News of the arrival of U.S. warships in Apalachicola Bay probably reached the Fort at Prospect Bluff 200 years ago today on July 11, 1816.
The term “Fort at Prospect Bluff” is used here instead of the better known “Negro Fort” moniker because there is no evidence that the occupants of the post ever used the latter name. American officers called it the “Negro Fort” because the majority of the men who defended it were black. British and Spanish officers, however, referred to the establishment as the “British Post” or the “Bluff” and its inhabitants as the “Bluff people.”
Confusion over the name continues even today. The U.S. Forest Service park is called Fort Gadsden Historic Site, but its designation as a National Historical Landmark uses the name “British Post.” The site was called “Fort Blunt” during the 1930s, while many writers today use the term “Fort Negro.”
Less confusing is the significance of the fort in the course of American history.
Prospect Bluff was North America’s largest settlement for free blacks prior to the Civil War. Like Fort Mose in St. Augustine, it was a landmark of freedom on the southern frontier.
Fort Mose (pronounced moh-say) was built in 1738 by order of Spanish Governor Manuel Montiano. It provided a home for 100 free black militiamen and their families. Most of these men were refugees from slavery in the thirteen English colonies and with their fort they protected the northern approaches to St. Augustine.
Prospect Bluff, in turn, was built by the British during the fall and winter of 1814-1815 as a training and supply post for several thousand Red Stick Creek and Seminole warriors. The main garrison was of around 300 Colonial Marines. These men of color came from a variety of backgrounds. Some had been slaves in the United States or Spanish Florida. Others were from the Caribbean and a significant number had lived among the Creek and Seminole Indians. They were uniformed and trained British soldiers.
The families of these black soldiers settled in the area around the fort, where fields were cleared and homes were built. Some reports indicate that the settlements and fields extended for fifty miles up and down the Apalachicola River.
The Fort at Prospect Bluff offered freedom to enslaved African-Americans in Georgia and the Carolinas, although a thorough examination of surviving documents shows that most of its inhabitants came from Spanish Florida.
The massive settlement diminished in size somewhat following the departure of the British and the main body of the battalion of Colonial Marines. The population at and around Prospect Bluff when the U.S. warships arrived at Apalachicola Bay was probably around 350, with about 80 being soldiers and the rest woman and children. A party of 30 or so Choctaw refugees also lived on the bluff.
The commander of the fort in 1816 was Garcon, a Sergeant Major from the Colonial Marines and former slave from the Pensacola area. The arrival of the ships was an immediate topic of discussion among the leaders at Prospect Bluff. The council ended with a decision for Garcon and the Choctaw Chief to lead a reconnaissance force downstream to the mouth of the Apalachicola River.
As night fell 200 years ago today, the Marines and warriors were preparing to march.
This series marking the 200th anniversary of the U.S. campaign against the Fort at Prospect Bluff will continue. Click here to read the next article.
You can also read part one of this series here:
Prospect Bluff Historic Sites (often called Fort Gadsden) is located in the Apachicola National Forest near the small community of Sumatra and about 20 river miles north of Apalachicola, Florida.