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Hurricane Michael reveals window into the past on Florida’s Apalachicola National Forest

FLORIDA – Let’s take a step back in time to a place rich in history and culture...a place filled with stories of a diverse community of people born over 200 years ago. Prospect Bluff Historic Sites, located on the Apalachicola National Forest was once inhabited by a maroon community; a diverse group of people that came together at this remote location to establish a free and prosperous community along the banks of the Apalachicola River.

“Historically, the maroon community was an independent, self-supporting group of people of African descent who lived with American Indians,” said National Forests in Florida’s Forest Archaeologist Rhonda Kimbrough. “These included free people of color, formerly enslaved British Colonial Marines and a number of escaped slaves from American plantations to the north.”

The archaeological remains of a fort they once occupied, also known as the Negro Fort, was constructed by the British toward the end of the War of 1812. From 1815 to 1816, British troops, maroon and Creek War refugees lived at Prospect Bluff, unifying people of different cultures and languages with as many as 5,000 occupants. The maroon community thrived at Prospect Bluff, building homes and planting corn, squash and melons, while conducting trade both near and abroad.

In October 2018, Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm, ripped through Florida’s Panhandle destroying nearly everything in its path. In its wake of destruction, the hurricane uprooted over 100 trees on Prospect Bluff, damaging the site, but also exposing hidden clues that may give us a deeper understanding into the story of its maroon community –how it came to be, as well as how it met its tragic end.

In November 2018, the National Park Service accepted the Negro Fort on the Prospect Bluff Historic Sites for inclusion into the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

To mitigate the effects of Hurricane Michael, the National Forests in Florida partnered with the Southeast Archaeology Foundation to receive a $15,000 grant from the National Park Service. These funds have been used to retrieve displaced artifacts; now archaeologists are analyzing the field results to prepare a report on the findings.

According to SEAF Treasurer Janet Bard, as evidence and artifacts are analyzed in this area, a significant page in black history may be supported or explained in further detail.

“The existence of the Negro Fort and surrounding community of maroons is a prominent example of the search for freedom from slavery and oppression prior to the Civil War,” said Bard. “It is said that the Negro Fort at Prospect Bluff was one of the most formidable maroon settlements in the New World.”

Still secluded in a remote area near the community of Sumatra (population 148 in 2010), Prospect Bluff Historic Sites have now garnered substantial attention from historians and archaeologists, as well as from local, national and international media and publications such as the Smithsonian.

Learn more about what happened to the maroon community at Prospect Bluff Historic Sites.

FS archeologist working in the field
Forest Service Heritage Program Manager Rhonda Kimbrough and Forest Service Archaeologist Andrea Repp sift through found artifacts at Prospect Bluff Historic Sites in the Apalachicola National Forest. USDA Forest Service photo by Susan Blake.
Florida archeologists working on the field
Southeast Archaeologist Foundation Treasurer Jane Bard works on an uprooted tree at Prospect Bluff Historic Sites in the Apalachicola National Forest. USDA Forest Service photo by Susan Blake.