Archaeologist Bill Burger, Left, Begins Excavations at the Possible Site of Angola. Photo Courtesy of Bill Burger
Looking For Angola
Along the Manatee River on the west coast of Florida, archaeologists are searching for the remains of a maroon community of former enslaved Africans and Seminole Indians. Together they fought two wars against the United States in the early 1800s before their settlement was destroyed. Some survivors escaped to The Bahamas, where their descendants still live today.
Their settlement of about 750 people thrived from 1812 until 1821 when a Lower Creek Indian war party, possibly at the behest of General Andrew Jackson, looted and burned their homes, scattering the survivors across the Florida peninsula. Some may have resettled inland, while others made their way to Cape Florida, where they sailed to safety. They left behind a community called Angola.
This exodus from Angola on Florida's Gulf Coast was in the same year that Black Seminoles arrived at Red Bays on Andros Island in The Bahamas.
If archaeologists unearth the lost settlement of Angola near Sarasota they could write a new chapter in the history of America and possibly make a conclusive connection between Angola and the Red Bays settlement where descendants of the early arrivals still live today.
The saga of Angola is hidden in historical documents, oral histories and physical evidence that scholars are attempting to collect in a multi-disciplinary research project called "Looking for Angola."
Angola is one of the most significant historical sites in Florida, if not the United States, Florida A&M University historian Canter Brown Jr., said. He is a member of the research team that is attempting to uncover artifacts, documents and oral histories to unlock the mysteries of Angola. "It illustrates the role Florida played as a refuge of freedom for slaves and their courage to get and keep their freedom," he said.
Other members of the research team are University of Central Florida anthropologist Rosalyn Howard, New College of Florida historical archaeologist Uzi Baram, independent archaeologist Bill Burger, Sarasota educator Louis Robinson and University of South Carolina archaeologist Terrance Weik.
The project involves archaeological field surveys of four sites; historical research throughout England and Nassau, Bahamas; public lectures; the production of a documentary; an educational component that involves middle and high school students as researchers; and an international cultural exchange program.
Join the Search!
Readers of this website also are invited to look for historical documents to increase the understanding of Angola. To participate, go to the Document Reading Room and Looking for Angola Team Forum.
Weik, an expert on maroon communities, said, "The more eyes and ears we have out there, the more successful we will be in learning this history. It's important to have a public component of such research. Different people have different experiences and bring things to the story, as well as evidence."
A popular view of history has it that enslaved people fled north to the free states and Canada. Some of them, however, ran south from Alabama, the Carolinas, Georgia, and North and Central Florida, making their way down the long Florida peninsula, creating a little-known southern spur on the Underground Railroad. From the tip of Florida, many sailed to The Bahamas. One of those who made the crossing in a dugout canoe was a Black Seminole named Scipio Bowlegs, whose surname is prevalent among Florida Seminoles and Andros residents.
Hints about the community known as Angola surfaced as early as 1945 when Kenneth W. Porter shared "Notes on Seminole Negroes in the Bahamas" with readers of The Florida Historical Quarterly. A few months later John M. Goggin released additional information and offered new insight. The Bahamian Department of Archives published supplemental documentary evidence in 1980 regarding "Seminole Settlements at Red Bays, Andros." Harry A. Kersey, Jr., addressed the same subject in The Florida Anthropologist a year later.
It took another decade, however, before the link between the Bahamian exiles and their old Florida home could be established. It was then that Brown suggested that a previously unknown free-black community existed in southwest Florida that had served to keep alive colonial Florida's status as a refuge of freedom.
Looking for Angola Project
The "Looking for Angola" project began to take seed in the early 1990s after Vickie Oldham, a Sarasota resident and producer of local historical documentaries, saw a mention of Angola while she was working on a documentary about African Americans in Sarasota. Cuban fishermen referred to the area as Angola. The Angola settlement is named after the region in West Africa that is home to some of the residents.
"The story of their lives, courage, determination and enterprise deserves preservation and commemoration," Oldham, the project director, said.
Oldham has raised more than $92,000 in state grants and in-kind donations for the project. "To know about this local story of people who lived right in my community, to know of their courage, the risks they took, how determined they were to survive on their own with nothing but what they could carry on their back, that to me was just incredibly empowering," she said.
The Florida Bureau of Historic Preservation and the Florida Humanities Council is supporting part of the Angola project.
The Bahamas Connection
Howard said 1821 is the date that the Black Seminoles arrived at Red Bays. That date is clear, she said, because of a letter in the Bahamian archives "in which a British customs officer `discovered' these people living in the area of Red Bays and took 97 of them to Nassau."
The letter, dated 1828, lists the names of those in custody, and notes, Howard said, that the people had been on the island for seven years, on their own and raising crops.
After about a year the detainees were "returned to the island and allowed to live in freedom," Said Howard, author of "Black Seminoles in The Bahamas."
One reason for rounding up the residents was the fear they may have been dropped off on the island by Spanish privateers who would return later to enslave them. That theory was dispelled when several of the detainees produced certificates of good conduct granted them by the British for their service against the Americans in the War of 1812.
Also in 1821, near Sarasota, a settlement believed to be Angola, of primarily free blacks and runaway slaves, was overrun and destroyed by members of the Lower Creek tribe known as Cowetas. The area also was referred to on old maps as Negro Point. Howard has documents listing the names of some of the Angola inhabitants. She believes many of the Angola survivors may have fled to Cape Florida, and ultimately to Red Bays.
Some of the Angola residents also are believed to have fought in the earliest Seminole Wars against Gen. Andrew Jackson during the violent removal of Indians from Florida. Still others probably were survivors of the destruction of the Negro Fort, now Fort Gadsden State Park, which served as a base for British recruitment of Indians and blacks during the War of 1812, Brown said.
The Search Begins
Two years ago, the Angola project started when Burger and a half dozen volunteers did exploratory digs and shovel tests near Sarasota. They did not find evidence of Angola.
Nevertheless, it was a historic start, Oldham said. "The beginning of a long-term project. The beginning of a journey. God only knows what we're going to find. I believe beyond any doubt that evidence of Angola exists underground and ...(the) team will find it. It's just a matter of when, not if."