In his book, Heaven’s Soldiers, Dr. Frank Marotti mentions a letter sent from my uncle Fredrick A. Clarke to my uncle James W. Clarke. It’s sent from Cowlitz Landing in Washington to Florida in April of 1854. The state of Washington being another place my family had a hand in creating. The letter itself is not mine, nor have any of my family currently residing in Palatka or Putnam County ever seen it. But Dr. Marotti was kind enough to email me a scanned copy of the letter.
This letter became vital to our finally establishing the identity of the father of my grandmother Susan. Because of some garbled records, we (meaning my family and Dr. Marotti) were having trouble establishing whether Susan was the daughter of James or John Clarke. Some of the Baptismal evidence said it was James, but there was other information that suggested it may have been John. None of this confusion was helped by the fact that we also could not specifically place Susan’s actual birth year. Once we were finally able to do that, the only choice was that James Clarke was the father of Susan Clarke…John would have been 11 when she was born.
The contents of the letter shed light on something that was quickly becoming an issue for many of Florida’s early, Spanish Era, settlers. I’ve mentioned before that Fredrick would have been considered a “Free Negro” since his father and grandmother had both been born slaves. Florida’s new Territorial government, and their laws, are a big part of the reason Fredrick, “Fred”, leaves the eastern side of the country for the west…and it looks very much like he has no intention of returning.
…I have sent you a power of attorney to sell or do with as you like all that I have at home and you can have all that I have there. But I want you to take my boy with you when you leave [always] let me know where you are and [let me know if you should need anything] and I will do all I can to help you. George I think will go home next summer and get Susan and her children and he wishes to go to the West Indies so he [says]. If you should go before he gets back he wishes you to write him and tell him all about the country. It’s too cold, so he [says] and too much rain…
The mention of the West Indies is important. During this time there were a number of mixed race families leaving the area in fear for their lives and livelihoods. Several prominent families had already left Florida for Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic years earlier.
He goes on to ask for a picture of his son and perhaps a lock of hair from his son, sister, and mother.
He then speaks of a slave named Peter.
He asks his brother, James Washington “Wash”, to either keep him or let him purchase his freedom, or just give him his freedom outright. But he strongly states that Peter’s freedom is dependent on his leaving the United States entirely. Fred tells Wash that unless Peter agrees to “Leave the country and stay away from it” he should not be granted his freedom. It seems that this is a responsibility that weighs heavily on his mind because he adds: “If you leave him there he will always be a slave”.
Fred seems to imply, without saying, that Peter’s freedom is contingent on his agreeing to leave the US and never look back. He also seems to understand that the increasingly more and more invasive and restrictive laws concerning both free and enslaved blacks. Fred would have been well acquainted with these new restrictions as he is legally considered a “Free Negro” and subject to those same laws and restrictions himself.
The US had coveted Florida for a long time. And now that they had her, Florida, as usual, was shaping up to be one really weird place.
Prior to US annexation, Spain had granted freedom through religious asylum to slaves who escaped to the territory. Spain’s policies concerning the rights of slaves (yes, in Spanish culture slaves had…and often exerted…a wide array of rights and privileges) confused the new government. In addition to some comparatively generous manumission laws, slaves could seek legal redress for grievances, own certain assets, and were expected to serve as militia.
There’s much more to it, but, generally speaking, Floridians saw slavery as a temporary situation. There were multiple ways to seek your freedom from bondage. My grandmother, Flora, is manumitted by the father of her children who then marries her. Others were gifted their freedom for exemplary military service. The manumission policies in place gave slaves, the ones with access to the cities and the officials therein at least, greater opportunity to purchase their freedom…and even negotiate their own price. If your connections to the white upper classes was strong enough, you might be able to secure the freedom of an infant by having them made the godchild of a wealthy white citizen. Still more found themselves manumitted upon their owner’s death. And if none of these options appealed, they could always simply slip into the swamps and join one of the Native tribes.
Even more confusing to the Americans was the “task system” employed by many of Florida’s plantation owners. Most slaves under this arrangement worked from sunup to around two in the afternoon…shorter than our current workday. (Further discussion on this in a future post)
Some of the wealthiest slave holding planters in Spanish Florida had already experienced slave revolt firsthand in Haiti. The absolutely astounding personality that was Jorge Biassou made his home in Florida and St. Augustine, accompanied by an extensive entourage, as did Zephaniah Kingsley. Not long after Florida is annexed, these were joined by other Haitian refugees. Specifically, these were members of my own family, the Rossignol family; a large and extended French family that was nearly wiped out during the revolt. Since these individuals and families had already experienced the worst side of what could happen if you mistreated or misused your slaves, they held a view of slavery not common or popular in the United States.
Speaking on slavery, Zephaniah Kingsley said “The idea of slavery, when associated with cruelty and injustice, is revolting to every philanthropic mind…”
Putting it bluntly, since slaves would eventually come to outnumber free whites, it was in their best interest to keep things civil between everyone. The more generous manumission policies and practices, coupled with the slightly less soul crushing “task system” that was employed by many Florida plantation owners, made the relationships between the races more amicable than they were farther north. The addition of a middle social tier in the form of successful former slaves and other free people of color also helped smooth relations a bit. This is not to say that there weren’t the same problems that plagued those to the north of Florida; only that they were fewer here than there.
The new United States government had no idea how to handle the more inclusive three caste Spanish system. Especially one where free blacks played an integral role in the system and were essentially treated just like white folks in a lot of cases. Their world was one of binary laws and attitudes and they intended to make sure Florida was not going to be any different.
But, as I said before, Florida was dead-set on being weird.
Susan, my grandmother who was mentioned in the above letter, was fairly well insulated from the socio-political climate at this time. Susan’s grandfather had been a Surveyor General of Florida, and Lt. Governor during the end of the Spanish era. Clarke spent the last years of his life writing letters and testifying in court as to the land and property holdings of individuals and families who had been in Florida during the Patriot War (Seminole Wars). For various reasons, a portion of these claims were not settled until a generation or more later. When they were settled, it was usually due to the testimony of Clarke and other prominent Spanish era settlers; including many with racially diverse families.
Those families, including descendants of the Sanchez, Kingsley, and Clarke families, as well as others, created a racially diverse extended community along both the east and west banks of the St. John’s River. Essentially, it stretched from one Kingsley plantation, located just south of Jacksonville, to another Kingsley property south of Palatka in the Dunns Creek area; and possibly as far as New Smyrna. Interspersed among these were several prominent white planter families as well. Some of these families will later be remembered as being notoriously cruel to their slaves. But for now they were outnumbered (and out wealth-ed in some cases) by their racially diverse neighbors.
It seems that these were originally symbiotic relationships in that wealthy whites were still indebted to these families in many ways. Although the new Florida legislature had passed a law requiring any manumitted slaves to leave Florida within 30 days of achieving freedom, this was not as harshly enforced in these areas as it would be in coming years. New fines and other financial burdens were added to the manumission process during this time that made gaining freedom for an entire family a much longer process than it had been. Throughout this area of Florida officials often looked the other way as newly freed slaves stayed in the state while working to purchase other family members, or simply chose to stay near to those they had known their whole lives.
This racially diverse section of the St. Johns was further insulated against the social climate by the presence of individuals such as Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley; who returned to Florida, from a prosperous “West Indies” settlement, following the death of her husband and her son. Anna, herself a former slave of her husband, Zephaniah, was able to retain her family’s holdings and properties through the terms of the Adams-Onis treaty…with additional help from initially sympathetic individuals who were to soon create Putnam County…where Susan made her home.
The heinous Dred Scott decision was only a little over a year away; but it had to be looming large in the social consciousness of the time. Laws would continue to be passed that would further restrict the free black population. But, with the help of sympathetic regional officials, this area of the St. Johns roughly between Jacksonville and Ocala would continue to be a kind of safe haven to many of the original, racially diverse, Spanish settlers and their descendants. This is likely why Susan chose to remain instead of joining the rest of her family in their exodus from Florida.
The aforementioned letter perhaps also sheds light on an aspect of slavery that has only been touched upon previously. That perhaps some slave owners feared for the continued safety of their slaves in this newly acquired state. Fred’s overall tone concerning the slave Peter seems to be one of fear and concern. Especially considering his rather strong suggestion that, were Peter to gain freedom while still in the United States, he would still be continuously oppressed and discriminated against.
This feeling is later to be echoed by Fred and Susan’s cousin, Eliza Whitwell, when she writes to Dr. Peck lamenting the new, and more oppressive, Florida government with the statement that “Spain enslaved none but the slaves”. Implying that being manumitted or emancipated under this new government was no where near actually being free. In fact, she states that it was the “bad laws” of the US government that drove her family away to begin with. Eliza, being the eldest child of Felicia Garvin, was herself a free black woman who had left the state once the new government had taken hold. She eventually returns to help in the protracted struggle to settle her grandfather’s affairs…some of which are not completely settled for several generations to come.
Eliza’s own mother had been born a slave, but was manumitted by her father upon her birth. Felicia was then raised in one of the most wealthy families in the area. However, once the flags change (by the hand of Felicia’s father, George J. F. Clarke) the Clarkes and a slew of other racially diverse families are at the mercy of the new United States government.
And that government does not like free roaming blacks.
While I have no idea what happened to the slave named Peter (yet), I hope he left and enjoyed a long, prosperous, and happy life in lands far from US oppression and cruelty.
Especially considering how we now, 160 years later, still pretty much treat people of color very much the same as we always had before.