Beacon of liberty, Angola intrigues Florida historians
By ANTHONY McCARTNEY
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published: Sunday, April 13, 2008 at 2:38 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 13, 2008 at 3:59 a.m.
BRADENTON – Gen. Andrew Jackson’s early 19th century hunt for Angola ended with the Florida settlement’s destruction. Documentarian Vickie Oldham is now trying to find remains of the town, the Southeast’s last major outpost for free blacks and fugitive slaves.
Since 2002, Oldham has worked to bring the story of Angola to life. A former television reporter in Sarasota, she has recruited historians, archaeologists and educators to produce a documentary, Web site and educational materials about Angola.
But its exact location in the Tampa Bay area remains elusive — although some promising clues have recently been uncovered.
Historians say finding Angola would give new insight into Florida’s role as a safe haven for runaway slaves. It would also highlight the state’s violent transition into a bastion of bondage.
“They were making it on their own,” Oldham said of the Angola settlers. “Those were the words that kept coming to me over and over — they were empowering.
“I want others to be empowered by their story,” said Oldham, who has raised more than $100,000 in state grants and donations to fund the search.
In the early 1800s, Florida was pure frontier. Along with being a haven for runaway slaves, it was home to other rogue elements that troubled the still-fledgling United States. British agents. Seminole Indians. The Spanish, who controlled Florida in name only.
Jackson invaded Florida in 1816, claiming national security concerns. The future president ordered the destruction of Negro Fort, a former British stronghold left to black allies after the War of 1812. The demise of the Florida Panhandle outpost likely caused a population boom for Angola, which was founded in about 1812.
Over time, Angola became a key part of life on Florida’s central Gulf coast. Cuban fishermen knew of it. It was a trading outpost for the British, and catered to Indian men who came to Florida on hunting trips — Historian Canter Brown Jr. jokingly describes them as Florida’s “first tourists.”
In 1821, Florida was about to transfer over to U.S. control. Under a treaty with Spain, all Florida residents, including blacks, would become U.S. citizens. Angola is believed to have been home to between 750 and 900 black settlers.
But Jackson, who was appointed Florida’s military governor as it became a territory, warned it would continue to “be a receptacle for rogues, murderers and runaway Negroes” if more military campaigns were not waged.
The general’s requests were denied, but he seems to have sponsored attacks anyway, including the raid that year that destroyed Angola, said James M. Denham, a history professor at Florida Southern College, and Brown, who works at Georgia’s Fort Valley State University.
A Lower Creek Indian war party attacked the settlement, likely at the behest of Jackson, and burned it to the ground.
“Several of Jackson’s closest proteges are known to have been involved in the raid,” said Brown, who has produced the most detailed account of Angola to date.
Some 300 men, women and children were sold into slavery. Those who escaped fled deeper into the peninsula or with Cuban fishermen with whom they had forged relationships over the years. Some ended up at Andros Island in the Bahamas, where modern-day descendants of Angola residents still live.
Denham said Jackson and others’ efforts to rid Florida of armed blacks marked a turning point for the South as Florida’s status as a slave state was cemented.
“By the 1830s, the die is cast,” Denham said.
Over the years, attempts to find Angola have failed but Oldham’s team may be making progress.
Members recently carved out a grave-sized hole near the banks of the Manatee River, unearthing nails and other artifacts that likely date back to the 1800s.
Whether they are evidence of Angola will require more testing and research. But the dig yielded a promising find nearly three feet down: the distinct outline of a post.
The structure is gone, but sophisticated ground-penetrating radar images donated by Jacksonville-based Witten Technologies reveal similar features buried nearby.
The scans are generally used to find underground utilities, but New College of Florida archaeology professor Uzi Baram thinks they may reveal dwellings, footpaths and manmade features. They give Baram and others hope that Angola may be nearby.
Oldham said finding archaeological evidence could prompt memorials, more teachings and wider recognition of blacks’ struggle for freedom in early Florida. “I don’t think this project will ever be done,” she said.
But for Baram and others, it is what Angola signified, not just what it left behind, that remains important.
“We’re not going to find a sign that says Angola,” Baram said. “These people escaped slavery with probably whatever they could carry on their back. In the end, their bodies were more important than the things they had.”