Sunday, March 11, 2012

Florida Sunday, May 20, 2001 Out of the Past Hundreds died at Fort Gadsdenduring the acquisition of Florida (Photo: One of the display cases At Ft. Gadsden on the Apalachicola River in Franklin County. Courtesy Photo: Marlene Womack.) Buy Photo MARLENE WOMACKContributing Writer In the hush of an early morning, the cry of jay birds and the buzz of mosquitoes broke the stillness at Fort Gadsden. Then the sun slowly rose to chase shadows revealing the full beauty of the swift-flowing Apalachicola River and the pilings from an old dock where vessels once moored at the landing. All remained quiet on the neatly maintained grounds, marked by towering moss-draped live oaks and the sloping sides of the old fort. At the visitors' center, glass-covered cases displayed artifacts and details about the tragic events that occurred at the old military installation, accessible today by a winding road off State 65 in western Franklin County. But it seems that fewer and fewer people know the significance of this site where hundreds died almost 200 years ago on a hot summer day. Soon Fort Gadsden may be lost as other more publicized attractions draw a larger number of visitors around the state. FLORIDA ACQUIRED In the early 1800s, all of Florida belonged to Spain and the 31st parallel marked the boundary with the United States. The land in this section of Spanish Florida became a haven for refugee Creek and Seminole Indians and runaway slaves fleeing plantations in Georgia and the Carolinas. John Forbes & Company, traders with the Indians, established a post in 1808 at Prospect Bluff, 15 miles north of the mouth of the Apalachicola River. A man named Edmund Doyle ran the store at the post, which consisted of several other buildings plus a large herd of cattle. During the War of 1812 the U.S. fought England, a country that retained a strong interest in Spanish Florida. Since the U.S. also wanted to possess this land, Gen. Andrew Jackson and his troops marched south from Tennessee in 1814 and drove the British out of Pensacola on the pretext of preserving Spain's neutrality. Then, in an effort to increase its military, the British government ordered Col. Edmund Nichols and his troops east into the Apalachicola River area to recruit some of the refugees for the British cause. Nichols selected Prospect Bluff for his negotiations with recruits and erected a fort bout 500 feet from the river in November 1814. In this strategic location, the British blocked traffic on the river and concealed munitions in their fort. The British remained at Prospect Bluff until Apr. 22, 1815, when Spain pressured soldiers into abandoning the fort. The British left behind supplies and arms so the Indians could defend themselves against U.S. troops, some of whom were stationed at Fort Scott on the Flint River, a few miles north of the Florida line; and others at Fort Mitchell, another U S. post on the Chattahoochee River. From the bluff, those who lived at the fort harassed river traffic and halted American shipments destined for these forts. They also robbed cattle from the trading post and made raids into Georgia and the Mississippi territory. The old British Fort became known as Negro Fort, after many more blacks moved in with the Indians and sought its protection. Spanish Florida posed a great source of annoyance to the U.S. In April 1816, Jackson, who commanded the 7th military district, sent a letter to the Spanish governor in Pensacola demanding the removal of the fort and the disbursement of those housed at the installation. Then, in response to the furor heard from Florida's bordering states concerning activities along the river and the lack of a reply from the Spanish governor, Jackson ordered the destruction of Negro Fort. The New Orleans Naval Station dispatched gunboats under Sailing Master J. Loomis. He was joined by Lt. Duncan Clinch and his troops from Fort Scott. Clinch was placed in charge of the attack. After several test firings and warnings, one fatal hot shot from a gunboat into the fort's gunpowder magazine killed 270 men, women and children in the compound on July 27, 1816. Those who survived fled into the forest. An inspection made by Loomis before he torched the shattered remains of the structure and village revealed 10 cannons, 2,500 stands of musket, 500 swords and 500 carbines. FORT CONSTRUCTED With the outbreak of the First Seminole War, Jackson and his army began occupation of this strategic location on March 16, 1818. Jackson ordered his aide-de-camp James Gadsden to build a fort near the old Negro Fort in 10 days. When completed Jackson named it Fort Gadsden. Jackson and his men marched on to St. Marks, then tramped across the Florida Panhandle to Pensacola where they rousted the British before returning to Tennessee. American troops occupied Fort Gadsden until June 19, 1821 when Florida was acquired from Spain. Then most of the men were transferred to St. Marks. During the Civil War, Confederates used the location to protect the river from federal gunboats. But malaria forced the troops to leave in 1863, and the old structure was soon reclaimed by the forest. In the early l900s, lumbermen shipped logs down the river from Prospect Bluff. When the Florida Park Service leased 78 acres to operate a historical landmark and recreational area in 1961, Park Ranger Eddie Nesmith, recently deceased, played an important role in developing this location. In his inspection of the grounds, Nesmith discovered the remains of both Fort Gadsden and nearby Negro Fort through old maps. When state archaeologists came to dig, Nesmith led them to the old earthworks where they uncovered lead musketballs by the handful. While searching for artifacts to display at the site's museum, Nesmith uncovered hand-wrought nails, military-issue fish hooks, fishing spears, buckets, brass and pewter syringes, ginger beer bottles, a powder horn, knives and forks, a lead ladle and many other artifacts. Through indentations at the old fort, Nesmith and archaeologists were also to locate the old cemetery. Dr. Hale Smith of Florida State University made three excavations. All he found was a piece of cypress wood from one of the soldier's caskets. LOSS OF PUBLICITY In recent years, the National Forests of Florida acquired Fort Gadsden from the state of Florida. Aside from the visitors' center, rest rooms, a pavilion with picnic tables and the boilers from an old steamboat are located on the grounds. Volunteers man the site so it can remain open, but Fort Gadsden receives little publicity. The U.S. Forest Service claims that other recreational areas draw more visitors and that the level of use is low at this landmark. Since the Forest Service has insufficient funds to maintain all areas, it is faced with making tough decisions. John G. Hentz, past agricultural agent in Bay and other Northwest Florida counties and a retired dairy farmer, is deeply concerned about the future of Fort Gadsden. Hentz lives in Panama City, but has roots that extend far back in Liberty County. He has been familiar with the old fort and site all of his life. Hentz said, "Fort Gadsden is a great part of Florida's heritage. It is the most famous spot of ground in Florida history. Taking Florida from Spain was one of the most important actions or events in our nation's history. No part of the country played a bigger part in securing Florida for the U.S. than our own Apalachicola River Valley." Hentz believes that the park is being phased out and that no one is paying any attention. He has taken the plight of the historical site to Sen. Bob Graham. Graham contacted the Forest Service and received a reply stating, "we are committed to maintaining the Fort Gadsden historic area, but we are hesitant to encourage increased visitation there because we have limited resources to monitor the effects that such use might have on this archaeological site." In reply, Hentz said, "What good is history and artifacts if people are not allowed to learn about them? If it wasn't for Andrew Jackson coming to Fort Gadsden in 1818 we might not even have a Florida."

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