In early 19th century America, the Underground Railroad launched a freedom movement that brought people of varying religions and races together in a unified fight against the horror and injustice of chattel slavery.
But did you know there was a Southern version of the Underground Railroad as well?
"There is a Southern Underground Railroad that is little known, not just to the average American, but also to many students of U.S. history," says Dr. Paul George, resident historian at HistoryMiami Museum, in an email interview.
In the early 1800s, enslaved Black people in Florida and other regions of the deep South were hundreds of miles from border states like Maryland and Kentucky and thousands of miles away from the "promised land" of British Canada, making their options and odds for a successful escape close to zero.
"The Saltwater Underground Railroad headed south into Spanish Florida — a region which was really off the grid and close to other areas outside of the U.S. which might be havens for fugitive slaves," says George.
Believed to have operated between 1821 and 1861, the Saltwater Underground Railroad refers to the coastal escape route followed by fugitive slaves into the British-controlled Bahamas. Fugitives from Southern slave states sought refuge on South Florida's beaches. "An underground from Georgia and Alabama, maybe South Carolina too, extended into Spanish Florida," says George.
From there, some paid for their passage on Bahamian vessels, while others made their way across the perilous Atlantic in dugout canoes and small boats. Once out to sea, under cover of night, they faced unimaginable unknowns: unpredictable weather and storms, recapture by slave hunters, assault by pirates, and unfathomably deep, dark waters.
Why Escape To the Bahamas?
Situated 150 miles (241 kilometers) off the coast of Key Biscayne in Miami, Florida, the Bahamas were a viable destination for several reasons. For one, in 1825 the British government decreed that anyone who relocated to British territory was free, regardless of their prior status. And in 1834, slavery was abolished in all British territories, including the Bahamas. Secondly, most of its inhabitants were Black, making it possible for resistance movements on the islands to take hold. Free Blacks in the British Bahamas could get married, own land and pursue an education – basic human rights that were inconceivable for enslaved human beings in the antebellum South. And because the population was mainly Black, it was easy for fugitive slaves to assimilate into a diverse community of native Bahamians, made up of Bahamian descendants of African slaves, Africans and maroons, also called "Black Seminoles," who were runaways from the deep South and Gulf coast who sought refuge with the Seminole Indians in Florida.
"They settled into neighborhoods alongside families of earlier fugitives," says George. "Many of their descendants still reside there. Maritime people, as well as farmers."
Between 1821 and 1837, in the early years after the U.S. acquired Florida from Spain in 1819, hundreds of maroons fled to Andros Island in the Bahamas. The U.S. paid off Spain's debt to landowners who'd lost their slaves, aka "property," and began a 40-year campaign to locate and capture formerly enslaved Africans who had escaped to Spanish Florida in order to avoid plantation slavery, as well as to force the Seminoles onto reservations west of the Mississippi on the Trail of Tears.
In 1526 the Spanish had brought the first enslaved Africans to what would later become America's Southern shores – nearly 100 years before the British colonized North America. "Slaves had been in Spanish Florida since the late 16th century. They labored in the fields and groves," says George.
In an effort to destabilize British colonies farther north, Spain began offering asylum to fugitive slaves in 1693, but only if they converted to Catholicism and did four years of military service. That enticing policy made Spanish Florida into a haven for fugitive slaves and led to the birth of the first sanctioned free black settlement – Fort Mose – in what would ultimately become the United States.
"There was, near St. Augustine, Fort Mose, a community of ex-slaves, who likely provided assistance to fugitives from points north," says George. "Ultimately, the fugitives ended up at the Cape Florida Lighthouse, awaiting evacuation to the Bahamas by abolitionists or boat captains. Andros Island was a favorite refuge of these fugitives."
Florida Becomes a U.S. Territory in 1821
But with the ratification of the Onis-Adams Treaty in 1821, Florida effectively became a U.S. territory that allowed slavery, spurring Black Floridians to make their way through palmetto fields, dense marshy flats, mangrove forests, swamps with jutting aerial roots, and other harsh terrain, to the beaches of southern Florida where they could hopefully secure safe passage to freedom in the Bahamas.
"Miami was likely the main escape point of the Saltwater Underground Railroad, more specifically Key Biscayne on the bay and ocean, seven miles southeast of Miami. With the Cape Florida lighthouse up by 1825, it was all over for that main escape route of the Saltwater Underground Railroad," says George. "We tend to view history from a British vantage point. Thus, all things Spanish Florida at the time were overlooked. Ironically, the Saltwater Underground Railroad ends on the tip of Key Biscayne about where the lighthouse stands today."
Here is an introduction to a series called the "Saltwater Underground Railroad Experience: Retracing Pathways to Freedom:"
Historians estimate that by the 1830s as many as 6,000 enslaved people had escaped to the Bahamian islands.
Today there are two designated National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom sites in Florida: Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas and Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne.