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Heaven's Soldiers

Free People of Color and the Spanish Legacy in Antebellum Florida

Frank Marotti

Publication Year: 2013

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.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

I owe a huge debt to Dr. Idus A. Newby, professor emeritus at the University of Hawai’i, for devoting a significant amount of his retirement time to assisting me in the early stages of this project. Drs. Marcus Daniel, Margot Henriksen, Robert McGlone, Miles Jackson, and Karen Jolly of the University of Hawai’i also gave me the benefit of their expertise. ...

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pp. 1-12

This study focuses on one group of African Americans who struggled to “make it” in an ethnically diverse slave-owning community. It is about agency, memory, and what one historian has called the “hidden transcript of resistance” by oppressed people. It seeks to retrieve “previously suppressed versions of the past” ...

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1. Looking Backward and Forward

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pp. 13-25

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, ...

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2. The 1820s: Anxious Optimism

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pp. 26-45

At least 145 of the Spanish monarch’s free black subjects sailed away from St. Augustine to Cuba between 1821 and 1827.1 They saw the American regime’s advent as an impending disaster. Those who opted to remain harbored strong attachments to their land, along with a remarkable faith that they could prosper under US rule, ...

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

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pp. 46-60

National, local, and international events conspired against St. Johns County’s free people of color during the 1830s. In 1829, a black man, David Walker, sanctioned servile insurrection in his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. The Virginia bondsman, Nat Turner, led his followers to slaughter more than fifty whites in 1831. ...

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4. The Second Seminole War

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pp. 61-76

When the Second Seminole War (1835–1842) erupted, free blacks were able to enlist in the militia. Between 1835 and 1838, in accordance with family and Spanish East Florida tradition, William Clarke joined his white neighbors’ struggle against the Indians and their black allies. ...

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5. Restricted Manumission, Migrations, and Antimiscegenation

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pp. 77-93

Florida lawmakers sought to complete their victory against black fighting men by launching a vigorous attack on manumission in 1842. The sad outcome of the slave Jimmy Gibbs’s freedom bid (which began in 1839 when his owner agreed to sell the black man to a master who would emancipate him so that he could remain united to his St. Augustine family) ...


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pp. 94-98

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6. Preserving Spanish Days: Marriage and Manumission

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pp. 99-113

One Spanish-era legacy that persisted, although with muted or at least veiled advantages, was familial bonds with whites. Interracial relationships, however, occurred more surreptitiously and with less social pressure on white fathers to live up to their responsibilities. ...

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7. The Black Martial Heritage

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pp. 114-128

The rise of a statewide romanticization of the Hispanic past starting in the late 1840s certainly worked in blacks’ favor in their efforts to preserve Spanish days, as did the adjudication of the Patriot War claims.1 These two factors were important for bolstering memories of the military traditions of St. Johns County’s community of color. ...

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8. Land, Paternalism, and Laws

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pp. 129-152

Free black landownership had badly eroded by the end of the antebellum period. In order to establish the context for an investigation of the US attack on this Spanish-era pillar of liberty, it is useful to survey St. Johns County’s demography and economy. ...


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pp. 153-196


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pp. 197-210


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pp. 211-233

E-ISBN-13: 9780817386535
E-ISBN-10: 081738653X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817317843
Print-ISBN-10: 0817317848

Page Count: 245
Illustrations: 9
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 831118445
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Heaven's Soldiers

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Saint John's County (Fla.) -- History -- 19th century.
  • Free African Americans -- Florida -- Saint John's County -- History -- 19th century.
  • Free African Americans -- Legal status, laws, etc -- Florida -- Saint John's County -- History -- 19th century.
  • Slaves -- Emancipation -- Florida -- Saint John's County -- History -- 19th century.
  • Seminole War, 2nd, 1835-1842.
  • Florida -- History -- 1821-1865.
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