Putnam County FL: First free black settlers

Putnam County Florida was established in 1849. The 1850 census is the first federal census of Putnam County.

I am trying to learn more about the first 12 free black families to settle in Putnam County. Many of these families originate during the British and Second Spanish Periods of Florida’s history.

I included a contact form at the end of this post. Please feel free to use it if you can offer any help in piecing together what became of these families.

The following is a list of free black settlers in Putnam County for that census year; as well as any information I have been able to gather on these families.

CLARKE, Philip 26; CLARKE, Alix 23

These two brothers are listed as being boarders in the home of Robert R. Reid. Their mother is the former slave, Hannah (or Anna) Benet; their father was George J. F. Clarke. Hannah (Anna) was the second mother of Clarke’s children. Alix (Alexander) Clarke was named as Eligo in George J. F.’s will.

Reid was involved in finalizing the purchase of Hannah (Anna) and her children following George J F’s death. He was also well acquainted with George J. F. Clarke through several legal issues during Florida’s territory period.

These two men are the uncles of Susan Clarke, listed below.

They have a brother named Thomas Hilario Clarke; and there is a forth child, possibly a daughter, as well.

They are listed on the census as mulatto

CLARKE, Amelia 29

Amelia Clarke was Amelia Anderson. She is the wife of George D. Clarke and sister in law to Susan Clarke, listed below.

CLARKE, Susan 30; COLE, Mary “Laura” 7; COLE, John Henry 4; ROSSIGNOL, Susan “Lucy” 2

This is the only surviving picture of the free black Susan S. Clarke (1817-1906)

This is the only surviving picture of the free black Susan S. Clarke (1817-1906)

Susan Clarke is my great, great, great, grandmother; and my great, great, great, great grandmother. Susan is the older sister of George D. Clarke; and the oldest child of the former slave James Clarke and white Mary Dulcet. (James’ father took the couple to a sympathetic Georgia official named Isaac Crews who signed off on the marriage certificate so they could be legally married.)

Her father, James, was born a slave; but was purchased and freed by his white father shortly after his birth. His parents, George J. F. Clarke and Flora Leslie, were still in the process of purchasing Flora’s freedom when James was born. Due to a clerical error, James Clarke’s father has to re-file his manumission papers in 1821 in order to ensure that James would remain a free man as Florida changed hands.

In the 1840’s Susan has two children with a white planter from Virginia named Archibald H. Cole.

After this relationship ends she spends the rest of her life with another white man named Louis H. Rossignol. Rossignol is from Georgia and is a first generation American. His family had settled in modern Haiti; but fled because of the 1790’s revolution.

Once the couple moves in together she is listed as his wife. Although it was illegal for her to marry Rossignol, the two were considered by the community to be married and she was most often called Susan Rossignol.

Susan is unique in that she was able to, at different times, openly live with two different white men and have children with them. According to the laws of the time, she and both of the men should have been repeatedly fined; and eventually jailed as habitual offenders. This was especially dangerous for Susan herself since, at this time, free blacks could easily find themselves enslaved or re-enslaved for excessive debts or fines. One of her uncles, one of her father’s brothers, had already experienced this. In addition, attacking couples like this is not uncommon.

The Clarke-Rossignol family was fairly well known. It was no secret that the couple were different races. In his book, Heaven’s SoldiersDr. Frank Marotti says that the Clarke-Rossignols were host to a small community of free people of color living along the St. Johns River in the years leading up to the Civil War.

According to an article in an 1870’s magazine, the Rossignol property was located on the west bank of the St. Johns, almost directly across from Cole’s Orange Mills plantation.

Cole was the richest man in Putnam County; according to the 1850 census at least. Cole’s main plantation was the site of a Civil War skirmish. In 1840 Susan is living with Cole in Duval county. By the next census in 1850 she has already had a child with Rossignol; although the two are not listed as living together at this time. John Henry is able to use his father’s name his entire life; and Mary Laura’s baptism records (recorded in the segregated section) lists Cole as her father.

It is possible that Susan never actually changed locations to go from Duval to Putnam county as Putnam was created out of several counties, including Duval. I consider this likely since her obituary claims that she had been here since at least the 1830’s. As well, several of her family members owned property in the area that will later become Putnam County; including her father and grandfather. Her family was also connected to the Panton Leslie and Company trading post that was located near Rollestown; and to Rollestown itself.

Susan has been alternately listed as being born in Florida or Spain since she was born when Florida was still a Spanish territory. Susan and her children are all listed as mulatto on this census; and the next two as well. She and any children living with her at the time are listed as black on the 1880 census. She is listed as mulatto again on the 1900 census. She is listed as white on her death certificate. In the city directories from the time, they are always listed in the white section; as are their businesses.

When the children move out on their own, they are listed as white or mulatto; although white becomes their permanent designation only after their mother’s death in 1906.

FATIO, Rose Ann 45; FATIO, Edward 12

Like the Clarkes, the Fatios are an old Spanish era family. Their exploits can be found in several books devoted to Florida’s early Spanish history. Several authors have followed the exploits of the slave, Luis Fatio-Pacheco and his controversial role in the Dade Massacre. This family may be connected to him. The white Fatio family had a plantation in Florida during the Second Spanish Period known as New Switzerland so this family may have been slaves who purchased their freedom.

They are listed as black

HILL, Carlos (Charles) 50

HILL, Carlos (Charles) 100; HILL, Sally 48

Although these are listed as two separate households, it is very likely that the younger Charles is the son of the older. Sally may be his daughter.

If they are his children, they would have been from a second relationship. Carlos the elder was born in Spanish Florida and had attained freedom sometime before 1812. He served in Prince Witten’s black militia company during the 1812 US invasion of Florida. During the invasion Carlos the elder’s first wife and three children are kidnapped by members of the Georgia “patriot” militias and sold back into slavery. He never sees them again.

Because Witten’s company had been the ones sent to raid the frontier for food and supplies during the St. Augustine siege of 1812-13 the men of the company are considered heroes.

However, the two households may be unrelated as a man named Charles Hill owned several slaves.

The Hills are also connected to the Clarke and Fatio families.

Carlos the elder and Sally are listed as black. Carlos the younger is listed as mulatto.

UPDATE: Carlos the elder purchased and freed Sally sometime during the early Territory Period.


I have absolutely no information on this individual other than knowing that he was born in Virginia. He is listed as black

BRUSH, George 35; BRUSH Rogarda(?) 28; BRUSH, Rose 7 mos

Brush is another Spanish era family. They are listed as mulatto

GUE, John 39; GUE, Maria 30; GUE, Francis 10; GUE Fanny 4; GUE, John 1

This is another unique, Spanish era, family. They may be connected to the notorious Andrew Gue.

John’s occupation is listed as Tavern Keeper. This is unusual in that he is considered a free black man, and it was nearly impossible for a free person of color to be able to legally sell alcohol. This is also the only tavern in Putnam County at this time.

The Gue family features prominently in Florida’s Spanish era history.

The family is listed as mulatto

WILLIAMS, Susan 60; WILLIAMS, Precilla(?) 19; WILLIAMS, Rebecca 18; WILLIAMS, Benjamin 14; WILLIAMS, Francis 6; WILLIAMS, George 4

This is another Spanish era family. Members of the Williams family were business associates of the Clarke family in St. Augustine; these may be connected to that family. A free black man, Sampson Williams, jointly owned at least one tavern in St. Augustine with Susan Clarke’s father or one of her uncles.

The family is listed as black.

However, if they are related to the line of Sampson Williams they may also show up as mulatto as that was his legal classification.

GRAY, David 63; GRAY, Babett 50; GRAY, Magdalena 30; GRAY, David 16; GRAY, Julia 10; GRAY Matilda 9; GRAY, Augustus 1 mos

GRAY, Susan 53

These are two separate households, but I believe them to be related to one another.

Gray was the name of one of the first known settlers of the “Palatka Tract“. Palatka was (what will become Palatka) was sometimes known as “Gray’s Place”.

Panton, Leslie and Company had a trading post near modern Palatka that was overseen by a mulatto man named Joshua Gray.

I am especially interested in speaking to members of this family since they likely have the longest recorded history connected to modern Putnam County.

The family is listed as black

*Update added to the entry for the family of David Gray 1/11/2015

Beginning on page 114 of Dr. Frank Marotti’s Cana Sanctuary, there is more information on this family. David Gray was also David Fleming. David purchased Barbra (Babett) for $500. He made payments to her owner, Bartolome de Castro from 1824-1829. Sometime before 1837 the couple is legally married by a Catholic priest.

George Fleming held the title to the Palatka Tract from 1819-1821; purchasing it from Bernardo Segui within a year of Governor Coppinger transferring the title to him. Although Joshua Gray is the only one mentioned in the history, there were several ethnically diverse families working the St. Johns River area in and near modern Palatka.

*Note: I used the racial designations that were used on the census form as they seemed the most appropriate for this particular project.

The term mulatto was used for various reasons. It becomes a catch-all term used to define anyone who has non-white ancestry. For example, the brother of George J. F. Clarke, Charles W. Clarke, has children with a woman listed as either free black or mulatto. However, her family actually originated in India and had no known African ancestry. As well, mulatto is used to describe individuals with Native American and white ancestry. Meaning that while mulatto was used primarily to describe people with African ancestry; it was a blanket term that didn’t exclusively mean African and European.


About pynomrah

I like stuff, and things.
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One Response to Putnam County FL: First free black settlers

  1. Pingback: Putnam FL’s First Free Black Settlers, Corrections | Somewhere in the Middle of Everything

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