Welcome to Florida’s Most Inaccessible Historic Site

By Douglas C. Lyons

SUMATRA — Name Florida’s most inaccessible historic site. Fort Jefferson is a worthy candidate. Located in Dry Tortugas National Park, it sits on a small island just 70 miles due west of Key West.

Still, Fort Jefferson has nothing on the Fort Gadsden Historic Site, a memorial to a black settlement and the scene of a brutal battle that left 270 men, women and children dead.

The site was originally a British fort built along the Apalachicola River during the War of 1812 to wage attacks on the American territories. After the war, the British abandoned the fort, leaving it to their allies: a group of 30 Seminole and Choctaw Indians and roughly 300 fugitive slaves.

The reputation the “Negro Fort” grew, but the existence of a black settlement inside a heavily armed fort didn’t sit well with slaveowners in nearby Georgia.

Enter Andrew Jackson, then the military commander of the U.S. Southern District. He ordered troops to travel down the Apalachicola River and destroy the outpost.

The fort had been attacked before, and its black inhabitants managed to beat back that earlier effort. Embolden by their defense, the fort’s leaders began launching raids on plantations across the U.S. border. Perhaps the successes of those skirmishes lulled the black settlers into a false security when Jackson’s troops arrived and demanded an immediate surrender.

Facing attack, the black inhabitants feared leaving the fort would result in being forced back into slavery. They  vowed instead to fight to the death. The battle began on July 27, 1816, but it didn’t last long. Although the occupants were well armed, they weren’t very good at firing cannons. While the shots from the fort fell harmlessly into the river, a red-hot cannonball from the gunboat hit the powder magazine containing the fort’s ammunition. The explosion could be heard 100 miles away in Pensacola, and it pretty much killed all of the fort’s inhabitants.

The fort was rebuilt in 1818 and renamed after Lt. James Gadsden who led the efforts to restore it. Fort Gadsden saw use during the Second Seminole War and the Civil War, until 1863 when a malaria outbreak forced Confederate troops to abandon the fort. It didn’t take long before the neglected outpost became a memory, a piece of Florida’s past now lost to history and its inconspicuous location.

LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION

The site sits in the middle of nowhere. It’s located in the Apalachicola National Forest near Sumatra, Florida, just south of the Franklin-Liberty county line.  ‘Isolated’ is too kind of a description. Signs of civilization are far and few between, and those signs that exist around the site might scare the casual observer. I had wanted to visit the park and get a picture of the Fort Gadsden historic marker for the Florida Black Historic Marker Tour series. Unfortunately, I had put as much thought into the trip to the “Negro Fort” as if I was picking up milk from the neighborhood grocery store. My bad.

It was a beautiful day for a road trip. My spirits were high, the music was blasting and the scenery was what you’d expect from an off-the-beaten path locale. It was supposed to be an uneventful drive along the back roads — from Perry through the woods and eventually along Florida’s Coastal Highway into Panama City Beach.

My plan was simple enough. Stop by the fort and snap a few pictures for the blog. I had an itinerary and a schedule, and I was making good time once I turned south onto State Road 65. At the point, head to Sumatra, and I’m there. At least those were the directions given to me by the navigator —  my cellphone’s GPS.

Tip No. 1. Never rely on GPS for finding a Florida historic marker in an isolated area — especially when the phone dies and reads: “No Signal.” GPS does wonders in the city or the suburbs. Not so much in the middle of a national forest. Thank goodness for that Liberty County sheriff’s deputy who clocked me doing 82 mph in a 60-mph zone. She let me off with a warning and told me that I had to drive farther south into neighboring Franklin County to get to the park.

I’m glad I listened to that sheriff’s deputy and drove a little closer to the speed limit. If I hadn’t, I would have blown past the small brown sign marking the entrance to the park.

The trees of the Apalachicola National Forest

The turn off the state highway took my wife and me onto a dirt road that seemed to run forever. There were no signs of civilization, much less signs for a park. Just the forest as far as the eye could see. Twenty minutes later, I began to worry.

A mile into our trek along the dirt road, we reached an intersection. There still was no sign of the park, but there was a sign. Unfortunately, my wife saw it first: “No discharging of firearms within 500 feet of residences.”

There were no residences in sight, only a smaller dirt road that disappeared among the pine trees. My wife began to think —  out loud. She wondered if this trip so deep in the  woods for a picture at a historic marker was really worth it.

Finally, after another mile and what seemed like hours later, a sign for the park appeared.  “Fort Gadsden Park One Mile,” and it had an arrow that directed us to a one-lane dirt road that only seemed to appreciate four-wheel drive vehicles.

My wife began thinking out loud, again. This time the concern centered on the possibility of getting a flat tire in the boonies with cellphones that read “No Service.” It didn’t help matters that we crossed  another dirt road with the accompanying warning sign about discharging firearms near unseen residences.

I remained determined and pressed on.

Entrance of Fort Gadsden Historic Site

A mile of slow bumpy driving took us to the site, only to find its low-slung gate blocking the road. The park was closed.

Tip No. 2. Call first.

Feeling defeated, I turned the car around and headed back to the state road — empty handed. Fortunately, the rest of the trip was more pleasant.

IT’S STILL WORTH THE VISIT

My mis-adventure aside, I’d make the trip again.

The area became a state park during the 1960s when the Florida
Board of Parks & Historic Memorials
established Fort Gadsden State Historic Site.  Unfortunately, state budget cuts forced the board to relinquish control of the park.

The U.S. Forest Service maintains the park, and there’s a number for the Ranger District Office: 850 643-2282. I was fortunate to reach an individual there who explained how the park operates. (He also told me not to worry about the “firearm” warnings. The signs are up for the hunters during hunting season.)

The park, he said, is accessible in the daytime. The gate, however, is typically closed to vehicles, unless a group reserves its use. There’s no problem stepping over the gate to enter the fort. The site isn’t staffed, and the park most likely will remain in this state for the foreseeable future.

Brick tomb marks a mass grave from the final battle at the Negro Fort.

For those visitors who step over or walk around the gate, the park offers scenic river views, a picnic area,  interpretive kiosks and signs, short hiking trails, scant remains of the fort and solitude. There are no crowds. No noise. Just the quiet of the forest and the stillness one might find in a cemetery.  The site is home to a  mass grave containing the victims of the Negro Fort explosion, along with 100 soldiers who were stationed and died at the isolated fort.

The Fort Gadsden Historic Site has historic significance. The Negro Fort, like other early black settlements in Florida, including  Fort Mose in St. Augustine, became havens for runaway slaves who sought freedom by fleeing south.

Unfortunately, many people today won’t make the trip to Fort Gadsden. Many people simply don’t know anything about the fort and those who do may be turned off  by the park’s remote location. Both are the ingredients for an unfairly unappreciated historic site.

Douglas C. Lyons is founder of www.blackinfla.com. He’s determined to return to the Fort Gadsden Historic Site, if he can convince his wife to accompany him.

Accessibility: What part of “in the middle of nowhere” did you not understand? The Fort Gadsden Historic Site is in a remote location that is literally in the woods. If you go, be sure your car is in tip-top shape and hope that your cellphone carrier maintains a strong signal.  The Apalachicola National Forest is no place for mishaps.

Area Activities: The national forest has plenty of great-outdoor activities. The camping, hiking and the fishing are best  during the spring. Hunting season varies but typically includes the Thanksgiving holiday and runs through the months of December and January.

Apalachicola is the popular destination for many residents living in the Tallahassee area. For the motorist seeking a new wrinkle to that day trip or weekend getaway to the Apalachicola Bay, I’d suggest taking the longer route to the Gulf coast by adding a stop at the Fort Gadsden Historic Site.

Take State Road 366 (West Pensacola Street) west out of Tallahassee. It will become SR 20, which you’ll take to Horsford, Fla. Once there, turn left onto SR 65. Head south. You’ll pass through Sumatra and, once you enter Franklin County, look for the brown “Fort Gadsden” park sign.  Take the dirt road for about two miles where you’ll see another sign directing you to the park itself.

From the site, take a right turn off the dirt road onto SR 65 and head south until it dead-ends onto US 319. Turn right and go west to Apalachicola. This route adds an hour to the more direct and well-traveled U.S. 319 route between Tallahassee and Apalachicola. The longer route is scenic, but it runs through long stretches of isolated areas of the Apalachicola National Forest, particularly along SR 65.

Photo Credit: Ebyabe, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Robert Drenning/Bob &Sharon’s Travel Adventures Blog, Nate Steiner

Where Is Douglas C. Lyons Going with The “Florida Black Historic Marker Tour?”

Mark your calendars. The fifth stop of the summer “Florida Black Historic Marker Tour” is coming up. Check back here at www.blackinfla.com on Thursday, August 3rd to see our next black historic destination. Enjoy the trip, and check it out. You’ll learn something. — Douglas C. Lyons

Where is Douglas C. Lyons Going with The ‘Florida Black Historic Marker Tour?’

Looking north along Mizell-Johnson State Park

Mark your calendars. We’re coming up on the fourth stop of the “Florida Black Historic Marker Tour” summertime road trip. Check out  www.blackinfla.com on Thursday, July 20th to see our next black historic destination. Enjoy the ride and might learn something. — Douglas C. Lyons

Photo Credit: Douglas C. Lyons

Where Is Douglas C. Lyons Going Next with the ‘Florida Black Historic Marker Tour’?

Mark your calendars. The second stop of the “Florida Black Historic Marker Tour” summertime road trip is coming up soon. Check back here at www.blackinfla.com on Thursday, June 22 to see our next black historic destination.  Check it out. You’ll enjoy the ride and might learn something. — Douglas C. Lyons

Photo Credit: Douglas C. Lyons

 

Tomorrow We Kick Off the Tour into Florida’s Black History

Tomorrow is the day! We begin our summer road trip through Florida history on  www.blackinfla.com., and the question is: Where should we start?

How about Jacksonville, a town that once was the South’s most progressive black community? Or St. Augustine, home of Florida’s first settlement for runaway slaves? Or Key West, a sanctuary city long before Americans ever knew about the term? Check back to see where we begin and follow us on this unique tour. You’ll enjoy the ride and might learn something. — Douglas C. Lyons

 

 

 

North America’s first free black settlement

battle of fort mose
Re-enactment of the Battle of Fort Mose.
artist's depiction of fort mose
Artist’s depiction of Fort Mose

If you listen carefully, tuning out the noise from the park’s boardwalk and picnic areas, you can almost hear the sounds of North America’s first legally sanctioned free black settlement.

Whether it’s the sounds of hammer beating molten iron at the blacksmith, the squeals of children or the cadences of the local militia, the village of El Pueblo de Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose attracted blacks — slave and free — from Africa, Spain and the Americas. More than 100 men, women and children once lived in the old fort that protected St. Augustine.

Fort Mose was built in 1738, and its occupants found refuge from the harsh life of slavery by joining the Catholic Church and pledging allegiance to the king of Spain. In 1763, when the British took control of Florida, the residents of Fort Mose left for Cuba, and freedom.

Today, the old fort is a 40-acre waterfront park located east of U.S. 1 just north of St. Augustine. It houses a picnic areas, a marina for canoeing and kayaking and a boardwalk where birders can see White Ibis, Great Blue Heron and Bald Eagles. The remains of the earlier settlement are long gone, but the significance of Fort Mose Historic State Park should not be lost to history.

The Defense of St. Augustine

The original Fort Mose may have been built by Spain to defend St. Augustine, but as the first community of free black men and women in North America, it served as a haven on the original Underground Railroad for runaway slaves who fled from the harsh plantation life to the north.

The Fort Mose Historical Society, the Florida Department of State and Florida Living History Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to educating the public about the state’s colonial and territorial history, hold commemorations of the founding of Fort Mose with stirring re-enactments of the proclamation that established the settlement and named the community’s first leader.

Admission to the event is free of charge. There is a $2 admission fee to the park’s museum for adults; children 5 or younger are admitted to the museum for free.

Safe haven for slaves and freed blacks

The re-enactments are reminders of the rich black history of North America’s oldest city. When Spain regained the Florida territory after the American Revolutionary War, the seeds of an enduring black community in St. Augustine were planted, beginning with a free black community that readily accepted newcomers from the American colonies and the Haitian revolution.

The one-time center of black business and residential life, Lincolnville, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Florida Black Heritage Trail, and there have been efforts to restore some of houses in the area. The Andrew Young Crossing sits in the midst of the city’s historic district and commemorates the 1964 march led for civil rights that ended in violence.

Race played a major role in shaping what is now Florida. Under Spanish rule, blacks not only found asylum from slavery but a comfortable enough life that black men were willing to protect it by serving in the militia to protect Spanish Florida from the British. The struggle between two countries led to the creation of Fort Mose, and ultimately its undoing.

For more information, contact: Fort Mose Historic State Park, 15 Fort Mose Trail, St. Augustine, FL 32084, (904) 823-2232

Seeking Serenity? Try Mizell-Johnson State Park

 

Walkway leading to the beach at Mizell-Johnson State Park
Walkway leading to the beach at Mizell-Johnson State Park

I’m not sure if people living in the Fort Lauderdale area realize what a treasure they have in the Mizell-Johnson State Park. Many probably won’t recognize the park’s name.

Say John U. Lloyd Park, and perhaps, you’ll see a glint of recognition.

Von D. Mizell was a prominent black physician and founder of the local NAACP chapter. Eula Johnson was a businesswoman who owned several gas stations and became NAACP chapter president. Both worked to change the Jim Crow laws that kept blacks and whites separate.

On July 4, 1961, they led a “wade-in” protest at Fort Lauderdale’s “whites-only” public beach. The one that is now the economic engine and tourist attraction.

In their honor, the one-time blacks-only beach was renamed after Mizell and Johnson. Three pavilions have also been renamed to honor other black dignitaries in the Fort Lauderdale area.

Regardless of the name change, the park is a beautiful locale and a nice alternative to the city’s more popular — and heavily used — beach.

Yes, the Fort Lauderdale beach along A1A and Las Olas Boulevard is free, and there’s a cost to get into Mizell-Johnson. It is a state park after all.

Looking north along Mizell-Johnson State Park
Looking north along Mizell-Johnson State Park    convenient and inexpensive place to park. Try negotiating space on the beach itself after you crossed traffic to even get to the sand and shore.

The  irony is hard to miss. The one time “all-white” beach and cultural attraction for Fort Lauderdale can be a experience of sand, shore and crowd control. The more serene historic “all-black” beach in Dania Beach is the real  jewel.

In place of the congestion that comes with a tourist-trap strip, Mizell-Johnson State Park offers a very pleasant shoreline, park amenities and tranquility. If you’re looking for serenity in South Florida, I can’t think of a better spot to find it.

Photo Credits: Doug Lyons