Bradenton park recognized as a stop on escaped slaves’ ‘underground railroad’ to freedom

Is Mineral Springs Park part of the Underground Railroad?

Evidence mounts that Mineral Springs Park’s history runs deeper than imagined as the National Parks Service eyes the park for a new historic designation.
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Evidence mounts that Mineral Springs Park’s history runs deeper than imagined as the National Parks Service eyes the park for a new historic designation.

Mineral Springs Park is officially part of the National Park Services’ National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom for its historical ties to escaped slaves.

Fresh water was life for anybody trying to survive in Bradenton. Mineral Springs is long known to have supported that life from the time of early Native Americans to Spanish explorers to British traders to early settlers. Now it is known to have been the temporary home of escaped slaves and suspected site of a lost slave settlement known as Angola.

A year ago this week, the process began to declare Mineral Springs Park as part of the national Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. With significant evidence showing that Mineral Springs was part of the Angola settlement of escaped slaves, the announcement was expected to come quick, but the lengthy government shutdown delayed the inevitable.

However, certificates from the National Park Service are now in hand and the celebrations are about to begin.

On March 23, Reflections of Manatee will unveil its new exhibit entitled “Freedom Seekers at the Manatee River” with a preview and reception at 5 p.m. On March 30, beginning at 10 a.m. a special panel of speakers will talk about the process of how the designation came about and the history behind it.

Included in the guest speaker list is Willard Steele who will discuss The Negro Fort, where it is said the Underground Railroad met the Trail of Tears.

Andrew Jackson destroyed Fort Negro near Apalachicola in 1816, scattering the surviving slaves. Many traveled inland to join with the Seminole Indians near the Suwanee River where they were defeated yet again by Jackson’s forces. Those survivors, and others from the fort, made their way down the west coast where they found Mineral Springs and from that fresh water treasure expanded their settlement from the Manatee River to Sarasota Bay around 1810.

The settlement is believed to have existed for more than a decade.

There they thrived until forces led by William McIntosh scattered the escaped slaves yet again, most of them heading south to Miami and eventually landing in the Bahamas where their descendants live today. Last summer, a delegation from the Bahamas held a three-day festival at the park celebrating Bradenton’s and the island nation’s shared history.

Uzi Baram, professor of anthropology at the New College of Florida and also a speaker at the March 30 event, had long suspected the site was the missing location of Angola. In 2007. Excavations began and over time, more evidence surfaced.

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Mineral Springs Park has officially received its historical designation as the National Parks Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. Trudy Williams of Reflections of Manatee stands with Daphney Towns who organized the Back to Angola Festival that took place last summer to celebrate Bradenton’s historical ties with the Bahamas where many of the slaves ended up. File photo by Tiffany Tompkins Bradenton Herald

“We are very excited,” said Sherry Svekis, vice president of Reflections of Manatee, a historical preservation group. “We were pretty much assured we would get this designation and fully expected to but it’s always great knowing for sure. We’ve been working the last couple of months designing this exhibit Freedom Seekers at Manatee River and want to share with the public the importance of this site and the story.”

Svekis said it is likely that New Angola was even larger, and that the settlement included where the Braden River meets the Manatee River, but due to development, archeological efforts were impossible.

“We know we had historical documentation of every other group of people using the spring so it only made sense that the people of Angola would,” Svekis said.

Excavation began to pull artifacts that were dated to 1810 including types of pipes used by the escaped slaves that were specific to the time period. Svekis said British ceramic pieces dated to the period were also found.

“The Angolans were connected to the international world through the British colonies and trading,” she said. “When they came to Florida they were still connected to the British because of of their resistance to the U.S. colonies. They were connected to the Spanish in the same way and then involved in the Seminole Wars. It was in everyone’s interest at the time to keep the Americans out of Florida.”

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Mineral Springs Park has received its historical designation as part of the National Parks Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. Celebrations will be held March 23 and March 30. File photo by Tiffany Tompkins Bradenton Herald

Sheri Jackson, with the National Park Service, was convinced on her first visit to Mineral Springs and encouraged Reflections of Manatee to submit the application to be designated. She, too, will speak at the March 30 event.

“Florida is unique to the rest of the Underground Railroad because the slaves were escaping south,” Jackson said. “The Bradenton site was established after the northern sites were destroyed, so they continued south and eventually ended up in Miami and then down to the Bahamas. The history travels south in Florida.”

Jackson said most of the slaves probably escaped from Georgia and South Carolina. Florida was a good destination because it was not yet a state.

“It’s a very important site to Florida,” Jackson said. “To go from a dream of looking at the site to where it is today and knowing it is the site of New Angola is very exciting and it’s exciting having another piece of the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom puzzle.”

The designation puts Mineral Springs Park on the national registry of historic places as part of the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Network. Jackson said it can be marketed as a historical site and will be eligible for National Park Services grant dollars for future projects.