It’s not really in the school history books; but the biggest reason Florida became a state is because of black people.
The way Florida’s history is taught in schools here is basically mentioning the Spanish, and Ponce DeLeon, then Florida becomes a state and that’s when we start learning about the Civil War.
But, here’s the thing, Florida was under Spanish control since about the 1500’s. St. Augustine, the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the US, was already a thriving settlement by the time the English arrived in Roanoke. The Spanish and French argued for a while over who was going to hold the Florida territory and the Spanish eventually win…after some seriously bloody encounters. Next year marks the 450th anniversary of St. Augustine’s founding. That’s a lot of history to just gloss over. Most troubling is that nearly every school history account leaves out a vital bit of information…Florida used to be a comparatively nice place for people of color.
Florida was a sanctuary for runway slaves.
Early in it’s exploration period, Spain used slaves from Africa; as well as working to brutally subjugate indigenous people for slave labor. But, after Bartolome de las Casas has a, very public and very vocal, change of heart regarding these actions, Spain decides it might be a good idea to change their policies a little. Especially after explorers arrived in Florida to find a a very anti-European subjugation indigenous population. Eventually, Spain started being a little nicer to the folks who were already here (But that’s a story for another time) which made Florida a kind of nice place to live for a while.
Florida was already seen as an escape route for runaway slaves and indentured servants since most of the indigenous tribes were willing to take in the refugees. Not to mention that the territory was so sparsely populated that no one would really notice you anyway. It was the sparseness of the population that motivated Spain to declare that Florida would be a sanctuary. Well, that and they realized it would tweak the economic noses of their biggest rivals for the New World, England and France. So, in 1693, in response to a refugee slave family’s 1687 request for sanctuary, the King of Spain issued a decree saying that any enslaved persons who reached Florida, swore fealty to the Spanish crown, and converted to Catholicism, would henceforth be considered free and would be granted all the rights and responsibilities of free persons. They did this for two main reasons. The first is that slaves leaving their plantations would impede production on English plantations. And the second is that it would increase the number of bodies available to protect their interest in the territory.
Spain was already fairly accepting of people of color…although, this should still be taken in a racially divided context. Africans and those descendant from Africans were part of the crews that explored the area centuries before. Spain also wasn’t as reliant on slave labor as other parts of the world either. Since their economy was less dependent on slave labor, they could afford to see slaves as humans instead of products. As well, Spain had a set of moral codes and laws that ensured that slaves were seen as people. Slaves were allowed to own property, speak in their own defense or the defense of others, and seek legal redress for grievances.
It was considered in the best interests of the colony that slaves and free people of color have at least a rudimentary education. Schools were built in the major cities, like St. Augustine and Fernandina, and classes attended by white and black students. Floridians bragged about how many of their slaves and free people of color could read and write…instead of punishing them for being able to do so. This was in stark contrast to the English colonies to the north where educating slaves, in any way, was considered illegal and carried harsh punishments.
As well, while English/American slaves were expected to work from sun up to sun down for the plantation owners, Spanish Florida’s slaves’ days were a little more relaxed. Astonishingly, most slaves in Florida had workdays that were even shorter than our modern workday. As opposed to the “gang system” of working a slave until they died, many Florida planters used a “task system“. Slaves were assigned a specific task to complete that day, usually something that was expected to be finished by around 2 in the afternoon, and then the rest of the day was theirs to do with as they wished.
This additional time was often spent in income building vocations. Manumission was relatively easy, and expected. Slaves rented themselves out for pay, sold the products of their personal gardens, made cloth or clothes for sale, made toys, baked goods, and all sorts of other things in order to purchase their freedom. Slaves were usually literate and some could speak several languages; these skills gained them further income since they could be employed as guides and interpreters. Many planters during the Second Spanish Period put slaves in charge of managing the plantation in their absence. This too is in contrast to the higher degrees of mistrust that northern plantation owners had for their slaves.
Slaves were also allowed to keep their own cultural and religious beliefs. Vodou and Vodun, and their variations, are a combination of Catholic, African, and Indigenous North American, beliefs. Their practice was fairly popular with slaves and free blacks and often supplemented Catholic practices.
Quick aside, slaves and free blacks were laughed at by elites for being ignorant and superstitious for practicing the above. Which is in contrast with how often they were selling fetishes and charms to those elites. One of these groups was definitely ignorantly superstitious and gullible…and I don’t think it was the slaves.
As well, mixed race relationships were not as stigmatized in Florida as they were elsewhere. Several men in Florida’s (white) upper social classes carried on open relationships with slaves or free women of color. The products of these relationships were often manumitted at birth and treated much the same as white offspring. Often these men and women rose to prominence in their various communities; and were essentially treated just like whites in the eyes of the law and the community.
However, it needs to be clear that, even though Florida had it’s good points, it shouldn’t really be considered good. There was still a lot of racism, a lot of brutality, and a lot of problems. It would be more accurate to describe Florida as “less bad” rather than calling it good. Slaves and free people of color were allowed more rights and more freedom under Spanish rule…but they were still mostly considered a lesser class in the eyes of the Spanish, and later English, Scottish, and Irish, elite. Still, the Spanish valued wealth and religion over skin color; which made for a fairly upwardly mobile society. You were more likely to be looked down upon for being Protestant or poor than for being black.
Which brings me to how Florida becomes a state because of black people.
In addition to all of this, slaves and free people of color were expected to defend the frontier against foreign intrusion. This would eventually lead to the formation of the first free black settlement in the United States, Fort Mose. Mose was just to the north of St. Augustine and acted as a barrier between Georgia and Florida’s then capitol.
It was Fort Mose that really bothered the chattel slavery crowd. The idea that there was an entire military base full of armed black people less than a day’s march from their southern border gave them serious nightmares. And maybe these nightmares were kind of understandable…not really, but kind of. Mose was like a lighthouse sending out a beacon of hope to the rest of the slave population. It’s mere existence was thought to insight riot and uprising (Stono Rebellion).
But there was still a lot happening before Mose. The first black militia unit was formed in 1683…before the sanctuary policy is official…and was created with the express purpose of guarding the frontier against English encroachment. In 1686, a Spanish raiding party, which included Natives and Africans, was one of many attacks on the Carolina Colony. The raiders made off with goods, money, and slaves. These raids, and subsequent counter-raids, would continue until Florida becomes a state. By 1708, in the English colonies, slaves outnumber free people and they start rising up against their treatment. These uprisings were often blamed on Florida. To be more exact, the top five slave revolts in the US/British Colonies can all be traced back to Florida, or at least to Spain’s slave policies. The purpose of largest rebellion, the Stono Uprising of 1739, for example, was to get to Florida where they would have been declared free.
Because of Spain’s less racist policies, they had quite a few black militiamen. Florida’s own smaller unit was backed by the constant threat of additional units from Cuba. The fear of the military prowess of these units had the colonies to the north shaking in fear for most of Florida’s early history. Even during it’s 20 year occupation by the British, Florida’s slightly more lenient racial policies were considered a threat to national security…also, that’s where some British Loyalists went during the American Revolution. When the colonies were still British, they coveted Florida. That didn’t change when they became Americans. A Spanish mulatto colony full of Tories caused some serious political temper tantrums.
All of these tensions finally came to a head around the time of the Haitian Revolution. For some pretty obvious reasons, the idea that slaves could rise up and secure control of the entire country–AND best Napoleon’s troops to do it!–brought the level of fear of slave uprising in the US to pant soiling levels. There was likely a collective apoplectic fit had when it was discovered that, by 1795, one of the heroes of that Revolution, Georges Biassou, had moved himself, and several friends and family members, to St. Augustine and was now in charge of the black militia.
After locating new trousers for themselves, this new country calling itself the United States of America, decided that it needed to get serious about “liberating” Florida.
Thanks, but no thanks US, we already have enough freedom
By this time, in the early 1800’s, Spain was holding onto Florida by a thread. For a long time, Florida had been making Floridians rich…at the expense of the crown. Florida was a cash poor society. Meaning that there were a lot of assets, and none of them were in money form. The US jumped on this vulnerability and started laying the groundwork for it’s meddling towards the end of the 1700’s. Through a complex combination of intrigue and bull poo, the US had gained some allies.
They managed to convince a few planters who were disenfranchised with the current government to join their cause by making outrageous promises…or playing to their racism. One man joined the cause because he had been brought into court for killing a slave he had rented from another man. The owner of the slave was just as upset at the loss of human life as he was over the loss in property. The slave had been skilled and much relied on by the owner. More than that, because of their view of some Spanish policies, they saw themselves less as violent oppressors and more as parents. This level of benevolent paternalism (even though it was not always reciprocated) sometimes meant that slave owners saw their slaves as extended members of their family. So, as far as officials and the slave’s owner were concerned; the offending party had killed a man. The killer fled to Georgia because he resented Spanish officials for considering a slave a person instead of property. This was the kind of men who were drawn to this cause.
Essentially, the plan was that the US would support militia units from Georgia in raiding plantations along the border and down the St. Johns River. First the militias would raid; then the planters would yell for help from the US. At which point the US would send her troops in to liberate the hell out of the place. (This sounds suspiciously familiar)
The only problem with their “liberation” strategy was that no one was buying. Trading, and some smuggling, had long linked Florida to the US. Florida’s economy was starting to pick back up since the US had decided it wasn’t going to trade with anyone anymore.
Smuggling along the Georgia border made Florida an ideal middleman. Florida merchants would buy Georgia’s stuff at rock bottom prices…then sell it to the highest bidder on the global market. They exported these goods, as well as the goods they were already producing. Since the land being used for these ventures were often attained through grants, and grants were given in hundreds and even thousands of acres at at time, Florida was blossoming into a low risk, high yield territory. Even without a heavy dependence on slave labor, Floridians were making money “hand over hand”, at least according to statements made during the Patriot War claims…Patriot War being what the 1812 invasion was called.
But, one of the biggest reasons why Floridians weren’t really interested in the US version of freedom was because of black people. By the time things get really going around 1812, there were quite a number of free blacks and slaves who enjoyed close ties with elites. More to the point, many of them were the children of these men.
The brothers, George J.F. and Charles W. Clarke, were wealthy white men whose mother had decided to remained in Florida after Spain regained the territory from England. Both men had families with women of color and feared for their security under US rule. Elites, such as Zephaniah Zingsley, Francisco Sanchez, and others also feared that their children’s freedom may be in danger under the US. Aside from this, Florida’s economy was dependent on all of the members of it’s diverse citizenry. In addition to Europeans, black and brown people from all over the world now called Florida home. If the US took Florida, nearly half of it’s people were at risk of becoming slaves.
After studying this era I have to be honest and admit that, were it not for the mixed race children of these elites, Florida might not have put up a fight. Without this, these men may have gone right along with the US’s planned takeover. Many of the men who did decide to go along with the Americans were men without ties to the slave and free black communities. Were these other men not trying to protect their own children, they could have easily justified subjugating those neighbors who were people of color. The fact that these men would rather fight the US than allow their children, and by extension their neighbors, risk becoming slaves speaks volumes…what it says is up to interpretation.
During the Patriot War of 1812, the US backed militias raided, burned, pillaged, and kidnapped indiscriminately. In addition, any people of color who were caught out by the militias were captured to be sold elsewhere. Eventually, US troops move towards St. Augustine and settle into a siege. Unfortunately for US troops, it was at about this time that their fraud was exposed to the world at large and government support for the invasion was suddenly pulled. However, the US forgot to tell the troops sitting outside St. Augustine what to do next; so they just sat there.
This is where Florida’s black militias start to come into play. The raids had driven most of East Florida’s population behind St. Augustine’s walls. The siege meant that no supplies could come in; and no requests for supplies or support could go out to Cuba either. The people of the oldest city were at risk of starvation if they could not get some provisions into the city.
This circles back to George Biassou. By 1812 Biassou was dead, but the men who had served under him in Florida’s free black militia were still strong. Juan Bautista Witten had served under Biassou and would find further glory during the US occupation of Florida.
Repeatedly, during the raids and the occupation, the US had warned Florida against putting the black militias (the one in St. Augustine and the unit that had come from Cuba as reinforcements) in the field. The US had informed the Florida governor that doing so would require swift retaliation.
This is what I mean when I say that Florida would not be a state without black people. To the Americans, the Florida was doing the worst thing imaginable…they were giving black people weapons to point at white people. The fact that many of these black militiamen were men who had come to Florida as escaped slaves made this even worse, in their minds. This was the main reason America wanted Florida under their control. It is also why the US was adamant that sending the black troops into the field would cause them to act against the colony with greater violence.
Being Florida, the reply was laughter…likely followed by a really loud cry of “watch this!”
Florida was already relying heavily on the intelligence being gathered by slaves who had escaped plantation raids and were taking it upon themselves to report troop movements to St. Augustine. It bears repeating that these individuals were not motivated by a sense of loyalty, loyalty likely had very little to do with it. What awaited them if Florida fell to the US were the horror stories they used to keep children in line. As much as being a slave sucked under Spain; it would all be tripled under the US. Meaning that many of these slave spies were working under the “better the devil you know” philosophy.
With this intelligence, Witten and his men were able to coordinate the capture of several herds of cattle that had been abandoned on the west side of the St. Johns River and bring them to St. Augustine. Essentially saving St. Augustine from starvation. The Americans became so enraged over this that they began slaughtering every cow they came across…which was kind of a stupid thing to do when your force is just as dependent on those cows as your enemy is.
In addition, the black militia risks everything to ensure that a dispatch could reach Cuba through the blockades. Further saving the city from destruction by getting their call for reinforcements out.
But most importantly, the black militia is responsible for breaking the siege. With the help of Seminole allies, Witten and his men used guerrilla tactics to damage the American supply lines enough to force them to retreat.
A quick aside here. Most of Witten’s men were either former revolutionaries, or refugee slaves from English/American plantations. These weren’t docile, antebellum, Uncle Toms throwing their lives away to protect “massa”. These were hardened warriors defending their homes and families from violent invaders. Florida had been good to them. They had been able to create their own wealth and prosperity here. And now American invaders were using scorched earth tactics to destroy generations worth of hard work. These were men who had already taken a firm hold of their own destiny and they weren’t about to let it go now. Witten himself had escaped, with his wife and children, from a Carolina plantation. Many of his men had done the same. They were not about to go back to the same thing they had already escaped. These were men who had trained under the terrifying Biassou; who was rumored to have slaughtered an entire hospital worth of women and children during the Haitian Revolt. Biassou was a man who fully understood the power of fear in warfare. During the revolt, his war tent was filled with the bones of dead men…and also live kittens. He was in command of roughly 40,000 troops during the revolt, so the 50 man St. Augustine militia was almost a vacation.
Biassou had taught Witten well. Some even claimed that, in other skirmishes, Witten had men castrated and left them to bleed out on the field as a warning to future invaders; and now the Americans were face to face with that legend.
When Witten’s men attacked they used the American fear of blacks and Seminoles to their advantage. During the engagement in 12 Mile Swamp, the one that breaks the siege, they use darkness, surprise, and warpaint, to panic the US Marines. The site they chose for their ambush had been the site of an earlier Seminole ambush that left horribly mutilated American bodies in its wake. Witten took full advantage of all of these things when he ambushed supply wagons coming through 12 Mile Swamp.
Witten’s ambush at 12 Mile Swamp did exactly what it was supposed to do. It broke the siege. After five months, Witten’s strategy cuts the American supply lines and ends the siege. Shortly after this, an additional 270 “free-colored” troops arrive from Cuba. This causes the Americans to retreat back across the Georgia border. It says something about Spain’s view of American racial ideals that they seemed to only send the kind of troops that Americans most hated to defend Florida.
In addition to Witten’s company, slaves and free people could be pressed into service. Over the next few years, as Floridians struggle to hang onto their territory, these men would be pressed into service several times. My ancestor, the above-mentioned George J.F. Clarke, headed a free black unit that included his three oldest sons. Fear of their abilities led Americans to put a $1000 price on George’s head, and $500 a piece for his sons. And these weren’t the only ones.
Numerous men of color gained freedom and/or wealth through outstanding military service during the numerous raids and skirmishes that occurred before and after the Patriot wars. In addition to freedom, they applied for grants and created working communities on the acreage. They had carved out a place for themselves and had successfully defended it against invasion. Witten and his men, and men like them, would continue to enjoy the support and admiration of the people of East Florida and St. Augustine well after the final fall of Florida. But this would be a fleeting victory.
Florida betrays it’s saviors
Thanks to Witten and company, America is forced to end it’s invasion of Florida. Their encounter with the black troops of Spanish East Florida had left them shaken. Unfortunately, Spanish Florida would still end up falling to the US in the end. By 1821 Spain had decided to let Florida go to the US in exchange for their keeping their territory in the western part of the modern US.
The transition to the American territorial government officially occurred in 1822. 1821, however, saw a flurry of activity as white men scrambled to make sure that the freedom of their mixed race children was secure. As well, free blacks also did everything they could to ensure they would remain free. As time passes, Florida becomes increasingly less and less welcoming to free people of color. Some of the first new laws enacted stripped slaves and free blacks of their ability to defend themselves. Manumission begins to disappear entirely. Especially once steep fines are added to slave owners who want to free their slaves.
Slaves who did manage to purchase their freedom were then required to leave the state within 30 days. This caused a serious problem. Under the Spanish, the Catholic church recognized marriages between slaves. As well, Spanish slave owners had recognized the benefits of keeping slave families together. The new 30 day law meant that slaves could no longer purchase one family member at a time. If a father purchased his freedom, he would be forced to leave his family behind. This caused a steep decline in manumission.
Some, such as Zephaniah Kingsley’s African born wife, Anna, are protected under the provisions of the Adams-Onis treaty which guaranteed that free people of color born in the territory before 1821, or freed before this time, would be given the same rights as whites. But this was upheld sporadically at the whims of white Americans.
The Americans enforced their racially divided agenda so that by the 1840’s almost all of the old Spanish Florida free people of color had left. Some few would remain and try to make their way under the new government, almost none would succeed. An even smaller number, my family for example, would lose everything in their struggle to become white. Americans had promised that Florida’s free blacks would be protected; and then immediately went back on that promise.
It’s not a very well known history, but it’s one worth telling. It’s especially telling of why Florida would eventually become one of the most racist states in the country. The amount of force that was needed to beat Florida’s previously independent slave and free black population into submission, and to get the white descendants of Spanish era holdovers to go along with it, is seen in the rest of the state’s history.
Although Florida’s Spanish era people of color are beaten, they are never defeated. Descendants of Spanish holdovers, slaves, and free people of color never stopped speaking out against the brutal treatment they receive at the hands of the Americans. These valiant families and individuals made their mark in history; and as punishment they now lay forgotten in the dust of memory. I think that’s it’s rather fitting that, on the eve of a new civil rights movement, their legacy is being rediscovered. They deserve to be heard and remembered.
For more information on the subjects I’ve summarized here, I suggest the following books:
Jane Landers: Black Society in Spanish Florida
Frank Marotti: Cana Sanctuary; Heaven’s Soldiers
James Cusick: The Other War of 1812
Daniel Schafer: Zephaniah Kingsley; Anna Kingsley
Adam Wasserman: A People’s History of Florida