Historian Adam Wasserman's account of Angola, a largely unknown free black maroon settlement in Tampa Bay, Florida that was destroyed by a covert excursion of pro-white Creeks under the orders of Andrew Jackson.
This article is an extract from Wasserman's A People's History of Florida.
Many blacks escaped from the Suwannee settlement to the Tampa Bay region and joined the small maroon community that existed on the Manatee River. Throughout the recent chapters, Tampa Bay has constantly been alluded to as a safe-haven for black fugitives. Some of the refugees had arrived there after the Revolutionary War. Others retreated after the Patriots had decimated the Alachua communities. In January 1813, shortly before the Patriots made the final assault on the Alachua settlements, Benjamin Hawkins reported that the Seminoles and blacks were fleeing to South Florida in anticipation of the attack:
“I received from an Indian of note…the following information…Paine is dead of his wounds…the warring Indians have quit this settlement, and gone down to Tellaugue Chapcopopeau, a creek which enters the ocean south of Moscheto river, at a place called the Fishery. Such of their stock as they could command have been driven in that direction, and the negroes were going the same way. The lands beyond the creek towards Florida point, were, for a considerable distance, open savannas, with ponds; and, still beyond the land, stony, to the point." 20
Hawkins was definitely describing Southwest Florida, particularly the area between Tampa Bay and present-day Ft. Myers. The “Fishery” he alluded to was the Spanish fishery located on Charlotte Harbor. Hawkins later reported: “The negroes now separated and at a distance from the Indians on the Hammocks or the Hammoc not far from Tampa bay,” after they fled the Patriots invasion. In 1815, after Nichols left the “Negro Fort,” some of the blacks no longer felt secure without the British presence. Woodbine left the “Negro Fort” with about two hundred blacks to establish a plantation south of Tampa Bay. Still more had fled after the U.S. military had destroyed their settlements around the “Negro Fort.” According to historians William S. Coker and Thomas D. Watson, “other slaves joined the blacks on the Suwannee and some fled as far south as Tampa,” after the fort’s obliteration. 21 There they built an autonomous community and cultivated the fields along the Manatee River, present day Bradenton. This community would be termed “Angola,” the last remaining stronghold for the free blacks in Florida. The term “Angola” was ascribed because many of the blacks were West African slaves who had escaped from the Carolinas. They applied an assortment of African agricultural techniques to cultivate vast acres of plantation land. A large number of Seminoles were also in the vicinity. In 1821, a South Florida Expeditionary mapped out the region. The map chart was entitled: “A draft of Sarrazota, or Runaway Negro Plantations.” 22
Various black, Seminole, Red Stick Creek, and Spanish settlements were spread out from Tampa Bay all the way down to present-day Ft. Myers. The Angola community, approximately located at present-day Sarasota, was a refuge for blacks escaping the onslaught of white slave raiders. Its population varied between 750 and 900 residents. Considering the accounts of the Creek raid on Angola, it appears that the combined number of refugees, black and Seminole, with those taken in the raid, amount to six or seven hundred at the time of its destruction. A settlement of Red Stick Creeks resided forty miles away on the Peace River. Woodbine chose to relocate the blacks from the “Negro Fort” to Tampa Bay because of its extremely fertile lands and optimal trading location. According to one report: “This is an extensive bay, and capable of admitting ships of any size, contiguous to which are the finest lands in East Florida, which Woodbine pretends belong to him by virtue of a grant from the Indians.” 23 In 1817, there were reports that Woodbine was amassing a large band of Seminole and black allies in Tampa Bay for the purpose of invading and seizing St. Augustine. This was essentially to prevent the United States from taking acquisition of the territory rather than any outright hostility against Spanish rule. The rumors never materialized though. 24 Arbuthnot and Ambrister, the two British officials executed under Jackson’s orders, supported the blacks at Angola with weapons and trade. Robert Ambrister was commissioned to ensure that the blacks that Woodbine left at Angola were secure. A witness at his trial reported: “I frequently heard him say he came to attend to Mr. Woodbine’s business at the bay of Tamper.” The same with Arbuthnot: “The prisoner was sent by Woodbine to Tampa, to see about those negroes he had left there.” 25 In 1837, John Lee Williams made observations of ruins left behind from the Angola community as he extensively explored the Manatee River: “The point between these two rivers is called Negro Point. The famous Arbuthnot and Ambrister had at one time a plantation here cultivated by two hundred negroes. The ruins of their cabins, and domestic utensils are still seen on the old fields.” 26
The Manatee River was not only an extremely fertile, easily defensible location but an optimal site for communication with the British Empire and Spanish Empire in Cuba. After the battle of Suwannee, blacks from Seminole territory found a refuge there and prepared for U.S. reprisal. Captain James Gadsden, aide to Jackson in his Florida campaign, reported back to Jackson about the importance of establishing Tampa Bay as a maritime depot: “It is the last rallying spot of the disaffected negroes and Indians and the only favorable point from whence a communication can be had with Spanish and European emissaries. Nichols it is reported has an establishment in that neighborhood and the negroes and Indians driven from Micosukey and Suwaney towns have directed their march to that quarter.” 27 In some retrospect, Angola could have been a potential last stand for the Seminoles and blacks. They began arming themselves through their Spanish and British trading partners. With reports of Spanish provision of armaments, General Gaines offered to “do what can be done with the limited means under my control, and strike at any force that may present itself.” 28 According to Gaines, the Spanish “furnished hostile Indians, at the bay of Tampa, with ten horseloads of ammunition, recommending to them united and vigorous operations against us.” 29 Jackson focused on establishing and increasing the military force in Tampa with five hundred regulars. This would be to “insure tranquility in the south.” The detachment was intended to destroy “Woodbine’s negro establishment.” 30 Col. Robert Butler reported that the blacks were fortifying themselves at Tampa Bay in anticipation of a U.S. attack. 31 Jackson had remained consistent in his goal to obliterate independent black settlements throughout the peninsula. Secretary of War Calhoun failed to authorize Jackson the use of direct military force. He knew that any further incursions into Florida would possibly put a damper on negotiations with Spain for its acquisition. Angola had secured itself for the time-being. This was until Jackson was granted governorship of the Florida territory early in 1821. On April 2, 1821, Andrew Jackson requested instruction from Secretary of State John Quincy Adams on the removal of the Red Stick and black settlements in the Tampa Bay region. 32 Before he received an answer, Jackson would take action into his own hands.
Geopolitical intrigue in Florida intended to kill two birds with one stone: defeating insubordinate natives and preventing fugitive slaves from finding safe-haven. In late April 1821, William McIntosh, Jackson-appointed brigadier general, ordered a war party of Coweta Creeks into Florida to eliminate the Red Stick Creek settlements and enslave the blacks at Angola. A force of two hundred Coweta Creeks was commissioned under the command of William Weatherford and Charles Miller, pro-white Creek chiefs who were closely associated with McIntosh. An “eye-witness,” possibly a participant in the incursion, described the purpose of the raid in the columns of the Charleston Gazette:
“Towards the end of the month of April last, some men of influence and fortune, residing somewhere in the western country, thought of making a speculation in order to obtain Slaves for a trifle. They hired Charles Miller, William Weatherford [and others], and under these chiefs, were engaged about two hundred Cowetas Indians. They were ordered to proceed along the western coast of East Florida, southerly, and there take, in the name of the United States, and make prisoners of all the men of colour, including women and children, they would be able to find, and bring them all, well secured, to a certain place, which has been kept a secret.” 33
Indian Agent John Crowell wrote about the raid in a letter to Secretary of War John Calhoun:
“Some short time previous to my coming into this agency, the chiefs, had organized a Regt. of Indian Warriors, and sent them into Florida in pursuit of negroes that had escaped from their owners, in the Creek nation as well as such as had run off from their owners in the States; this detachment has recently returned, bringing with them, to this place fifty nine negroes, besides about twenty delivered to their respective owners on their march up.” 34
The raiders wrecked havoc throughout Florida until they launched a surprise attack on Angola and devastated the settlement. The Creek raiders captured over three hundred inhabitants, plundered their plantations, and set fire to all of their homes. Afterwards, the war party made its way south and plundered the Spanish fisheries on the Caloosahatchee River. Most of the three hundred prisoners taken in the raid disappeared as the Creek party made their way back to the United States. The “eye-witness” in the Charleston Gazette detailed the raid of Angola:
“They arrived at Sazazota, surprised and captured about 300 of them, plundered their plantations, set on fire all their houses, and then proceeding southerly captured several others; and on the 17th day of June, arrived at the Spanish Ranches, in Pointerrass Key, in Carlos Bay, where not finding as many Negroes as they expected, they plundered the Spanish fishermen of more than 2000 dollars worth of property, besides committing the greatest excess. With their plunder and prisoners, they returned to the place appointed for the deposit of both.” 35
The aftermath of the Coweta Creek raid was chaotic for the free blacks and Red Stick Creeks in the Florida territory. Settlements were scattered, refugees fled into different areas, and others, having grown tired of the constant terror, escaped the country. While some remained behind under the protection of Spanish gunboats, about three hundred refugees left on canoes to the Florida Keys and escaped to the Bahamas through British wrecking vessels. The “eye-witness” detailed the aftermath of the assault:
“The terror thus spread along the Western Coast of East Florida, broke all the establishments of both blacks and Indians, who fled in great consternation. The blacks principally, thought they could not save their lives but by abandoning the country; therefore, they, by small parties and in their Indian canoes, doubled Cape Sable and arrived at Key Taviniere, which is the general place of rendezvous for all the English wreckers [those who profited from recovery of shipwreck property], from Nassau, Providence; an agreement was soon entered into between them, and about 250 of these negroes were by the wreckers carried to Nassau and clandestinely landed.” 36
A Florida observer wrote that some the blacks from the “Negro Fort”, along with runaway slaves from Florida and other Southern states, “formed considerable settlements on the waters of Tampa Bay. When the Indians went in pursuit of these negroes, such as escaped made their way down to cape Florida and the reef, about which they collected within a year and a half upwards of three hundred; vast numbers of them have been at different times since carried off by the Bahama wreckers to Nassau.” 37 After the assault, some blacks armed themselves and remained isolated in the southwest region of the state under the protection of Spanish traders. Some Florida residents petitioned the President to “retain their property” that escaped to an island or cluster of islands off the Florida west coast and were “protected by an armed banditti.” 38 In July, a small party of destitute Seminoles made their way to St. Augustine, informing Capt. John R. Bell that “very recently a party of Indians (Cawetus) said to be headed by McIntosh came into their neighborhood and had taken off a considerable number of negroes and some Indians, that the commander of party had sent them information that in a short time he should return and drive all the Indians off.” 39 Bell denied that the party was authorized by Jackson or any higher authorities, but failed to note that William McIntosh was Jackson’s close ally.
A mass exodus of blacks took place from the Keys to the Bahamas. James Forbes reported that runaway blacks were amassed at Cape Florida: “At this key, which presents a mass of mangroves, there were lately about sixty Indians, and as many runaway negroes, in search of sustenance, and twenty-seven sail of Bahaman wreckers.” 40 Florida officials were not merely satisfied with the blacks taken during the Coweta raid. In 1823, Governor Duval wrote to Calhoun in apprehension of fugitive blacks escaping to the Bahamas: “I have been informed by Gentlemen upon whom I can rely, that there are about ninety negros, fugitives from this Province and the neighboring States, on St. Andrews Island one of the Bahamas, & about thirty more on the Great Bahamas & the neighboring Islands, those Negros went from Tampa Bay, & Charlotte Harbour, in boats to the Florida Keys from whence they were taken to the Bahamas by the Providence Wreckers. The slaves might be obtained, if Com. Porter be ordered to demand them from the authorities at those Islands.” 41 James Forbes also wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, claiming that the Seminoles “apprehend some disturbance from the Cowetas. These last are said to have been at Tampa about 200 strong and taken from thence about 120 Negroes after destroying four Spanish settlements there.” 42
Calhoun shouldered the blame of the illegal incursion onto “rogue” Creek chiefs, shifting any responsibility from Andrew Jackson. He purposely avoided mentioning Jackson as the possible culprit for organizing it, his avid determination to destroy “Woodbine’s negro establishment,” or his close association with the Creek leaders who led the incursion. Jackson’s involvement was behind the scenes and there was nothing to directly implicate him. Calhoun reprimanded the Creeks in a letter to Indian Agent John Crowell:
“The expedition to Florida was entirely unknown to this Department. I have to express my concern at, and most decided approbation of, the conduct of the chiefs; that they should seize upon the very moment when that country was about to pass from the possession of Spain to that of the United States, and when everything was in confusion, to use the superior force of the Creek nation over the weakness of the Seminoles, to impose on and plunder them.” 43
Calhoun was actually more interested in the fate of the blacks taken in the raid, the most controversial aspect for Southern slaveholders. He cared nothing for the free blacks who had been seized from their lands and sold as slaves. If hundreds of fugitive slaves were indeed captured in this raid, where did they go? Crowell’s letter to Calhoun, attempting to justify the raid, indicated that this is where the Secretary of War’s main concern lied:
“Special orders were given to Col. Miller not to interrupt the person or the property of any Indian or white man & he declares that he did not take from the possession of either red or white person a single negro except one from a vessel belonging to the celebrated Nichols, lying at anchor in Tampy Bay. The negroes he took, were found and acknowledged by the inhabitants of the country to be runaways.” 44
It was presumed that most of the blacks seized in the raid were sold by the Creek mercenaries to Florida planters as they made their way back to the United States. Crowell gave a list of 59 slaves that had made it to the United States, titled a “Description of the Negroes brought into the Creek nation by a detachment of Indian Warriors under the command of Col. Wm. Miller a half breed Indian.” In turn, Calhoun gave the list to Capt. John R. Bell of St. Augustine in hopes that some Florida slaveholders could retrieve their property: “I furnished you with a list of negroes taken from the Seminole Indians by a party of Creeks; by which it would seem that many of them belong to the Inhabitants of Florida.” 45 Slaveholders attempted to retrieve the blacks taken in the raid and the black refugees who escaped to the Bahamas. The “eye-witness” in the Charleston Gazette rhetorically concluded his editorial column on the Creek incursion:
“Now all these Negroes, as well as those captured by the Indians, and those gone to Nassau, are runaway Slaves, from the Planters on St. John’s River, in Florida, Georgia, Carolina, and a few from Alabama. Cannot those Planters who have had their Negroes missing recover them by means of these chiefs I have named, and who are so well known by the parts they have been playing for some time past in the late Indian wars, and discover who are those speculative gentlemen who now hold their Negroes, and if they were lawfully their slaves? Could not all those Negroes unlawfully introduced into Nassau be also recovered by an application to the English governor, backed by a formal demand from the Government of the United States?” 46
When it came to catching the refugee blacks, Governor Duval’s hands were tied. Duval instructed Horatio S. Dexter to bring in the runaway slaves he found in the vicinity of Tampa Bay. Duval could not pursue the black refugees from Angola until he received permission from Bahaman authorities nor call out a militia against the blacks in Florida territory until given Presidential authority. Duval received information that a “considerable number of slaves” had established themselves at Pine Island on the mouth of the Charlotte River after fleeing from Tampa. They were “well armed with Spanish Muskets” and “refuse to permit any American to visit the Island.” They maintained their allegiance to the Spanish traders, cutting timber and fishing for the Havana market. In turn, the Spaniards gave them protection with several small gunboats armed with one to three guns each. Duval could not comply with the wishes of slaveholders until he received Presidential authority to which he would commission sixty mounted militiamen under the command of Col. Humphreys to apprehend the blacks. 47 The blacks and Seminoles of Middle Florida also felt the effects of the Creek incursion. The black and Red Stick Creek settlements in Middle Florida scattered into even more remote locations. In 1822, Dr. William Simmons travelled to a black settlement in the Big Swamp “accompanied by an Indian Negro, as a guide.” In his route, he witnessed “the sites of Indian towns, which had been recently broken up, and the crops left standing on the ground. These were chiefly settlements of 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.” 48
Simmons also found that his black Seminole hosts had recently fled from their settlements in apprehension of Coweta slave raiders, impoverished and unable to provide him with any form of hospitality: “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.” 49 U.S. imperialism in Florida meant the decentralization of black and native settlements. Ironically this would make things very difficult two years later when they attempted to concentrate them within a tight reservation. Native and black people who had once flourished on the Alachua savannah for almost a century were broken up by the Patriots invaders. Native and black people who had once cultivated the fertile banks of the Appalachicola River were broken up by a U.S. incursion that slaughtered hundreds at the “Negro Fort.” Native and black people who cultivated fields along the Suwannee River were broken up by Andrew Jackson’s incursion two years later. Native and black people who lived off of the fertile lands and abundant hunting grounds in the vicinity of Tampa Bay were broken up by a pro-white Creek incursion detached by Jackson. In four separate incursions over the span of a decade, the U.S. made it clear that its Florida policy was to subjugate its free black residents in order to make it safe for slavery to flourish.
20. ASPIA 1: 838; Hayes, Louis F. Letters of Benjamin Hawkins, 1797-1815. Atlanta: Georgia Department of Archives and History, 1939. 198-200.
21. Coker, William S. and Watson, Thomas D. Indian Traders of the Southeastern Spanish Borderlands: Panton, Leslie & Company and John Forbes & Company, 1783-1847. Pensacola: University of West Florida Press, 1986. 309.
22. For a complete illustration of the Angola community see Brown, Canter, Jr. “Sarrazota, or runaway Negro plantations”: Tampa Bay’s First Black Community.” Tampa Bay History 12 (Fall-Winter): 5-19.
23. ASPFA 4: 603.
25. Ibid. 604; ASPMA 1: 731.
26. Williams, Territory of Florida, 299-300.
27. “The Defenses of the Floridas, Report of Capt. James Gadsden to Gen. Jackson, 1818.” Florida Historical Quarterly. April 1937. 249.
28. ASPMA 1: 753.
30. Ibid. 752-753.
31. Carter, Territorial Papers, XXII, 167.
32. ASPFA 4: 755.
33. “Advice to Southern Planters” in Charleston City Gazette, c. November 1821, reprinted in Philadelphia National Gazette and Literary Register, December 3, 1821, cited in Brown, “Sarrazota, or Runaway Negro Plantations.”
34. John Crowell to John C. Calhoun, January 22, 1822, in T. J. Peddy, “Creek Letters 1820-1824.” (typescript in Georgia Department of Archives and History, Atlanta), 22.2.22.C.C.
35. Brown, “Sarrazota, or Runaway Negro Plantations,” 12-15.
36. “Advice to Southern Planters” in Charleston City Gazette, c. November 1821.
37. Vignoles, Charles B. Observations upon the Floridas. New York: E. Bliss & E. White, 1823: 135-136.
38. Carter, Territorial Papers, XXII, 763.
39. Ibid. 126.
40. Forbes, Sketches, historical and topographical, of the Floridas, 105.
41. Carter, Territorial Papers, XXII, 745.
42. Ibid. 119.
43. “J.C. Calhoun to Col. John Crowell, Indian Agent.” Creek Letters 1820-1824. Georgia Dept. of Archives & History, Atlanta. September 29, 1821.
44. “John Crowell to J.C. Calhoun,” Creek Letters 1820-1824, January 22, 1822.
45. Carter, Territorial Papers, XXII, 221.
46. “Advice to Southern Planters” in Charleston City Gazette, c. November 1821.
47. Carter, Territorial Papers, XXII, 681, 744.
48. Simmons, Notice of East Florida, 41-42.