New Pensacola-area site considered for Underground Railroad: Network to Freedom program
At Gulf Islands National Seashore, research is continuing to determine if more of its sites, facilities, or programs can be added to the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program. To date, GINS has secured three of the 10 total listings in Florida, with a fourth under consideration.
Approval for those Pensacola-area sites currently listed has come within the last year and a half, taking advantage of the focus in recent years on Underground Railroad sites in the south.
“One of those commonly held misconceptions is that the Underground Railroad was one-directional,” said Park Ranger Casimer Rosiecki, lead researcher on the local sites, all managed by the National Seashore.
“In our imaginations, it would look like enslaved people following the North Star.”
Rosiecki said this theory that all slaves sought freedom in free northern states and Canada is one reason why Underground Railroad history has largely been ignored here along the Gulf Coast. But, he adds historians are rethinking that notion.
“For enslaved individuals in a place like West Florida or in the Pensacola region, going northward maybe didn’t make the most sense. Resisting their enslavement, maybe for them to resist it would be more logical for them to go south.”
Thus far, historical evidence of the Underground Railroad has been documented at three different sites at Gulf Islands National Seashore.
Fort Pickens was the first to be approved as a Network to Freedom listing in October 2020.
Rosiecki begins by taking us back to March 12, 1861, just days before the first shots of the Civil War, for the story of escape involving 8 enslaved people who traveled from the Milton area to Fort Pickens where U.S. (Union) soldiers were stationed.
“These individuals were ultimately returned to the marshals in Pensacola. So, their attempt for freedom failed, but they become the first documented enslaved individuals — freedom seekers is what we’d call them — to voluntarily enter Union lines in what would become the Civil War.”
Just a few months later, in the summer of 1861, enslaved man Peter Dyson and his wife Henrietta boarded a small boat at a place known as Escambia Point to flee to Fort Pickens.
“They sailed in this small skiff down Escambia Bay and Pensacola Bay and were successful in reaching the U.S. soldiers and the fort, where they were permitted to remain,” said Rosiecki.
Another successful escape was recorded at nearby Fort Barrancas, which was listed as a destination on the Network to Freedom program in April of last year.
Rosiecki began to piece together the story of a slave who arrived at Fort Barrancas with a shackle on his leg when he found overlapping details in an 1863 letter by a general at the fort and in a Vermont newspaper article.
“It (the article) also noted that the freedom seeker came into Union lines wearing an iron bar around their leg. And, incredibly enough, the newspaper article added great detail to that journey of that enslaved man,” Rosiecki stated.
“It identified where the journey had begun, the enslavers. It also noted that this man named Henry enlisted in the U.S. Army, joining an all-black regiment called the 14th Regiment Corps de Afrique; that unit later became the 86th Regiment, United States Colored Troops.”
Moving to Pensacola Pass, this site was added to the Network to Freedom map, listed last fall.
Rosiecki’s research points to a documented escape attempt involving the pass in the 1840s.
“Seven enslaved men approached a white abolitionist named Jonathan Walker and together this group of men made plans to sail aboard Walker’s whaleboat. And, their destination would be the British Bahamas, where slavery had been abolished about a decade earlier. Their quest for freedom failed. The eight men were brought back to Pensacola, returned to their enslavers.”
The man who helped them would later become nationally known as the man with the branded hand after the letters “SS” — short for ‘slave stealer’ — were burned into his palm.
Rosiecki reminds that resistance to slavery through escape and flight, which defines the Underground Railroad, was inherently dangerous.
“There is some evidence that some freedom seekers drowned in Pensacola Bay while attempting to cross open waters. Enslaved individuals had to avoid Confederate patrols, slave patrols,” he acknowledged.
In addition to his own extensive research, the park service ranger credited the book “Aiming for Pensacola: Fugitive Slaves on the Atlantic and Southern Frontiers” by former UWF scholar Matthew J. Clavin for providing valuable primary source materials.
To date, nearly 700 locations are part of the network, including Fort Pickens, Fort Barrancas, and Pensacola Pass. Application for parts of Santa Rosa Island managed by Gulf Islands National Seashore is now being processed, with the newest round of approved sites expected in April.