August 1, 2005
Historians want rewrite on slave revolt
By Thomas Lake, Florida Times-Union
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The slaves cut cane in torrid fields near St. Augustine, plagued by snakes and mosquitoes and white men with whips. They crushed it with rollers and boiled the juice for sugar and molasses. The harvest left them with yellow fever and puncture wounds even as it made their masters rich.
Then the raiders came. A war party burned 21 plantations along the St. Johns River in 1836, making off with hundreds of slaves and permanently crippling the North Florida sugar industry.
For more than 150 years, most historians believed only Seminole Indians and their free black allies conducted the raids. But a growing, if controversial, body of research points toward a conspiracy between the black warriors -- known as Black Seminoles or maroons -- and the plantation slaves.
That would make North Florida the locus for the largest mass slave uprising in U.S. history.
In a new online documentary at www.johnhorse.com, amateur historian J.B. Bird draws on military records and archived newspaper reports to show that at least 385 slaves rebelled against the Florida sugar barons. That's more documented slaves than took part in better-known revolts, including Nat Turner's rebellion in Virginia, Denmark Vesey's conspiracy in South Carolina and an 1811 uprising in Louisiana that ended with nearly 100 rebels dead.
Bird's documentary underlines earlier work by two Florida A&M University history professors: Larry Rivers, who has estimated as many as 1,000 slaves escaped with the Black Seminoles, and Canter Brown, who says the U.S. military often blamed Indians for attacks by former slaves and their descendants.
"They didn't want to admit they were beaten by blacks," Brown said.
When Spain ruled Florida in the early 1800s, the area became a haven for escaped slaves from neighboring states. Many of them joined a sort of feudal system with the Seminoles, who gave them farmland in exchange for annual tribute and a pledge to defend the tribe in wartime. It's unclear how much the races intermingled, but in time, the runaways and their children came to be known as Black Seminoles.
Gen. Andrew Jackson tested the alliance when he sent troops into enemy territory to wreck a Black Seminole stronghold on the Apalachicola River in 1816. Some fled to the Caribbean after Jackson invaded Florida in 1818, a move that forced Spain to cede its territory to the United States and brought full-fledged slavery back to the state.
But some free blacks remained in Florida, fighting alongside the Seminoles long after President Jackson banished most Southern Indian tribes to land west of the Mississippi. Late in 1835, the coalition plotted a series of strikes on sugar plantations in St. Johns, Flagler and Volusia counties. Brown says Black Seminole agents sneaked in at night and gave the slaves bundles of red sticks, telling them to discard one per day.
The revolt began when the last stick was gone.
The blacks and Indians demolished 21 plantations over the next two months, leaving hunks of stone and iron that remain today under names like Bulow Plantation Ruins and DeLeon Springs State Park. North Florida's sugar trade never recovered.
There are several reasons the incident is not listed among the nation's great slave rebellions. For one, most of the plantation owners and army officers Bird cites in his documentary said the slaves were captured by Indians rather than leaving on their own.
But the masters had a good reason to lie, says Kevin Mulroy, a scholar who has written about the Black Seminoles. Plantation owners could file claims for slaves lost in a war, but they couldn't get reimbursed for runaways.
The second reason has to do with the definition of a slave revolt. Slaves defected en masse to the British during the American Revolution and the War of 1812, but historians see their flight as fundamentally different from such incidents as Nat Turner's rebellion because slaves were attracted by the prospect of safety in a foreign land. Bird, a 40-year-old public relations agent from Austin, Texas, says the Indians made no such promise.
But rewriting history will be a battle for Bird. Four historians who reviewed his Web site at the Times-Union's request remain skeptical of his superlative declaration. Still, they said the incident needs further study.
"I don't think you have to argue that this is the biggest slave rebellion," said Jane Landers, a history professor at Vanderbilt University who has written about black society in Florida, "to make this an important story."
Here's how it ends. White men caught many of the escaped slaves from the sugar plantations and put them back to work. Hundreds more surrendered after falling on hard times. But a few escaped west with the Black Seminoles, trading a life in the canebrake for a home on the range.
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