Slavery in Florida by Dr. Marvin Dunn
As in other slave states, Florida’s economic development was built upon the sweat, muscle and blood of enslaved blacks. Hardly any of the great wealth of the antebellum era would have existed had it not been for the labor provided by black slaves. From the earliest days of the Territorial Period (1821-1845) there were about as many black people in Florida as there were white. In north Florida land was cheap and unclaimed. White farmers from nearby southern states migrated to the area in considerable numbers. Slaves were brought in immediately, and over time, their numbers increased. In 1830, Gadsden County had 2,501 slaves among its 4,894 residents (41percent of the population of the county). By 1860, the county’s total population had nearly doubled, and the slave population was 58 percent of that total. Jefferson County’s slave population increased from 48 percent to 65 percent in the same period. Leon County had even more slaves in its 1860 population; 74 percent of the 12, 243 residents living there at the time were slaves.i
Slaves in Florida, as elsewhere in the South, were considered by law to be chattel and were owned in the same manner as one owned horses or cows. Manumission, buying one’s freedom or having it purchased by someone else, was difficult, expensive, and rare. As property, slaves were subject to taxation. In 1828, the Legislative Council levied on slave-owners a tax of 25 cents for each slave between the ages of 15 and 50, and 10 dollars on every slave hired out. In 1839, the tax was raised to 50 cents a head. Slaves were valued according to their age, although a skilled mechanic of any age was valued at 2,500 dollars in Ocala in 1863. Black children, eight years of age and younger, were valued at 800 dollars each. Workers between sixteen and twenty-five were valued at 1,200 dollars. Those between thirty-five and fifty were valued at 900 dollars and those over fifty at 300 dollars each.ii
Despite their status as chattel, Florida slaves had legal protections, at least on paper. Slaves were protected by law against cruel and unusual punishment by their owners; the penalty for such was a fine of up to 500 dollars depending on the nature of the offense. It is interesting to note that all fines collected for these offenses were paid into the territorial treasury for the use of the literary fund, which, of course, benefited whites only. According to Florida law in 1828, a capital crime committed by a slave, depending upon its severity, could be punishable by “a moderate whipping, having his ears nailed to posts, having his hand burnt with a heated iron in open court, and ultimately, the death penalty.”iii Witnesses on behalf of slaves were subjected to similar punishment if found guilty of lying on behalf of the slave.
Soon after Florida became a territory of the United States, there was a population explosion in north Florida. Between 1825 and 1840, Tallahassee and Leon County grew dramatically. Many pioneers in search of their fortunes migrated south to Florida rather than heading west. “The promises of Florida as a future agricultural kingdom were touted by word of mouth, personal correspondence, and newspaper descriptions with no less hyperbole than the descriptions of Alabama’s Black Belt, Louisiana’s river bottoms, or, later, the Mississippi Delta.”iv
As soon as sales were made public, Florida became the object of land-hungry Northerners. The most eagerly sought tracts of land were in what came to be Madison, Jefferson, Leon, Gadsden, and Jackson counties. It was already known that this area, also called Middle Florida, lying between the Apalachicola and Suwannee rivers, was extremely fertile for the cultivation of cotton and other agricultural products. The area was well defined geographically and its soil type differed from that of the rest of the state.
By the end of the 1850s, railroads had arrived in Florida, further stimulating the growth of the state. The Florida Railroad, built in 1861 by David Levy Yulee, was the first cross-state railroad, connecting Fernandina to Cedar Keys. The Florida Atlantic and Gulf Central Railroad was built between Jacksonville and Lake City, and the Pensacola and Georgia Railroad was extended from Lake City to Tallahassee. With Florida now equipped for business, the population exploded. By the end of the 1850s, it had zoomed from 87,000 to 140,000 people.v
As the territory grew, Florida began pressing for statehood. Public meetings were held around the state, especially in the panhandle. For example, statehood was debated at a public meeting in the city of Quincy on April 30, 1842. The first efforts fell short, and congressional approval was not forthcoming. It was not until David Levy Yulee, a Florida delegate to Congress, campaigned on the benefits of statehood that the issue caught fire. It was his unusual ability to explain to the common man the benefits that statehood held that compelled the renewal of the application in January 1845.
Congress was already moving on statehood for Florida. By the time the petition reached Washington, statehood was already under consideration. On March 3, 1845, President Tyler, signed an Act of Admission making Florida the 27th state to join the Union. In Tallahassee on June 23, 1845, whites gathered at a new capitol building to inaugurate the state government.
As early as 1835, five or six large slave plantations were operating successfully along the Halifax River in north Florida. The typical plantation home was a handsome two-story building, often constructed of bricks, slave-made from material on the plantation itself. Some mansions were designed for comfort, being well supplied with large windows and verandahs running all the way around the house. Often built along the lines of classical Greek architecture, the house usually stood at the end of a long, oak-lined driveway and was surrounded by landscaped gardens. Normally, from its location on a high point, the mansion would command an expansive view.
Typically, at some distance from the house stood a row of slave cabins. Surrounding the main house might be a gin house, an overseer’s house, stables, a carriage house, a blacksmith’s shop, and a loom house. Some plantations had additional outbuildings such as infirmaries or hospitals. Heavy equipment usually consisted of a gristmill, cotton gin, and engines to operate them. The plantations often had corncribs, a sugar mill, and other necessary facilities.vi
Frequently, plantations also had their own spinning and weaving operations and/or tanneries where black seamstresses and cobblers made clothing and shoes for slaves, and sometimes for whites. The inventory of Richard Harrison’s plantation in Madison County lists five spinning wheels and a loom. There was a tannery on Lyndhurst, William J. Bailey’s plantation in Jefferson County, where hides were cured and made into leather shoes for his slaves. Both of Bailey’s two prominent plantations, Lyndhurst and The Cedars, were largely self-sufficient. The Cedars itself consisted of 5,500 acres of land, approximately two thousands of which were under cultivation. Bailey owned 260 slaves, and his yield of ginned cotton in 1850 was 550 bales.vii
One of the stately plantation mansions in Florida was Verdura, built by Major Benjamin C. Chaires. In 1832, Chaires sold his house in Tallahassee and began construction of Verdura on a 500-acre site ten miles east of the city. The massive, fifteen-room, three-story brick structure was built by his slaves from clay deposits on the plantation. Facing south, Verdura stood on high ground, overlooking rolling fields and woodlands, with a picturesque stream encircling the hill upon which it stood. Leading up to the front and rear entrances were broad stairways, and on the east and west sides were spacious verandahs supported by Greek columns. Inside the house, a double staircase led from the second floor to the third. From the attic, the Gulf of Mexico could be seen on clear days. The two main rooms and hallways on the first floor were often cleared of furniture and transformed into a spacious ballroom.viii The plantation was destroyed by a fire in 1885. Only vine-covered columns remain.
Another successful slave-owning family in north Florida was the wealthy Croom family, which had moved to Florida from eastern North Carolina. William Croom, head of the family, led the way, and over time, the Crooms persuaded various kin and neighbors to join them, creating a ripple effect. Croom built Goodwood Plantation on a hill with a 150-foot elevation; it was considered to be the highest point in Tallahassee. The plantation was located on fertile country which was used to grow sugar cane and sea-island cotton. North of the plantation were clear springs that assured a supply of fresh water for the Crooms and their slaves.ix
Florida’s cotton belt was the most densely populated section of the new state, and slaves in this area far outnumbered whites. Since Tallahassee was in the heart of the cotton belt, much of the slave trade in Florida was centered there. The demand for blacks to leave the older southern states in order to supply labor for the newer plantations was a typical development since the African slave trade had been abolished in the United States in 1808, cutting off this source of plantation labor. Many slaves were brought in from New Orleans, perhaps the largest slave market in the South, by white “Negro-traders,” who were determined to supply Florida planters with slaves at a considerable profit to themselves. A busy slave market was operated in St Augustine. The structure still stands in the heart of the old city.
Slaves were kept in the public jail or in “slave pens” until the time of sale. The sale was widely advertised in advance and, as the slaves were presented at auction, bidding was usually lively. To insure the best possible price for slaves, a certain amount of grooming was done to prepare them for market. They were often given a fresh set of clothing so they would appear clean and well-cared-for. “The women were sometimes given bright showy cotton prints or gaily figured bandannas. The men, to show that they were spirited, were often given a drink of gin or whisky. Sometimes the whole group might be given a shiny silver coin to put them in a happy mood or to make them seem cheerful.”x
Benjamin Whitner, a prominent Gadsden County planter, eulogizing the advantages of settling in Florida, gave this glowing description of slavery in the new state: “The climate is ideal, the soil easily cultivated in all seasons, making fair returns for labor. The slave population is lightly worked, easily provided for, contented and happy, as manifested by the long lives, health and rapid increase of their children.”xi Of course, this rosy view of slave life is contradicted by the cold, hard facts of slavery in Florida and elsewhere in the Deep South.
The mortality rate for slaves was higher than that of whites. There was an especially high mortality rate among black children. Of the 122 deaths in Leon County in 1850, 97 were slaves and 62 of those were children under six. The mortality rate was similar in other Florida counties having large slave populations. “Negroes died of cholera, congestive fever, influenza, hives . . . inflammation . . . miscarriage, debility, worms . . . convulsions, diarrhea, and other such ailments.”xii Typhoid fever caused the most deaths among slaves in Florida, and cannon fever was the most prevalent disease. Many of the illnesses, diseases, and deaths suffered by slaves, and by some whites, resulted from the lack of proper medical knowledge at the time. Bloodletting and violent purging, both frequently used, probably caused many deaths.
As in all races, slaves ran the gamut of intelligence and personality type. A few were of very limited intelligence, but probably just as many were unrequited geniuses. The majority of slaves probably fell somewhere in between. Of course, slaves were not permitted education, but a lack of formal education is not the same as ignorance. Some slaves were submissive to the point of servility, but others bowed to no one. Some even appeared to like slavery, while many others secretly abhorred it. Slaves were not entirely helpless to strike back at whites they disliked. They often used passive aggression toward whites who offended them. Indeed, it was a risky thing to offend, much less abuse, a house servant, especially a cook.
Some slaves and servants spit into, or otherwise defiled, food and drink that they served to white people who had made them angry or had hurt their feelings. Many field hands used work slowdowns or sickouts to punish their owners. Most slaves, however, endured their chains nobly ever yearning for freedom and rarely striking back at those who oppressed or abused them. The following is a description of slave activity on the Goodwood Plantation:
The fifty-year-old nanny did the cooking and washing for the [white] family. She was incapacitated for field work, but was a neat and good conditioned woman and useful for housework and as a cook and house servant. She was worth $50 a year. There was also old Mary (she was only fifty) who stayed about the quarters and took care of the children. She had no young children of her own. Tenah had a family of children and was a good breeder. Frank was an excellent Negro and about thirty-five years of age. He was a good carpenter and did the blacksmith work on the place in 1847 and was worth about $300 a year.xiii
Goodwood Plantation is a major illustration in the story of Florida’s plantation life and the wealth built on the labor of the enslaved black population. The Florida plantation pattern, not unlike that of other states, reveals that plantations and slavery were frontier institutions. The growth of one was dependent upon the growth of the other. “The pattern of migration of owner and slaves to develop new lands in a wilderness was the same along the whole cotton frontier. Slaves were needed to clear the heavily timbered hammocks and dig out the stumps and roots of trees before fertile lands could be cultivated.”xiv
In addition to the failed Fornills plantation on Key Biscayne in 1804, there were two attempts to establish a slave plantation on the Miami River at Fort Dallas (where the James L. Knight Center stands today). The plantation-owners used slave labor to grow citrus to be sold primarily to the Navy to prevent scurvy aboard ships. The efforts failed. The rocky soil of the area would not sustain the demands of plantation-level farming.
iGannon, New History, 224.
iiiAvant, David Jr. and Stanley, Randall, History of Gadsden County, 1985, 85.
ivRogers & Clark, The Croom Family and Goodwood Plantation: Land, Litigation, and Southern Lives, 1.
vGannon, The History of Florida, 226.
viSmith, Slavery and Plantation Growth in Ante-bellum Florida, 135.
ixRogers and Clark, 113.
xiiiRogers and Clark, 123.