Florida’s Culture of Slavery
During the 25 years leading up to the Civil War, a five-county region of North Florida grew into a virtual barony of plantations and farms that echoed the wealthiest precincts of the Old South cotton kingdom. The vast majority of Florida’s slaves lived in this central part of the Panhandle along the Georgia border. Called “Middle Florida,” it centered on the capital city of Tallahassee and included Gadsden, Leon, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton counties —- and eventually expanded into central Florida’s Alachua and Marion counties.
Middle Florida slave owners were pioneer entrepreneurs from Old South states who migrated to Florida after it became a U.S Territory in 1821. Many hailed from the cream of Southern planter society. Coming from Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, they settled on the rich, fertile land between the Apalachicola and Suwannee rivers and established farms and plantations primarily to grow cotton. By 1860 this area, virtually unpopulated by whites before 1821, had emerged as the state’s plantation belt.
Middle Florida’s economy was based firmly on slavery. Nearly all of the slaves (98 percent) were involved in agricultural labor. Most of them worked on large plantations established by wealthy “planters”, an elite class composed of farmers who owned at least 20 slaves and more than 500 acres. This planter class – 21 percent of Florida’s slaveholders – held more than 75 percent of Florida’s slaves.
The vast majority of Florida’s slaveholders ran much smaller operations. They owned small or medium-sized farms and held fewer than 10 slaves, often only one or two. Usually the slaves at these farms worked alongside their white owners on a variety of jobs and lived in small cabins near the main farmhouses.
Slaves on the larger plantations, however, were divided up into job categories. Some worked according to a task system as carpenters, shoemakers, blacksmiths, etc. But field hands (as opposed to house servants) were sorted into work “gangs”. This “gang slavery” system, commonly associated with antebellum cotton culture, required each gang of slaves to routinely do one type of job, such as hoeing or plowing.
On the most fundamental level, the degree of harshness and oppression that marked a slave’s life typically resulted from the nature of his or her master, his wife, and his relations. A bad master meant a bad life for slaves.
But there was also a common practice in the decades before the Civil War that involved leasing slaves to work on jobs outside of the owner’s farm or plantation. Purchase of slaves for lease often was a part of estate planning. The state’s early railroads, canals, and fortifications often owed their existence to the labor of leased bondsmen.
Cotton became the staple crop of choice in Middle Florida, just as it did in much of the Lower South. Some farmers also grew other cash crops, such as tobacco and sugar; most also grew vegetables and other foods for their own use.
Some have argued that, because violence rarely flared from the slave quarters of these plantations and farms, slaves generally were happy with their conditions. Not so. Ample evidence demonstrates slave resistance constantly plagued plantation operations, whether it involved feigned illness, sabotage, running away, or whatever.
While Middle Florida offered the picture of a thriving and integral component of the cotton South, the other areas of East and West Florida retained some of the traditions and influences of the Spanish colonists who had controlled Florida during the previous 250 to 300 years. These areas – Northeast Florida and portions of the peninsula as well as in the general area of Pensacola – tended to permit more flexibility, opportunity, and social mobility for slaves.
Interracial families were not uncommon. They sometimes were the result of forced relations, but recorded instances also hint at occasional romantic bonds and long-term commitments. Labor in East and West Florida varied, too, from Old South stereotypes. Slaves nursed, washed, and farmed, but they also engaged as stevedores, cowhunters, sailors, lumberjacks, and interpreters. Some slaves ran away and joined bands of Seminole Indians.
Most of Florida’s population remained congregated in the northern part of the state until the end of the Second Seminole War in 1842. Then, to entice people to settle the lower part of the peninsula, the federal government offered an incentive plan: free 160-acre parcels of land to people who would move to the Florida frontier, south of Alachua County. The poorer Florida families, devastated by the bloody Seminole war, moved southward to take advantage of this free-land program. The property they left behind was then populated by more cotton planters, some from Middle Florida, others from Southern cotton states.
Marion County and, to a lesser extent, Hernando County came to be dominated by South Carolinians in the 1850s. These planters brought with them a mindset that effectively extended the Middle Florida culture. Floridians moved ever closer to acceptance of Old South ideas and ideals. By the 1850s the political and economic power of Middle Florida planters in politics would grow in proportion to their land holdings and acquisition of enslaved Africans.
In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, 44 percent of Florida’s 140,400 residents were slaves. After Abraham Lincoln was elected President in November 1860, the Florida Legislature, dominated by the powerful Middle Florida planters, called for a secession convention in Tallahassee. It came As a surprise to many in the state when delegates at that convention, most of them Middle Florida planters, voted to secede from the Union. Large numbers of Floridians proclaimed adherence to the United States, especially in East Florida.
The Civil War – when it came – produced a breakdown of slavery’s foundations. While Middle Florida was left relatively secure during the war, Union military incursions resulted in major disruptions of the institution of slavery in East and West Florida. In the east, particularly, the proximity of Union troops held out a beacon of hope for freedom. In time the coastal counties and the St. Johns River region, where federal gunboats patrolled, witnessed a steady stream of men, women, and children seeking freedom from bondage.
Union raiding parties also added to the toll elsewhere in the state, destroying Confederate properties, disrupting rebel operations – and liberating slaves. Many of these freed slaves remained in Florida. Many also discovered that the protection of the U.S. government did not mean a life of ease and comfort; conditions at refugee camps were tough and white refugees always received preferential treatment.
Some slaves opted to serve the Union Army or Navy. They participated in engagements large and small n battles both in and outside of Florida, fighting or serving as informants, guides, and river pilots. Many died fighting at places like Olustee and Natural Bridge.
Even on the Middle Florida plantations, which were geographically separated from the war zones, many bond servants tried to do their part from afar. In some instances they simply stopped cultivating corn and other crops for human consumption. Some slaves worked on the side of the Confederacy, but most did so as the result of impressment.
Slaves in Northeast Florida and to a lesser extent in West Florida actively resisted slavery and showed their desire for a Union victory by joining the Federal forces. Bond servants in Middle Florida did not have the same opportunities to escape and join Union forces. Still they tried to hinder the progress of the confederacy in other ways.
Slaves did not rise and slay white families while the master was away at was; they refrained not from lack of opportunity but from innate decency and respect for life. Still, they began to create separate institutions such as churches and to depend upon themselves despite white expectations as they awaited the Day of Jubilee.
Originally published in Florida Humanities’ magazine The Forum Vol.XXXIV, No. 1, Spring 2010. Written by Larry Eugene Rivers
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