Will we mark the Bicentennials of Prospect Bluff? Or the Centennial of the Great Migration?

One Saturday night last October, I took my son and his friend to the FSU-Virginia football game.

We cheered with 80,000 other people for the young, overwhelmingly black men that university administrators have decided to call Seminoles as they exchanged intricate, state-sanctioned violence with the young, overwhelmingly black men that administrators at Thomas Jefferson’s university have decided to call Cavaliers.

Mascot warriors banging against mascot warriors in a game that aspires to war in its language and structure.

(This is from the Clemson game; but you get the point.)

The next Sunday morning, I took the boys on a brief side trip to Prospect Bluff, the site of Florida’s largest and most beautiful mass grave.

In contrast to Doak Campbell Stadium, this secluded patch of high ground along the Apalachicola River welcomed us with silence and emptiness. Here, almost exactly 200 years ago, the United States of America and its military started its series of very real Seminole wars in Florida. It did so by blowing apart dozens if not hundreds (the official estimate of 270 is likely an overcount) of men, women, and children. Most of the dead were runaway black slaves or their descendants. The destruction of the so-called “Negro Fort” ended the existence of North America’s largest community of runaway slaves, known as Maroons.

The basic account and the magic cannonball

Very briefly, here is the complex and tragic story of Prospect Bluff:

After the American Revolution, the British Empire ceded control of Florida back to Spain. In the War of 1812, the British issued a general order granting freedom to any black person willing to serve the British against the US. And the British high command dispatched a handful of elite soldiers to sow military mischief through alliances with Indians and runaway slaves in the southeastern border regions of the US, particularly the northern Gulf coast. Think Lawrence of Arabia or US Green Berets.

These soldiers established a base of operations and built a powerful fort at Prospect Bluff.

Their driving force was an anti-slavery zealot, Royal Marine, and all-around badass named Edward Nicolls. Nicolls and his men set to work recruiting and arming friendly Indian tribes and runaway slaves. But more than that, Nicolls promised the slaves full citizenship in the British Empire in exchange for their service. The Prospect Bluff fort quickly became a community. And, more worrying to the slave power of the US, it began to draw new runaways from the US, its allies in slave-holding Creek Nation, and Spanish Florida. This terrified the white American South and greatly annoyed Washington.

Then the Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812. It set the stage for the state-sanctioned comprehensive Indian removal and massive land theft that would follow in the decades to come. It also ended Nicolls’ official mission in Florida.

Before he was called back to Britain, Nicolls drew up papers for each of his Maroon soldiers granting them honorable discharge and citizenship for themselves and their families. He then ordered them to remain at the extremely well-provisioned and armed fort until he sent for them. Nicolls left Prospect Bluff in May 1815. Thus the Prospect Bluff community became a self-governing, self-sustaining community of black British citizens controlling a strategic high ground along a strategic borderland river in Spanish Florida. And they would use scalp-taking brutality to defend their freedom.

Before Nicolls could arrange evacuation of the fort’s inhabitants to a location in the British Caribbean, the US determined to destroy it. The orders passed from President James Madison — he of the Federalist papers — to his top military commander in region, Andrew Jackson, the future president. Here’s how Jackson gave the order to one of his commanders to eliminate the so-called “Negro Fort,” the white name for the fort and surrounding community.

“I have little doubt of the fact, that this fort has been established by some villains for rapine and plunder, and that it ought to be blown up, regardless of the land on which it stands; and if your mind shall have formed the same conclusion, destroy it and return the stolen Negroes and property to their rightful owners.”

A complex joint infantry and naval assault ensued by land and river, with open hostilities beginning in July 1816. Creek Nation slave hunters joined the mission. The Prospect Bluff defenders, led by a Maroon named Garcon and a renegade Choctaw indian, easily rebuffed the first attacks with small arms, cannon fire, and guerrilla tactics in the surrounding swamps.

Then, on July 27, 1816, they got epicly unlucky.

A heated cannonball launched from a US gunboat in the river seems to have bounced off a tree and rolled into the fort’s powder magazine. That set off an apocalyptic explosion that demolished the structure and killed most of the fighters and people who had taken inside the fort.

Here’s a painting by Mike Woodfin.

A US soldier named Marcus Buck described it this way:

The 5th shot, which was the first hot shot thrown, entered the magazine and sealed the fate of the garrison. You cannot conceive, nor I describe, the horrors of the scene. In an instant, hundreds of lifeless bodies were stretched upon the plain, buried in sand and rubbish, or suspended from the tops of the surrounding pines. Here lay an innocent babe, there a helpless mother; on one side a sturdy warrior, on the other a bleeding squaw. Piles of bodies, large heaps of sand, broken guns, accoutrements covered the [cq] scite of the fort.

Professor and Author Nathaniel Millet has written the definitive history and analysis of the Prospect Bluff community, The Maroons of Prospect Bluff and Their Quest for Freedom in the Atlantic World. I urge you to read it if you have any interest in the origin stories of your state or your country. Citing various sources and his own analysis, Millet asserts that most of the Prospect Bluff fort and wider community evacuated prior to the final engagement for settlements along the Suwannee River. By his reckoning, the 270 figure significantly overcounts the dead. He places the body count at something closer to a few dozen.

I have always considered the magic cannonball theory rather preposterous, on its face. But based on my reading of Millet and others, and the mindset they reveal of the Maroon fighters, and the various detailed accounts from multiple US military sources, it seems the only truly plausible explanation.

Garcon and the Choctaw chief both survived the blast, an oddity that contributes to magical cannonball skepticism. Both were executed on site by Creek Nation warriors under the command of a leader named McIntosh, a slave-owning, half-Scot who illustrates beautifully how white much of the Creek Nation thought itself to be. The US and Creeks returned the handful of other survivors to slavery.

Imagine yourself Garcon for a moment, standing at this very spot under the Union Jack and red flag of “no quarter.” You’ve repulsed ground assaults. The naval cannonballs flying over your head accomplish nothing. You are free and strong, defying the combined might of the United States of America and the Creek Nation.

And then, in an instant, you are blinded and your warriors — and maybe your wife and children — dead. A firing squad you can’t see ends your freedom and your life. Maybe the last thing you hear, other than gunshots, is the scalping of the Choctaw chief. That’s Game of Thrones-level stuff.

Winners. Write. History.

The United States government did not, for several years, acknowledge the mass destruction it rained down on British citizens living in Spanish territory. I’m not sure which of James Madison’s Federalist papers the Prospect Bluff destruction would fit into. But again, we see that American state power jealousy guarded its prerogatives long before anybody ever heard of the NSA or Edward Snowden.

Today, the U.S. Forestry Service manages the Prospect Bluff site. Its official name is the Fort Gadsden National Historic Landmark. It’s named for the useless US military structure that Andrew Jackson ordered built atop the ruins of the British fort. A historical marker under the heading “Fort Gadsden” talks briefly about “the Negro Fort.”

A tiny little worn marker sits on the location of the magazine that blew.

And a nice interpretive exhibit explains the wider history of the site in the Florida’s colonial era, with references to Panton and Leslie.

But something’s missing. Nothing human begins to convey the enormity of the carnage and historical significance of this spot — both of the runaway slave community itself and the battle that killed it. It would help to add a simple reminder that you’re walking on a mass grave, atop death-stained ground and the bones of blasted freedom.

But for now, only the sheer beauty and quiet of the bluff — I’ve never been to a quieter or more beautiful place in Florida — rises to the level of events that occurred here.

The approaching bicentennials of Prospect Bluff and the Seminole Wars

If you’ve read this closely at all, you may have noticed that we are rushing headlong toward some important Prospect Bluff bicentennials. We’ve already passed the construction of the fort.

The battle date is a little more than a year away, in July of 2016. It certainly deserves commemoration. One could argue that the US destruction of Prospect Bluff is the is single most strategic military engagement in the US effort to take control of Florida. It’s a bit like the Alamo in reverse.

Moreover, Prospect Bluff was the first strike in the First Seminole War, even if American and Florida History doesn’t commonly recognize it as such. The climactic battle of the First Seminole War happened along the Suwannee River among the Seminole and Maroon villages there. Many of the Maroons who fought — bravely and skillfully — came from Prospect Bluff before the explosion. Florida became a US territory not long afterward in 1821. Andrew Jackson was named governor; and he promptly ordered the destruction of the Angola Maroon community, where refugees from Prospect Bluff and the Suwannee fled, near the Braden and Manatee rivers.

The significance of the battle history is undeniable. But I think another date deserves greater commemoration.

Some time this May will mark the moment that Edward Nicolls left the fort and Florida. As I mentioned before, he wrote out honorable discharges for the Maroons who allied with him and the British Empire in the war of 1812. And he formalized British citizenship for their wives and children. Then he left the command of Prospect Bluff to the Maroons who lived there with instructions for them to defend their formal, but paperbound, freedom. They did so successfully for more than a year, living and dying as British subjects. Some of them, years later, would successfully assert British citizenship in the Bahamas.

As Millett makes clear, the moment Nicolls transferred command and left the fort marked the creation of the largest and strongest fugitive slave community ever constituted in North America. Until its destruction, the Prospect Bluff community beckoned to slaves across Spanish Florida, the American/Creek southeast, and as far north as Virginia.

Rename the site

In Florida, we just spent a year marking the 500th anniversary of the brief “discovery” of our state by Ponce de Leon in 1513. I found nothing objectionable in this. The commemorations were generally thoughtful. They certainly acknowledged and explored the inadvertantish genocide of the native Floridians the conquistadores found.

But let me ask you this. Who more deserves Andrew Jackson’s epithet of “some villains for rapine and plunder”? The conquistadores and Jackson himself — or the Maroons at Prospect Bluff? Who more embodies the American ideals of freedom and sacrifice we’re all supposed to love and cherish and use to differentiate ourselves from ISIS?

If we actually gave a hint of a shit about any of that stuff as a country or a state, we would not today call Prospect Bluff “The Fort Gadsden National Historic Landmark.” Put your money where your mouth is, Dennis Ross and Neil Combee. (Those are two of my freedom-loving state and Congressional representatives. They talk a lot about freedom — and evil.)

Any serious commemoration of the “Negro Fort” battle/massacre will include changing the name to the “Prospect Bluff National Historic Battlefield.” It will involve treating the people who died there in service of American ideals — which were best served at that time by the British — in the same way we treat our honored war dead.

There are precious few — if any — national monuments to black American agency. As a country, we revere Martin Luther King Jr. and the heroes of the 60s civil rights movement for their restraint, not their agency. Their agency made them enemies of the state. Ask J. Edgar Hoover.

Prospect Bluff and the Seminole Wars are arguably the greatest 19th century examples of North American black agency. In specialized circles, we’re starting to remember them that way. But not in a common knowledge, national consensus way. The absence of any bicentennial state interest makes that clear. If I’ve missed something the state is planning, please let me know.

In the meantime, those of us who care about Florida history and its role in American mythology and idealism should advocate for changing the name of the historical site and rewriting the marker there. Small, achievable steps. We should choose to honor the life that Prospect Bluff radiated, not the death that Fort Gadsden marked like a dully triumphant tombstone.

The importance of honoring agency

Tellingly, the centennials of Prospect Bluff coincided neatly with the beginning of the greatest blast of black agency of the 20th century — the Great Migration.

Exactly 100 years after Prospect Bluff’s destruction — literally within a day of the Centennial that no one marked — the white leadership of Jacksonville in July 1916 declared war on a different concentration of black agency. This one congregated around train stations in the hope of migrating north, in the opposite direction of the runaway slaves that streamed to the promise of Prospect Bluff.

On July 28, 1916, Jacksonville mayor J.E.T. Bowden published a letter to his police chief in the city’s Florida Metropolis newspaper ordering the arrest of “Negro idlers” who had been gathering at a recruiting station for northern railroads.

Dear Sir—My attention has been called on numerous occasions to the fact that there are hundreds of idlers in and around the old recruiting station in the vicinity of Broad Street. In coming into the city this morning, I saw at least a dozen groups of from three to twenty negroes standing on the corners and along the sidewalks, seeming to be in deep discussion. There is plenty of work in this city for these negroes and they are simply demoralized on account of what has been taking place in Jacksonville recently.

You have my instructions: in fact, something I have not done in the past, strict orders to detail a number of your force and to instruct those on the beat to arrest all these idlers and bring them before the courts for vagrancy. The time has come when something must be done to relieve conditions.

Whichever way blacks in America tried to move throughout most of American History, they found the full power of the state deployed against them. And yet move they did. Will we commemorate this? Will we, as a country, commemorate the Berlin Wall-like struggle of black Americans to escape a South that both hated them and needed them to do work genteel white southerners were too good to sully themselves with? Probably not.

Despite the heroic efforts of Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns and others the Great Migration is barely mentioned in schools and scarcely known in that common river of information we call basic American History. Yet, absolutely nothing changed America more in the 20th century than the Great Migration.

If you think commemorations of agency and defiance of the coldly anti-American interests of America do not matter today in the era of mass incarceration, the Drug War, and school resegregation (all functions of the power of the state) you are wrong. They matter enormously. They frame our customs and understanding of ourselves. They inform us why we own what we own; believe what we believe; and tolerate what we tolerate.

And that is why we, as a country and state, so assiduously avoid such commemorations.

Prove me wrong. Please. Few things would make me happier.

3 Comments

  1. Craig Pittman April 20, 2016 Reply
  2. Uzi Baram April 20, 2016 Reply
  3. Dale Cox July 26, 2016 Reply

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