Early Florida

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Early Floridians

map of Florida tribes

Florida’s Lost Tribes Map by Theodore Morris. Courtesy Theodore Morris, www.losttribesflorida.com

Early indigenous peoples in southeast Florida included the Jeaga, Jobe, Ais and Tequesta. According to archaeological evidence, Jaegas settled in modern-day Palm Beach County at least 5,000 years ago.

The Spanish arrive in 1519, when Juan Ponce de León makes landfall at the Jupiter Inlet. In 1519, about 20,000 Native peoples live in South Florida.


Las Siete Partidas (book cover)

Cover of Las Siete Partidas (public domain).

Enslaved Africans are fleeing from Carolina plantations to Florida. Those who manage to evade slave hunters cross the St. Mary’s River to gain freedom in Indian territory. The river serves as the border between British and Spanish colonial territory.

In 1693, in response to the huge influx of enslaved Africans, the Spanish make Florida a sanctuary for the runaways. They recognize the opportunity of using blacks to protect “La Florida” from the British.

The Spanish settlement at St. Augustine begins to free runaway slaves as long as they agreed to convert to Catholicism and protect the northern border from the British, according to Jane Landers, author of Black Society in Spanish Florida.

Florida under Spanish rule has very different slave codes from those of British colonies. Spain uses Castilian slave codes (Siete Partidas): comprehensive legal codes not exclusively based on race, which defines the slave’s rights and obligations and acknowledges a slave’s moral personality. Serving as protectors of Spanish territory enables blacks to own and carry firearms and assume leadership roles.

Early 1700s

19th-century engraving of a Black Seminole warrior of the First Seminole War (1817–8).

19th-century engraving of a Black Seminole warrior of the First Seminole War (1817–8). Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Native Americans from Alabama and Georgia begin to move into the Spanish colony as well, including the Creek, Hitchiti, Yamasee and Miccosukee, who have fought Europeans for decades. Collectively, they become known as the Creeks or the Seminoles. The Seminole offer refuge for runaway slaves. Some newcomers are known as Miccosokee Indians.

Enslaved Africans and Afro-descendants who find refuge with Seminole encampments are technically governed by Seminole chiefs, but they are allowed to bear arms, live in their own villages, and marry Seminoles. They teach Seminoles Spanish and English and show them how to build homes.

According to Jane Landers, author of Black Society in Spanish Florida, “I don’t think some modern U.S. audiences can get that neither the Spaniards nor the Seminoles nor the blacks themselves considered them slaves ‐ only the Americans did.” Early black Floridians become farmers, ranchers, cowboys, interpreters, hunters, traders and defenders of the encampments.

As Jane Landers (1999, p. 4) notes:

For the colonial period at least, Africans in Florida lived … in a more complex and international world that linked the Caribbean, Africa, the various competing European powers in North America, and a still vast and powerful, not to mention diverse, Indian hinterland. Pragmatically drawing upon African, European and Indigenous models to create a new society in the circum-Atlantic periphery of Florida, they fit Ira Berlin’s profile of “Atlantic creoles”; people of “linguistic dexterity, cultural plasticity, and social agility.”

Divide & Conquer: Efforts to Divide Seminoles and Africans/Afro-Descendants

The U.S. government knows that Florida is a territory where blacks and Native Americans form alliances with each other and live together. Alliances between blacks and Native peoples are considered particularly dangerous to white landowners.

George Washington’s administration interprets the close relationship between blacks and Seminoles as dangerous to national security. He tries to get Seminoles to extradite black Floridians to their former enslavers by threatening military assault and by offering a federal slave bounty.

The first documented evidence of Africans and Afro-descendants in what is now Palm Beach County dates back to the Seminole Wars that begin in the early 1700s. The Seminole Wars are three related military conflicts involving the U.S. Army and the Seminole (Native Americans) who coalesce in Spanish Florida during the early 1700s. The Seminole fight the invasion of their territory and efforts to force them to leave Florida altogether.

1733 and 1740

Spain offers royal cédulas to enslaved Africans and Afro-descendants who have escaped into Spanish settlements such as Florida. Spanish colonies like Florida promise first limited freedom and then full freedom.


artist rendering of Francisco Menéndez

Francisco Menéndez. From the Florida Museum.

Spain establishes Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose (Fort Mose) as a defense post just north of St. Augustine. Fort Mose is the first free black community in North America. Captain Francisco Menéndez, born in Gambia, Africa, of Mandingo descent, leads the garrison established at Fort Mose.

Menéndez had been enslaved in British South Carolina, but as early as 1687 had escaped to Spanish Florida seeking more endurable slavery conditions. He became a soldier and later a captain in the black militia of Florida. Black citizens of Spanish Florida and former Carolina slaves created this military body in order to protect Spanish Florida against the advancements of the British military.

The Spanish Crown recognizes Menéndez for his loyalty and courage during the many sieges of the British. In fact, Spain recognizes him as one of the finest soldiers to serve the crown in America.

(Fort Mose is now recognized as a National Historic Landmark and State Park).


When the British take control of Florida from the Spanish, English lawmakers invent ever-growing lists of slave codes that have no seeming connection to one another except to imagine the slave as potential threat.

Most of Florida’s native population has been killed or has died during enslavement and/or from diseases brought from Europe. Nonetheless, black and white Floridians include those who are descendants of the Native peoples, due to intermarriage and the consequences of rape.

Portrayals of Black Men as Dangerous

Negative cultural portrayals of armed blacks describe them as a threat to white property, including white women (treated as property).

Historian Marvin Dunn suggests that the reason Confederates routinely shoot and kill captured black Union soldiers is “because they had dared to take up arms against white men.”

Divide & Conquer: Hindering Bonds Between Blacks & Whites

Early slave codes are not exclusively based on race, but white landowners work to discourage class-based or cross-racial solidarity by extending special privileges to poor whites.

White servants are allowed to police slaves as part of slave patrols and militias; they are also given greater access to Native American lands. In other words, poor whites are given an economic stake in maintaining white supremacy.

1783: After American Revolution, Florida Returns to Spain

When British rule of Florida ends in 1783, after the American Revolution, many blacks escape again into Florida seeking sanctuary. African Americans build relationships with Seminole Indians, who have long harbored runaways. During the Civil War, hundreds of African Americans in Florida escape from slavery to serve in Union regiments; whites in the Union become allies.

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1791-1804: Haitian Revolution

The Haitian Revolution is the largest slave revolt in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti becomes the first independent nation in the Caribbean, the second democracy in the Western hemisphere, and the first black republic in the world. Self-liberated Africans and their descendants (with some allies) end not only slavery but also French colonial rule in Saint-Domingue, now the sovereign state of Haiti.

In slave-owning colonies, fears of slave rebellions heighten and acts of resistance are met with harsh punishments, including public executions. Free blacks are often abducted and returned to slavery.

1793: Fugitive Slave Law

This law–enacted during the Haitian Revolution–restricted the freedom and movement of both enslaved and free blacks.


“Hunting Indians in Florida with blood hounds”: A tableau dramatizing the brutal tactics employed by Zachary Taylor as commander of U.S. forces against the Seminole Indians during the Second Seminole War (1835-42). Taylor, on horseback at right, presides over a scene of devastation and carnage. Soldiers aided by bloodhounds relentlessly pursue retreating Seminoles, including a multitude of women and children who flee in panic to the left. Published by James Baillie, 1848, N.Y. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

1835-1842: The Second Seminole War

The Second Seminole War is one of the bloodiest and most brutal of all U.S.‐ Indian wars. Some historians call it the largest slave rebellion in United States history. According to William Loren Katz, author of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage, “You cannot understand the history of Florida without understanding Black Seminole and Red Seminole history. They are the core.” One of the major struggles is the Battle of Loxahatchee on the Loxahatchee River in northern Palm Beach County.

Peliklakaha, also known as Abraham’s Old Town, is an Afro-descendant enslaved by a Pensacola doctor. In the first Seminole War, he fights against then‐Gen. Andrew Jackson’s troops. He recruits blacks into the Seminole tribe, becomes an interpreter and gains status as a lawyer for Chief Micanopy when he travels to Washington in 1826. When he is assured that his people will not be sold back into slavery, Abraham helps negotiate peace, ending his 20‐year fight. From 1838 to 1843, the U.S. forces more than 500 Black Seminoles to move west. Many more Black Seminoles are abducted by slave runners and sold into slavery.

According to Richard Procyk, author of Guns Across the Loxahatchee:

Although the U.S. government tried to disrupt this interracial alliance, Indian loyalty to black Seminoles remained unshaken as Seminole warriors, including chiefs, continued to marry black women and rely on black advisors.

The geographical area that later becomes Palm Beach County is nearly devoid of permanent native American villages and camp sites following the Second Seminole War, at least until the arrival of a second wave of Seminole migration in the late 1880s.

1821: Harsh Slave Codes Return

When the United States assumed control of Florida, it brings a harsh slave code into force once again. Slave-owners pressure Florida’s first Legislative Council (which is whites only) to restrict the presence of Florida’s free blacks, prompting many blacks to flee to Cuba.

Man whipping enslaved man as two other men and a child watch (Florida).

Illustration from “Trial and imprisonment of Jonathan Walker, at Pensacola, Florida, for aiding slaves to escape from bondage.” Published in 1845 by the Anti-Slavery Office in Boston. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Cultural Portrayals Reinforce Racial Stereotypes

White southerners and slavery apologists in the North portray slavery as harmless. Through literature, visual images, travel accounts and minstrel shows they depict enslaved blacks as happily subservient, dancing for the entertainment of white masters in the spaces of the plantation.

In contrast, they use popular portrayals of racially mixed urban neighborhoods of the north, such as New York’s Five Points, to highlight the dangers of interracial socialization between free blacks and Irish and other immigrants. They warn European immigrants that they will be “blackened” and face health risks if they associate with people of African descent.

1841: Cha-Chi’s Town

The City of West Palm Beach rests on the site of a former Native American village known as “Cha-chi’s Town”. It was located adjacent to Clear Lake in the freshwater chain-of-lakes. The ancient haulover (portage) used between Lake Worth (i.e. Hypoluxo) and the Seminole village was called “Cha-chi’s Landing.” It was located at the waterfront park that the “Sandy” sculpture currently occupies. The Landing and Village are named after Seminole village chieftain Cha-Chi, who on Nov. 7, 1841 faces a decision that will dictate and haunt the remainder of his life (Read more about this Cha-Chi and this site in this article by local historian Bob Davidsson).

The Strategy of Surveillance

Surveillance, silencing and often violent threats and retribution against both blacks and non-blacks served as a strategy against those whose voices or actions threatened white property or myths of white supremacy. As historian Paul Ortiz (2005) describes, municipal officials in Florida pass ordinances that heighten the surveillance of blacks–empowering police to sweep and search black residences and restricting the movement of blacks.

In one municipality, for example, enslaved and free blacks are punished if they stepped outside their place of residence without a written note from their owner, employer or guardian.

They enact political, economic and cultural measures aimed at restricting the physical movement of blacks in order to keep them in bondage, thus protecting their “property”. Typically, these measures are enforced through violence or the threat of violence. Whites who dare challenge white supremacy are also faced with threats of violence, as documented in the book excerpt below.

Page from the book,

Page from the book, “Trial and imprisonment of Jonathan Walker, at Pensacola, Florida, for aiding slaves to escape from bondage. With an appendix, containing a sketch of his life,” published in 1845 by the Anti-Slavery Office in Boston. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

1850: Fugitive Slave Law

Like the law passed in 1793, this law restricts the freedom and movement of both enslaved and free blacks.

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Black Housing Before the Civil War

According to scholar David Lee (1992), four patterns of black housing exist in Southern cities before the civil war:

  • small black districts on out-of-the-way streets;
  • houses of free black homeowners;
  • shantytowns near a city edge that housed enslaved people not needed in agricultural or domestic activities;
  • back-alley sites in white residential districts, usually for domestics who lived near those who enslaved them.

1855-1858: The Third Seminole War

The third and last Seminole War takes place in the middle of the 19th Century, after U.S. Army scouting parties and white settlers encroached once again on Seminole lands. In 1855, Chief Billy Bowlegs led a raid near Ft. Myers after an army surveying crew discovered and destroyed a Seminole plantation west of the Everglades. While the ensuing conflict did not involve any major battles, the U.S. Army targeted the food supply of the Seminoles.

By 1858, the Seminoles face starvation, and many agree to be sent to Oklahoma in exchange for cash and safe passage. An estimated 500 Seminole participate in the conflict, which consists mainly of raids and reprisals, with no large battles fought. Others refuse to leave and retreat deep into the Everglades and the Big Cypress Swamp to live on land that white settlers consider undesirable.

After 1858: Tom Tiger: Seminole Leader

Tom Tiger is a leader in the Cow Creek Band of the Seminoles. As described in this article by local historian Bob Davidsson, Tom Tiger fights in the Third Seminole War (1855-58) during his younger years. After the war, he becomes very curious about American settlers and their inventions, and he forms friendships with the newcomers. “He would often make unexpected visits to West Palm Beach, Stuart and Fort Pierce to trade or just observe what was happening in the growing communities,” writes Davidsson.

Tom Tiger is the first member of the Seminole tribe whose legal case makes it to a Florida court of law. Advocates for Tom Tiger go to court for justice after a farmer steals one of his horses.

1851: Florida’s First Black Church

A white Baptist minister ordains Florida’s first and only African American minister, and gives him land for a church in Belair, Florida. Black churches serve as a kind of safe haven for African Americans.

1857: Dred Scott v. Sandford: U.S. Law Denies Citizenship to Blacks

U.S. law determines that African Americans, enslaved or free, are not citizens of the U.S. and thus have no rights as citizens under the U.S. Constitution. This also hinders the freedom and mobility of all poor people, to varying extents.

1861-1865: Florida in the Civil War

The American Civil War rages from 1861 to 1865, with northern states loyal to the Union fighting southern states that have seceded to form the Confederate States of America. No decisive battles take place in Florida, and while Union forces take over many towns and forts on the coast, Confederates maintain control of the state’s interior.

An estimated 15,000 Floridians fight in the war, but 2,000 black and white Floridians join the Union Army. When the South is defeated in 1865, federal troops occupy Tallahassee.

1863: Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet well before 1863, African Americans have been doing whatever they can to undercut the cruel business of slavery. While the Emancipation Proclamation signals the federal government’s intent to legally support ongoing efforts at black freedom, it has so many conditions that it cannot be called a complete rejection of slavery–and it does not result in an actual end of slavery, especially in Florida and Texas, where the state government does not announce that slavery has ended.

1965, May 20: Florida’s Emancipation Day

In Florida, emancipation is not proclaimed in Tallahassee until May 20, 1865, 11 days after the end of the Civil War, and a full two years after the Proclamation first issued by President Abraham Lincoln freed those enslaved in Southern states.

To this day, Floridians celebrate Emancipation Day on May 20.

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