Buried under three feet and two centuries of earth near the banks of the Manatee River, a cylinder of white clay no bigger than a cigarette butt was found in 2009 during an archaeological dig at Manatee Mineral Spring in east Bradenton. Nearly mistaken for debris and tossed by a volunteer, this fragment—the stem of a British clay pipe—revealed the shadow of Angola, a community of up to 750 escaped slaves who briefly made this region a haven of freedom before being destroyed in 1821.

Called one of the most significant historical sites in Florida and perhaps the U.S. by Florida historian Canter Brown Jr., Angola is a story of struggle, tragedy and ultimately, survival in the quest for freedom. Angola also reveals Florida’s important role as a sanctuary for escaped slaves who established settlements, farmed, traded and traveled.

This month, descendants of these escaped slaves—many of whom live in the Bahamas where their ancestors found refuge—are returning to the Manatee Mineral Spring site for the first Back to Angola Festival. In September, the National Park Service is meeting to determine if Angola qualifies as part of the Underground Railroad Network of Freedom. “From what I know now, this is one of the largest Florida settlements of resisters to enslavement,” says Sheri Jackson, southeast regional manager of the program.

Today it’s difficult to imagine that an important part of American history occurred on these shores. There’s no museum dedicated to the site’s history, no illustrated exhibits or descriptions on big signs. The freshwater spring called Manatee Mineral Spring is sealed and covered with a slab of cement. The field is patchy mowed crab grass. The Manatee River peeks through the pines to the north, and old Florida homes with children’s toys scattered across front yards surround the perimeter. A solitary plaque mentions Angola and the people who lived there.

That it exists at all is a result of a group that includes historian Brown, a Sarasota activist, a New College of Florida archaeologist, the nonprofit Reflections of Manatee and volunteers who spent years sifting through soil.

Newtown native Vickie Oldham first heard of Angola as a Florida State University graduate student in 1991 when she read Brown’s Florida’s Peace River Frontier, a detailed history of 19th-century Florida Seminoles. Brown wrote of the existence of a community of maroons, a term for escaped slaves, whom he concluded founded their own settlement near where the Braden and Manatee rivers meet.

“I was excited,” Oldham remembers. “It meant that African-American people were here long before the Civil War.”

Oldham worked in TV journalism and marketing after college, but the story of the blacks who lived there and their struggle for freedom remained with her. “I can’t describe it any other way than it was the ancestors who kept prompting me to do something. This story kept me up at night. I kept thinking about how courageous these people were to escape the worst forms of slavery in the Southern states and then to come here not knowing anything about where they were going. They had nobody—just a desire to live in freedom.”

Oldham began an outreach campaign in the early 2000s to involve experts and people who might be able to help. She wrote and won grants and solicited and received donations. In 2004, she called Uzi Baram, a New College anthropology professor and director of the New College Public Archaeology Lab.

“When Vickie approached me,” Baram says, “the research team faced a heck of a task.”

No one knew exactly where Angola had been located, he says, and residential and commercial development had covered and destroyed much of what east Bradenton looked like centuries ago. The only hint of a location where they might find evidence of a maroon community came from Brown’s research that showed a community of maroons that stretched from the Manatee River to Sarasota Bay.

While Baram and some of his colleagues were puzzling out the research design, Baram gave a presentation on the mid-19th century site of the Tabby House Ruins at De Soto National Memorial as part of an annual celebration called Traces of Our Past. In the audience were Jeff and Trudy Williams, co-founders of the nonprofit Reflections of Manatee, which is dedicated to preserving the Manatee Mineral Spring Historic Site. Trudy purchased the property as surplus land in 1998 from the city of Bradenton in a public bidding process for $10 to protect it from development. Why not start excavating on our property, they asked Baram.

It was a promising offer, but still, pinpointing the exact location remained challenging. In 2009, a radar tomography company called Witten Technologies that uses radar pulses to image subsurfaces donated its equipment and services to allow Baram to find specific places to excavate. Baram and his team discovered fragments of that British clay pipe on the property. In 2013, they discovered pearlware, a thick type of British mass-produced ceramic that fit the same time period as the pipe fragments.

The archaeological findings, eyewitness historical reports and Brown’s history established the existence of a maroon settlement in east Bradenton from 1812 to 1821. The location was ideal for a community of runaway slaves. Before it was dredged, the Manatee River was too shallow for U.S. Navy boats to navigate. The site offered rich soil, a supply of fresh water in the mineral spring and a clear view to the north to spot slave raiders.

But who were the residents? Called Black Seminoles, they are descendants of free blacks and runaway slaves, originally from Georgia and the Carolinas, who associated with the Seminoles. For decades, Florida, under Spanish control, had been a sanctuary for blacks escaping British slavery. Many found refuge with Native American tribes. These blacks traveled throughout the peninsula, worked and set up communities.

“We assume when we look at history that there was nothing going on in Florida until the whites came in and planted sugarcane in the 1840s,” says Brown from his home in Lakeland, “and it’s just not true.”

An illustration of the Angola settlement

This history of Angola—named by Cuban fishermen—begins after the War of 1812, when the British pulled out of a garrison on the Apalachicola River called Prospect Bluff and left it to the free and armed blacks and Native Americans who had fought with them. Whites in Washington and Gen. Andrew Jackson, a future U.S. president, were alarmed at the existence of armed blacks and ordered Jackson to cross into Spanish territory and destroy what was now called Negro Fort. On July 27, 1816, a U.S. Navy vessel blew up the fort’s ammunition storage, causing total destruction. Those who escaped the carnage scattered across the Florida peninsula, and many headed south, ending up on the banks of the Manatee River, where they created a village. Angola’s population grew after the First Seminole Indian War in 1817-18 as fugitive slaves living with the Seminoles fled when Gen. Jackson tried to recapture them.

For Brown, Angola’s population size shows its significance and how successful the settlement was. “Most maroon settlements were tiny because people needed to escape detection,” he says. “Angola’s 600 to 750 people was an incredible size back then, and shows that these were capable people.”

Some Black Seminoles who had served in the British army were likely armed and may have been wearing British uniforms. Those who had worked on plantations were adept farmers of corn and other crops. Angola’s people also bartered with Cuban fisherman who lived down river. Back then, deer were abundant in Southern Florida, and the Angolans hunted, tanned and traded skins. They hunted Florida birds for plumage that had an important market for women’s hats in America and Havana.

These maroons also traveled. They sailed in huge dugout canoes to the Bahamas, Jamaica and Cuba, says Brown. The voyages “were mostly to get in touch with British or Spanish officials to get them to honor the commitments laid out in the 1819 Adams-Onis Treaty, which ceded Spanish Florida to the U.S. and promised that all inhabitants of what had been Spanish Florida would be given all rights as citizens.”

News of a thriving maroon community eventually reached American leaders. In 1821, at the direction of Gen. Jackson, the Creeks—his allies—attacked Angola and burned it to the ground. Angola’s settlers scattered across the Florida peninsula. Several hundred headed north to another maroon community that also was eventually destroyed. About 120 were captured, some of whom escaped and others who were forced back into slavery. Other refugees made their way south to Cape Florida near Key Biscayne, where Bahamian fishermen sailed them to Red Bays, Andros Island in the Bahamas, where they eventually became free British subjects.

USF and New College students excavating at Manatee Mineral Spring.

Baram calls the discovery of the Angolan community a “12 years overnight success,” noting it usually takes archaeologists decades to find and piece together an invisible community. “This discovery happened fast,” he says. “Maybe the ancestors did help.”

The project has felt spiritual as well as scientific to him. “The human quest for freedom runs through different cultures,” he says. “This is a story of freedom-seeking people who escaped the cruelty of slavery, who wandered through the swamps of Florida and found their liberty on Andros Island.”

“African-American students who see themselves portrayed in history can connect their lives with the lives of these people in Angola,” Oldham says. “If they can make the connection like I did, then their lives could be enriched and empowered.”

That’s true for Daphney Towns, a Bahamian ex-pat who moved to Bradenton in 1992. She learned about Angola when she visited the property and realized some of the inhabitants had fled to Red Bays in the Bahamas.

“When I stood on this ground,” Towns says, “I could feel it.”

She contacted Bahamian government officials last spring and suggested they organize an event that would bring Angolan descendants back to the site. On July 13-15, a Bahamian delegation and descendants are expected to attend the Back to Angola Festival. “I think we came to [Manatee Mineral Spring] because of a stirring in the soul for freedom,” Towns says. “Now we are coming back to this place where we once found hope, where we once found freedom.” 

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