Photo exhibits spotlight various topics in Florida history, and are accompanied by brief text intended to place selected materials in historical context.
Land and Labor in Florida History
Plantation Slavery in Antebellum Florida
The transfer of Florida from Spain to the United States in 1821 prompted the migration of thousands of American planters into Middle Florida, the region bounded on the west by the Apalachicola River and on the east by the Suwannee.
Cotton became the major cash crop and large numbers of African slaves toiled on plantations owned by the planter elite. On the eve of the Civil War in 1860, enslaved persons made up more than half of Middle Florida's population.
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The Seminole Wars and Plantation Expansion
Plantations spread beyond Middle Florida after the United States military waged three costly wars against the Seminole Indians.
Soldiers scoured the land, burning Seminole towns and capturing men, women and children. Although they dealt several blows to the U.S. military, especially during the protracted Second Seminole War (1835-1842), the vast majority of Seminoles were either killed in battle or removed to Indian Territory by 1858.
The Seminole Wars opened up southern Florida to American settlement, ushering the peninsula into the narrative of American plantation slavery for the first time.
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Most American settlers arrived in Florida with few or no slaves. A small percentage of the white planters who came to Florida after 1821 held the majority of Africans in bondage. Of the approximately 1,000 cotton-producing plantations in Florida in 1850, about 200 had 30 or more slaves.
The number of planters owning 30 or more slaves doubled to 400 by 1860, reflecting the growing profitability of cotton and an increased reliance on domestic slave labor.
The largest planters, such as Edward Bradford, owned hundreds of slaves. About 300 enslaved Africans worked on Bradford's Horseshoe and Pine Hill plantations in Leon County on the eve of the Civil War.
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Life Under Slavery
African slaves endured a harsh life on southern plantations. Field slaves worked from sun up to sun down in all aspects of agricultural production. Slaves tilled the soil, harvested crops, prepared goods for market, and finally, transported bailed cotton to ports and other distribution centers. Trusted slaves conducted much of the daily business of their master's estate by purchasing goods in-town, overseeing other slaves in the fields, and even accounting.
Slaves also worked inside the homes of the planter elite. For African women working as domestic slaves, life in the big house meant close contact with the slave master and his family. Some planters had affairs with their domestic slaves, or raped African women working inside their homes.
The experience of domestic slaves differed greatly from one plantation to another. In some cases, domestic slaves suffered serious physical and mental abuse from their masters. In rare instances, slaves learned to read and write from their masters or white children living on the plantation.
Away from the watchful eyes of their masters, slaves created a vibrant culture, mixing African beliefs with traditions learned in the Americas. The world created by the enslaved helped them cope with the reality of their life and work on antebellum plantations.
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Despite the abolition of the international slave trade in 1808, the illegal kidnapping of Africans continued into the mid-19th century. Many American and European governments actively pursued privateers engaged in the illegal trade from Africa to the Americas. Traffic continued, however, as not all nations complied with the mandate to end the African slave trade. In the southern United States, the domestic trade continued until after the Civil War.
As abolitionism gained strength in the North, pro-slavery forces hardened their commitment to the peculiar institution. Slaveholders defended slavery and their belief in African inferiority as inseparable from southern life and the identity of the landed elite. Strict fugitive slave laws increased the tension between abolitionists and slaveholders.
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In Florida, abolitionist Jonathan Walker conspired with several slaves to bring them to freedom. In 1844, Walker commandeered a vessel in Pensacola and sailed for the Bahamas. Unfortunately, Walker and his companions were captured before reaching freedom in British territory.
Authorities in the United States found Walker guilty of aiding runaway slaves. A Florida jury sentenced Walker to the pillory for one hour and also branded the letters "SS" on his left hand, for slave stealer.
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