Digging for History: Andrew Jackson’s Real Legacy in Florida


Florida’s manicured lawns, giant theme parks, and popular beaches make it hard to remember that the state was once a bloody battleground. In the early 1800s, underequipped militias waged desperate hit-and-run guerrilla wars to defend their villages against an invading army. The army eventually won, the resisters are mostly forgotten, and official history portrays the army’s commanding general as a great American hero.

 

But even accepted history can be challenged by those willing to dig for well-buried facts. That is exactly what a team of archaeologists and historians has been doing just south of Tampa. They are excavating the remains of Angola, a free black settlement whose inhabitants escaped southern slavery in the late 1700s and early 1800s and went on to resist U.S. border encroachments and live free in then-Spanish Florida. The team’s search for Angola’s remains is drawing needed attention to the Florida record of Andrew Jackson, the South’s most-celebrated military champion, and his continued presence on the 20-dollar bill.

 

A People That History Forgot         

 

The Angola project would not have happened if not for the mid-career crisis of an accomplished Sarasota television reporter and talk show host. In 2001, Vicki Oldham left her job with Sarasota ABC affiliate WWSB after 16 years with little idea of what to do next. To fill the gap, she won a contract with Sarasota County to rewrite a script for a documentary about county history.

 

But she got a small shock when she read the original script: the previous writer had African  Americans coming to Sarasota during the Civil War, which she knew was incorrect. Drawing on research by leading Florida historian and prolific author Canter Brown, who has written the definitive history of the area, she was able to include the Angola story in her rewrite.

 

Oldham says that after she finished the documentary project, “that Angola story kept nudging at me and would not let me go.” So in 2003 she decided to explore the possibility of putting together a team of archaeologists and historians to search for physical evidence of the settlement. After an enthusiastic conference call, she led the team in applying for a $24,000 state grant, which they won.

 

In early planning for their digs in densely populated Bradenton, the Angola team got a break when the most promising site turned out to be on the grounds of a local historical society, which was happy to give them access. Digging at another site was made easier by the real estate slowdown, which had halted a planned condominium project.

 

Now, after 4 years of excavation, the team may have found its first hard evidence of Angola. This fall, archaeologists turned up the remains of a wooden post that may be all that is left of an Angola house. More discoveries may be on the way: using underground radar equipment donated by a local firm, the archaeologists have identified the outlines of several nearby buried structures.

 

The discovery of more Angola artifacts, if it comes, will provide final proof of a free people’s struggle to live on their own. Brown’s history of Angola builds on a wealth of primary and secondary sources indicating that the settlement’s rise and fall were the product of a decade of U.S. efforts to expand southern slavery. In turn, it was slavery’s spread in the south that would help launch Andrew Jackson toward the Presidency.

 

Refuge of Resistance

 

Most of Angola’s inhabitants appear to have escaped there after sometimes-heroic battles with a well-armed enemy in the wild Florida outback. The settlement’s founders likely arrived during the Patriot War of 1812, begun by American settlers seeking to seize east Florida from Spain. During that conflict, a black militia clashed with and defeated invading U.S. rebels near present-day Gainesville. Fearing more attacks, those militia fighters and their families moved south, building Angola out of swamp and pine forest into an apparently thriving agricultural settlement.

 

A second small group of refugees came to Angola after another U.S. incursion. In 1815, about 300 free blacks and a few Native Americans occupied an abandoned British fort on the Apalachicola River. Jackson, then a major general in the U.S. army, claimed that the fort’s inhabitants were U.S. property and that the presence of the fort was encouraging more slaves to escape south. In 1816, he violated Spanish territory by sailing naval gunboats up the river. The Negro Fort fired on the fleet, leading Jackson to send in troops to destroy it. With one of their first mortar shots, the troops blew up the enclosure, instantly killing or mortally wounding about 260 men, women, and children. Some of the 40 or so survivors who escaped ended up in Angola.

 

1818 brought a third wave of refugees to Angola. That year, Jackson launched the first Seminole War by again crossing the border with 4000 soldiers to rid Florida of free black fighters who supported Spain and Britain and to return runaway slaves to their owners. Two weeks into the expedition, his forces clashed with about 400 black warriors at the Suwannee River. Against long odds, the black fighters stood their ground in a day-long battle on the river’s west bank, giving their families time to escape across. The group then fled south to Angola. “They probably felt that they were finally safe down on the Manatee River,” says Brown.

 

Death by Treaty

 

Their reprieve was not to last. In 1819, with its power waning, Spain gave in and traded Florida for the settling of boundaries with the United States in the west. But the Spanish made sure that the treaty explicitly guaranteed the “privileges, rights, and immunities” of U.S. citizenship to all inhabitants of Florida, including free blacks and Native Americans.

 

Jackson, tapped to serve as the provisional governor overseeing Florida’s transfer, ignored the treaty language. He soon asked Secretary of War John C. Calhoun for permission to capture the free blacks living in and around Angola for return to southern slave owners. Calhoun flatly refused. But within 2 weeks, Jackson’s close associate William McIntosh, a brigadier general in the U.S. army, took his men into western Florida on a slave raid, destroying every village in their path. Surprising the inhabitants of Angola (probably at night, according to Brown), they set fire to the settlement, seizing about 300 black prisoners. “Now you might say, ‘Wait a minute, they [McIntosh and his men] could have been acting independently of Jackson,” says Brown. “Well, at the time, William McIntosh was a brigadier general in the United States Army by appointment of Andrew Jackson.”

 

By the time McIntosh’s slave raiders got back to Georgia, where the U.S. government could count the prisoners, fewer than 80 of the original 300 were left. These were “returned” to their former slave owners, though many were the children of slaves and had never lived in bondage themselves. The other 220 apparently disappeared.

 

In his research, Brown made a discovery that may reveal the fate of the missing prisoners and an more venal side to the story. An 1821 article in the Charleston City Gazette cited an “eyewitness” to the Angola raid who stated that the raid’s leaders were known to be holding some of the captured slaves. The article asked these “gentlemen” (presumably Jackson, McIntosh, and others) to return the slaves to their rightful masters. Did Jackson and McIntosh profit personally from an under-the-counter sale of Angolans illegally seized? “Coincidentally, this is just the time that Jackson built the beautiful mansion at the Hermitage that you see today,” says Brown. Yet Jackson claimed to have been out of money; in a letter resigning the provisional governorship a few months later, he expressed the desire to “retire to resuscitate my declining fortune to inable it to support me in my declining years.”

 

 

 

A Reassessment of Jackson

 

The Angola raid was part of a strategy that Jackson had launched in other parts of the southeast and that would eventually make him President: use force, bribes, or threats to seize land; open it up to slave owners for cotton cultivation; and receive funds from these allies to run for the nation’s highest office.

 

Brown believes it is past time to reevaluate Jackson. “I don’t think that historians, much less general readers, have any idea of the impact of Jackson’s racial views on the development of politics and on the economics behind it,” he says. “On having to fight Indians to open up more cotton land as the cotton kingdom is expanding. Having to slaughter men, women, and children at places like the Negro Fort because it posed a threat to the opening up of these new cotton lands, how the men who benefited from the opening up of all these new cotton lands then turned around and subsidized his political career. This is stuff that most historians have whistled at as they went by.”

 

Brown is not alone in this view. Andrew Burstein’s 2004 The Passions of Andrew Jackson is highly critical of Jackson’s violent temper and contempt for authority except his own. Historians David and Jeanne Heidler decry Jackson’s quest for empire and might-makes-right ruthlessness in the 1996 Old Hickory’s War: Andrew Jackson and the Quest for Empire.

 

But most other popular biographies of Jackson devote the bulk of their commentary to explaining Jackson’s reasons for behaving as he did. They also ignore his violation of U.S. treaty obligations during the transfer of Florida. Robert Remini’s The Life of Andrew Jackson, which won a National Book Award, goes so far as to claim that Jackson’s “broad definition of the franchise [to vote] did not exclude free blacks or, presumably, Indians who remained in Florida and became citizens. . .” Yet the capture and re-enslavement of Angolans and destruction of Seminole villages surely made their right to vote a moot point.

 

As the Angola team makes future discoveries, they may bring more attention to the idea that for villages and settlements like Angola, Jackson was the point of the spear for a system of slavery far worse than the heavy-handed control imposed by the British Empire on our nation’s founders. The American Revolution may have fostered belief in freedom, but Florida’s incorporation into the United States doomed a free people’s hopes.

 

Resistance to Jackson as Role Model

 

Whether such scrutiny will be enough to call into question Jackson’s status as a national hero remains to be seen. He has at least 50 places named for him, foremost among them Jacksonville, Florida; Jackson, Mississippi; and Fort Jackson, South Carolina. The Democratic Party, despite regularly garnering 90 percent of the African-American vote, still holds annual Jefferson-Jackson Day fundraising dinners. And most prominently, he graces the 20-dollar bill.

 

Quiet efforts persist to protest Jackson’s image on the 20. Members of Cherokee tribes turn it down at banks and stores in favor of two 10s. The punk band Corporate Avenger’s song “Jackson off the 20” asks, “If Hitler was on the 20-dollar bill, how would the Jews feel?” And in 2004 the Breakthrough Institute, a think tank on business and economic issues, launched the “King on the 20” campaign to replace Jackson with Martin Luther King. (The institute’s petition is at http://putkingonthe20.com/petition.php.) Now, according to the institute’s CEO Michael Shellenberger, at least one California state legislator is considering introducing legislation that calls for King to be the bill’s new face.

 

Remini and other prominent Jackson biographers reject such criticism, believing that Jackson should be judged not by today’s standards, but those of his time. “We really need to charge that whole generation [for crimes against humanity] if we’re going to charge anybody,” Remini said in a 2002 lecture about Jackson’s aggressions against Native Americans. Brown responds, “I’m normally very sympathetic to that argument but here’s what I’d say: Jackson helped set the attitudes of his time. . . . Had Jackson been a different man with different attitudes, things could have turned out differently.”

 

Angola’s Legacy of Resistance

 

What once was Angola is now Bradenton, named for the Braden plantation family, who were friends of Jackson aide James Gadsden. But the Angola team keeps digging, even while they spread the word about the city’s buried history. They already have produced a short documentary. They are working to have Angola’s story added to the Florida school social-studies curriculum. Oldham has been called by a film producer asking about a script for a feature film about Angola. And they are planning to apply for Angola’s placement on the National Register of Historic Places as soon as they find artifacts.

 

“My sense is the more we can remember about these communities,” says team archeologist Uzi Baram, “the more we can demolish the racist assumption that people were willing to live as slaves.”

 

 

Steve Yoder is a writer based in Woodstock, New York.  

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