This Saturday, when people gather to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the deadly destruction of the British Fort at the Fort Gadsden National Historic Landmark on Prospect Bluff, the history they will confront may be slightly different and a bit more accurate than what most of us have been taught.
The terrible details are familiar, how a 17-day campaign against the fort at Prospect Bluff culminated with what may have been the deadliest cannon shot in American history.
On July 27, 1816, U.S. Navy forces, under the oversight of Major General Andrew Jackson, military commander of the southern district, fired on what was then called "The Negro Fort." One of the early “hot shots,” cannonballs heated to a red glow, from the ship's guns ignited powder stored inside the fort, resulting in a massive explosion, which killed as many as 270 men, women, and children; leaving only 33 survivors.
The Seminoles who survived were captured and killed by the Creeks, who were in cahoots with the Americans, while the fugitive blacks were sent back into slavery.
But was that the end of the community that once lived in and around the Negro Fort?
A trio of scholars, at an August program at the Apalachicola Center for History, Culture and the Arts, offered a more extensive view of the aftermath of the 1816 events. They contended that this community of “Maroons,” also known as Black Seminoles, continued their quest for freedom following that massacre, forming an original core of a freedom-seeking community that migrated south, amidst treachery and war, until remnants ultimately found their way to the Bahamas.
At the well-attended presentation Aug. 13, Dr. Uzi Baram, an anthropologist at the New College of Florida, Dr. Ed Gonzalez-Tennant, a digital archaeologist, and Vickie Oldham, a journalist turned college administrator at Albany State, offered insight into the story of the Maroons.
Baram said the trio’s work has its origins in 2004, by drawing on a combination of archeological field reports from Fort Gadsden as well as other sites south and east of here, along with scholarly articles.
“We needed to look up to the Apalachicola River and we needed to understand what was here,” said Baram.
He said that much of the field research was done 15 years ago, and since then there had grown a “radical openness” to new interpretations.
Oldham said her interest came while she worked as a television reporter in Sarasota. “I understand the power of a good story,” she said. “I love piecing elements together.”
The trio told a story of how the community that once lived both inside the British Fort as well as in and round the river, later became part of of a community known as Angola on the Manatee River, one of the early 19th century Maroon communities on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Many lost their lives in the Battle of Suwannee in 1818 and then the destruction of Angola and the other Maroon communities south of Tampa Bay in 1821.
“The people of Angola made bold and brave moves,” said Oldham. “I learned the Angola story was missing from the history books. There’s not a paper trail of their existence.”
She later turned the story of survival into a video documentary, bolstered by the work of Baram and others. “Our work is giving voice to people who had no voice,” said Oldham.
Baram offered a wealth of sources for his research, offering details on the settlement of Angola and its possible linkage, through the examination of 19th century ceramics and other artifacts, to the Prospect Bluff community.
“They did not write about themselves, and their descendents did not,” he said. “The only things written were by those who wanted to capture them. We’ve been able to piece together the history. These were very strong people.”
Baram said the pursuit of the Maroons was because “they were seen as a threat to the United States, as a threat to the slave regime.”
Using an analysis of surnames, researchers have been able to draw a link to peoples in Andros Island in the British Bahamas and the others to the Florida interior, where the Maroons and their descendants fought in the Second Seminole War.
The presentation culminated in a projection of digital images of how the British Fort probably looked, provided by Gonzalez-Tennant, who is lead digital archaeologist at Digital Heritage Interactive LLC. He said the field of digital archeology began booming in the late 1980s, and now includes three-dimensional scanning, photogrammetry and other technologies that help provide virtual recreations of “sites that didn’t last very long.” He offered several recreations detailing what the Britsh Fort might have looked like.
“This should be a place that’s well-known,” said Baram. “It should be even better known in one way or another.”