In Florida, Solemn Shadows of the Early Underground Railroad


Prospect Bluff

The air smells faintly scorched. On either side of the road, the shins of longleaf pine trees look like blackened scabs. The United States Forest Service, which operates Prospect Bluff Historic Sites, oversees controlled burns this time of year to tamp down underbrush. At a distance, two small deer dart across the narrow road in front of me, bounding for a stretch of uncharred woods. Silently, I urge the pair: “Don’t let them catch you. Run!” By the time I pass their point of entry, they’ve vanished.

These thickets and palmetto patches gave cover to runaways seeking sanctuary from Georgia, the Carolinas and other points north more than 200 years ago. Although the Spanish were well versed in the slave trade, during their first rule of Florida from the 16th through mid-18th centuries they promised freedom to any enslaved person who fled the colonies. But there was a price. For their freedom, runaways were required to renounce their faith and adopt Catholicism. Hundreds answered the call.

In time, camps of escapees, known as Maroon communities, made their stand in the woods and swamps of my untamed home state.

Today, people follow this route to lazy weekends on St. George Island about 35 miles south of the forest’s western edge, or over to Apalachicola for long-necks and fresh oysters on the bay. I turn west onto a rutted dirt road toward Prospect Bluff, also known as Fort Gadsden, Negro Fort and British Fort. Like the names, the history of the site is stacked like a layer cake. I pass a small hunting party planted on the sandy shoulder. Their neon-orange gear is a disquieting beacon in the gloom.




Fort Mose

Historic

State Park

St. Augustine

Prospect Bluff

(Fort Gadsden)


My grandfather called roads like these pig trails, and three miles down this one the park comes into view. Live oaks and more pines frame the perimeter of shorn grassy fields and embankments that are remnants of earthen fort walls. Here and there, wooden benches are tucked beneath boughs. To the west, the Apalachicola’s high brown-gray current courses around the tangled feet of cypress trees. The berms and swales leading toward the woods rise and fall like breaths, yet everything feels still.

A volunteer caretaker lives in a camper on the grounds but there is no visitors’ center, museum, gift shop or reliable cell service. There are new interpretive signs and a kiosk of brochures, artifacts and a diorama. Beyond that, it’s a secluded, solemn space of simple beauty. If I wasn’t meeting the author and historian Dale Cox, and his media-business partner, Rachael Conrad, I’d be the only visitor right now.

Mr. Cox, who says he is descended from the Creek tribe, has come to this place since he was a child. For nearly two hours, we walk the grounds and he tells me the story, well known to relatively few.

With the War of 1812 still raging in 1814, the Spanish, who still held Florida, did not fight when the British set up a fort here as a bulwark against the Americans. In need of troops, the British offered freedom to enslaved men but only if they joined the fight against the United States. Many of the black soldiers at the new “British Fort” had known bondage. A year later, when the war ended in 1815, the British abandoned the fort and left behind an arsenal of cannons and guns. Some of the black recruits remained.

Photo

Dale Cox, a local historian, at the site of Prospect Bluff, also known as Fort Gadsden, Negro Fort and British Fort.

Credit
Sarah Beth Glicksteen for The New York Times

Over time, escaped slaves and a group of Creeks built a community here. They hunted, foraged and cultivated farms that stretched for miles upriver. Word spread. Runaways kept coming. The community swelled to more than 800.

Their presence was not a secret. Newspapers as far north as New England referred to a troubling community of “Negroes” near the mouth of the Apalachicola.

“Prospect Bluff became the greatest fear of the American South,” Andrew Frank, a Florida State University history professor, said. “Black people with guns, without oversight, was a great danger. They are part of a Pan-African and Indian alliance that have been part of colonial fears since the very beginning.”

In 1816, Gen. Andrew Jackson orchestrated the fort’s elimination.

About 300 residents holed up near their gunpowder magazine in late July 1816, as American troops and a group of allied Creeks assaulted the outer walls of the fort. Those inside held off the attack for days until a shot from a United States gunboat struck the fort’s magazine. About 30 men, women and children survived the blast. Those who were not executed were returned to bondage.

Two years later, while at war with the Seminoles, General Jackson ordered that another fort be built on the site of Prospect Bluff and named it Fort Gadsden. All that remains of Gadsden are the soft hills where Mr. Cox and I began our walk. It was named a National Historic Landmark in the 1970s.

From the blast site, a field of palmettos stretches nearby. Mr. Cox and the Forest Service say that it is possible the dead of Prospect Bluff are buried in a mass grave out there along a small rise. Cadaver dogs brought in last year sensed the presence of human remains.

People perished here resisting tyranny. It was one of the largest free black communities in the young nation. Each day during battle, the Prospect Bluff resident Mary Ashley is said to have raised the British flag, signaling that her people would give no quarter. She survived.

“We’re going to fight to the death here,” Mr. Cox says, thinking of those final moments. “We are not surrendering. We are going to make a stand.”

As I head to the car, I hear the faint echo of a hound’s bark. Perhaps it has spotted something fleeing through the brush.

Photo

Visitors at Fort Mose.

Credit
Sarah Beth Glicksteen for The New York Times

Fort Mose

The drive from Prospect Bluff, just above the Gulf of Mexico, to Fort Mose Historic State Park, on the edge of the Atlantic, takes about four hours through the part of Florida that feels more like the Deep South than the tropics.

A brochure at Fort Mose reads “Welcome to Freedom.” But after the quiet grace of the woods, I feel as though I’ve entered the suburbs. The site of the first free black community in America now abuts a middle-class St. Augustine neighborhood.

The dull rush of U.S. Route 1 a couple of blocks away is inescapable. Then I step inside the Mose (pronounced mo-SAY) visitors’ center, a low-slung gray building bordered with patterned burgundy and apricot tiles embellished with African symbols representing life, death and community. Park rangers run the front office that doubles as a kind of gift shop. The site’s history, dating from the town’s founding in 1738, is told in video, outdoor signage and a small, compelling interactive museum.

There were two versions of the fort but neither remains. A salt marsh behind the property reclaimed the second one ages ago.

The Spanish promise of freedom drew streams of the enslaved. As their numbers swelled, Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose was built just north of the city. It became the first line of defense against British invasion and the first legal settlement of free black people in what would become the United States. Inside Mose’s walls black people knew what it was to wake up when they felt like it, choose which chores to do or not. Their stories are told in audio stations throughout the gallery. A few times a year the fort has events to recreate that era.

On a February Saturday morning, I wander through the wooded edge of the park as two actors portray frightened but determined runaways. Yards away another actor portrays an equally determined slave catcher. Their paths never cross. When our group reaches freedom, we are greeted by a predominantly black militia firing their muskets and a cannon. Given the audience, it’s a G-rated version of escape from the vile institution nurtured on these shores.

But these performances are infrequent. Most visitors will spend time in the museum, then wander down a boardwalk south of the building. It ends at marsh’s edge. Across the expanse, mansions loom over the vast blanket of cordgrass. In the middle distance is where the fort once stood, its remains lost beneath a cluster of sediment and trees.

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