North America's Largest Act of Slave Resistance?
- Extra Reading
Part of the 'American Perspectives' Fulbright Series.
09 March 2015
North America’s Largest Act of Slave Resistance?
Dr Nathaniel Millett
Just before daybreak on the morning of July 27, 1816, a deafening explosion rang out across southeastern North America from a spot known as Prospect Bluff. Situated on the Apalachicola River approximately thirty miles from the Gulf of Mexico, Prospect Bluff was located in Spanish Florida. The terrifying blast was the result of a freak occurrence that ignited the powder magazine in a British-built fort after a days-long siege by hundreds of American soldiers and their Creek Indian allies. The imposing fort, which commanded one of the most important waterways in the southeast, had been built by British forces during the War of 1812 as part of the larger objective of capturing New Orleans. During the furious battle which proceeded the explosion, the fort---over which the Union Jack definitely flew---was defended skillfully by men wearing distinct red uniforms. And yet the British armed forces had long since evacuated Florida. No, the fort at present was not manned by white British soldiers, rather it was defended by former slaves whose origins lay in various societies from across the southeast, circum-Caribbean, and Africa. These formerly enslaved men and women had come to inhabit Prospect Bluff after being recruited by the Royal Marines during the War of 1812. In the wake of the departure by British forces at the end of the conflict in May 1815, these freemen and women formed a thriving and unusual community at Prospect Bluff. Remembered vaguely by history as a quirky local sideshow to the War of 1812 known as the “Negro Fort”---a term I try to avoid using because it meant nothing to the former slaves---the settlement at Prospect Bluff ranks easily as North America’s largest-ever maroon community----a maroon community being a community of fugitive slaves and/or their descendants. Such settlements were common in most slave societies in the Americas, sometimes numbering into the hundreds and occasionally thousands and even signing treaties with colonial governments, but historians have been slow to identify their existence in North America.
The importance of the community at Prospect Bluff, however, is much more than as an historical novelty or an exception that proves a rule. Indeed, quite the opposite is true as the community deserves to be remembered as one of the largest and most impactful acts of slave resistance in North American history. Accordingly, as I will suggest today, the maroon community at Prospect Bluff deserves a much more prominent place in the narrative of North American and Atlantic history for two primary reasons. First, the settlement shaped substantially events in the southeast during the Early Republic in a manner rivaled by few other acts of slave resistance. I will suggest that the community and the actions of its members during the First Seminole War were central ingredients in the American acquisition of Florida; a geopolitical event of great importance. Second, and just as important, the maroon community serves as an invaluable---maybe even unique---window into the slave experience. This is because, for nearly a year and a half, the Prospect Bluff maroon community was the rarest of phenomena: an entirely autonomous and free black community during the age of slavery. Thus, an examination of the community and the activities of its members tells modern observers much about how slaves understood their bondage as well as the contours of freedom. I will make these cases by first, establishing the relevant background detail, second, examining the community’s origins, third, focusing on life at Prospect Bluff, and fourth, turning to a discussion of the First Seminole War and the long-term impact of the community’s existence.
Let me now begin with a background sketch. The origins of the maroon community at Prospect Bluff lay firmly within the geopolitical environment of the Spanish Floridas and southeastern North America. The Spanish Floridas were an intimate part of the North American mainland, the circum-Caribbean, and ultimately the Atlantic world—or what could be termed the ‘‘Atlantic Borderlands.” This was reflected by the regions’ geography, population, government, military, economy, culture, and society. At the very edge of the Anglo and Spanish Atlantic empires lay a region that was populated by various Europeans, Indians, and blacks who crossed borders freely, traded across the hemisphere, maintained political and military links with Spain’s colonial holdings, carefully followed world developments, and reflected a culture that was simultaneously European, African, and Native American. In this region, people of color enjoyed elevated status that compared starkly with conditions further north.
Central in the creation of this environment was the fact that, for the better part of a century and a half, slaves and Indians had sought sanctuary in the Atlantic borderlands of Spanish East and West Florida in an effort to escape the harsh and rigid racial realities of Anglo-America. The Spanish, chronically undermanned in their Florida possessions, and ever ready to antagonize the plantation economy to the north that threatened their borders and security, officially and unofficially welcomed fugitive slaves into their domain. Sometimes, as in the case of Fort Mose, which was a black town that had been created by official Crown policy, the fugitives lived near official Spanish settlements, but runaways also frequently took advantage of the vast and remote interior of Florida. There they formed autonomous communities or established close links with the Native populations. This endemic state of flight and sanctuary deeply troubled the slave-owning classes of British America, and later of the young United States. Twice during the colonial period colonists from South Carolina and Georgia attacked St. Augustine, at least in part over resentment about Spain’s policy of harboring runaway slaves. This tradition was continued by white Americans after independence.
A number of factors changed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that drastically altered the situation in the southeast. With the expansion of the Cotton Kingdom into the Deep South, hundreds of thousands of American slaves were coming into closer contact with the Floridas as Spain desperately continued to maintain possession of the colonies. Because land was made available through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and owing to the accompanying developments in cotton technology, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, the interior of Georgia, and Louisiana were quickly becoming central to the plantation economy of the United States. During this period much of the weight of American slavery was shifting into direct contact with the Spanish Floridas as the Deep South began quickly to surpass the Chesapeake and Low Country as the heart of American plantation agriculture. This geographic turn presented the American slave complex with extra physical and psychological challenges.
If the physical contours of American slavery were changing during this period, so was the intellectual and ideological landscape in which the institution existed as it died out in the post-revolutionary North, and proponents of slavery were forced to become more hardline in their defense of slavery in the face of a growing challenge from abolitionists. Compounding matters, was the fact that the young nation was deeply proud of its relatively egalitarian political culture that emphasized life, liberty, and happiness. And yet the economic well-being of the entire United States was increasingly dependent on slave-produced goods at a time when the institution was becoming more and more distasteful to people across the globe. This uncomfortable situation was provided with an extra dynamic by the Haitian Revolution which to white Americans represented a horrifying turn of events to be avoided at all costs, but to the enslaved served as a hope-inspiring beacon of potential freedom.
The relative strength of the southeastern Indian nations----namely the Creeks, Seminoles, Cherokees, Choctaws, and Chickasaws----assured that the Southeast remained a tri-racial society. Nowhere were these dynamics more clear than in the Creek War which embroiled the southeast between 1813 and 1814. The civil war, which had deep roots in Creek society, pitted the pan-Indian Red Stick faction who had taken up Tecumseh’s nativist call against the pro-US Creeks who advocated for assimilation. The Creek War was also the consequence of growing white encroachment within the region. Slave-owning whites were covetous of Native land for the obvious economic benefits, but they were also weary at the prospect of introducing large-scale slavery into a region that still had a substantial Native presence that had not yet been fully pacified. Since the seventeenth century, the idea of black and Indian collusion had frightened whites, who saw active and strong Native tribes as a challenge to their authority and as encouraging slave misbehavior or flight. Such fears were deepest in the southeast at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as white Americans took their slaves farther and farther into an unstable area where Seminoles and Red Sticks were self-consciously rejecting white society through violence and the reassertion of their traditional cultures. Many slaves across the Deep South absorbed the implications of this and, in many instances, joined the Natives in resisting white authority.
Endemic---sometimes epidemic indeed---violence was the final factor that shaped the southeast into a particularly dynamic and turbulent corner of North America on the eve of the War of 1812. The United States officially and unofficially launched frequent, aggressive encroachments against the Floridas in the hopes of acquiring all or part of the territory. Most notably this occurred during the Patriot War of 1812-13 and during the American involvement in the Creek War. These advances were repelled by the Indian and black allies of the Spanish, which only plunged the area into an ever deeper cycle of destabilizing violence.
To briefly sum up: the elevated status of blacks and Native Americans in the Spanish Floridas had bothered Anglo-America when the region was but a peripheral concern and the status of slavery and slaves was taken for granted. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, both the Atlantic Borderlands of the Southeast and slavery were increasingly central to American concerns, were deeply intertwined with each other, and faced a stark challenge created by epidemic racialized violence, abolitionists, and the long shadow of the Age of Revolution.
It was against this backdrop that the War of 1812 began. As the theater of British operations against the United States moved into the South, British military officers began an active recruitment of American slaves, part of an effort to bolster British force in the region with black and Indian auxiliaries and to open up a second front in the war. The most import of this expeditions was led by a Royal Marine named Edward Nicolls. Nicolls---who was an Ulster Protestant from Coleraine---was charged with raising an army of American slaves, Red Sticks, and Seminoles from a base in Spanish West Florida. First from Pensacola and then from Prospect Bluff, Nicolls and a detachment of Royal Marines recruited and trained hundreds of former slaves from across the Southeast and thousands of Red Sticks and Seminoles between August 1814 and May 1815. These black recruits and, in some cases, their families would become the heart of the maroon community at Prospect Bluff.
Essential in shaping events in the southeast during this period, as well as the nature and outlook of the maroon community, was the fact that Nicolls was a radical anti-slavery advocate. Nicolls’s anti-slavery beliefs emphasized the humanity, Christian virtue, and limitless potential for uplift and equality possessed by blacks. He believed that the institution was evil and that violence was an appropriate means to fight slavery. Nicolls’s anti-slavery beliefs were the product of his devoutly Protestant Northern Irish upbringing which had instilled in him a stern and unbending morality, his understanding of his place as an ethnically peripheral figure within the British Empire, and his earliest combat experience in the Revolutionary Caribbean. Nicolls also had a highly developed conceptualization of the British Empire as an entity of progress and liberalism and recognition of the power of violence, sacrifice, and service as equalizers within this imperial framework. For nearly 60 years, Nicolls sought to assault slavery through an unusual combination of activism and first-hand action. The first-hand action was most notable in the War of 1812 and when he served as Governor of Fernando Po between 1829 and 1834. The activism was most clear when he joined the Philanthropic Society in his twenties and then after his 1835 retirement, when Nicolls became a famous full-time anti-slavery advocate who was even a founding member of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.
Much to the consternation of his superiors and the residents of the southeast, Nicolls came to conceptualize his expedition to the region as an opportunity to execute a radical anti-slavery plan. The plan would be carried out with the cooperation of his black recruits. The first step in this process was partially within the purview of Nicolls’s orders: recruiting and training American slaves into a fighting force based on the promise that soldiers and their families would be transported to the British Caribbean and established as free farmers after the war. Nicolls and his men did indeed recruit or steal many American slaves, but they recruited hundreds more that belonged to Indians or residents of Spanish Florida including nearly the entire slave population of Pensacola. Nicolls, contrary to his orders, would bluntly refuse to return these slaves to their masters. The former slaves relished the opportunity to turn their backs on their powerless masters.
The second step in transforming his mission came when Nicolls sought to instill his radical anti-slavery ideology in his slave recruits. The freemen and women proved to be apt pupils who applied Nicolls’s message of equality and uplift directly to their lives and combined it with their pre-existing goals and worldview. This process had few equals in the history of slavery. One witness described the former slaves as, “all previously [having] received their lessons….By his audaciousness, hypocrisy, address and all his battery of imposing arts, wiles and intrigues...this apostle of liberty and worthy member of the philanthropic society held them spell bound.” Time and again Nicolls had flaunted his anti-slavery credentials and rhetoric so publicly and made it so clear that he was working to further these interests that one aggrieved slave owner lamented that the “humanity of the African Association, Abolition Society and others of a like stamp will prove an inseparable bar to [recovering our slaves]---In the eyes of these Right Reverend, Right Honorable, Right Worshipful and Right Honest Gentry, Negro stealing is no crime, but rather the chief of virtues---of course they will protect their slaves.” For the rest of their lives, these former slaves would be influenced by Nicolls’s radical anti-slavery lessons; however, never did these beliefs have greater consequences than in the period between the War of 1812 and the First Seminole War.
The third step in Nicolls’s and the former slaves’ efforts to transform the mission into a radical anti-slavery plan happened when he proclaimed the former slaves to be full British subjects. This occurred when he “left with each soldier or head of family a written discharge from the service, and a certificate that the bearer and family were, by virtue of the Commander-in-Chief’s Proclamation, and their acknowledged faithful services to Great Britain, entitled to all the rights and privileges of true British subjects….[who had]….a perfect right to their liberty….” The former slaves interpreted these documents through the lens of Nicolls’s anti-slavery lessons and, for over 50 years when the last of them died, never doubted or ceased to believe that they were full British subjects who possessed the same rights as white Britons.
The tremendous power of these documents and the former slaves’ deep commitment to them is captured clearly by the actions of dozens of these people years later in the Caribbean. Mary Ashley and her husband, who had been one of Nicolls’s soldiers, understood the documents as simply and powerfully being “free papers.” Nearly 30 years later in Cuba, where she had been illegally re-enslaved, Ashley petitioned the British Embassy on the island demanding that the diplomatic officials take immediate action to have her and her children freed. The British Consul General in Cuba agreed that because of Nicolls’s promises that “freedom…may be demanded and secured” for Ashley and her family. In 1828 when a group of these people were first detected on Andros Island in the Bahamas where they had fled to in 1821, they presented British officials with “their discharges from His Majesty’s service” as proof that they were free people. The officials were instantly convinced “that these negroes are as much under the protection of the British Government as any other free person….[no]….doubt can be supposed to exist either in the minds of the negroes themselves or…any…planter…as to these people being considered as Free British Subject[s]….” Thus, between August 1814 and May 1815, Nicolls and his black allies had done something with few---if any---precedents in the history of the Atlantic World: that is create a community of radicalized and militarized former slaves who had---as far as they were concerned---achieved full legal and political inclusion within a western nation state.
The fourth step came when, unable to provide transportation to the Caribbean in May 1815, Nicolls turned the British-built fort at Prospect Bluff and its immense supply of arms, ammunition, tools, and other goods over to approximately 500 of his black recruits. During the British evacuation, Nicolls also assured the Red Sticks and Seminoles that the Treaty of Fort Jackson---which had concluded the Creek War---was not legally binding and that their lands were returned to their 1811 boundaries. To emphasize this he had entered into an unsanctioned military treaty with the Indians and instructed them to resist violently American efforts to run the lines of the Treaty of Fort Jackson. Through the transfer of Florida in 1821, the Seminoles remained steadfast in their belief that “we consider ourselves allies of Great Britain entitled to full benefit[s]…when the British evacuated the Floridas…we were expressly informed so by…Colonel Nicolls.”
In many ways, May of 1815 marked the official beginning of one of the hemisphere’s most unusual maroon communities: one that consisted of radicalized former slaves who were organized around the principle of claiming their perceived rights as British subjects. I will now explain who these people were and how they sought to take advantage of their British status. First off, the community was large. Over the course of the community’s approximately 15 month existence, its population averaged between 400 and 500 inhabitants. This number was large in a hemispheric perspective and huge in a North American one. Perhaps as many as 20% of the maroons were women while another 20% were children and adolescents. Nuclear families seem to have flourished at Prospect Bluff. These demographics were unusually balanced in comparative perspective as most maroon settlements had overwhelming majorities of adult men.
This population was notably diverse and heavily creole (that is, people who were born in the Western Hemisphere). A substantial number of the inhabitants at Prospect Bluff originated in Spanish East and West Florida. Of these, many were primarily influenced by Hispanic culture. However, a great deal of slaves in Spanish Florida were owned by British or Anglo-American masters and originated in the US or English Caribbean. Other slaves in the Spanish Floridas had their origins elsewhere in the Spanish Americas or were French-speaking having originated in Louisiana or the French Caribbean. It appears that a number of Africans escaped to Prospect Bluff. Many American slaves from South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi lived at Prospect Bluff. An equal or greater number of slaves escaped from the Creek Indians to join the maroon community. Finally, various blacks who had been living in small maroon communities or with the Seminole Indians joined the settlement. Not surprising, given the number of different backgrounds present, the population of Prospect Bluff brought an array of skills with them. Some were craftsmen or tradesmen from Pensacola and St Augustine. Others had labored in the region’s growing plantation complex. Still others had worked closely with their Creek masters or Seminole allies. Collectively members of the community had strong agricultural skills, possessed trade and craft-making abilities, could hunt or fish, and were able to prepare food.
Daily life at Prospect Bluff appears to have been vibrant. The former slaves lived in British built huts within and behind the fort as well as in newly constructed homes along the river. The maroons cultivated fields, hunted and fished, and participated in an exchange economy with the various Red Stick, Seminole, and maroon town across the region. Indeed Spanish officials in Pensacola worried that the maroon’s economic might was destabilizing the entire economy of West Florida. The Prospect Bluff settlement lived in comparative ease in part because of the maroons’ array of skills and the fertility of the surrounding countryside. However, what made Prospect Bluff unique in comparative perspective was the incredible scale of British material aid provided when the Royal Marines departed in May. The British left behind thousands of stands of arms, a virtually endless supply of balls and powder, and an array of agriculture and practical tools. Quite simply, the maroon settlement at Prospect Bluff was amongst the materially wealthiest communities in Atlantic history. This material wealth had tremendous economic and military advantages which were exploited on a daily basis and allowed the Prospect Bluff maroons to avoid raiding or stealing such goods, a tremendous advantage in comparative perspective.
Cultural life at Prospect Bluff appears to have reflected the inhabitants’ diverse and majority creole backgrounds. While numerous languages were spoken at Prospect Bluff, English would have been the most common language and the language used by the community’s leaders. Afro-Christianity flourished at Prospect Bluff under the leadership of a maroon minister. Other members of Prospect Bluff seem to have practiced Native American religions while Africans would have been free to worship in traditional manners. Music and dance were important parts of the spiritual and cultural life of the maroons. So to was academic education. It seems that there was a school at Prospect Bluff in which children were taught by one of the maroons. This was extremely unusual in comparative perspective.
Like all maroon communities, Prospect Bluff placed a tremendous premium on defense due to its many enemies. Accordingly, the community was defended by a heavily armed and trained militia. The militia---which dressed in British uniforms---drilled on a daily basis and was both a formidable defensive measure and a statement by the maroons that they were free British subjects. The community was governed by three skilled former Pensacola slaves named Garcon, Prince, and Cyrus. The three men had been commissioned as officers by Nicolls prior to the British departure and oversaw the community’s armed forces and daily life. Garcon, Prince, and Cyrus shared power with various officials. Strong rule with an emphasis on military preparedness was common amongst maroon communities across the hemisphere. What was decidedly unusual about Prospect Bluff, was the maroons’ instance that they were British subjects who possessed particular rights. In turn, the pursuit and defense of British rights was at the heart of the maroons’ government, daily activities, and identity. The community inhabited a discrete territory that appears to have been policed by sheriffs. This territory was ruled by law and on at least one occasion, the maroons even conducted a formal trial. Individuals owned property and controlled their own labor. People had freedom of movement. Men served in the armed forces. The inhabitants worshipped as they choose. The bonds of family were respected. As American and Spanish observers grudgingly admitted, all of this meant that the maroons were successful in their pursuit of rights and that Prospect Bluff can fairly be regarded as a sovereign British polity. Albeit one located in Spanish Florida, on the doorstep of the expanding American plantation complex.
Sufficed to say, the maroon community was deeply troubling to the Spanish, white Americans, and many Indians. Each group saw the maroon as a formidable military foe as well as a potential spur to slave fight and resistance that fundamentally challenged racial order across the region. Accordingly, in July 1816 hundreds of American soldiers and sailors and Creek Indian warriors launched an invasion of Spanish Florida with the aim of capturing or killing the maroons. As I mentioned in the introduction, during the American-led assault on Prospect Bluff at the end of July, the fort was destroyed in a massive explosion after the powder magazine was ignited. To many white Americans, the explosion---initially at least---represented a massive victory in the roughly 150 year Anglo-American quest to stomp out the specter of racial disorder that emanated from Spanish Florida. Many Americans assumed that the next step would be the acquisition of the Spanish Floridas. However, victory was not nearly as total as many had imagined. Americans and their allies were soon bitterly disappointed to learn that nearly “all of those who had been in the British service” at Prospect Bluff were still alive and that “a hostile disposition was still entertained by the Seminole tribe…aided by fugitive negroes, and instigated by foreign incendiaries.” Indeed the American press was correct when it argued that the destruction of the fort was “the first and perhaps one of the most hazardous expeditions of the Seminole War” of which Nicolls and his second in command, George Woodbine, were “the real authors.”
While many of the refugees from Prospect Bluff joined a large maroon settlement near the Braden-Manatee River junction in southeastern Florida known as Angola, the largest number of survivors had fled east to a series of black and Seminole villages on the Suwanee River that were led by the Seminole Chief Bowlegs. In the past, Bowlegs had been uneasy about the negative attention that the maroon community was attracting to the Floridas and had even returned members of the community to slavery. However, as the Seminoles watched as American encroachments became more aggressive, contemplated Nicolls’s promises, and absorbed many Red Sticks, they were becoming increasingly radicalized and hostile towards the United States and the Spanish subjects “whom they now considered as American partisans to the last.” In profound and symbolic language that reflected the influence of Nicolls, who had, with a degree of success, sought to instill his anti-slavery beliefs amongst the Seminoles and Red Sticks, Bowlegs told the Governor of East Florida that “we cannot submit to [American] shackles, and will die in defense of our country.”
While the refugees from Prospect Bluff recognized the fact that they were living in Bowlegs’s territory, they quickly set up loosely associated villages. The refugees sought to recreate Prospect Bluff’s political system and military structure in what was a larger attempt to rebuild the community from Prospect Bluff. They chose Nero, a refugee from the Prospect Bluff and veteran of its military, as their leader. Nero shared some of his power with “Negro Chiefs” who collectively “sat in counsel” with the Seminoles. After having chosen Nero as their leader, it was reported that the refugees “are on parade...about six hundred that…bare arms. They have chosen officers of every description, and endeavor to keep up a regular discipline, and are very strict in punishing violators of their military rules.”
In March 1817, the Creek Captain Barnard informed American officials that hundreds of heavily armed refugees from Prospect Bluff had collected at Suwanee and “have a red pole set up in their town and are dancing the red stick dance” which was a ritualized Creek war dance. This growing black and Indian force was very publicly “….speak[ing] in the most contemptuous manner of the Americans, and threaten to have satisfaction for…the destruction of the Negro Fort….they say they are in a complete fix for fighting, and wish an engagement with the Americans, or McIntosh’s troops; they would let them know that they had something more to do than they had at Apalachicola” and that those “who were saved from the Negro Fort...would revenge themselves for the loss of their friends at that place.” This was the language of war between two legitimate powers: the refugees from the Prospect Bluff and the United States and their Creek allies.
During the War of 1812, Nicolls had radicalized a young Royal Marine named Robert Ambrister while the two men were serving together in the Floridas. After having been decommissioned, Ambrister returned to his native Bahamas where he was recruited by George Woodbine during the War of 1812 to join a filibustering expedition to Florida. As his first mission, Ambrister was sent to Tampa where he was to make contact with Angola, establish a base, and to begin training the refugees from Prospect Bluff who were at Suwannee with the ultimate goal to “see the Negroes righted.” Woodbine himself had already returned to the Floridas in late 1816 when he had met with the blacks and Indians at Suwannee who he informed that “Colonel Nicols would be out here in three months.”
At one point it would be reported that Ambrister “had complete command of the Negroes who considered him as their Captain.” As this role suggests, Ambrister remained in close contact with Nicolls. Indeed Ambrister was in Florida to act as his surrogate. Nothing testifies to this fact, nor that the refugees from Prospect Bluff persisted in their sense of belonging to a community of British subjects, than a letter written by Ambrister to Nicolls while at Suwannee in which he stated that the refugees “depend on your promises, and expect you are the way out. They have stuck to the cause, and will always believe in the faith of you.” The cause was the anti-slavery mission that the former slaves and Nicolls had begun at Prospect Bluff.
Set to the backdrop of growing cross-border tensions, the First Seminole War officially began on November 21, 1817 at Fowltown which was a large Red Stick and black village that was, according to the Treaty of Fort Jackson, located in American territory. Key to both the Red Stick failure to give into an American ultimatum to abandon the village and the American decision to invade was intelligence that Edmund Gaines received at virtually the same time, in which it was reported that the “hostile…[Indians]…and Blacks have been promised a British force to assist them, from New Providence. This promise, though made by Nichols and Woodbine, is nevertheless relied on by these deluded wretches.” The intelligence made Gaines nervous while encouraging the Indians and blacks to resist the United States. The Battle of Fowltown was barely a skirmish from which nearly the entire village’s black and Indian inhabitants were able to flee. Before torching the village, the Americans discovered “…a British uniform…and a certificate, signed by a British Captain of Marines, ‘Robert White, in absence of Colonel Nichols,’ stating, that the Chief had always been a true and faithful friend to the British,” corroborating American suspicions.
The Indian and black response to the attack on Fowltown was swift and brutal. Only days later, an American naval vessel on the Apalachicola River was ambushed by Indians and blacks. Most of the soldiers on board were killed in the attack, but a number of women and children where taken prisoner before being tortured and killed. At the end of March, Jackson’s force of 3,500 American and Creek soldiers began its descent of the Florida peninsula. The first target was the Lake Miccosukee Village that was led by Nicolls’s old ally Kinache and was inhabited by many survivors from Prospect Bluff. There was a brief skirmish, but the vast majority of the Indians and blacks were able to flee. While searching the abandoned village the American’s found fifty fresh scalps that had come from the ambushed naval vessel and over three hundred older scalps.
The main aim of Jackson’s invasion of Florida was Bowleg’s Town and the associated black towns under Nero, where the largest number of the refugees from Prospect Bluff had rebuilt their community and had recently been joined by the black and Indian refugees from Miccosukee. This was now the epicenter of black and Indian activity in the region where Ambrister had been acting as Nicolls’s surrogate for months. For many of these soldiers and civilians this was the second time in less than two years that they were bracing for a massive American and Creek assault.
Before the battle began, Ambrister received a letter from a Scottish merchant who had been trading and living with the Seminoles and Red Sticks. The letter warned the blacks and Indians along the Suwannee River that “the main drift of the Americans is to destroy the black population of Swany. Tell my friend [Bowlegs] that it is throwing away his people to attempt to resist such a powerful force.” The merchant was addressing a fundamental truth: the Americans’ greatest concern was over black resistance and, more specifically, the refugees from Prospect Bluff. Even more pointedly, the merchant bluntly told the Indians that it “was the Negroes, not the Indians, the Americans were principally moving against.” This was corroborated by a black resident of Suwannee who would later testify that “the Indians have always said that they should not have been attacked at the Suwanee, if they had not had these negroes among them; that the hope of getting possession of the them invited the attack and proved the destruction of the town.” The Niles Weekly Register reiterated this to a national audience when it reported that, prior to the destruction of the fort at Prospect Bluff, “many runaway negroes…deserted from it, and …joined the other banditti under Bowlegs, and now compose part of those negroes who, together with the barbarous Seminolians…are the main enemies of the people of Florida [and the South].” Friends, foes, and participants on both sides of the battle agreed that the destruction of the refugees from Prospect Bluff was the primary goal of the American and Creek forces at the Battle of Suwanee and in the First Seminole War more generally.
Contrary to the Scottish merchant’s advice and the advice of recently arrived Miccosukee refugees, the inhabitants of Suwannee decided to make a stand against the Americans without Ambrister who had fled prior to the arrival of the Americans. Under Nero over three hundred black soldiers fought skillfully and with bravery in a display that reflected years of British training, but quickly realized the hopelessness of their cause and fled Suwannee along with the women and children.
With the Battle of Suwanee and May’s occupation of Pensacola by Jackson’s forces, the Seminole War was essentially over. The United States and Spain had begun negotiations for the transfer of the Floridas. And yet the vast majority of the black combatants were alive and had joined Angola. Angola, which was now populated by hundreds of refugees from Prospect Bluff that had arrived in both 1816 and 1818, was the last bastion of meaningful black resistance in the Floridas. Accordingly Jackson begged the federal government for permission to launch a raid on Angola, but was refused. For the moment, the refugees could rest and regroup.
During and shortly after the First Seminole War, fearing that the latest American invasion of Spanish territory might result in a war with Spain or, more realistically, derail efforts to acquire the Floridas, John Quincy Adams was charged with providing an official explanation for the war. After having spent over a year collecting all of the intelligence relating to the First Seminole War Adams came to believe that Jackson had been justified in invading the Floridas as an effort to end a British instigated race war that was being led by the refugees from Prospect Bluff. Adams began his explanation in August 1814 with the arrival of Nicolls in West Florida, and then focused almost exclusively, and in great detail, on the role of Nicolls and the British in instigating the blacks and Indians to war against the United States. In uncharacteristically colorful language, Adams described recent events as being part of a “creeping and insidious war, both against Spain and the United States; this mockery of patriotism; these political philters to fugitive slaves and Indian outlaws…all in the name of South American liberty, of the rights of Negroes, and the wrongs of savage murderers….[a] war [that was] left us by Nicholls, as his legacy, reinstigated by Woodbine, Arbuthnot and Ambrister.”
During the war, the Daily National Intelligencer ran a widely reprinted editorial that called for the American acquisition of the Floridas because the colonies offered “protect[ion] to all runaway slaves from the United States…whose frontier inhabitants are daily falling a sacrifice to their resentment, which seems indiscriminately directed against all the white inhabitants [of the Southeast]” of which the refugees from Prospect Bluff and their Seminole allies were the prime offenders. In the opinion of one of America’s leading newspapers, fear over racial disorder trumped arguments about land, economics, and burgeoning American nationalism in constructing the case that the Floridas must be annexed. Amongst its initial printings The Floridian boldly proclaimed that “we are now free from apprehension for the lives of our border settlers. Florida is no longer an asylum for our runaway negroes, and refugees from justice….[these]….evils are remedied by this accession to our territory.” In the midst of congressional debates over annexation, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun assured Jackson that he and the entire administration “concur in the view which you have taken in relation to the importance of Florida to the effectual peace and security of our Southern Frontier.” Land greed, the early stirrings of “Manifest Destiny,” and a strong Southern lobby were important factors in the American decision to acquire the Floridas. However the single most important factor was a burning desire to finally end the threat posed to racial order in the United States and the expanding plantation complex created by conditions in the Floridas. The First Seminole War, of which the destruction of the fort at Prospect Bluff was indeed the first act, was the final straw in convincing the United States that annexation must occur.
The 1821 transfer of the Floridas was yet another blow to many of the Indians and blacks of the region as the advantageous conditions created by Spanish rule soon became a memory. This was compounded by the appointment of Andrew Jackson as Florida’s territorial governor. Acting in direct defiance of Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, Jackson’s first order of business was to send his Creek allies on a search and destroy mission against Angola. The Indian raid decimated the most important remaining bastion of black and Indian resistance in Florida and led to the capture and re-enslavement of many refugees from Prospect Bluff while smaller groups were able to make yet another escape. However, regardless of what path the survivors of Nicolls’s experiment took, they never gave up in their belief that they were British subjects. This was illustrated most clearly by the stream of refugees who traveled to the Bahamas where they appropriately named their village “Nicholls Town” in honor of the man who had both liberated and inspired them. Here, on Andros Island where their descendants live today, the freemen and women enjoyed all that Nicolls had promised them. However, unlike at Prospect Bluff, Angola, and throughout the Florida peninsula during the First Seminole War, they were now located physically and not just intellectually within the British Empire. It seems to me that is an appropriately hopeful note to conclude on.
© Dr Nathaniel Millett, 2015
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