troops found Fowltown deserted, and destroyed the settlement. When troops advanced upon the Suwannee River settlements of the Seminoles, Black Seminole leader Nero and 300 of his villagers fought a spirited rear-guard action, to allow the other inhabitants to flee. At length, they joined their families and escaped into the surrounding countryside (Brown 1991; Covington 1993; Mahon 1985).
Some fled southward to the Pease Creek settlements. Others chose to remain in Middle Florida, where they established communities in the Big Swamp, the Cove of the Withlacoochee River, and in the central peninsula in present-day Sumter County (Covington 1993; Weik 2000).
Image: Attacks on Early Seminole and Black Seminole Villages
Adapted from Covington 1993:44
Black Seminole Settlements South of Tampa Bay
The First Seminole War also sent a new wave of immigrants into the Pease Creek frontier. Among them was Oponay, an Upper Creek leader who had allied himself with Red Stick chief Peter McQueen. Oponay and McQueen brought with them more Africans and African Americans who were allied with the Upper Creeks.
Oponay’s homestead consisted of a two-story plank home with a dairy barn, corn house, stables and other outbuildings. The associated Black Indian village with its twenty inhabitants was located two miles from the former’s plantation house. Here Oponay and his African vassals cultivated an extensive peach orchard as well as fields of rice, corn and potatoes. McQueen also settled along Pease Creek, south of Oponay’s Town (Brown 1991; Covington 1993).
Middle Florida Black Seminole Villages Relocated
The Big Swamp and the Cove of the Withlacoochee River offered seclusion to the Black Seminole groups who settled there. Both were situated in a series of cypress swamps and wetlands, interspersed with cypress islands and upland hammocks, near where the Withlacoocohee River empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The recesses of the Big Swamp and the Withlacoochee Cove were known only to the Seminoles, the Black Seminoles and invited guests such as allies and trading partners (Knetsch 2003; Weisman 2000).
Within the Cove of the Withlacoochee, a Black Seminole village occupied by slaves of Seminole chief Sitarkey, of the Alachua band, established a thriving village by at least 1820. The area around Sitarkey’s Village contained some of the richest soils in Florida. Here, on the banks of the Withlacoochee River, Black Seminoles cultivated corn, rice, sugarcane, beans, squash and other subsistence crops, and also raised cattle, hogs, horses and other livestock. The village consisted of board houses constructed around a square ground. Sitarkey’s Village remained a thriving settlement for more than two decades (Covington 1993; Weisman 2000).
Another central Florida Black Seminole village established after 1813 was the town of Pelaklakaha, also known as Abraham’s Old Town. Located in present-day Sumter County, the town was the home of Black Seminoles associated with Micanopy, a nephew of Cowkeeper and hereditary leader of the Seminole.
Micanopy’s main settlement was at the town of Okihumpky, six miles north of Pelaklakaha, but he apparently preferred to reside at Pelaklakaha, where he had additional wives (Mahon 1985; Weik 2000). Pelaklakaha was much less secluded than Sitarkey’s Village; being situated at the crossroads of a network of much-used Indian trails leading from the upper peninsula to Florida’s lower cape (Weik 2000). Their central location allowed Pelaklakaha’s inhabitants to trade and interact with Native American and black travelers enroute to South Florida hunting grounds.
Abraham was the leader of the Pelaklakaha Black Seminoles. Although Seminole subchief Jumper occupied the position of sense-bearer or counselor to Micanopy, Abraham had an enormous influence upon Micanopy and was often noticed whispering to the latter during war councils, reportedly urging him to remain firm in negotiations with the Americans (Sprague 1848). McCall (1974:160) also identifies Black Seminoles July and August as leaders at Pelaklakaha, and Potter (1966:9) mentions subchief Billy John.
Abraham (Abram) was probably born between 1787 and 1791. The former slave of a Dr. Sierra in Pensacola, Abraham was universally described as “courtly,” “genteel,” and mannered. One observer found him to have “a gentle, insinuating manner,” while another described him as “plausible, pliant and deceitful” (Porter 1946:4). Regardless of observers' varying opinions about Abraham’s underlying motives, most recognized him as a powerful and influential leader among the Middle Florida Black Seminoles (Mahon 1985).
Part 3 of our three part series: Black Seminoles, Maroons and Freedom Seekers in Florida, Part 3: The Destruction of Angola, chronicles the Coweta raid upon Florida, the destruction of the Angola (Sarazota) community, and the aftermath, when many freedom seekers fled to the Bahamas.
Image: Black Seminole Chief Abraham
With Kind Permission of the Florida State Archives
Brown, Canter Jr.
1990 The "Sarrazota, or Runaway Negro Plantations": Tampa Bay's First Black Community, 1812-1821. Tampa Bay History 12(2):5-19.
1991 Florida's Peace River Frontier. Orlando: University of Central Florida Press.
Covington, James W.
1993 The Seminoles of Florida. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
2003 Florida's Seminole Wars, 1817-1858. Charleston, S. C.: Arcadia Publishing.
1995 "Slave Resistance on the Southeastern Frontier: Fugitives, Maroons, and Banditti in the Age of Revolutions." El Escribiano 32:12-49.
McCall, George A.
1868 Letters from the Frontier. Philadelphia: Lippincott.
1966 The War in Florida. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms, Inc.
Sprague, John T.
1848 Origin, Progress, and Conclusion of the Florida War. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.
Weik, Terrance M.
2000 A Historical Archaeology of Black Seminole Maroons in Florida : Ethnogenesis and Culture Contact at Pilaklikaha. Dissertation (Ph. D.), University of Florida. On Demand Print. Ann Arbor, Mich. : UMI Dissertation Services, 2003.
Weisman, Brent R.
2000 The Plantation System of the Florida Seminole Indians and Black Seminoles During the Colonial Era. In Colonial Plantations and Economy in Florida. J. Landers, ed. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
This article may be printed and freely shared for nonprofit purposes, as long as this notice and citation appear with the article:
This article was prepared for The USF Africana Heritage Project (www.africanaheritage.com) by Toni Carrier. Citation:
2005 "Black Seminoles, Maroons and Freedom Seekers in Florida, Part 2: The Beginning of Troubled Times." The USF Africana Heritage Project, http://www.africanaheritage.com
Copyright 2004 The University of South Florida and The Africana Heritage Project. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. For more information, contact the Africana Heritage Project via e-mail.