Fernandina’s place in the history of slavery - Part 2

  • A marker on the Fort San Carlos Plaza in Old Town Fernandina notes the story of the slave ship Guerrero, which hit a reef off of Key Largo in 1827 while on its way to Cuba carrying 561 enslaved Africans. Three hundred and ninety-eight surviving captives were sold as slaves. Two years later, 100 of the remaining people who survived the ordeal were taken from Fernandina to Africa by the U.S. government. PEG DAVIS/NEWS-LEADER
    A marker on the Fort San Carlos Plaza in Old Town Fernandina notes the story of the slave ship Guerrero, which hit a reef off of Key Largo in 1827 while on its way to Cuba carrying 561 enslaved Africans. Three hundred and ninety-eight surviving captives were sold as slaves. Two years later, 100 of the remaining people who survived the ordeal were taken from Fernandina to Africa by the U.S. government. PEG DAVIS/NEWS-LEADER
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The importation of human beings through the port at Old Town Fernandina and their use for slave labor is a story that does not appear in most Amelia Island tourist guides. Most of the treasure brought to Amelia Island by pirates was not meant for secret burial; it was meant to be sold. The treasure was, as Gullah-Geechee Nation leader Queen Quet has described it, “black gold.”

Part one of this article, https://www.fbnewsleader.com/local-news/fernandinas-place-history-slavery, reviewed the history of slaves and slavery on Amelia Island from Spanish occupation through Fernandina’s pirate days.

A railroad, refugees, and recruits

While Fernandina is forever entwined with Florida’s first Jewish senator, slave owner and secessionist David Yulee, the slave labor that built Yulee’s cross-Florida railroad to Cedar Key is rarely mentioned.

According to a 2005 Gainesville Sun article by John G. Westerman, “needing inexpensive labor, Yulee leased an estimated 300 to 400 slaves from North Carolina and Virginia to construct a railroad.” A Bland & Associates report for the city of Fernandina Beach says the contractors hired to construct Yulee’s railroad from Fernandina to Cedar Key “relied heavily upon slaves to build the roadbed and tracks, often negotiating with planters along the alignment and elsewhere in Florida for the workforce.”

Amelia Island’s continued immersion in the wages of slavery and the consequences of war was just getting started. As soon as federal ships and troops captured Amelia Island in March 1862, it became a haven for more than a thousand people fleeing slavery.

“As soon as Brigadier General Horatio G. Wright and the Third Brigade, U.S. Expeditionary Force, reached Fernandina, runaway slaves began crossing their picket lines. Wright observed on March 10: ‘Some of these people are left behind, and others are presenting themselves daily, coming in from different directions,’” according to Daniel L. Schafer’s research paper, “Freedom Was as Close as the River – African Americans and the Civil War in Northeast Florida.”

By July 1862, there were an estimated 1,500 refugees – often referred to as “contrabands” since they were considered private property – in Union-occupied Fernandina, according to Schafer.

Being a magnet for so many refugees needing so many basics – food, shelter, clothing, medical care – must have felt overwhelming and frightening for the mostly women and children remaining in Fernandina by that time. Of the male refugees, able-bodied men were being recruited to serve in the first volunteer “colored infantry” regiments, which were led by white officers.

“Although volunteers came in ‘tolerably fast,’ by early December their number was still two hundred short of the minimum required to organize a regiment. (Colonel Thomas) Higginson decided to send two of his officers ‘down the coast to Fernandina and St. Augustine’ to recruit in northeastern Florida,” William A. Dobak wrote in Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867. On Dec. 2,1862, Higginson, the commander of the First South Carolina Volunteers, a regiment composed mostly of former slaves, wrote this in his diary: “Today General Saxton has returned from Fernandina with seventy-six recruits, and the eagerness of the captains to secure them was a sight to see.”

The sight of armed black men in Fernandina was probably less welcome.

In January 1863, an expeditionary force of the First South Carolina Volunteers sailed from Beaufort, S.C. to Fernandina, camping at Fort Clinch. A detachment would soon sail up the St. Marys River and engage the home guard cavalry at Township, now Crandall, and secure their place in history at The Battle of the Hundred Pines.

More raids up the St. Marys and the Crooked River in Georgia would give the new troops, and their officers, confidence in their ability to fight. Enjoying their success, the 4th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops was organized in Fernandina in July of 1863.

What was it like in Fernandina that summer? According to A War Correspondent’s View of St. Augustine and Fernandina: 1863, written by newspaperman Noah Brooks and edited by P. J. Staudenraus, “The town looks deserted and shabby enough, nearly all the original inhabitants having left when the Yankee gunboats hove in sight. Their houses are filled up with contrabands, of whom, over a thousand are in the place.”

Tax sales and the historic vote for a mayor

In 1865, General William T. Sherman’s Special Order No. 15, known as the “Sea-Island Circular,” along with mandated tax sale purchases of private properties in Fernandina, pitted local landowners and homeowners against the “freedmen” and their supporters who began buying what the U.S. government said were abandoned and legally-seized properties.

Joshua Whitfield, who wrote a blog for the Amelia Island Museum of History about the school and orphanage for formerly enslaved children established in Fernandina by Chloe Merrick and Cornelia Smith of the Freedmen’s Aid Society, noted that the mansion for the orphanage, off North 11th Street, was bought after 1863’s Direct Tax Commission allowed for the seizure of property from Florida citizens who did not pay taxes to the federal government.

This meant that property owned by Confederate officers like General Joseph Finegan, who built the house used as an orphanage, as well as that of other pro-Confederate civilians, was seized and sold or leased to other individuals.

Merrick was able to buy the Finegan property for $25 for the purpose of establishing the orphanage. “Merrick’s letters to a newspaper in Syracuse indicate that several black families were already living in the Finegan house. In all likelihood, these families were some of Finegan’s former slaves who moved into the mansion after the Confederates retreated from the island. The 1860 slave schedule indicates that Finegan owned 12-15 slaves in the town,” writes Whitfield.

It was not a peaceful time in Fernandina. To say “bitter feelings” resulted from a majority black population taking over both properties and the town’s government seems like an understatement.

According to Laura Wakefield, author of Set A Light In A Dark Place: Teachers Of Freedmen In Florida, 1863-18, “To this end, in the spring of 1865, (Chloe Merrick’s brother-in-law, Ansel Kinne) wrote concerning the formation of a town government for Fernandina: ‘The only unresolved issue was whether or not the vote should be extended to black men.’

“When a local committee rejected suffrage for the freedmen, Kinne introduced the topic to a larger group. Since African Americans outnumbered whites, the issue was soon resolved in favor of suffrage,” Wakefield continues. “The first vote went one hundred twenty-three to twenty-seven. ... Seeing the inevitable, twenty-five traditional southerners left the meeting. A final vote followed, giving unanimous support to black suffrage.

“On May 1, 1865, nine whites joined 151 African Americans to elect a mayor, a marshal, and eight councilmen,” Wakefield writes. “Kinne happily declared the election of ‘the first mayor ever elected in the South by universal suffrage,” though he does not indicate any women were allowed to vote.

Stories from the Vermont Watchman and State Journal and the Fremont Journal confirm Chief Justice of the United States Salmon P. Chase administered the oath of office to Fernandina’s mayor-elect, Adolphus Mott. Chase happened to be on a trip through the South meant to “enforce new trade regulations and to attend to the disposition of captured and abandoned property,” according to a dispatch from Washington, D.C. to the Chicago Tribune. Chase was accompanied by his daughter and the Treasury Department’s supervising agent. 

“In May 1865, before the formal implementation of the land redistribution plans, President Andrew Johnson issued an amnesty proclamation and restored the property rights of white southerners,” says the Bland report, setting the scene for violent confrontations between the freedmen and the “pardoned owners” returning to Fernandina.

“A civilian-military clash (in Fernandina) found freedmen banding together and requesting federal authorities to protect and affirm their possession of recently-seized properties. ... President Johnson’s amnesty proclamation and restoration of property rights ended the confrontation.”

President Johnson had chosen to pardon Confederate veterans, but not to enfranchise blacks, writes Wakefield.

By 1867, Mott had been replaced by Dr. G. Troup Maxwell and eight new aldermen, a “conservative ticket, elected over the vicious Radical element that have settled in that same place,” according to a dispatch from the Fernandina Courier via The Charleston Daily News.

From a thousand people to ‘several dozen’ households

In June 1866, the black population of Amelia Island still numbered about a thousand, according to a story from the Charleston Daily News. Some of the men were now making $26 a month logging, and women were “planting corn, cotton, and potatoes.”

By the 1880 census, only “several dozen African American households” remained in Fernandina, according to the Bland report, but new roots were being established: “Tradesmen and laborers … businessmen, doctors, pastors, and teachers contributed to a vibrant, fully developed neighborhood (in Fernandina).” Professional men included rail service workers like Alfred Collins, Silvester Ellison, Allen Gibbs, John Hays, Thomas Heddin, Samuel Howard, Hector Hyde, Edward Johnson, Henry Kennedy, and Thomas Wilson. “James Lang settled in Fernandina as a grocer, oysterman. ... Charles Knabb returned to Nassau County and became a successful cotton farmer and agent for a wealthy landowner,” according to Schafer’s paper.

“Frederick Gibson measured lumber for a timber company and Ganus Spicer and John Felder worked in a sawmill. James McGriffin was a drayman operating a mule and wagon. Chester Bradley served as a municipal policeman. Carpenters William Joseph, Edward Langley, and Levy Young built many houses of the period,” says the Bland report. “The population sprinkled the city’s streets with churches, commercial stores, and residences generally radiating east of 8th Street.”

Black Union Army veterans also decided to make Fernandina their home, including William Hannahan, the former sergeant major of the 21st USCT, and his second wife, Mary; Peter Bonaud, also known as “Bono” Garrick, the former first sergeant of Co. G, 34th USCT, and his wife, Laura; Jefferson Harris, a veteran of the 35th USCT, “wounded severely in the charge on Fort Wagner in South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor,” according to Barton A. Myers, author of Rebels against the Confederacy: North Carolina’s Unionists, and Harris’ friend, Jonas Miller, a veteran of the 21st USCT; Tony Edwards, also a veteran of the 34th USCT, and his wife, Pheba; Smart Washington, a veteran of Co. H, 34th USCT, and his wife, Lucretia. And many more.

Rosters for the United States Colored Troops can be found at http://bit.ly/2UYpmTb, and more information can be found at http://bit.ly/38EuRtX.

Fernandina’s past as a haven for the slave trade and as a magnet for emancipated refugees during the Civil War would fade from living memory. Despite Jim Crow laws derailing major post-war advances and other efforts to disenfranchise and intimidate African Americans, opportunities for them to survive and thrive in Fernandina in the first half of the 20th century did come. Businesses like logging, lumber milling, turpentine, pitch, rosin, and creosote manufacturing, and modern fishing, shrimping, and seafood processing rose. Gullah-Geechee leader Marquetta Goodwine, “Queen Quet” has said, “Ebeebodee got a right ta de tree ob life! Hunnuh mus tek cyare de root fa heal de tree.” Though slavery ripped up the original roots of their African ancestors, new ones would continue to grow in Fernandina.

pegdavis@fbnewsleader.com