These Freedom Seekers Made Their Final Stand at the Black Alamo – 50 years before the Civil War!

In Brief:

  • Prospect Bluff, home to Fort Gadsden, was a key site during the War of 1812, serving as a refuge for escaped enslaved people and Creek Indians.
  • The fort, known as the “Black Alamo,” was destroyed by an American gunboat’s hot shot shell, killing 270 defenders instantly.
  • Current archaeological efforts, hampered by Hurricane Michael and looters, aim to uncover and preserve the history of those who lived and fought at Prospect Bluff.

As you roll southwest from Tallahassee along Highway 98—and pass by the beautiful old lighthouse on top of St. George Island *nats* and some less beautiful golf courses—you’ll cross over a bridge to the city of Apalachicola. 

 

The beautiful, walkable, charming city, named for the river that sits next to it and flows out to the Gulf of Mexico, holds the key to a little-known piece of Florida History. 

 

Up a small road that leads due north back to the interstate, you can turn off to a small, bumpy dirt road with a few paths that lead like ribbons tied to the past. 

 

One leads to a place the State of Florida’s Parks service calls Fort Gadsden or Prospect Bluff. 

 

As we hit the brakes and hop out at the park’s entrance, a small metal gate and a closed sign greet us. 

 

Not to worry, the airspace above the park is always open. 

 

We flew our trusty drone above the park and found an amazing site—the perfect imprint of a 19th-century fort tattooed in the ground. The hard edges stop right at the edge of the Apalachicola River. Around the fort’s clear impression on the ground sits the Alamo of the Southeast—Prospect Bluff. 

 

History

The American Army built this fort – after the Stars and Stripes under Andrew Jackson took the land by force, supposedly from the Spanish, who claimed it – but in all reality from the displaced Creek people, escaped formerly enslaved persons, and rogue frontiersmen who’d escaped there years before the Americans arrived on the scene – and would eventually make up the Seminole Tribe. 

 

Two hundred ten years ago – at the end of the Creek Civil War – a contest between Pro-British and Pro-United States Creek Native Americans – the losers – the Pro-British Creeks moved from their home in northeast Alabama down to the area around the Apalachicola River. 

 

The War of 1812, a separate war between Great Britain and its enemies, the United States and Spain, continued. 

 

The British decided to set up a fort on the Apalachicola River as a way to trade with the Natives and harass the Spanish and the Americans. Crucially, they also put out the word that any enslaved people who wished to seek their freedom could come to this site and join up with the Colonial Marines. Hundreds would make their way to the fort to fight for their freedom. 

 

Under Colonel Edward Nicholls, these colonial marines drilled at Prospect Bluff, a compound with a fort and a village to support it. Their goal was to take Pensacola, Mobile, and then New Orleans. 

 

The Americans Watched all of this happen with anxiety. Nathaniel Millet writes in his book The Maroons of Prospect Bluff and Their Quest for Freedom in the New World that “White Americans were rightly concerned, because when the War of 1812 spread into the South thousands of enslaved people fled to the British, who quickly utilized the refugees as guides, laborers, or spies before organizing formal military units. This was a sensible decision: American slaves proved to be a significant boost to the British manpower and highly useful as soldiers.”

 

Some 13 years after the successful overthrow of the French in Haïti meant that many southern slavers were on edge about large communities of free black men with guns. 

 

Admiral Alexander Cochrane—the man in charge of the Gulf Coast region for the British Navy and Nicolls’ superior officer—made this anxiety and friction between enslaved people and American Whites a crucial part of his battle plan in what would become the War of 1812. He’d even read a proclamation in Bermuda that offered freedom to any enslaved person who would join up with the British against the Americans. 

 

The British military would deliver an arsenal of weapons, gunpowder, and provisions to the fort to prepare for the invasion. 

 

The Marines would succeed in taking Pensacola but would fail to take Mobile. When the War of 1812 ended, the Colonial Marines had already returned to the site at Prospect Bluff. 

 

The British Crown ordered all her officers and men to leave the theater of war. 

 

Colonel Nicolls, an avowed abolitionist, interpreted the orders literally – and took just men out of the area. He left part of the Maroon Community behind with hundreds of rifles, muskets, and artillery, as well as enough food and ammunition to withstand a lengthy siege. 

 

The British also evacuated a large number of men, women, and children maroons from the area and took them to Nova Scotia on Canada’s Eastern Coast – or to Trinidad, where their ancestors still live today. 

 

When the British pulled out of the area in 1815, The Americans and the Spanish still had a problem. A massive force of well-trained men and about 1,000 people had secured themselves in a strong fort near a high-trade waterway from Spanish territory upriver into American lands. 

 

At the head of this thorn in the side of the two nations were three men – all maroons. 

  • Garçon, a 30-year-old carpenter who had freed himself from a Spanish man in Pensacola after the British had captured the city. 
  • Abraham, a man whom a local company had enslaved, called the John Forbes Company, made its money through predatory trading practices with Native American tribes in the area.
  • Prophet Josiah Francis, a Red Stick Creek Indian Leader in the Creek Civil War. 

 

By the second year of the colony, which included the Fort and small settlements up to fifty miles away from the Fort – The Americans were tired of having to worry about the threat from Raiders and the fact that Free Blacks had set up their civilization just out of their reach. 

 

American Colonel Robert Patterson, familiar with the fort and the situation, advised that “The fort was becoming a growing threat to slavery itself.”

 

Reports about the inhabitants “committing depredations” concealed the true crime they were guilty for war to “inveigle negroes from the citizens of Georgia, as well as from the Creek and Cherokee nations of Indians.”

 

Patterson advised its speedy elimination.

 

General Andrew Jackson, the future seventh president of the United States, sent General Gaines and Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Clinch to destroy the fort, which the Americans called ‘Negro Fort. 

 

Clinch set out with soldiers to build a fort where the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers merged to create the Apalachicola River. He met up with a force of Coweta Creek Indians who began to move to surround the fort. 

 

The American forces quickly realized they would not be able to take the fort without artillery support and waited for their gunboats to arrive. 

 

As the 80 or so defenders and 200 civilians saw the Americans approach by land and sea, Garçon raised the British colors and a red flag, which meant “no surrender, no quarter asked.”

 

That’s how the battle of the Black Alamo began. 

 

Tom Thomin, a professor of history at the University of West Florida, says that the engagement began with American Gunboats moving up and down the Apalachicola River to goad the fort’s defenders into firing on them. 

 

“”

 

The battle raged for a week. That’s when an American gunboat launched a hot shot shell – literally a heated-up cannonball. The ball landed perfectly… hitting the powder magazine and blowing up the fort. 

 

Two hundred seventy people died instantly as a result of the blast. 

 

Dr. Marcus Buck, a physician with the US Army, wrote in a letter home to his father“You cannot begin to describe the scene,” after seeing the carnage that the attack wrought on the fort’s defenders. 

 

Of the few survivors – some, like Garçon, were summarily executed, and some were forced back into slavery. Others, like Josiah Francis, made it out before or during the siege. Francis would go to England to lobby for a mutual security pact between the British and the Creek/Seminole people. He would return to Florida and be executed after the British ignored his pleas. 

 

The battle, which scholars say started the first of the United States’ three wars with the Seminoles, also resulted in the building of Fort Gadsden, a much smaller redoubt on the Apalachicola River—right on top of the site of the former Fort on Prospect Bluff. 

 

The Archaeology

Initial archaeological digs took place on the site in the 1950s. By 1972, the site would become a National Historic Landmark Historic Site

 

Bria Brooks, a graduate student in the underwater archaeology department at the University of West Florida, came to work on her postgraduate degree here – because she wanted to reveal more of the secrets that the Apalachicola river could reveal about Prospect Bluff and the people who lived, fought and died there for a chance to be free. 

 

She adds that this history – history often not spoken about or publicized matters to marginalized groups here and farther afield. 

 

“in the black community in Apalachicola, particularly the African American Heritage Corridor group. They are very invested in the site and helping to tell the story there. It means so much to them. And I will say that the Forest Service has done a great job of trying to interpret this site and teach people about it. They’ve been great partners for everything we’ve ever done at that site.”

 

The site is only one of four in Florida on the Underground Network to Freedom Trail – and descendants of the people who lived at the fort but escaped before the fighting care too and have visited the site. It is also believed to be the largest community of Free Black people in the United States. 

 

Her research focuses on the water next to the fort. She hopes to find evidence of what happened during the battle while the Maroon community lived there two years prior. They have to contend with the damage left behind by Hurricane Michael to make those findings – and more than 200 years change. She hopes to use side scan sonar – like you would use to find fish nowadays. 

 

“We also run a magnetometer. And magnetometers look for ferrous metals. And we pair it with the sonar data, so if we see anything, like we get a little pretty image and have a big mag head, we can say, ” oh, there’s cultural material.”

 

This archaeological work will greatly enhance the story of the people who lived and died at the fort from their own perspectives. With the current historical record, we only have the perspectives of the Americans, Spanish, and British. 

 

“Both the Americans and the Spanish not only did not want that community there,” Professor Thomin reiterated, “but they actively sought out its destruction and the re-enslavement of the people living there. That’s what they intended to do, and that’s through documents. You can read those documents; that’s exactly what they said. So the records that we do have, and this is the issue that we have with all historical records in general, is that there’s always going to be inherent biases within these written documents.”

 

So, while much about this fort hasn’t made it to the public consciousness, that’s kind of what has made it such a hidden gem. 

 

“It may be one of the most significant archaeological sites in the United States,” Thomin added. 

 

The site has been closed since Hurricane Michael entered the area in 2018. There’s no date when it will reopen.  

 

But closure isn’t the only problem the site has had to deal with. Thomin says that looters have snuck onto the property with metal detectors and almost certainly taken items from the area – a federal crime. 

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