Palatka Florida’s Missing History is My Missing History

I introduced you to my first, traceable, family members in Florida, Thomas and Honoria Clarke. Today, I want to tell you about where I’m from.

I come from this little map dot between St. Augustine and Gainesville called Palatka. Here is where you can find the most common history of my home town. It’s commonly accepted that Palatka was nothing more than a small Native American settlement up until about 1821 when it was settled by some white folks. Condensed down, the typical timeline runs along the lines of:

Timucuas until about the 1750’s, William Bartram in 1774, maybe mention Denys Rolles, mention it was destroyed by Seminoles in 1836…the rest extols the virtues of all the white people who moved to Florida during the 1830′-60’s and got stuff named after them. Thus, in Putnam County, we have the Bronson Mulholland House. We have Reid Street. We have Hart’s Point.

You want to know who you never find mentioned though? Joshua Grey.

There’s no “Grey Street” in Palatka. No “Grey House”. Not even a “Grey Point”. Nothing at all to let people know that the first person to come and try to really settle my home town was an unmarried half-black man. Joshua Grey worked for the same trading company as my grandfather, George J. F. Clarke…around the same time too. Grey held, worked, and traded with Indians in the area, from about 1784-1804.

Eventually, since Grey holds no official title to the area, it comes into the possession of one of the old Spanish families when the title is conveyed to the mayor of St. Augustine, Bernardo Segui. Segui is a Spaniard so he’s not worth historical mention. Segui will eventually sell the property to an Irish immigrant named George Fleming. But Fleming is left in the dust of history as well. Not only is Fleming an immigrant from the same time as my family; he will eventually marry into the Fatio family. Unfortunately for Fleming, and historical accuracy, Fatio is also the name of a bi-racial upstart that gives the new territorial government some problems. So Fleming is bleached out as well.

The most official history of my home town, my home county, doesn’t start until an American white dude starts it. Literally! In 1849 the county is named for Benjamin Putnam…the guy who is also the first ever President of the Florida Historical Society…who comes to Florida during the Patriot War with the rest of the interloping assholes who would eventually take over the state.

Unfortunately, Putnam being able to weave the historic tapestry of my home town as he sees fit sets a precedent. Another author, from the same place, Billy Townsend, tried to write some of the history of our home town and ran into problem after problem in finding accurate information. In some cases the information just doesn’t exist. Even when it should. And, unlike my project, Billy was writing about a period that is very well documented; WWI through the 1930’s. But, as I said, information that everyone locally passes down as traditional oral history, does not actually exist. What does exist are huge blank spaces in time. So Palatka’s history is pieced together from scraps that Putnam, and those like him, allowed to come through.

Putnam and his contemporaries had a huge problem with Spanish Florida and her previous inhabitants…specifically with families like mine.

Florida came into the possession of the United States through a covert combination of guerrilla warfare, terrorist action, murder, and even strategic kidnappings. Starting around the beginning of the 1800’s, the US government sent in small armed militia groups, aided by Native American allies (who really didn’t have much of a choice in the matter) to come from Georgia to raid plantations along the Florida Georgia border. The raids caused millions in damage and became a real problem for my, now Lt. Governor, grandfather George J. F. Clarke.

Even before the Americas decided to push for independence from Britain, Florida was of strategic importance to a lot of countries. Eventually, and mainly due to Spain’s liberal practices concerning slavery, the newly established American government decided that they needed Florida.

What was pissing them off about Spain and slavery? Under Spanish law, slaves were actually recognized as being people. People whom it was perfectly acceptable to buy and sell, but people nonetheless. There was a significant portion of the population in Florida that had two recognized families; one white and one black. It was considered bad form to father children with one of your slaves and then not recognize them as your own. So much so that there is even one case where a man is forced, by social protocol and his own wife’s deathbed request, to eventually free his own illegitimate daughter from bondage. The wife felt that the embarrassment of her husband’s affair was less morally damaging than his keeping his own daughter in bondage.

Slavery was mostly viewed as a temporary situation. And extreme mistreatment of your slaves or servants was not taken lightly in Spanish Florida; a practice which carried over to British Florida as well. The aforementioned Denys Rolles discovered this; as did Andrew Turnbull.

In addition to having and publicly acknowledging, bi-racial children, these wealthy planters also took the education and financial futures of these offspring very seriously. Numerous wills made by wealthy and powerful Spanish and British Floridians show land and other assets being doled out to both white and racially diverse offspring…and their mothers.

In my own grandfather’s case, he was serving as an apprentice to John Leslie of the Panton, Leslie & Company trading company when he met my grandmother Flora. Flora was one of Leslie’s slaves. The two struck up a friendship that blossomed into a relationship that resulted in a pregnancy. This is when my Aunt Felicia is born.

Felicia is born a slave since the child’s condition follows the mother’s. But George purchases and manumits her shortly after she is born. George’s mother, Honoria, welcomes the child into her home without question or concern. A few years later George is able to purchase Flora herself, and, through her manumission contract, makes her his equal in all things, and then marries her. In the interim, a second child, my grandfather James Clarke, is born. Somehow, the original papers proving James’ manumission are lost. Which brings George to have to draw up new manumission papers for James in 1821. This fact will later prove to be a serious problem for James’ oldest daughter, my grandmother, Susan. Eventually, George’s brother, my uncle Charles P. Clarke, will marry another slave, Isabel Wiggins.

Grandfather James is another person who held property in the Palatka area very early on. It was a combination of his issue with manumission, the decisions being made concerning earlier Spanish and British land grants and sales, race based taxes, exclusion from military service, and a strict limiting of the businesses racially diverse individuals were allowed to pursue under the new government that drove James to completely abandon Florida for New Orleans by 1840. Considering that the Seminoles burned Palatka and some of the surrounding plantations to the ground in 1836, this is likely when he decided to leave.

On top of my grandfather’s kind, there were also several wealthy men and women of color who had worked their way out of slavery and into success. These families were all interconnected with each other, and with other wealthy whites, through Spanish Catholic traditions such as naming godparents at a child’s baptism. This practice interconnected community and familial responsibilities. In addition, slaves were able to do the same as well. Being able to have a wealthy white agree to be the godparent of a slave child offered the child just a little extra protection…well, as much protection as one who is born as property can have.

All of these practices confused the hell out of the interloping American invaders. Most puzzling of all had to be practices of individuals like Zephaniah Kingsley…whose extensive, racially diverse, family also owned, and made profitable, land in and around Palatka before the family was forced out of the state by the Americans as well.

Imagine how terrifying it must have been for the invading American militants to reach Amelia Island/Ferandina and find themselves up against ARMED people of color. For a society living with the constant threat of slave uprising (in which they mostly feared being treated exactly as they were already treating others) seeing my ancestor hand out guns to slaves who then…WILLINGLY…came to the aid of the city must have seriously freaked them right the hell out.

Under the Spanish government, men and women of color came quickly to aid their cities in times of need. They acted almost as if they had something of their own to protect! Which they did actually. On top of slave holders allowing slaves to actually be considered people (albeit, second or third class people) they let them have their own stuff too. And, they gave slaves legal avenues to enable them to pursue their own destinies to some extent. In one case, a slave goes to the legal system to get his owner to let another person buy him. The man’s original owner was moving out of the state, and event which would have separated him from his wife and children who were owned by another planter. The courts actually sided with the slave and forced the owner to sell him to someone who was going to stay in Florida.

Author and Historian Dr. Paul Ortiz, in his book, Emancipation Betrayed, makes mention of how surprised all the white people were when, during Reconstruction, they discovered that their (previously assumed ignorant) now free people of color actually understood their rights and responsibilities….Spanish Florida was part of why.

Leading up to the American Civil War, the American South was being crushed between the ideals and goals of the Northern Abolitionist movement, and the ideals and practices of Spanish Florida.

All of this brings us back to the history missing from my home town and county.

The early Territorial government tried to bring some of the more powerful white patriarchs, like my grandfather and Zephaniah Kingsley, on board. However, it was quickly established that this move was a joke. America had no intentions of allowing all of these free roaming blacks and racially diverse individuals to simply wander around unchecked.

The Negro Fort is one of the most tragic examples of America’s zeal to destroy or otherwise oppress Florida’s free people of color. Hundreds of free people of color, as well as some indigenous people, sought refuge from the encroaching American military forces at a fort on the Apalachicola River. Although the fort itself was a military outpost, the individuals who were in the fort at the time when the attack came were mostly civilians seeking shelter. A lucky shot from the Americans hits the powder magazine and completely destroys the fort and most of her inhabitants. This would set a precedent of terror against people of color that still reigns in Florida.

Racially biased tax codes would help push out a large portion of the racially diverse population. Restrictions on what color you had to be to buy a gun would reduce the population even further. But it is the law that requires all free people of color to have a white male guardian oversee all of their personal and business affairs that proves to be the final blow for most of my family.

Bringing everything here completely full circle, in 1838, my slave-born grandfather, James Clarke, along with his brothers John, George, Joseph and William, as well as family friend and business associate, Sampson Williams, appoint Robert Raymond Reid as their white guardian. Going over the link I just provided, Reid and Putnam seem to just ooze patriarchal sentiment … and collect pseudo-ownership of nearly every single free person of color associated with the areas in and around Palatka and Putnam county.

What better way to control the history than to control the people already making it?

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About pynomrah

I like stuff, and things.
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2 Responses to Palatka Florida’s Missing History is My Missing History

  1. Pingback: When “Race” Wasn’t About Skin Color | Somewhere in the Middle of Everything

  2. Pingback: A Letter Concerning a Slave, a Sister, and a New Republic | Somewhere in the Middle of Everything

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