Many might assume that the Underground Railroad traveled in one direction: north to freedom, away from slavery and the plantations of the South. Few realize that runaway slaves also fled south into Florida for almost two centuries before the Civil War.
Before Florida became a territory of the United States, Spanish Florida offered a haven for freedom-seeking people.
Fort Mose is perhaps the best known free-black community in what is now the United States. In 1693, King Charles II of Spain established legal sanctuary for runaway slaves who reached Florida. Though not all blacks in Florida obtained freedom, the policies of the Spanish government provided a path out of slavery.
Free blacks established Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose just north of St. Augustine in 1739. The settlement contained Fort Mose, depicted on this map as “Fuerte Negro,” and the homes of its defenders and their families.
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The southern tip of Key Biscayne, now home to the Cape Florida Lighthouse, served as a point of departure for escaped slaves and Black Seminoles seeking refuge in the British-controlled Bahamas. In 1821, when Florida became a territory of the United States, as many as 300 former slaves and Black Seminoles left Cape Florida and settled on Andros Island in the Bahamas.
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Slaves escaped from southern plantations and joined the Seminoles in Florida. To historians, they became known as “Black Seminoles” or “Seminole Maroons.”
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Abraham escaped slavery in Pensacola and joined the Seminoles. He interpreted and provided counsel for Micanopy during the Second Seminole War.
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John Horse was also known as Gopher John. He provided counsel for Osceola during the Second Seminole War and led Black Seminoles into battle.
Florida witnessed some of the earliest action by black troops during the Civil War.
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As early as November 1862, the Union Army organized escaped slaves into regiments for campaigns against Confederate salt works and saw mills along the St. Marys River.
Later, black troops participated in the bloody battles of Olustee and Natural Bridge. Among the black troops to serve in Florida were the famed 54th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers.
Escaped slaves in Florida often found refuge behind Union lines during the Civil War. The image below depicts six escaped slaves, “contrabands” in the language of the day, making their way toward the blockading vessel Kingfisher near the St. Marks lighthouse in April 1862.
This sketch was originally published in Harper’s Weekly with the following explanation from the artist:
“I beg to transmit to you, herewith enclosed, a rough sketch of contrabands escaping to this vessel (on the 17th of April), with the St. Marks River and Light-house in the distance. They were six in number, almost entirely in a nude state. They state that they ran away some months ago, and had subsisted on what wild hog they could run down, and the roots and herbs that grew around in the bush and swamp. Their sail consisted of an old flannel blanket, and the old coast at the mast-head signified, I presume, a flag of truce. Should you deem it worthy of publication it is at your disposal. Very respectfully, your obedient servant, William O. Jube, Assistant-Paymaster.”
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