By Patty Ryan
Vickie Oldham grew up in Florida, and even as a girl, felt drawn to its history. She was an adult working on a documentary about her native Sarasota when she read that escaped slaves had once lived nearby. Soon, history kept her awake at night. She wondered: Had her ancestors been among them?
The existence of the community, Angola, from about 1812 to 1821, had been demonstrated through archival work by Florida historian Canter Brown Jr., but few clues pointed to its location. With state grants, Oldham organized “Looking for Angola.”
She is part of a group that has raised awareness of Angola’s freedom seekers. The efforts have focused on Manatee Mineral Spring Park in East Bradenton, where a dig turned up tiny relics from the period. The spring would have been one aspect of a larger, more diffuse community.
The National Park Service recently added the site to its Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
“It feels like a sacred ground to me,” Oldham said. “It really does. I just feel like the ancestors who lived and died there, they’re so pleased that their accomplishments and their existence is remembered and celebrated.”
Angola had up to 750 inhabitants in 1821, when Florida became a U.S. territory, scholars estimate. But like other such enclaves, it would come to a tragic end.
Under Spanish control, the state had been a refuge for people fleeing slavery or for their children who never knew it. Collectively, they were called maroons, or sometimes, black Seminoles, according to New College of Florida anthropology Professor Uzi Baram, who has a leading role in uncovering Angola’s past.
In northwest Florida, some trained with British soldiers along the Apalachicola River during the War of 1812. When the British left, the maroons kept and defended the fort and survived by farming.
In 1816, a U.S. Navy gunboat fired upon the fort, archives show. The result was catastrophic. A hot round hit an ammunition shed and ignited an explosion. Naval officer Jarius Loomis wrote that 300 black men, women and children had been inside the fort, along with 20 Choctaw warriors. About 270 people died, he reported. A superior lamented the loss of life but praised the destruction of the compound.
“(T)he force of the negroes was daily increasing and they felt themselves so strong and secure that they had commenced several plantations on the fertile banks of the (Apalachicola) which would have yielded them every article of sustenance and which would consequently in a short time have rendered their establishment quite formidable and highly injurious to the neighboring states,” Commodore Daniel Patterson wrote to the Navy secretary.
That was the backdrop for what would become Angola’s rise in the Bradenton area, south of Tampa Bay. Maroon settlements there and along the Suwanee River swelled as pressure from the north intensified with the First Seminole Indian War in 1817-18.
After the U.S. Army destroyed the Suwanee River settlement, Angola absorbed the hundreds who escaped.
The refugees knew agriculture. They could trade with native Americans or Cuban fisherman who set up seasonal camps along the west coast, Baram said.
But as Angola thrived, it also became a target.
The 1821 attack on Angola came soon after Spain ceded control of Florida to the United States. It was executed by Creek allies of U.S. Gen. Andrew Jackson. A Charleston, S.C., newspaper, the City-Gazette, published a witness account.
The invaders “surprised and captured about 300 of them, plundered their plantations, set on fire all their houses, and then proceeding southerly captured several others,” the witness wrote.
Some of Angola’s inhabitants were returned to slavery. Some are believed to have died. Others escaped to central or south Florida.
But, most intriguingly, it was reported by the witness that hundreds had made it all the way to Andros Island in the Bahamas, where they became free British subjects.
Baram remembers when he was enlisted to help find Angola. He is the director of New College’s Public Archeology Lab.
“This is going to be really hard,” he recalled saying. “These are people who didn’t want to be found.”
Oldham yearned for the story to be more than a fable for people living in Manatee County.
The Manatee River had long since been dredged clean by the Army Corps of Engineers, and so its bottom betrayed nothing. Much of the real estate had been developed. But preservationists had spared Manatee Mineral Spring Park.
Digging at the site made sense, Baram knew. Fresh water would have drawn the maroons, even if they were being careful to avoid detection.
Guided by underground radar in 2009, the archeologists knew where to dig. Three feet down, they found a tiny white piece of clay, identified as the stem of a pipe. In 2013, they found pearlware, a type of mass-produced ceramic.
The pipe was British made. So was the pearlware. It dated back to the early 1800s, near the time the maroons had trained among the British at Apalachicola.
“The archeological evidence is clear,” Baram said. “People were there.”
To the west is Anna Maria Island, with its turquoise gulf waters. To the northeast is Ellenton, with its busy outlet stores.
Manatee Mineral Spring Park is not marked by crowds or souvenir shops. It’s a small patch of green in a plain neighborhood near the river. The spring is capped.
There are things to see, including illustrated interpretive signs that explain the site’s history. A permanent Angola exhibit occupies a small 19th Century house.
For some, the park will be a place to feel more than to view.
Oldham hasn’t yet sorted out her own ancestors’ roots. She has been too caught up in Angola. She estimates she has been to the park about 100 times. It’s empowering, she said.
“We mourn the loss of those who died,” she said, “the men, women and children. But we celebrate the resilience of those who escaped and made their way into central and south Florida and crossed the dangerous Gulfstream and made it to safety. We celebrate that.”
Beyond the Gulfstream is the west side of Andros Island. There’s only one village on that side. It’s called Red Bays. It’s known as the home of the black Seminoles.
Back to Angola Festival
Daphney Towns lives in Bradenton, but she hasn’t always. She came from the Bahamas in 1992. Her mother was born on Andros Island.
One day a couple of years ago, Towns was on a prayer walk near Manatee Mineral Spring Park. She noticed the interpretive signs and began reading about the maroons who had lived in Florida but found freedom in the Bahamas.
Later, she contacted Bahamian officials. Before long, plans took shape for a festival at Manatee Mineral Spring Park. “Return to Angola,” she called it.
A delegation of about 30 people made the journey from the Bahamas.
“They could feel the energy of the ancestors,” Towns said. “They were weeping.”
For three days in July of 2018, the park came alive. A wood carver from Red Bays shared his craft. So did two basket weavers. A Junkanoo band from Miami played Bahamian music. Children danced.
More festivals are planned.
“The story and history will continue to live,” Towns said. “It’s not a myth.”
To learn more about escaped slaves and free black people who lived in Florida in the early 1800s, visit the website TragedyAndSurvival.timesifters.org.
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