Historians Want Rewrite on Slave Revolt; Was the Uprising in North Florida the Largest of Its Kind in U.S. History?

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The slaves cut cane in torrid fields near St. Augustine, plagued by snakes and mosquitoes and white men with whips. They crushed it with rollers and boiled the juice for sugar and molasses. The harvest left them with yellow fever and puncture wounds even as it made their masters rich.

Then the raiders came. A war party burned 21 plantations along the St. Johns River in 1836, making off with hundreds of slaves and permanently crippling the North Florida sugar industry.

For more than 150 years, most historians believed only Seminole Indians and their free black allies conducted the raids. But a growing, if controversial, body of research points toward a conspiracy between the black warriors -- known as Black Seminoles or maroons -- and the plantation slaves.

That would make North Florida the locus for the largest mass slave uprising in U.S. history.

In a new online documentary at www.johnhorse.com, amateur historian J.B. Bird draws on military records and archived newspaper reports to show that at least 385 slaves rebelled against the Florida sugar barons. That's more documented slaves than took part in better-known revolts, including Nat Turner's rebellion in Virginia, Denmark Vesey's conspiracy in South Carolina and an 1811 uprising in Louisiana that ended with nearly 100 rebels dead.

Bird's documentary underlines earlier work by two Florida A&M University history professors: Larry Rivers, who has estimated as many as 1,000 slaves escaped with the Black Seminoles, and Canter Brown, who says the U.S. military often blamed Indians for attacks by former slaves and their descendants.

"They didn't want to admit they were beaten by blacks," Brown said.

When Spain ruled Florida in the early 1800s, the area became a haven for escaped slaves from neighboring states. Many of them joined a sort of feudal system with the Seminoles, who gave them farmland in exchange for annual tribute and a pledge to defend the tribe in wartime. It's unclear how much the races intermingled, but in time, the runaways and their children came to be known as Black Seminoles.

Gen. Andrew Jackson tested the alliance when he sent troops into enemy territory to wreck a Black Seminole stronghold on the Apalachicola River in 1816. Some fled to the Caribbean after Jackson invaded Florida in 1818, a move that forced Spain to cede its territory to the United States and brought full-fledged slavery back to the state. …