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 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.
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.
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