Hurricane Michael unearths hidden history at Fort Gadsden


The full title of this article is “Hurricane Michael unearths hidden history at Fort Gadsden “The Negro Fort,” where 270 escaped slaves died.” Following the hurricane, which uprooted numerous trees in Florida last October, scientists found an archaeological treasure: ammunition and artifacts from Fort Gadsden, a site occupied by one of the largest communities of freed slaves in the early 1800s.

Two hundred years ago, a post overlooking the Apalachicola River housed what historians say was the largest community of freed slaves in North America at the time. Hurricane Michael has given archaeologists an unprecedented opportunity to study its story, a significant tale of black resistance that ended in bloodshed. The site, also known as Fort Gadsden, is about 70 miles southwest of Tallahassee in the Apalachicola National Forest near the hamlet of Sumatra.

British lived at Prospect Bluff with allied escaped slaves, called Maroons, who joined the British military in exchange for freedom, along with Seminole, Creek, Miccosukee and Choctaw tribe members.

The Negro Fort, which was built on the site by the British during the War of 1812, became a haven for escaped slaves. Inside, 300 barrels of gunpowder were stored, and defended by both women and men.

Wary of the group of armed former slaves in Spanish Florida living so close to the United States border, U.S. soldiers began to attack. On July 27, 1816, U.S. forces led by Colonel Duncan Clinch ventured down the river and fired a single shot at the fort’s magazine. It exploded, killing 270 escaped slaves and tribes people who were inside. Those who survived were forced back into slavery.

Managed by the U.S. Forest Service, which purchased it in the 1940s, the site has been preserved as a National Historic Landmark and park. Because of that, it was never excavated for artifacts, except in 1963 by Florida State University, mainly to identify structural remains.

“It’s a really intriguing story. There’s so much new ground there that historians of the past never really got into,” said Dale Cox, a Jackson County-based historian. In an ironic way, Hurricane Michael has changed that — an isolated upside of the devastating storm.

The October Category 5 hurricane caused extensive damage to the site, toppling about 100 trees. Most of the debris has been cleared, but under the remaining massive roots, archaeologists began this month to dig and sift through the soil, uncovering small artifacts and documenting archaeological features revealed by the upturned trees.

[. . .] It’s been a slow process of sifting through Census records, which are private for 72 years before release, international archives of Great Britain as well as Spanish archives in Cuba. But Cox is on a quest to name as many as possible.

The people who lived in the Maroon community were very skilled, he said. Many were masons, woodworkers, farmers. They tended the surrounding melon and squash fields, but little is known precisely about their day-to-day lives. [. . .]

Matthew Shack, a Panama City historian, praised the archaeological effort.

Shack, 76, is a descendant of Maroons. His great great grandfather escaped a North Carolina plantation, married a part-Native American woman and settled in Marianna. He remembers his grandmother’s stories about the Prospect Bluff community.

“I remember her telling us about the ‘Colored Fort’ and all the colored folk who died,” he said. “A lot of black history wasn’t taught. A lot of our history is lost, and some of it we won’t get back. I’m glad that there’s a renewed interest in capturing the history that I thought was lost.” [. . .]

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