Finding Florida’s Lost Settlement

Finding Florida’s Lost Settlement
A six-member team is searching for evidence of a community of former African slaves and American Indians.

The sound waves bouncing back to the underwater sonar device revealed a massive object laying at the murky bottom of the Manatee River, near East Bradenton, Fla. While the indistinct image could have been nothing more than normal debris, the six-member team of marine archaeologists, divers and volunteers hoped they’d discovered physical evidence of a “maroon” community of former African slaves and Seminole Indians. The object, they thought, could be a wharf used by British ships bringing supplies to the community.

Two divers from the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, an independent marine laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., recently took to the water to find out.

It wasn’t a wharf. But the underwater survey has produced other images that have yet to be studied. The community known as Angola may still be nearby.

“Often times, when you do this work you rule out one area and look at another area,” says Dr. J. “Coz” Cozzi, a nautical archaeologist at Mote. “It could take years to find something as specific as Angola.

This is a process, and you have to start somewhere.”

What the divers found at the bottom of the river was the remains of a railroad trestle built 105 years ago. The multidisciplinary research team, with representatives from four universities, spent 12 days combing the river in hopes of finding the lost community.

Finding Angola has been project director Vicki Oldham’s quest since the early 1990s, when she was working on a documentary about Blacks in Sarasota. Since then, Oldham, a Sarasota native and a producer of local historical documentaries, has raised more than $200,000 in state grants and in-kind donations for the project.

She’s assembled five researchers with expertise in history, archaeology, underwater archaeology and anthropology to work on a project called “Looking for Angola.”

“I have always known that this is a long-term project,” says Oldham. “This work is tedious. To find something early in the search process would have been wonderful. What I am excited about is the fact that we are moving forward. The community is more knowledgeable about Angola now. So I have all sorts of reasons to be optimistic about this project.”

Oldham is looking for the physical evidence to prove that Angola is not a fable. “We have diaries, military and historic records and newspaper accounts, but no physical evidence,” she says.

“To know about this local story of people who lived right in my community, to know of their courage, the risks they took, how determined they were to survive on their own with nothing but what they could carry on their back, that to me was just incredibly empowering,” she adds.

While the Manatee River survey didn’t yield the proof they were looking for, the researchers resumed looking on land for Angola late last month. Witten Technologies in St. Petersburg has volunteered to provide a sensitive sonar device to do underground mapping of previous digs.
Dr. Canter Brown Jr., a historian at Fort Valley State University and the lead historian for the project, calls Angola one of the most significant historical sites in Florida, if not the United States.

“It illustrates the role Florida played as a refuge of freedom for slaves, and their courage to get and keep their freedom,” he says.

The research team also includes Dr. Terry Weik, an archaeologist at the University of South Carolina, and Dr. Uzi Baram, an anthropologist and archaeologist at New College in Sarasota.

According to Oldham, Angola was not at just one site. It was a series of communities that stretched from Tampa Bay to
Sarasota, but it was concentrated around East Bradenton.

The settlement of about 750 people thrived from 1812 until 1821, when a Lower Creek Indian war party, possibly at the behest of General Andrew Jackson, looted and burned the settlement. The survivors scattered across the Florida peninsula.

Some may have resettled inland, while others made their way to Cape Florida, where they sailed to safety.

The destruction of Angola and the exodus of its residents occurred in the same year that Black Seminoles arrived at Red Bays on Andros Island in the Bahamas. If Oldham’s team finds Angola, they could write a new chapter in the history of America, and possibly make a conclusive connection between Angola and Red Bays.

Popular history maintains that escaped slaves fled North to the free states and Canada. Some of them, however, headed South instead, making their way down the long Florida peninsula and creating a little-known southern spur of the Underground Railroad.

Some of the Angola residents are believed to have fought in the earliest Seminole Wars, when Jackson began the violent removal of American Indians from Florida. Brown says others were probably survivors of the destruction of the Negro Fort, now Fort Gadsden State Park, which served as a base for British recruitment of American Indians and Blacks during the War of 1812.

Dr. Rosalyn Howard, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Central Florida and the author of Black Seminoles in the Bahamas, possesses documents listing the names of some of the Angola inhabitants. She says many of the survivors may have fled to Cape Florida, and ultimately to Red Bays. She also notes that the 1821 date for the formation of the Red Bays settlement is clear because of a letter in the Bahamian archives “in which a British customs officer ‘discovered’ these people living in the area of Red Bays and took 97 of them to Nassau.”

The letter, dated 1828, lists the names of those in custody, and claims that the people had been on the island for seven years, raising crops on their own.

After about a year, the detainees were “returned to the island and allowed to live in freedom,” says Howard.

The Florida State Historic Preservation Department gave a $25,000 grant for the recent underwater survey. Oldham says she’s planning another round of fund-raising to conduct other searches underwater and on the ground.

Digging on land for signs of Angola is made difficult today because of development, Oldham says. “It is really critical that we do the tertiary archaeology in East Bradenton because development is increasing. Condominiums are going up on the ground that we need to search.

Once that happens it is over, unless property owners allow us to conduct excavations in their back yards, and some have asked us to do that.”

– Herb Frazier

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