Historian Canter Brown, Jr., Ph.D.
Photo Courtesy of Canter Brown, Jr.
Interview with Canter Brown, Jr., Ph.D. Discipline: History September 2005
Q: How did you become involved in the search for Angola? A: I first became aware that there was a settlement that we came to find out was called Angola when I was researching a book called Florida's Peace River Frontier in the late 1980s. I was, of course, interested in all the nineteenth century history of the greater Tampa Bay and southwest Florida areas, and I kept finding references, in official documents and newspaper reports, of a massive Indian slave raid into Florida in 1821.
One day I was in Atlanta in the Georgia Archives, and I came across a collection of typed letters from the Creek Indian Agency. All of a sudden, I find this flurry of correspondence talking about this raid and even listing some of the former slaves or slaves that had been seized in this raid who were brought back to Fort Mitchell in Georgia and placed into the custody of the United States government.
I thought, “Good Lord, I wasn't aware of any of this.” So, at that point I really focused on trying to find some sort of narrative description of the raid, and I got lucky. I was living in St. Augustine, and the St. Augustine Historical Society was wonderful about ordering microfilm for me. They got a microfilm of a Philadelphia newspaper from 1821, and, of all things, they had picked up an article from the Charleston City Gazette in South Carolina. It was a letter from a man who described himself as a planter, talking about this raid and describing it and alerting people not only to the magnitude of the raid but about how many slaves had been seized and the fact that they didn't all make it back, and who got the value from these slaves.
With things like that, I just slowly began piecing the story together. I didn't yet know the name of the settlement. There I got lucky. One day I was visiting Tampa, in 1992 or thereabout, and I was in the Tampa Public Library and found some old microfilm of Spanish land grant appeals. I was looking through them and all of a sudden I began to see references to Spanish land grants relative to Angola, and, as I read them carefully, it became clear that they were referring to the site of the Indian raid. So, at that point, at least we had a name.
I didn't really find everything all at once, and I didn't necessarily always know what I was looking for. But I got lucky, and I also persisted. Eventually, by the mid 1990s, I was able to piece together the story pretty well. I already had told it to Bob Ingalls who is a distinguished faculty member at the University of South Florida history department, who then edited the scholarly publication Tampa Bay History. He asked me to write it up for him. That was the first really extended account of Angola. Even then I still did not know the name of the settlement. Anyway, it encouraged me that people were interested but it took a long time to really round out the story and, like I say, even to discover the name of the place.
Q: Why is it important to tell the story of Angola? What does the story have to teach those of us in the present? A: I think it's important to tell the story on a number of levels. One, what a story! It has everything: drama, loss, exhilaration, sacrifice. It is just a wonderful, heroic human story, and, particularly, within the context of the absolute insistence upon liberty and against the bonds of slavery. On another level, it extends a legacy of Florida that had existed since early in the Spanish Era of Florida as a haven for runaway slaves.
Thanks to the great work of Jane Landers at Vanderbilt University, we know about Fort Mose, which existed north of St. Augustine, the first free black town in North America, from 1738 till (with an interruption) 1763, and Jim Covington at the University of Tampa had written about and helped us to learn more about another black settlement called the Negro Fortwhich existed on the Apalachicola River in 1815 and 1816.
We knew generally that that were other maroon communities such as Fort Mose and the Negro Fort, but nobody had ever suggested there was such a community in Southwest Florida, nor that it could have served such a central purpose in keeping alive that legacy of Florida as a haven for runaway slaves.
Clearly many of the men who lived at Angola, at least eventually, had served in the British Army during the War of 1812. Doubtlessly, some were survivors of the destruction of the Negro Fort in 1816. Without a doubt, some were survivors of the heroic Battle of the Suwannee in April 1818, when black warriors turned back, or at least held off, Andrew Jackson's army, in a day long battle on the Suwannee River in the First Seminole War. Probably, I'm just guessing here, but probably some of the men still had their British army uniforms and weapons when they were living at Angola.
They certainly felt that they had commitments from the British Empire that I believe they attempted to enforce through contacts with British officers such as Edward Nicolls and George Woodbine. I suspect that they also had contacts with the Spanish Empire through Cuban fishing ranchos located on the southwest coast of Florida below Tampa Bay, including one that lay very near what we believe is the site of Angola.
So you've got international diplomacy going on; you've got armed, trained veterans ready to fight to maintain the freedom of their loved ones, their families and themselves; you've got a legacy being extended well into the American era in Florida, that had existed since the early days of Spanish rule; and then you have this compelling, compelling story itself of the lives and experiences these men and women had. All of those things combined, I think, suggest that this is truly a special place and it is one of those places whose memory all Floridians, for that matter all Americans, can take pride in. Where else can you see the spirit of and determination for freedom portrayed so vividly as in the spirits of the Angolans in Florida?
Q: What role does the documentary record play in this multi-disciplinary effort? A: We have a lot more documents to discover that will allow us to have an even greater understanding of Angola, but, nonetheless, we have now a body of documentary evidence that I think is unimpeachable in establishing the existence of Angola, suggesting the types of people who were there, and giving a sense of how many people were there. Clearly we have evidence that details its destruction, and who destroyed it, and suggesting (not proving, but suggesting) that its destruction was carried out under the orders of Andrew Jackson.
Q: What are the limitations of the documentary record? A: We have a couple of huge gaps in the documentary record. We can use documents in every aspect of Angola's existence, but details about day to day life, as well as its specific location, nonetheless constitute huge gaps. We do have evidence on the location that seems to point pretty clearly to where the community was located, but it would have been an agricultural community, so we have to assume that it occupied a large area.
There is evidence that, I believe, indicates that there could have been as many as six or seven hundred people there by 1818 or 1819. With that many people and it being a farming community, it would have been spread out over a large area, which makes it tough to find evidence of its existence. We do have one account of an American who traveled to the site and saw ruins and remains of its destruction, and recorded how he got there. The documentary record evidences its existence, but our challenge remains to locate it on the ground.
Q: We know that there were other maroon communities in Florida but few as large as Angola. Why was this community such a magnet for freedom seekers? A: I believe Angola became a magnet in spite of the presence of other maroon communities because of the time and place. It really grew and thrived in the aftermath of the War of 1812, of the Patriot War in northeast Florida, of the Creek Civil Warof 1812-1814 in Alabama, and also the First Seminole War in Florida in 1817 and 1818.
Its location was remote enough that it afforded security or, at least, a sense of security. It also afforded direct communications for residents of Angola with their allies: their Indian allies, and the British and Spanish Empires. So, it was remote, safe, and strategically located for diplomatic and communications purposes. There was fertile land there, too. The maroons in Florida had been traditionally top quality farmers, so I'm sure they were able to grow a good deal of their own food, and you've got the availability of various forms of wildlife and seafood, so there were lots of advantages to the site.
Q: What sorts of economic activities did the inhabitants engage in? How did they support the settlement? A: I think Angola must have served as not only a central communications point, but also as a market in some sense. Its location allowed easy access to Cuba and the Bahamas (there was a Cuban fishing rancho there that had served historically as a center for trade) and this was at a time when Indians from all over the American southeast--Chickasaws from as far away as the Memphis, Tennessee area, Cherokees from the mountains of North Carolina--traditionally would come into Florida for the winter. They were the first tourists.
They would come down to the south Florida hunting grounds and then they would trade the deer hides and bird plumes that they would gather for trade goods at the Cuban fishing ranchos. If the residents of Angola were growing enough food to sustain themselves and they saw an opportunity to profit from providing goods to sustain the Indians who were hunting here, I'm sure they carried on a good trade. From an historian's point of view, we shouldn't just assume that these people were unable to accomplish much of anything. I think the entire record of their existence in Florida suggests that they were able to accomplish quite a lot. They could easily have supplied all manner of goods and services to the itinerant hunters.
Q: Does the documentary evidence reveal anything about the demographics of the community? Were there women and children there? A: I do expect there were families there. In all honesty, the details of daily life are what escape us in the documentary evidence we do have. But we do know from first hand accounts and from the later writings of Congressman Joshua Giddingsin his book The Exiles of Florida, that the Battle of the Suwannee in 1818, (and I suspect the survivors went to Angola), that the Battle of the Suwannee occurred because black warriors were fighting to protect their families and to allow them to cross from the west side of the Suwannee at Old Town over to the east bank in order to escape into the peninsula. So, I think it is a reasonable assumption that once the warriors were across the river themselves, they went with their families down to Tampa Bay and Angola.
Does that mean all of them stayed there? No. Angola existed for many years after the Battle of the Suwannee. There was certainly enough time for comings and goings. I guess in this automobile, jet airplane, spaceship age, we look back at the past and how difficult movement was and suggest that people just didn't move around very much. Lots of people moved around a lot and certainly the Indians and maroons in Florida saw no real obstacle to moving around. They simply accepted that it would take a while. There were comings and goings.
Q: Does the documentary record suggest that there were Native Americans living at Angola? A: No. Not specifically. But certainly, we should assume that Native Americans visited Angola on a regular basis. The people of Angola would have had close ties to the Red Stick Creeks who lived forty miles away on the Peace River. I think that Indians on winter hunts would have continually come through Angola. I wouldn't be surprised if we eventually discover that the residents of Angola benefited from commercial pursuits from those kinds of visitations.
I think the Seminoles also would have kept close touch. The ties between Florida maroons and the Seminoles went back to the arrival of the Seminoles in Florida, and the Seminoles, too, came into south Florida for the winter hunting season. Could limited numbers of Native Americans have been living at Angola? Yes. Were there likely large numbers of Native Americans living there? No, not in my opinion. But, there certainly were lots of Native Americans in proximity to Angola, particularly in the winter.
Q: How could such a large and prosperous maroon community have survived unmolested for so long? A: I think it was partly because Andrew Jackson was unable to force the issue earlier than he did, for various political and personal reasons. Spain still owned Florida, so anything that Jackson or his associates did to the residents of Angola would have violated international law and caused Jackson a problem.
In fact the raid itself that destroyed Angola did cause Jackson problems, and he had plenty of enemies waiting to take advantage of them. It's interesting to me that the newspaper that printed the account of the raid on Angola was the Charleston City Gazette, which was closely associated with John C. Calhoun, Jackson's bitter enemy and later his vice president. Even though these people may not have written down their political maneuverings on a national level related to events in Florida, that doesn't mean that they didn't occur.
Calhoun and Jackson already were maneuvering for future control of the country by the time Angola existed. That was a rivalry that was going to continue until Jackson's death and cause bitter divisions with massive repercussions in Florida, and in the United States. I think the residents of Angola played a role in that.
Jackson didn't like to be defied. They had defied him. The Red Stick Creeks had defied him. When he was appointed provisional governor by President Monroe in January of 1821, the letter accepting the appointment asked for permission to go into the peninsula, to take the US Army into the peninsula and get the Red Stick Creeks and the blacks, and he was ordered by the Secretary of War not to go. They felt like they had to issue him an official order from the Secretary of War not to do it.
It was about two weeks after that letter arrived in Nashville, where Jackson was living, that his own Indian allies under the authority of, if not led by, Lower Creek Chief William McIntoshwent on the warpath into Florida and destroyed Angola. Now you might say, "Wait a second. They could have been acting independently." Well, at the time, William McIntosh was a brigadier general in the United States Army by appointment of Andrew Jackson. Tell me it's all coincidence.
Q: Where were those who were captured taken? What was their fate? A: The newspaper account in the Charleston City Gazette mentioned that around 300 slaves had been taken. Only about 60 or so arrived back in the United States, and what happened to the remainder is open to question. The author of the letter points out that, along the way, some were given back to the people who claimed ownership, but, clearly, lots of captives just disappeared. I assume, and he hints in this letter, that they were sold for the benefit of the backers of the raid.
Q: Is there evidence that any survivors of the raid remained in the area? A: Yes. I think that a substantial number of the survivors fled to the east, to the protection of the Red Stick Creeks on the Peace River, and they settled in a village just north of modern Bartow, that they then called Minatti. Jane Landers believes, and I think she's right, that this was actually an attempt to spell Manatee. So, I think they named their settlement there for the River where they had lived earlier.
Historically, that became a very important site, because it is from Minatti and from Talakchopco, where the Red Stick Creeks lived (and where Osceola grew up) that I think the Second Seminole Warwas planned, and provoked. The war chief of Minatti was named Harry. He associated closely with Osceola in the events that led up to the Second Seminole War. The Red Stick Creeks maintained their headquarters at Talakchopco until it was destroyed in April of 1836.
So there was a real legacy of Angola in the continuing presence of survivors, just to the east. I believe that they can take credit for prompting the largest slave rebellion in United States history. Others say that the Second Seminole War was like the American Revolution and the War of 1812 in that large numbers of slaves abandoned or fled slavery because they were offered protection. I don't think that holds up, because no one offered them any protection. I think that when the maroons and the Creeks were able to provoke a war, they were just prepared to rise up and fight for their freedom. To me, that qualifies as a slave rebellion.
The best evidence we have suggests that probably 750 to 1,500 slaves left plantations to fight, in the opening stages of the Second Seminole War. By far, that's the largest slave rebellion in US history. I just don't see diminishing the record by claiming it was not a slave rebellion, just because it happened during a war.
General Thomas Jesup, who commanded US troops in Florida not long after the war began, made clear in his report to the President and to Congress, that this was not an Indian war, it was “a negro war.” But, of course, it was not to the advantage of the southern press and the southern politicians who really controlled affairs in Washington to make that known.
The Democratic party and the Democratic press had invested very heavily in the growth of the southern cotton kingdom which, they believed, could not be done without slaves. And so much money was involved. They just simply weren't going to play up anything that suggested the possibility of a slave revolt on that scale. In fact, you see many instances of raids by maroons in Florida and Georgia in the 1810s and 1820s that were portrayed by the press as Indian raids.
Q: Many of the survivors of the raid eventually made their way to Red Bays in the Bahamas. Is there evidence that any Native Americans migrated to the Bahamas as well? A: I know that any number of attempts were made by Red Stick Creeks to engage in what I have called diplomatic missions, from southwest Florida, to either Havana or Nassau, and in one instance, I believe I saw a reference to them trying to get to Jamaica. In terms of Indians being among the settlers at Red Bays in the Bahamas, I have not seen any documentary evidence that suggests that.
It's interesting that, in this case, we knew of the end of the story without knowing the story itself. When Rosalyn Howardwrote her fine book Black Seminoles in the Bahamas, not much was known about the existence of Angola, and exactly how its destruction set off this diaspora.
Q: What questions are you hoping to answer as your research progresses? A: I'd like to learn anything we can learn about Angola. It would be especially wonderful to be able to trace the whole experiences of some of the residents of Angola, all the way back to the Battle of the Suwannee, and before that to the Negro Fort, and before that to the Battle of Mobile, and before that to how they were recruited into the British Army.
And I would like to learn more about their daily lives. The more we can paint a human portrait of their lives, the more compelling this story is going to be. If we can do that, I think that it will touch more people and allow more people to understand the real significance of that site, of their lives, and the importance of understanding African American history in Florida and in the United States.
Q: What else would you like for our readers to know? A: I’d like for folks to know that African Americans have played a vital, essential, sometimes defining role in Florida's history from the very earliest European contacts. Speaking figuratively, when Juan Ponce de Leon stood on his ship in 1513 and looked over and saw the flowers on the beach and named the land La Florida, there were two free black men--Juan Garridoand Juan Ponce de Leon--standing next to him.
Africans and African Americans played a role in the discovery of La Florida, in the development of La Florida, and in every aspect of life in, and development of, the territory and state of Florida. To look at Florida history without encompassing the contributions and experiences of African Americans is basically to create a fiction. And, unfortunately, the definition could apply to a good deal of the history that was written up until the modern era and, I would argue, consequently amounts to fiction.
Today, though, we have some top quality people who are doing excellent scholarly work that is putting Florida on the map nationally, as well as regionally, in terms of utilizing the Florida experience as case studies for larger points relating to United States history.
I guess if I were going to sum it up further, it would be that this is no light matter. This is a site of high importance, not only to the Tampa Bay area, not only to Florida, but to the United States and to some extent, to much of the world. There's no story more important than the struggle to maintain freedom, and few people have done it under more difficult circumstances.
Every indication we have is that other than the treachery involved in the betrayal of the Angolans, whatever it was, they led their lives and equipped themselves with honor, courage, and dignity, and there was real accomplishment.
We have the opportunity to tell that story, but we need the help of people in doing it. We need their support and their open-mindedness about it, to realize that here is something we all can take pride in, here is something that we all can benefit from, and to help encourage our state to get more heavily invested in its history, particularly its African American history. Don’t let me forget to add many thanks to you and to the University of South Florida Library for aiding the Looking for Angola project along its road to discovery.