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Not Forgotten: Recovering Florida’s Silenced History of Enslavement from Prison

Green trees surround a deep blue lake. The text reads, "Aerial View of Ponce DeLeon Springs."

Pete and Antonio write about this 1950s postcard of the former site of Springs Garden Plantation: “It is not hard to imagine the place as it would have looked when 39 enslaved persons arrived in 1804 and manually cleared dense forests for planting cotton and grazing cattle.” Image courtesy of authors.

Since 2018, Antonio Rosa, Pete, and other men incarcerated at Tomoka Correctional Institution (TCI) in Daytona Beach, Florida have been collecting, transcribing, and analyzing archival documents in order to expose the history of enslavement on a plantation located about thirty miles from the prison. Without access to the internet or physical records, Antonio and Pete have built an archive that testifies to the lives of enslaved men and women on the nearby Spring Garden Plantation, now known as the De Leon Springs State Park. Though an exhibit in the park claims that enslaved men and women are “long forgotten,” Antonio, Pete, and their fellow researchers are demonstrating otherwise.

Antonio and Pete, along with other students enrolled in Stetson University’s Community Education Project, are currently producing a public history exhibit that will bring the legacy of injustice on the land surrounding TCI to life and deliver a “personal” impact, as Pete writes, on local visitors. Through this work, the researchers are challenging what Antonio calls the “historical inequities” of both the lived experience of the past and contemporary public memory.

Antonio and Pete, who prefers to use only his first name, corresponded with Anne Gray Fischer, assistant editor of the Journal of American History, to share details about their Public History Project, how they have undertaken their work, their surprising findings, and their vision for the future of the project.

How did the Public History Project get started?

Pete: In January 2015, the dream of some Stetson University professors came to fruition in the form of the Stetson Reading Group here at Tomoka Correctional Institution. This program grew into the Community Education Project where Stetson faculty offered the classes and lectures they were teaching at the university. In the fall of 2018, we were officially enrolled as Stetson University students through a Laughing Gull Foundation grant. We are now taking accredited non-degree bearing courses.

Then, in January 2018, Dr. Andy Eisen, a Stetson professor, came in with a presentation concerning DeLeon Springs State Park. This park used to be Spring Garden Plantation, a slave plantation, right down the road from DeLand, Florida. Its claim to fame is now a “cook-them-yourself” pancake house. One of his colleagues, Dr. Robert Sitler, had already published a paper, in the Journal of Florida Studies, on the history of the property, “Immersed in the Millennial History of DeLeon Springs.” Sitler gave a presentation to us here, furthering our knowledge of the area’s history. [In this presentation, Pete and Antonio also learned about the current historical exhibit on view at DeLeon Springs State Park.][1]

Antonio: Our Public History Project was born in reaction to a false claim in the current Spring Garden Plantation exhibit regarding the enslaved, that their names are “long forgotten.” It turns out that with a quick Google search and a trip to the county courthouse our professor managed to obtain three inventory lists containing upward of 100 names with monetary values for some and ages for others. If these extant records were simply ignored in the production of that exhibit, what other records are still out there? For example, we do not have a list for those enslaved at Spring Garden during Orlando Rees’s ownership (1831-1849). Do those records exist?

What questions drove this work?

Antonio: The silencing of these names in the current historical production at the site strikes us as an injustice demanding redress. We intend to produce a more equitable exhibit, one that does not privilege the stories of enslavers over the enslaved simply because archival material is more abundantly available for the former than the latter. Moreover, we want to create an exhibit that challenges the politics of the archive. For example, the people who produced the archives from which we recovered the names of the enslaved represented them as property. As property, they were valued and depreciated. In 1855, a woman referred to as Blind Sarah was considered worthless. How could this happen in the nation that fought for the inalienable rights of men? By using skin color to represent Black people as inherently inferior to whites, enslavers justified considering them property and inflicting violence upon them. Are we any different now?

We want the public to leave Spring Garden with a more critical awareness of the dangers of the racism ingrained in our society and how it impacts the lived experiences of Black people. Why do they appear more threatening to law enforcement officers? Why would anyone wear blackface to ridicule Hurricane Katrina victims? Why are lighter skinned Black actors more likely to find lead acting roles than their darker counterparts? We tend to think that racism ended with the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement but we are still dealing with racism, although of a more subtle variety.

Pete: A statement from the current display smacked me in the face: “Throughout all of the adversity and suffering, they somehow managed to raise families and survive in Florida’s wilderness. And here many of them died, their names long forgotten.” Why so callous a view? It would be far more humane to state that “their names survive on ship manifests, census records, probate records, personal correspondence, court documents, etc.,” which is just a partial list of some of the places we have found names of these enslaved persons.

Where was the rest of the story? We read the Autobiography of Jane Woodruff, the wife of Joseph Woodruff who purchased the property in 1823, and realized that this autobiography was all the exhibit creators used for their exhibit, “Slavery and Survival: Life at Spring Garden Plantation,” as if nothing else mattered. Harsh: that’s the word used for the conditions of the enslaved. Really. I would say conditions for me in prison are harsh at times, yet I am extremely blessed compared to even what I knew about slavery before this project.

The probate list of the names of enslaved people is pictured here.

Pete and Antonio write that this image of a probate list “gives the sense that the names are moving from illegibility and obscurity into clarity and remembrance.” Image courtesy of authors.

In our initial correspondence you wrote, “Since we cannot visit the archives, we had to build our own.” Can you tell me about the process of building an archive in prison?

Antonio: Since we cannot access physical and digital archives, archival material has to be brought to us.

Pete: Dr. Eisen initially brought in copies off the internet archive sites he felt were relevant. We would read them and come back with more questions which sent him back to more and varied archives.

Antonio: Dr. Eisen serves as our avatar by visiting these sites on our behalf and photographing or copying documents we request. Until earlier this month, we did not have a computer lab where we could store and examine copies retrieved from the archives. Our archive, therefore, consisted of paper copies of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century primary documents (British and Spanish land grants, inventory lists, probate records, etc.) and secondary sources on the different governments, people, and geographies related to Spring Garden Plantation. Some of these copies of documents are badly faded and illegible in some spots.

Pete: The documents that went into our archive were initially tied to questions we had concerning the inadequacy of the current display at DeLeon Springs State Park. We would ask for a source and Dr. Eisen would search for it. We ended up storing every single document the professor retrieved for us. Because of our initial questions, we ended up with a veritable gold mine of material that we are constantly coming back to as our historical research has progressed.

Not long into our research, our personal property storage was soon becoming overwhelmed [with archival records]. Initially, we did not want to potentially lose this valuable data by leaving it in a common area, so we began to keep our documents in a paper box stored in our shared classroom space. We therefore combined the documents we had acquired, filling three quarters of a copy paper box, and sorted them by categories such as the names of each Spring Garden owner, different governmental periods, enslaved (names), conflicts (e.g., Second Seminole War, Civil War), Native Americans, etc.

This early archive allowed us to see related topics. Antonio was mostly following the Spanish period whereas I was studying the British period. We then searched more directly for related material in each line of study as we became aware of their existence. Mention of a source in one document sometimes opened the door to answering questions that a paper’s author was not researching.

One shortcoming of our growing archive was that we could not possibly print everything that Dr. Eisen was finding for us in the online archives because of the costs involved and our limited storage space. However, this small collection enabled us to acknowledge that our research had far-reaching arms to study before we could begin to adequately understand the scope of any period.

Another shortcoming of our archive was the poor quality of our copies. This issue could not be easily resolved as we were dealing with documents with over 150-year-old cursive. In order to read and understand these documents, we would have to find a shaft of sunlight entering the dormitory and hold an old pair of my eyeglasses over them in order to examine them as if under a table-mounted magnifying glass. This actually worked and I have the transcribed documents to prove it. These recorders’ employment possibly could have been due to nepotism as they were apparently incapable of writing legibly.

Doing research through photocopies has severe limitations because there was no means to scan archival material until these last few decades. All documents relating to our research sat in storage somewhere, aging and becoming harder to read, the ink often bleeding through pages. When we read a document a second time, something would jump out which we had not noticed in the first pass. We would then have to go back and look for it again in another source we had already read. Our research involves multiple rereads. We would not always know what is relevant on a first reading unless it was related to an ongoing question or line of inquiry.

Antonio: Thanks to a Laughing Gull Foundation grant, we now have a computer lab which houses our new digital archive. This digital archive mitigates many of the limitations of working with our physical archive. For example, we have been able to transcribe documents that were illegible in their physical archive form. We now have many transcriptions stored alongside images of documents housed in archives hundreds of miles away from us. Any of our fellow researchers can now inspect a primary document and glean what he needs from it without having to spend hours deciphering faded cursive handwriting.

What is one of the most surprising findings you’ve encountered in your research? How does it challenge or change the official state history?

Pete: As I read the literature on slavery in Florida, I noticed that all the history and glory was given to the enslavers who owned the plantations and not even a fraction of type was given to the enslaved peoples who made it all possible. It bothers me when all this historical praise gets heaped on the enslavers with a side note saying, of course, the enslaved made it possible and then back to praising the enslavers.

In East Florida as a British Province, 1763-1784 (1943) by Charles Loch Mowat, I discovered a contradiction that has repeatedly popped up throughout our readings. An enslaved person was considered chattel property with no will of their own until charged with a crime, at which time they were suddenly humanized strictly for the purpose of punishment for said crime. The slave holding societies had their cake and ate it, too.[2]

The local and official state history for this area comes from a WASP perspective. I see some of what we are finding in primary documents possibly ruffling feathers when this is complete. I would love to have a sit-down with their published version and our historical research findings. One can always dream, especially when it’s personal.

This image displays 3 names written in ink. In the middle, next to the name Peter, is an unclear pencil marking.

Clip from Joseph Woodruff’s 1829 inventory. Image courtesy of authors.

Antonio: On January 28, 2019, I was able to spend more time in the computer lab, zooming in on Joseph Woodruff’s 1829 inventory. When I left off on Friday, I was unable to decipher several scribblings next to a few of the names. Some of those scribblings began with the words sent to, but I could not discern whether it was to a person or a place. The difficulty arose from its being faintly written with lead instead of ink. More specifically, I could make out the beginning and the end of the word Char_on, but I had difficulty making out the single internal character.

The illegible character looks like the vertical stroke of an l followed by a non-intersecting horizontal stroke extending over the –on. One could therefore read the word as either Charlon or Charton. Of the two spellings, Charlon made more sense since the horizontal stroke did not touch the vertical stroke, making Charton less likely. Yet Charlon made no sense as a person or place name. Moreover, I still could not account for the horizontal stroke over the -on. There had to be a purpose for the horizontal stroke since it appeared five times in the document. Then I recalled experiencing a similar difficulty while I spent last summer transcribing around 60 pages worth of copies related to the 1803 Spanish land grant of William Williams, the second plantation owner at Spring Garden.

This detail from the letter displays Jose de Pubizarreta's signature and the final two lines of his letter. Importantly, it displays the contraction that Antonio mentions in the text.

Letter from Jose de Pubizarreta. Image courtesy of authors.

It seems that it was common in the early nineteenth century to contract words by eliding internal syllables and noting the elision with a macron, as we currently use the apostrophe. For example, the law clerk Jose de Pubizarreta, answering Williams’s petition to the Spanish governor of Florida, contracts general to geāl. This recollection allowed me to trust that what I saw in the document (sent to Charlōn) was a contraction of a yet undetermined word. Then I used my knowledge that Joseph and Jane Woodruff hailed from South Carolina before purchasing Spring Garden and that they visited there in 1828 to determine that Charlōn is a contraction for Charleston. I went back into Jane Woodruff’s biography and found her reference to that final trip:

As the Spring advanced we began to make preparations for paying a visit to Charleston. Accordingly we arranged all the plantation business with the intention of spending the summer in Charleston, and returning early in the winter to Spring Garden. We left our happy home on the fourth day of June, eighteen hundred and twenty eight, and after a very disagreeable voyage of fourteen days, arrived in Charleston, safe and in good health. Your father began immediately on our arrival to make preparations for going on to New York. He intended entering largely into the sugar making business. He left me in Charleston the beginning of July, and sailed for the North. (Autobiography of Jane Woodruff, 51)

It is likely that Jane Woodruff took Casteel (age 7), Peter (8), Bella (9), John (8), and Mary (10) with them on the trip to serve them and her children Christiana, Julian, and Rosalia as attendants. It seems that they never returned to their families in Spring Garden following Joseph Woodruff’s sickness and death during that trip. These young children were probably separated from their families until the Spring Garden Plantation was sold in 1830 and all the property was moved back to South Carolina. But it is just as possible that they never would have been returned to Florida. At best, this meant a painful separation from family for a period of months or years. At worst, these scribblings could be noting the permanent breaking up of families.

What connections have you found between the histories of Black and Indigenous resistance in the region?

Pete: Another student is studying dissertations, scholarly articles, and published history documenting how escaped Black people joined with native populations until growth enabled them to form their own free Black communities close to the native communities. There are recorded instances of intermarriage between formerly enslaved and free Blacks and natives. When native populations rose up, free Black people were their allies, such as John Caesar, who had family living on an East Florida plantation, and Abraham, a veteran of the Pensacola Negro Fort, served as emissaries for the Seminoles and recruited warriors off the plantations for the Second Seminole War. Natives and Blacks, both marginalized by American society, banded together and fought side by side for their liberty.

What has changed in the year since this project began?

Pete: The original scope of our Public History Project was to tell a more complete story on each of DeLeon Spring State Park’s museum panels. When our research got underway, we began to see side branches that needed to be studied before a full understanding could unfold. I’ve overheard conversations in the class and realize, “Wait! I’ve got something on that here. Where did you find that?” It’s a puzzle that we’re seeing has more pieces in the box than Dr. Eisen knew about.

You mention that more students are participating and following different lines of research. What other projects are emerging from this work?

Pete: Just this last week one of our fellow students who is busy as a prison law clerk asked where he could jump into our research project as he was worried that joining a year into our project, he would be going over what we already knew. Antonio pointed him to Captain Brock, a steamboat captain on the St. Johns River, who transported slaves in the area. We had come across his name but no one had investigated the section of the archive relating to him. He is now exploring how steamboat operations on the St. Johns River facilitated the sale and transfer of enslaved persons.

Antonio: One student happens to be a foodie and is currently researching the diets of the enslaved. Another student is sifting through primary and secondary sources on the Second Seminole War. He is particularly interested in the official representation of that conflict as an Indian war as opposed to a slave uprising. A strong argument can be made that many of the generals and soldiers involved in that conflict understood it as a slave revolt.

What future do you envision for the project?

Pete: I read Tiya Miles’s pamphlet of a Cherokee slave plantation. In it, each of her students wrote about their research. Some students were allotted an entire chapter; some combined like research to produce chapters together. These were compiled in a booklet. Later the material was trimmed down into a pamphlet that was distributed at the plantation museum. They were also encouraged to expand their research into a book. There is a lot to tell on a variety of fronts in our project, like many historical narratives that we have found but no one else has yet told.

I have wanted to make visiting our display at Spring Garden personal for the visitors because leaving it would stay with them longer. The land is the one constant. I read an article in The Atlantic speaking about college courses having an impact on memory longer than just the duration of said course when the professor made it personally apply to their students’ present lives. The sugar mill location now being a pancake house has me thinking the regulars are local for the most part. If they are able to read irrefutable proof that their area has this history, there is a possibility they may begin to realize this history is still being carried out under the shadow of different names and take a stand for ending this two-class system.

What history books have most inspired your work, and what histories are you most excited about now?

Antonio: Abina and the Important Men by Trevor Getz and Liz Clarke was inspiring in its creation of a graphic novel from a single document, a short trial transcript. Getz’s use of primary and secondary sources filled in the silences common in colonial archives. Since the enslaved persons at Spring Garden did not actively contribute to their representations and mentions in the archives, we quickly understood that we faced challenges similar to Getz and Clarke and that we would have to use a similar approach in our project.[3]

I am really excited about Marissa Fuentes’s Dispossessed Lives and Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past. These works have given me a theoretical framework for thinking about power in the production of the archives to which we have access and how they silenced the enslaved people we are attempting to recover from those archives. I have spent this weekend critically interrogating Joseph Woodruff’s 1829 inventory with these ideas in mind. If not for Fuentes and Trouillot, I would not have spent much time thinking about this list of names with any degree of depth.[4]

Pete: I don’t know that there was any one book that inspired me. For some reason, my inspiration has been the land itself. There are questions about where these peoples were kept and, from the start, I wanted visitors to our display to leave knowing that where they possibly live, work, or play could have held enslaved people. I want it to become personal as I see that as making the greatest impression. I have read from many sources and put together what I believe to be the picture no one else has painted. It’s full of questions because different primary documents are showing transactions no historical tome has revealed, as of yet.

What was the moment when you realized you were a historian?

Antonio: It must have been this past January 5th, when Pete and I were discussing what had been our largest takeaway from this project at that time, and I was struck by how most of the sources we had read focused on the enslavers and not on the living conditions of the enslaved. I wrote down the names of the “major players” we had so far encountered in the East Florida slavery scene (William Williams, Joseph Hernandez, Philip K. Yonge) and the names of the enslaved at Spring Garden. Which ones were held up to public memory? Joseph Hernandez went down in history as a general during the Second Seminole War and the first Hispanic member of Congress. Philip K. Yonge was a slave trader, but there is an archive and library named after him at the University of Florida.

But who remembers Angelica, William Williams’s “mulatto woman” according to his will? Angelica bore three children to Williams, the first owner of Spring Garden Plantation. In his will, Williams freed her and the children, bequeathed her three enslaved persons, allowed her to live on his 180-acre plantation in New Smyrna, Florida, and provided her with grain from his stores.

Or who remembers Anthony Starke, Thomas Starke’s slave who was freed after the Civil War and went on to vote in Florida during the era of Radical Reconstruction? We have found his name in the vote canvass records in the disputed congressional election between Jesse Finley and Horatio Bisbee in 1876. This was probably the last time that Anthony Starke was able to vote in Florida as the state’s governance returned to the Democratic Party.

I formulated these thoughts as “historical inequities.” By historical inequities I meant both the lived inequities experienced in the past by the enslaved and how they are obscured in the telling of history of that past. The following week I almost leapt from my seat when I read Marisa J. Fuentes express the idea as “archival imbalances” in Dispossessed Lives. I was so excited that I asked Pete to drop what he was doing to read the passage in Fuentes. I felt that I was on the right track as I think about the past and how it is represented for contemporary audiences.

The current history of Spring Garden Plantation on exhibit at DeLeon Springs State Park is a prime example of inequitable treatment in the production of history. Mention is made of Joseph and Jane Woodruff, owners of the plantation from 1823 to 1830, while nothing is said about several enslaved individuals whose names made it into the archives and our research has recovered.

Recovering the lives and stories of people like Angelica and Anthony from wills, probate inventories, and voting records is a first step towards lifting them from obscurity, sharing their history with the public, and redressing the inequities in the current exhibit.

Antonio and Pete enthusiastically welcome questions and feedback. Readers may send questions and comments to

The Community Education Project has an Amazon Wishlist for the Public History Project.

[1] Robert Sitler, “Immersed in the Millennial History of DeLeon Springs,” Journal of Florida Studies, 1 (no. 6, 2017).

[2] Charles Loch Mowat, East Florida as a British Province, 1763-1784 (Berkeley, 1943).

[3] Trevor R. Getz and Liz Clarke, Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History (New York, 2016).

[4] Marissa Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia, 2016). Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston, 1995).