Heaven's Soldiers: Free People of Color and the Spanish Legacy in Antebellum Florida

Heaven's Soldiers: Free People of Color and the Spanish Legacy in Antebellum Florida

by Frank Marotti Jr.


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Heaven's Soldiers: Free People of Color and the Spanish Legacy in Antebellum Florida by Frank Marotti Jr.

Heaven’s Soldiers chronicles the history of a community of free people of African descent who lived and thrived, while resisting the constraints of legal bondage, in East Florida in the four decades leading up to the Civil War.

Historians have long attributed the relatively flexible system of race relations in pre-Civil War East Florida to the area’s Spanish heritage. While acknowledging the importance of that heritage, this book gives more than the usual emphasis to the role of African American agency in exploiting the limited opportunities that such a heritage permitted.

Spanish rule presented institutions and customs that talented, ambitious, and fortunate individuals might, and did, exploit. Although racial prejudice was never absent, persons of color aspired to lives of dignity, security, and prosperity. Frank Marotti’s subjects are the free people of African descent in the broad sense of the term “free,” that is, not just those who were legally free, but all those who resisted the constraints of legal bondage and otherwise asserted varying degrees of control over themselves and their circumstances. Collectively, this population was indispensable to the evolution of the existing social order.

In Heaven’s Soldiers, Marotti studies four pillars of black liberty that emerged during Spain’s rule and continued through the United States’ acquisition of Florida in 1821: family ties to the white community, manumission, military service, and land ownership. The slaveowning culture of the United States eroded a number of these pillars, though black freedom and agency abided in ways unparalleled anywhere else in the pre-Civil War United States. Indeed, a strong black martial tradition arguably helped to topple Florida’s slave-holding regime, leading up to the start of the Civil War.

Marotti surveys black opportunities and liabilities under the Spaniards; successful defenses of black rights in the 1820s as well as chilling statutory assaults on those rights; the black community’s complex involvement in the Patriot War and the Second Seminole War; black migration in the two decades leading up to the US Civil War; and African American efforts to preserve marriage and emancipation customs, and black land ownership.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817317843
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 02/04/2013
Series: Atlantic Crossings Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Frank Marotti is the author of The Cana Sanctuary: History, Diplomacy, and Black Catholic Marriage in Antebellum St. Augustine, Florida. He has taught at Cheyney University, Miami Dade College, and Florida International University.

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Heaven's Soldiers

Free People of Color and the Spanish Legacy in Antebellum Florida



Copyright © 2013The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-1784-3



Looking Backward and Forward

In 1868, Eliza M. Whitwell, the quadroon granddaughter of George J. F. Clarke, a former lieutenant governor of Spanish East Florida, critiqued antebellum US policy toward free persons of color in a bitter letter to the prominent St. Augustine physician, John Peck. The "good old Flag of Spain," she wrote, "enslaved none but the slaves giving equal rights & privileges to all as his subjects without distinction...." To Mrs. Whitwell, the republican Stars and Stripes, in contrast to Spain's monarchical banner, had stifled her human potential. This chapter evaluates her bold assertion while at the same time illustrating what could have been. It concludes with a haunting preview of the world that the American regime would create.

Under the Spaniards, Afro-East Floridians, through blood ties with prominent white fathers, could and did attain freedom, property, social standing, material comfort, and in rare cases, "whiteness." These blood ties constituted one important pillar of black liberty. The case of Don Francisco Xavier Sánchez's biracial offspring is illustrative. María Beatriz Piedra, the child of a South Carolina white man and his slave, bore Sánchez, one of East Florida's wealthiest inhabitants, at least eight babies, all of whom were baptized in the Catholic Church. They would come to inherit one-sixth of his ample estate. Three daughters married white Spaniards in formal church ceremonies, and their unions were not recorded in the parish's segregated black marriage book. It was not uncommon for the province's leading men to acknowledge, free, educate, and pass property to their biracial children.

Sánchez, following another common pattern, never married María Beatriz Piedra. Instead, in his fifties, while Piedra was alive, he contracted church nuptials with the teenage María del Carmen Hill. She produced a second family of ten white children. They, not their biracial siblings, became the legal heirs to the overwhelming majority of the Sánchez fortune. The names of Sánchez's octoroon grandchildren, even though the church had proclaimed their biracial mothers white, were entered into the black baptismal registries. Joseph Sánchez, the don's surviving free colored son, was trained as a carpenter. Unlike his sisters, he was not able to take a white spouse. When he was approaching his midthirties, Lucía Isnardy, a government official's teenaged, propertied, quadroon daughter, married him in a Catholic ceremony. Six months later, she died. The widower later established a relationship with Susana Sánchez, whose parents had been his father's slaves. Race relations in Spanish East Florida contained elements of flexible complexity, but whites unquestionably dominated the social hierarchy.

East Floridians of African descent also broke the shackles of enslavement by making incremental payments to their owners. This process, called coartación, comprised one piece of a second pillar of black liberty, manumission. Herbert Klein described coartación as the "most important" of several emancipation arrangements developed in colonial Cuba, from which Spanish East Florida was governed. Under this arrangement, slaves could request that a tribunal set their price, which they then would pay, almost always in installments, thereby attaining free dom. A bond person's right to own property undergirded the arrangement. After making an initial payment, coartados (slaves in the process of buying freedom), could trade masters if they found one who might smooth their way to liberty. Individuals who took advantage of coartación were resourceful, industrious, ambitious, talented, lucky, and well-connected. They were likely to be urban slaves. Coartación permitted entrepreneurs to obtain skilled workers at low wages and relieved owners of the bother of closely supervising their slaves. Wherever the sys tem operated, many blacks occupied a middle ground between bondage and free dom.

Felipe Edimboro and his wife, Filis, both African born, took advantage of coartación, but as in the cases of others who liberated themselves by this process, free dom did not come easily. After enduring the horrific Middle Passage to the Americas, the Edimboros ended up in East Florida. In 1772, Francisco Xavier Sánchez acquired them. Sánchez, a cattle baron, valued Felipe for his butchering. Filis was an excellent domestic. When Sánchez was absent from his main plantation, San Diego, a thousand-acre ranch, he left Felipe in charge. He also assigned the Edimboros to work in St. Augustine, where he held extensive real estate and business concerns. In this urban setting, the Edimboros enjoyed easier access to activities that permitted them to make extra cash in their spare time. They rented space that they transformed into a weekend black dance hall. Filis made toys and baked goods. She earned other funds by washing clothes. Felipe butchered, hunted, fished, peddled firewood, raised hogs, and picked up other part-time jobs as opportunities presented themselves. It took the couple two decades to accumulate their freedom price, not withstanding an acrimonious court battle with Sánchez, who balked at granting them their liberty.

The Edimboros secured their position in this life and the next through the Catholic sacraments of baptism and marriage. Not only did they solemnize their union within the church, they baptized their children there. They also witnessed a marriage and served as godparents numerous times. Through these relationships and their accompanying obligations, the manumitted couple extended their social networks and increased their community standing, thereby spiritually and materially bolstering their freedom.

Nonetheless, the Edimboros were well aware of the limits of Spanish benevolence. Their son, Sandi, was a hothead. They had tried to teach him his proper social role, but he only learned this lesson through painful experience. At one point, he and a white soldier cast their attentions on the same woman of color. A fight ensued during which Sandi bested his rival, who then took the matter to a military court. This body, after conducting an investigation, sentenced the young black man to toil in chains for one year. The better to instruct him as to show proper deference toward his racial betters.

Prince Witten neither attained freedom from white relatives nor from coartación. His liberty was linked more directly to his value as a fighting man. Due to religious and geopolitical rivalries, the Spaniards encouraged slaves from English colonies to the north to flee to East Florida. These fugitives, in turn, eventually impelled their new sovereign to proclaim a religious sanctuary policy for runaways who requested Catholic baptism. Freedom came to men and their families who not only accepted Catholicism, but served in the military. This policy became a point of contention that led to British assaults on St. Augustine in 1728, 1740, 1742, and 1743. Erstwhile fugitive bondsmen helped to repel these attacks, thus creating even more international tension.

Witten, a strapping African carpenter, sought refuge in East Florida with his North American–born wife and children in order to prevent the separation of his family. He subsequently won glory in combat against American invaders in 1795 and against Seminole warriors some five years later. His martial prowess earned him the respect and gratitude of the local colonial authorities. Because Witten had attained freedom under Spain's religious sanctuary policy, Catholicism played an important role in his life. He, his wife, and his children were baptized and married within the church. The Wittens also were among the leading godparents of color in the colony. Through sacramental ties, the family established close linkages to a prominent black general, Jorge Biassou, who had fought for the Spaniards during the Haitian Revolution.

Witten came to own both land and slaves. He also displayed his leadership ability in the civilian realm. He petitioned the government to form a black community outside of St. Augustine. Here, he and his comrades might attain a greater degree of autonomy. In a lumbering enterprise that he conducted part-time, Witten employed black men, thus providing income to them independent of white supervision. At least once, he sued a white employer after the latter had violated their labor contract by ordering Witten's wife, Judy Kenty, to toil in the fields. But, he also learned the limits to which he could push the Spaniards. While waiting in the doorway of a St. Augustine home belonging to Don José Sánchez, Kenty got into an argument with Sánchez's wife, calling her a "damned bitch" in English. This caused Sánchez to physically assault Witten's spouse. The judicial authorities were unsympathetic to Kenty. They sternly reprimanded her for failing to respect East Florida's hierarchy of color.

Judy Kenty's outburst gives a brief glimpse of the repressed anger that she and her husband harbored toward whites, even those who had established policies that made possible their liberty and social standing. One can only imagine what the Wittens thought of their former Anglo-American owners. On 9 September 1812, Prince Witten seized an opportunity to reap vengeance against them within the aegis of royal service, after American invaders from Georgia had besieged St. Augustine. Facing starvation, the desperate Spanish governor dispatched the black provincial militia and some Seminole allies, all under Witten's command, to cut the besiegers' supply lines. In a brilliantly executed surprise attack on that September night, the guerilla unit accomplished its mission, causing the Americans to retreat inland to the St. Johns River. The former refugee had become a savior. Felipe Edimboro also fought with Witten on that heroic night in the Twelve Mile Swamp, northwest of St. Augustine. He too had turned East Florida's desperate need for security to his advantage.

The Americans had hoped to stir up a "revolution" that would lead to an independent East Florida which then would request annexation to the United States. Due in large part to the resistance of men of color loyal to Spain, the so-called Patriot War of 1812–1813 resulted in a US retreat, but not before the invaders devastated the province by plunder and a scorched earth policy. On the eve of the incursion, however, East Florida prospered. Free blacks shared in this prosperity, scrambling to make money like their white neighbors. Because of Washington's ongoing trade war with Lon don, cotton and lumber fetched handsome profits at the port of Fernandina, on Amelia Island, a short distance from the Georgia border. Garden farmers near St. Augustine earned good prices for their produce. Cattle ranching also thrived. These economic good times trickled down to even the humblest free black farmers who surrounded the provincial capital.

In 1812, at Padan Aram, twenty-five miles northwest of St. Augustine, along the St. Johns River's eastern bank, Scipio Fleming planted five acres of corn, peas, pumpkins, melons, sugar cane, rice, potatoes, and other vegetables. Eight or ten hogs, a horse, and a dozen hens roamed Fleming's twenty-five-acre tract that the Spaniards had granted him in 1809. Two log houses and a shed stood on the property. Good rail fencing enclosed seven acres. Although his other possessions were modest—a boat, two guns, a hoe, an axe, an oven, a few pots, and several pieces of furniture—Fleming had distanced himself from his earlier dependence on the white Fatio family's patronage.

Prince Witten lived about ten miles southeast of Fleming's place, on Sweet Water Branch, some fourteen miles north of town. He cultivated ten acres of foodstuffs on land that he rented from the Minorcan John Leonardy. Whereas Fleming's holdings were estimated to be worth six hundred dollars, neighbors assessed Witten's property at double that price. His livestock included four milk cows, a mule, and three horses. The latter were especially valuable because in his spare time, Witten cut cedar for export in the Twelve Mile Swamp. After felling and squaring the logs, he hauled them to a landing. From there, he rafted the timber down the North River to St. Augustine, where he exchanged some of it for merchandise and sold the remainder to John Forbes and Company, which in turn shipped it to New York or Britain. Witten hired as many as twenty black laborers to assist him. He had acquired, among other implements, a cart, a chain, and timber wheels used to transport logs. Like other East Floridians, he had striven, according to the accounts of antebellum witnesses, to make "his fortune, hand over hand, as fast as he could" by engaging in the "most profitable employment or labor" available to blacks.

Two miles closer to St. Augustine, on the west bank of the North River, another man of color, Charles Hill, cultivated several fields, one of which belonged to the Minorcan James Arnau. Hill, like other free black farmers, had constructed his own buildings. He grew the usual food crops, in addition to a small quantity of cotton. Hill's main source of income came from his hauling business, to which he devoted his horses and wagon. Further up the Pablo Road, six miles north of Witten's place, Sancho Davis and his married son Domingo farmed government land and made extra money lumbering. Along the same road, some five miles from St. Augustine, a group of free blacks, which included John Howley, Abraham Rocho, and Abraham McQueen, leased acreage from Don Antonio Yguínez. They collectively fenced the tract and individually farmed plots within the enclosure. Families also constructed buildings and fencing that was theirs to take away once their lease expired. Howley and Rocho supplemented their incomes by harvesting cedar for export.

South of St. Augustine, at Moses Creek, near the mouth of the Matanzas River, other men of color, among them Isaac Bacchus and John Morell, tended small farms and cut timber. Several free blacks worked for Eliza Whit well's grandfather, George J. F. Clarke, and for her great uncle, Charles W. Clarke, who owned adjoining estates near Bacchus and Morell. George Clarke, a free colored man unrelated to the white Clarkes, farmed and logged in the vicinity as well on land that he rented from the Minorcan Antonio Masters. Toby Herreira, another man of African descent, lived nearby. He planted twenty-five acres in corn, potatoes, pumpkins, and Sea Island cotton. Herreira owned a horse, four cows, four breeding sows, a boar, and more than thirty pigs, plus a hundred chickens, ducks, and turkeys. Decades later, neighbors recalled that he had lived in "comfortable circumstances," holding property worth more than three thousand dollars.

In 1812, Felipe Edimboro owned land on St. Augustine's western outskirts, a "good garden in town," two "prime" slaves, and fifty head of cattle. His son-in-law, Benjamin Wiggins, whose sister was the common-law wife of Charles W. Clarke (a white provincial official/businessman and George J. F. Clarke's brother), had inherited property from his white father, Job Wiggins. The younger Wiggins worked as a "stock keeper & Pilot to those who traveled the country." These activities brought him an income of $500 to $600 annually in cattle and cash, plus another $200 to $300 in fees for his services as a guide. Indeed, one witness recalled that Wiggins "always had money," but "he always kept it private & took care not to let any body know what he had."

From this brief treatment, one can partially understand why Eliza Whitwell defended the Spanish regime so strongly. People of color under the Spaniards could be wealthy and achieve a degree of social prominence. The biracial children of white patriarchs typically inherited their fathers' wealth and a certain portion of his status. Ambitious, hard-working, and talented individuals from the ranks of the enslaved could emerge as respected free subjects of the crown. Men could vie with whites for glory on the battlefield. Free persons of African descent of ten owned land. Participation in the Catholic Church publicly demonstrated this class's moral and spiritual equality with whites. Black small farmers could aspire to better material circumstances. Still, a proud woman of color like Whitwell surely would have chafed under the racially based insults that the black Sánchez, Edimboro, and Witten families sometimes endured. A glance into the future, however, will more fully explain Whitwell's fond attachment to Spanish days.

During the summer of 1856, Susan Murphy feebly held on to life, drifting back and forth between the present and the past under the influence of senility, brandy, and opiates. Mrs. Murphy was, by some accounts, close to one hundred years old. Her unfortunate final illness, brought on by a broken thigh, promised to increase the fortunes of some of St. Augustine's leading citizens—men such as US Senator David L. Yulee, the physician Dr. John Peck, and lawyer-politician George R. Fairbanks. Murphy's slaves, however, harbored mixed feelings regarding their mistress' impending demise. Belinda, her nurse, stood to gain freedom and an inheritance of $500. Peter, on the other hand, found himself in danger of being separated from his family.


Excerpted from Heaven's Soldiers by FRANK MAROTTI. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Introduction....................     1     

1. Looking Backward and Forward....................     13     

2. The 1820s: Anxious Optimism....................     26     

3. The 1830s: Manumission, Property, and Family....................     46     

4. The Second Seminole War....................     61     

5. Restricted Manumission, Migrations, and Antimiscegenation........     77     

6. Preserving Spanish Days: Marriage and Manumission................     99     

7. The Black Martial Heritage....................     114     

8. Land, Paternalism, and Laws....................     129     

Notes....................     153     

Bibliography....................     197     

Index....................     211     

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