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‘They were trying to live free...in the shadow of enslavement’: Project underway to help tell forgotten history of Prospect Bluff

Published: Aug. 19, 2021 at 5:15 PM CDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Roughly 80 miles outside Tallahassee, a massive undertaking is underway to uncover American history that has been buried for more than 200 years.

It’s a project that experts say is in its infancy and will take years to complete.

Just off the Apalachicola River sits a bluff that once served as a beacon of hope for many in the early 1800s.

“Before the Underground Railroad ran north, it ran south,” said Dawn Lawrence, an archeologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

Prospect Bluff, as it was known in 1814, served as a refuge in Spanish Florida just outside the boundaries of early America.

“They were trying to live free, even though they were still in the shadow of enslavement,” said Jeffery Shanks with the National Park Service.

This particular part of history was all but forgotten.

Until 2018, when Hurricane Michael unleashed its fury: Uprooting trees and burying artifacts tangled within their roots.

WCTV was there in the aftermath as a team of archeologists rediscovered history.

“That’s a story that we really want to tell,” Lawrence said.

Flash forward to the hot and humid summer of 2021 and archeologists are using science to continue to uncover the forgotten past.

“In this area right here, we are already picking up signatures of what are likely graves,” Shanks explained one day.

The site is considered to be of transcendent national importance in telling the story of America.

But, to understand its scope, you must understand the entire story.

“History is great, you know recorded history, but it only tells you one side and in this case, it’s the side of the victor,” said Lawrence. “Of the Americans.”

Most of what we know is about the American military’s Fort Gadsden.

“You can see the outline. This is the larger British Fort, the so-called ‘Negro-Fort’, right? This is the much smaller American fort that was built on the site,” said Shanks.

Very limited archeological work has been done and it focused on only one part of a layered past.

In 1961, a team from Florida State University looking into Fort Gadsden located the timbers of an original structure, but only a handful of pictures are just about all that remains.

Most of their findings, stored near the coast, were lost in the wrath of Hurricane Kate in 1985. Whatever they were, they’d likely do very little to shine a light on the brave Maroons who lived here first, when the British established an advanced fort in 1814.

Letters archived in the Library of Congress mention hundreds of African descendants from Georgia and the Carolinas, and roughly 20 Native Americans, living free for more than a year after the British left.

There’s also a hint of an explosive plan to destroy it.

“That side of the story is very easy to gloss over,” Lawrence said.

An 1816 cannon attack by the American Army ended hope for hundreds at Prospect Bluff.

“Here on this site, we have what could potentially be the largest unmarked African American Cemetery or burial ground in Florida,” Shanks explained.

Today, a search for the possibility of a mass grave begins with a non-invasive technique of shooting radar waves into the ground and identifying areas where soil may have been disturbed.

Archeologists are also hoping to find the cemetery belonging to the long-lost village and other living spaces.

“You have to have a degree of curiosity to wonder what happened to the people who did not leave a written record and that’s what archeology is really great for, to access the histories of people who did not have anything written down,” said Lawrence.

The only way to do that will be to excavate. But it’s a long and tedious process.

“We have to be very careful with how we proceed,” Shanks warns. “And when we do it, we will have to do it in consultation with descendent communities and Native American Tribes.”

One, they hope, will help tell the entire story.

The National Parks Service says they plan to properly mark and memorialize any graves they find without disturbing the souls who lie there.

It’s a bit hard to put all of the information they have on one sign, so they say they are envisioning one day re-doing how the public has access to it: For example, making 3D scans of the site and any artifacts found there that could potentially be accessed online, like an early 1800s ginger beer bottle that was found, intact, at the site.

The Prospect Bluff site has not been reopened to the public since Hurricane Michael. They hope to sometime next year.

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