When Hurricane Michael tore through the Florida Panhandle last October, its furious winds ripped through the site of a 19th-century fort along the Apalachicola River, some 70 miles southwest of Tallahassee. Aound 100 of its trees were pulled out of the ground, unearthing long-hidden artifacts from the community of rebel slaves that occupied the fort before coming to a tragic end.
“Hurricane Michael has provided us an unprecedented opportunity to study artifacts from the Maroon Community, which occupied Negro Fort between 1814 and 1816,” says U.S. Forest Service archaeologist Rhonda Kimbrough. A team from the the National Forests in Florida and Southeast Archaeology Foundation are now hard at work sifting through historic treasures that were tangled up in the roots of the trees, reports Nada Hassanein of the Tallahassee Democrat. To date, shards of British glass, pipe fragments, gun flints, ammunition and ceramic pieces have been found in the area. Experts have also unearthed the location of a field oven, or the ditch that encircles a fire pit.
The fort was constructed by the British during the war of 1812, and sits in an area now known as Prospect Bluff Historic Sites. But it was once called the “Negro Fort”—named for the “maroons,” or runaway slaves, who took up residence there.
Maroon communities formed across the Americas and in the Caribbean over the course of more than four centuries, often congregating in remote, hard-to-access areas. Some groups were able to persist for generations, and grew to encompass thousands of people of African descent with their own culture, government and trade systems. Many maroon communities developed military defenses and fought doggedly against European and American oppressors, who, in some cases, were left with no choice but to make peace treaties with the rebels. But in the case of the Prospect Bluff community, the maroons aligned themselves with the British military in exchange for their freedom, reports Live Science’s Yasemin Saplakoglu.
Members of the Seminole, Creek, Miccosukee and Choctaw also joined British troops there. At its peak, as many as 5,000 people may have lived at the site—a number that fell significantly after the war drew to a close and the British decamped. On July 27, 1816, U.S. Navy forces sailed down the Apalachicola River intent on destroying the fort, which “which was perceived as a threat to white slaveholders in Georgia,” according to the National Park Service. An early shot hit an ammunitions storage site, causing a huge explosion that killed 270 people still living at the fort. The 50 maroons who survived were forced back into slavery, according to Hassanein.
Two years later, during the First Seminole War, Captain James Gadsden, who served as an aid to General Andrew Jackson, built another fort at the site, which remained in use until 1821. Today, the area is sometimes known as “Gadsden Fort.”
The explosion at the fort not only resulted in a devastating massacre, but also dispersed the objects that were once contained there. “[Y]ou're going to have stuff scattered everywhere, just everywhere,” Rhonda Kimbrough, heritage program manager with the National Forests in Florida, tells Saplakoglu.
Those artifacts were buried deep within the ground for some two centuries until Hurricane Michael hit. Because the site is protected as a National Historic Landmark, it has undergone minimal excavations in the past, but the National Park Service (NPS) has now provided a $15,000 grant to investigate the objects dredged up by the storm.
The archaeologists hope that with further research, they will be able to match the newly discovered artifacts to the specific cultures that lived in the fort. “The easy, low-hanging fruit is European trade ware that dates to that time period,” Kimbrough tells Hassanein. “But when you have ceramics that were made by the locals, it’s even more unique and special.”
The site of the former fort was recently listed as part of the NPS’ Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, which, in part, promotes the preservation of areas associated with the Underground Railroad. “Even though they’re spread all over the place,” Kimbrough tells Hassanein, “[these sites are] connected by one thing, which is resistance to slavery."