By Doug Alderson, Apalachicola Riverkeeper Outreach & Advocacy Director
Prospect Bluff is a quiet place today. One can view a wide stretch of the lower Apalachicola River from a lonely perch about 10 feet above the water, depending on river levels. No one lives at the site and the nearest town is Sumatra six miles away, population 169 in 2019. But in the early 1800s, sizeable villages of Native Americans and free black people known as maroons thrived in the region and their farm fields extended up the river 50 miles and down to Apalachicola Bay, 20 miles distant. Many historians believe Prospect Bluff and its environs was the largest pre-Civil War free black colony in North America, thus the reason it was recently listed as part of the National Park Service’s Underground Network to Freedom.
Prospect Bluff was a draw, not only because it remained dry during flood stage, but because the British occupiers offered freedom to any person of African descent and they sought an alliance with Creek, Seminole and Choctaw Indians. A trading post was built and then a fort in 1814, and British marines trained hundreds of Native Americans, free blacks and newly freed slaves in tactical warfare and weaponry. When the British abandoned the fort a year later, they turned everything over to their charges with the promise they would return. “The British withdrawal from the Apalachicola created a situation unlike any that had ever happened before in North America,” concluded historian Dale Cox in his 2020 book The Fort at Prospect Bluff. “An organized colony of free blacks lived independently under its own governance a mere sixty miles from the southern border of the United States. Not even the inhabitants of the earlier and noteworthy Fort Mose on the outskirts of St. Augustine could have made such a claim.”
In order to gain a better understanding of Prospect Bluff’s significance, Dale Cox agreed to lead a walking tour of the site on an Apalachicola Riverkeeper outing November 21. Under blue skies, with breezes singing through pine boughs, Cox provided the historical context for the British fort and its transfer to free blacks and Native Americans. He described the incredible system of defenses incorporated in the fort’s design and the 1816 battle with American ground forces and naval ships. Cox has been putting together a list of almost 700 names of people who gained their freedom at the site. “The underground railroad ran south and then east and west,” he said. Many of the free blacks traveled with the British to Trinidad when the British left the fort in 1815, but about 300 black men, women and children remained to help defend the fort. “Here is a story of people who stood and fought for freedom.”
The Prospect Bluff Historic Sites, managed by the U.S. Forest Service, is currently closed to the public as repair work is being done, but the Riverkeeper group had special permission for the visit. Further interpretive and archeological work will likely occur next year as it is hoped the site’s historic significance will become better known.
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Thank you Explore Northwest Florida for supporting our Eco-Educational Outings Program!