Black Seminoles, Maroons and Freedom Seekers in Florida, Part 3: The Destruction of Angola
The Third Article of Our Three-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.
Our second article, Black Seminoles, Maroons and Freedom Seekers in Florida, Part 2: The Beginning of Troubled Times, chronicles the establishment and destruction of the Negro Fort and the beginnings of the Angola plantation community. This, Part 3 of our three part series, describes the Coweta Incursion, the destruction of Angola, and the aftermath.
Image Courtesy Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite, Jr.
University of Virginia Exhibit "The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas."
The Coweta Incursion and the Destruction of Angola
When Florida was ceded to the United States in 1819, the Native American and black inhabitants of the Florida peninsula received the news with dread. Black Seminoles and maroons were threatened with loss of freedom, and many of the Native Americans in Florida had fought against United States forces in the First Seminole War. They turned to their old alliances with Spain and England for support and protection.
During 1819 five parties of South Florida Native Americans visited Havana, while a delegation of fugitive Red Stick Creeks visited Nassau. The following year, at least six chiefs and 120 followers returned to Nassau. Apparently none of these diplomatic missions produced anything other than trade opportunities, or subsequent relief shipments (Brown 1991:18-19). By October 1818 an English trading vessel brought material aid via Tampa Bay, and in November “ten pack-horse loads of ammunition” were sent from St. Augustine. Other military help was not forthcoming (Brown 1990:11).
On January 24, 1821 Secretary of State John Quincy Adams conveyed the governorship of Florida to Andrew Jackson. One of his earliest communications with Washington, written on April 2, 1821, concerned the disposition of the Red Stick Creeks and maroons at and below Tampa Bay. Jackson inquired as to whether these groups should be ordered into Georgia to settle among the Creeks, or whether they were to be protected in their current location. He strongly urged the former course of action. While the American government pondered Jackson’s question, events unfolded that would render it practically moot.
Even before the official announcement of the cession of Florida to the United States, former Georgia governor and now United States Indian Agent David Mitchell had convened a meeting at his Georgia home with Creek leaders including Coweta chief William McIntosh. The parties met to discuss the possibility of forcibly removing the fugitive Red Stick Creeks from Florida. Part of the plan involved bringing away the blacks among the Red Sticks, and returning them to slavery. The participants parted with a determination to pursue such a course of action (Brown 1991).
When President Adams received Jackson’s April letter urging the removal of the Red Stick Creeks and their black allies from Florida, he was reluctant to respond and redirected Jackson’s letter to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun. On May 1, Calhoun directed Jackson to take no immediate action.
A Clandestine Plan to Destroy Angola
When word of this reached Georgia, “some men and influence and fortune” apparently contracted with McIntosh to effect the desired end. Chiefs Charles Miller, William Weatherford, Adam (also called Allamonchee) and mulatto Daniel Perimaus were to lead about two hundred Coweta warriors to capture all of the Africans and African Americans they could encounter, and deliver them to an undisclosed point of rendezvous. They were also to attack the vessel of Colonel Nicolls that was reported to be anchored in Tampa Bay (Brown 1990:14-15).
The expedition surprised and fell upon the inhabitants of the Pease Creek frontier. Arriving first at Angola, the attackers captured about 300 of the inhabitants, destroyed the plantation, and set fire to all of the houses. Proceeding southward, the party captured several others, and arrived at the Spanish fisheries around Pointerras Key in Charlotte Harbor on June 17. Not finding as many blacks as they had expected there, they “plundered the Spanish fishermen of more than 2,000 dollars worth of property,” and returned to their appointed rendezvous (Brown 1990:14).
The Aftermath and the Flight to Freedom
Many of the settlements in the path of the Coweta expedition were broken up. Native Americans and Africans fled in all directions. Some escaped in their canoes around the point at Cape Sable and made their way to the area below New River (Cape Florida) on the east coast, where they made contact with English wreckers at Key Tavernier.
An agreement was reached between those parties, and the wreckers soon carried about 250 black freedom seekers to Nassau, where they were clandestinely landed. Word having reached those still concealed in the swamps and hammocks about the former Pease Creek settlements; such as could made their way to the new east coast refuge, and on October 7, 1821 about 40 more Africans were gathered there to depart for Nassau (Brown 1990).
The circumstances of the refugees’ experience after their arrival at Cape Florida are unclear, although some documentary accounts provide small glimpses. West Indian coffee grower Peter Stephen Chazotte, on an expedition on behalf of a group of East Florida speculators, encountered black and Native American refugees at Cape Florida in late July or early August of 1821. A band of Choctaws were reported to have fled there temporarily from Charlotte Harbor. With them were Red Sticks and other fugitive Creeks (Brown 1991).
A St. Augustine resident wrote a lengthy account which appeared in a Boston newspaper in 1822, excerpted below:
“When the Indians went in pursuit of these negroes, such as escaped made their way down to Cape Florida and the Reef, where they were collected, within a year past, to the number of three hundred. Numbers of them have, at different times since, been carried off by the Bahama wreckers to Nassau; but the British authorities having invariably refused to allow them to be landed, they have been smuggled into remoter islands, and at this period large numbers of them are to be found on St. Andrew’s Island and the Biminis” (Brown 1990:1)
An account published in the March 22, 1822 edition of the Nassau Gazette and Bahama Advertiser, quoted in Brown 1990, stated: “It is reported that some of the wreckers had carried off from the Florida Keys several Negroes, said to be deserters from the Southern States. From what has been stated here, there is little doubt but a number of black persons have been landed on some of the islands to the leeward of this; very improperly, however, although the pretext for it is, that they were found in a nearly famishing state, on some of the Florida Keys. Such persons are not wanted here, and the country would be better rid of them” (Brown 1990:16).
In a September 23, 1823 letter to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, Governor William DuVal reported that “I have been informed by Gentlemen upon whom I can rely, that there are about ninety negros (sic), fugitives from this Province and the neighboring States, on Andrews Island one of the Bahamas, & about thirty more on the Great Bahama & the neighboring Islands, those Negros went from Tampa Bay, & Charlotte Harbor, in boats to the Florida Keys from whence they were taken to the Bahamas by Providence Wreckers” (Carter 1956:745).
Accounts of the days following the attack tell of the aftermath. A remnant of the Seminoles who had been dispersed in the raid on the Pease Creek settlements appeared in St. Augustine on July 16, 1821 where they were described as “a wretched, miserable Set (sic).” There they reported the raid to the Spanish authorities (Brown 1990; Boyd 1958).
James G. Forbes reported to the Secretary of State that the group’s purpose in traveling to St. Augustine was to ascertain whether any provision in the Adams/Onis Treaty which ceded Florida to the United States would provide them protection from future attacks by the Cowetas (Carter 1956:119).
In a letter to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun written from St. Augustine on July 17, 1821, interim governor John R. Bell reported that he had drawn upon government stores for provisions for the Seminole party, who stated that the attackers had warned the remnant that they would return at the earliest opportunity to finish the work of destruction that they had started (Carter 1956:126).
John Lee Williams, traveling around Sarrazota Bay, in 1828, described one of the ruined settlements on the east shore of Palm Sound, where he discovered the ruins of about fifteen old houses then grown over with grass and weeds. “The hammock is covered with live oaks and cane … We found in 1828, in the old gardens among luxuriant weeds, tomatas (sic), lima beans, and many aromatic herbs perfectly naturalized” (Covington 1957:83). Williams also discovered Indian old fields at Roman Isle, just south of the present-day town of Goodland (Covington 1957:83).
Brown’s vital research on the Peace River frontier has illuminated the lives and fates of those blacks who had settled there in the years between 1812 and 1821. The documentary record is thus far mute on the lives of the scattered that regrouped in the area below New River, although it is reasonable to assume that some who did not have plans for immediate departure created a settlement there.
A New Life in the Bahamas
The literature is fairly clear on some aspects of the refugees’ fates once they were transported from Key Tavernier to St. Andrews Island in New Providence (Bahamas). Goggin (1946), Kersey (1981) and Porter (1945) have conducted essential oral history groundwork in the Bahamas, where they located and interviewed descendants of the diaspora and recorded a vital descendant community memory of the events of 1821 and their aftermath.
Porter (1945) first heard stories of Black Seminole immigrants to Andrews Island from Alan Lomax, who had traveled extensively in the 1930s, recording folk music in America and the Bahamas. The most common surname there, Lomax informed Porter, was Bowlegs. In his 1945 article, Porter summarized the evidence for a Black Seminole migration to the Bahamas, and of descendants to be found on Andros Island (St. Andrews Island); most at Nicolls Town.
Porter related that the late Elsie Clews Parsons, who gathered oral histories from two schoolboys named Samuel L. and W.S. Bowlegs, was informed that “Billy Bowlegs was once the vernacular on Andros for the Seminole Indian immigrant” (Porter 1945:60). Clews had recorded funeral wake customs on Andros that Porter recognized as Black Seminole customs of the Texas-Mexico border.
Goggin followed up Porter’s work with investigations on Andros Island in the summer of 1937, among the “Indian Negroes at Mastic Point” (Goggin 1946:202). Goggin’s documentary search produced evidence that twenty eight Seminoles had visited Nassau in a wrecking vessel from the Florida coast on September 9, 1819, seeking assistance from the commander of the British troops in that province. They stated that they were destitute, and had been driven from their homes. The Seminoles were lodged and provisioned to relieve their distress.
Goggin’s groundwork among informants there revealed that there was a clear memory among descendants of the migration and the years following. Goggins’ informant was 76 year old Felix MacNeil of Mastic Point, who stated that he was the grandson of the Scipio Bowlegs, the leader of the immigrant group. MacNeil related that Scipio was a “doctor,” and that the groups were Black Indians, not white Indians. They had come from Florida, where they had been pursued by slave hunters so relentlessly that they could only settle in one place for “three or four years” (Goggin 1946:205).
Goggin computed from the reported ages of MacNeil’s ancestors, that the migration had taken place “between 1810 and 1820, probably closer to the later date” (Ibid.). This deduction agrees substantially with the timing of the Coweta raids. According to MacNeil, The Black Indians met many wreckers at Cape Florida; among them a Captain Simonds, who told them that the “rising sun was a land of freedom.” Scipio’s group, which was said to number between 100 and 150, sailed to the Bahamas in large dugout canoes; landing at Red Bay on northwest Andros Island. They brought with them seeds for planting corn, pumpkin and peas. Smaller subsequent groups landed at Joulter Cays, north of Andros, and later settled in Red Bay. In their new home, the Black Seminole encountered the Congo and Longa groups of the east coast of Andrews. The new immigrants remained aloof from these groups for “a long time,” but eventually intermarried. The largest group was still at Red Bay in 1937. MacNeil’s cousin R. Bowlegs lived in Nicolls Town (Goggin 1946:205-206).
Although some of the cultural traits of the immigrants had passed away, they were yet remembered by descendants. Villagers no longer used the dugout canoe, but Felix recalled that when he was a boy, the immigrants’ original canoes could still be seen rotting away. The use of the bow and arrow had died out long since, except as a children’s toy.
Remarkably, descendants still knew the technology and were able to manufacture a replica which Goggin reported to be similar to those of the Florida Seminole. Original dwellings were said to be the pole house or log dwelling of the Florida Black Seminoles. By 1937, houses were constructed of “wood, stone, or plastered wattle and thatch roofs.” Despite the seemingly large degree of acculturation that had occurred since the 1820s, Goggin reported that even in 1937, these groups had been “much maligned simply because they were so isolated” (Goggin 1946: 206-207). It seems that even as late as 1937, descendant groups were still coping with the effects of the Black Seminole diaspora set in motion more than a hundred years earlier in Middle Florida.
The groundwork of these scholars has left us with an extraordinary account of the lives of those who fled the Coweta raids on the Pease Creek frontier.
Image: Andros Island Locations Mentioned in Text
Adapted from Photo Online at the Florida State Archives
Effects of the Coweta Raids on Middle Florida
The Pease Creek bands were not the only ones on the move after the Coweta incursion. At some point during the Coweta expedition, the raiders had apparently visited the towns around Chocachatti and Annuteliga in Middle Florida and caused their disruption. The settlement of Chocachatti, once flourishing, had reportedly been “broken up” by the Cowetas, who were said to have “carried off or dispersed about 60 Negro Slaves and a large stock of cattle & horses” (Boyd 1958:89). The remaining villagers abandoned that area for fear of the Cowetas’ return. The destruction wrought by the Cowetas prompted many inhabitants of the Middle Florida frontier to reestablish their settlements in more remote locations (Brown 1991).
Dr. William H. Simmons visited the Middle Florida settlements in early 1822. Simmons set out from St. Augustine in late December accompanied by an “Indian Negro” guide, whom he apparently hired in St. Augustine. After refreshing himself in Volusia, Simmons embarked on February 5, 1822 to explore the settlements in the area of the Big Swamp, “accompanied by an Indian Negro, as a guide—the same who had attended us on our journey from St. Augustine” (Simmons 1822:32).
Simmons’ guide had apparently never been to their destination of the Black Seminole settlement in the Big Swamp, and was following directions that he had been given. Their journey took longer than anticipated and the two did not reach the settlement until eleven that night: “The Negroes said, they were apprized of our approach by the crowing of the fowls; which we had also noticed, as being unusual at that hour” (Simmons 1822: 41).
Here Simmons and his guide were received by “Cudjoe, one of the principal characters of the place, I took up my lodging for the night, on a bunk by the fire-side. The smoke, however, and the conversation of the Negroes, who sat up till a late hour, prevented me from getting much rest.” Although Simmons was warmly received, his hosts were not able to offer him a meal. Their stated reason testified to the haste with which they had fled the Coweta incursion: “These people were in the greatest poverty, and had nothing to offer me; having, not long before, fled from a settlement farther west, and left their crop ungathered, from an apprehension of being seized on by the Cowetas, who had recently carried off a body of Negroes, residing near the Suwaney” (Simmons 1822: 41).
In the course of his trip, Simmons passed abandoned towns that bore mute testimony to the scattering of the Seminole and Black Seminole groups which was then underway, and would characterize the next decades of their existence.
Several times along his route, Simmons had seen “the sites of Indian towns, which had been recently broken up, and the crops left standing on the ground. These were chiefly settlements of the Lower Creek Indians, who, after their defeat by General Jackson, in the late war, came down among the Seminoles, and supposing themselves peculiarly obnoxious to the Americans, dispersed themselves in the woods, or retired to remote situations, as soon as the transfer of the Province took place” (Simmons 1822:41-42).
A Black Seminole Settlement in the Big Swamp
Simmons’ guide could not linger with him, however, because he had another contractual agreement to meet: “In the morning I parted with my guide, who was to go from hence to Vibrilla, with horses, to meet some settlers, who were on their way to Alachua. I took a new guide [presumably at the same town] and horses for the next Negro town, distant, I was told, thirty miles.”
Enroute to that town, Simmons and his guide encountered other blacks upon the road who were traveling towards the same destination, but were reluctant to give directions. The narrator attributed this reluctance to the fact that many were refugees who had fought under Woodbine, and that “The Indians and Negroes had been taught by the Spaniards, to view the Americans with jealousy and distrust; and thought, that everyone whom they saw from the States, came among them with objects more or less hostile and designing.”
Upon their arrival in the town, they were lodged in “a new and excellent house, which the Negroes had built to dance in on Christmas.” There they slept upon a bed of deerskins, in the house which was “constructed in the Indian manner, without nails—the boards and shingles being lashed to the posts and rafters, by strips of oak, which last a long time.” Again, the inhabitants could offer Simmons no refreshment, but he made a tolerable breakfast of what he had brought with him (Simmons 1822: 42-45).
Ruined Settlements on the Alachua Savannah
From there, Simmons proceeded to the home of Edward Wanton in the intended settlement of Micanopy, where he remained for three days. During that stay, Simmons observed Black Seminoles bringing in an abundance of wild game for barter with Mr. Wanton. On one occasion, a Black Seminole brought in three wild turkeys and a deer. Another arrived the same day with six geese. Wanton told Simmons that the Seminoles and Black Seminoles supplied him with “an unfailing and abundant supply of game” (Simmons 1822:48-49).
From Wanton’s home, Simmons struck out on foot to survey the “Alachua Savannah,” conducted there by “two Indian Negroes, belonging to King Hijo’s sons.” On a subsequent trip, Simmons visited Bowlegs’ home; guided there by a Black Seminole who had lived there before its destruction. Simmons’ guide told him of the “former plenty and population” of Bowlegs’ settlement, which now lay in ruin. Bowlegs’ town was laid waste in 1814 in a battle with the Tennesseans. Bowlegs himself was mortally wounded in a subsequent encounter with American troops (Simmons 1822:47-51).
During his stay with Wanton, Simmons also made the acquaintance of Whan, who had been an interpreter for Payne before the latter’s death, and now served the local Seminole community in that capacity, in their dealings with the whites. Whan spoke to Simmons of the kind treatment he had received from Payne, who had advised him to adhere to truth and honesty in his dealings with others. Whan apparently had a favorite horse among Payne’s livestock. It being the custom for descendants to destroy the livestock of deceased Seminoles, Payne had specified in his will that Whan’s favorite horse not be destroyed, but be well cared for by Payne’s daughter (Simmons 1822:76-77).
As early as the late 1700s, enslaved Africans and African Americans found refuge among Florida’s Seminole Indians. The language and technology skills that these former slaves brought with them enabled them to construct well built homes, practice agriculture and animal husbandry, and participate as economic free agents in Florida’s frontier economy. Their knowledge of the language and customs of the whites also allowed some Black Seminoles to aspire to positions of leadership and standing in both Seminole and Black Seminole society.
The events that began with the Patriot War of 1812 set off a diaspora among Black Seminole and maroon settlements in Florida. In the period before 1812, Florida seems to have been a haven where African Ancestored people could find varying degrees of freedom and security.
The events that began in 1812 with the Patriot War strengthened the alliance of the Seminoles and Black Seminoles as they worked together to repel a common foe. In the years following 1812, Florida’s Black Seminole community split into at least two separate groups whose trajectories and fates differed markedly.
Those who sought refuge on South Florida’s Pease Creek frontier accommodated repeated subsequent in-migrations, which may have added either strength and security, or stress and uncertainty, to the lives of the original immigrants. Evidence does suggest that Black Seminole and maroon communities in South Florida built economies based upon self sufficiency, and that inhabitants interacted with the existing economic communities already in place there. Much work remains to be done to discover and document the development of the Pease Creek Black Seminole and maroon societies. Brown’s vital work on the tragedy and terror that befell the groups who cast their lot in the southern peninsula has brought these groups into historical focus and opened many new avenues for future research (Brown 1900, 1991).
Simmons’ narrative of his travels among the Black Seminole settlements in the Alachua Savannah and Big Swamp provides us with the most complete description we have of daily life in the Middle Florida Black Seminole Settlements. Although the Black Seminoles’ lives had been severely disrupted since at least 1812, and their settlements repeatedly moved, they were clearly participating successfully in Middle Florida’s frontier economy. In Simmons’ account we see Black Seminoles selling and hiring out horses for frontier travelers, serving as hired frontier guides, and bartering abundant supplies of wild game with their neighbors on the Middle Florida frontier.
Simmons’ account of the many travelers on their way to and from interrelated Black Seminole settlements attests to the vitality of the Black Seminole villages in Middle Florida. Although destitute of provisions because they had abandoned crops standing in the field and fled to their secluded position, the Black Seminoles at Cudjoe’s town seem to have been recovering from the effects of their flight. The inhabitants had built houses of wood plank, and had constructed a fine communal house for dancing and other celebrations. Within that house, we witness the vitality of conversation and laughter that went on long after Simmons’ eleven p.m. arrival. It seems that, by 1822, the Black Seminole groups in Middle Florida were coping well with the stress that had become a part of their everyday lives.
The Seminoles did not share the Americans’ concept of chattel slavery; rather they treated Black Seminoles as members of their own stratified society, much as the Spanish treated free blacks. That the Americans did not agree with this view, the Seminoles could not help. The struggle that would characterize the remainder of the Seminoles’ and Black Seminoles’ tenure in Florida would be a result of this difference in world views, which would assert itself as the Americans took formal control of the Florida Territory.
Be sure to check out these additional free online resources to learn more about Black Seminoles, maroons and freedom seekers in Florida:
Blacks and the Seminole Removal Debate, 1821-1835 by George Klos
Osceola and the Negroes by Kenneth W. Porter
The Negro Abraham by Kenneth W. Porter
Notes on Seminole Negroes in the Bahamas by Kenneth W. Porter
The Seminole Negroes of Andros Island, Bahamas by John M. Goggin
Maroons and Freedom Seekers
Black Slaves, Red Masters, White Middlemen: A Congressional Debate of 1852 by James E. Sefton
Finding Freedom in Florida: Native Peoples, African Americans, and Colonists, 1670-1816 by Patrick Riordan
The Exiles of Florida;: or, The Crimes Committed by Our Government Against the Maroons, Who Fled from South Carolina, and Other Slave States, Seeking Protection Under Spanish Laws (The 1858 publication by Joshua Giddings.)
Events at Prospect Bluff on the Apalachicola River, 1808-1818 by Mark F. Boyd (This article describes the destruction of the "Negro Fort.")
Spanish Sanctuary: Fugitives in Florida, 1687-1790 by Jane Landers
The Return of Runaway Slaves 1790-1794 by Richard K. Murdoch
Trial and Imprisonment of Jonathan Walker, at Pensacola, Florida, for Aiding Slaves to Escape from Bondage: With an Appendix, Containing a Sketch of his Life. 1845 edition by Johnathan Walker.
Boyd, Mark F.
1958 Horatio S. Dexter and Events Leading to the Treaty of Moultrie Creek. The Florida Anthropologist 11:65-95.
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.
Carter, Clarence Edwin
1956 The Territorial Papers of the United States: The Territory of Florida 1821-1824. New York: AMS Press.
Covington, James W.
1957 The Story of Southwestern Florida. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc.
1993 The Seminoles of Florida. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Goggin, John M.
1946 The Seminole Negroes of Andros Island, Bahamas. Florida Historical Quarterly 24(3):202-207.
Kersey, Harry A., Jr.
1981 The Seminole Negros of Andros Island Revisited: Some New Pieces to an Old Puzzle. The Florida Anthropologist 34(4):169-176.
Porter, Kenneth Wiggins
1945 Notes on Seminole Negroes in the Bahamas. Florida Historical Quarterly 24(1):58-61.
Simmons, William H.
1822 Notices of East Florida, With an Account of the Seminole Nation of Indians. Charleston.
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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 3: The Destruction of Angola." The USF Africana Heritage Project, http://www.africanaheritage.com
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