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The history behind Santa Rosa Island's Network to Freedom listing

Gulf Islands National Seashore (GINS) has notched its fourth listing on the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program, which was established by an act of Congress in 1998.

Earlier this spring, Santa Rosa Island was one of 16 sites in 11 states to be approved in the latest round of listings.

Previously, Fort Pickens, Fort Barrancas and Pensacola Pass were approved.

“The most recent application was mostly to have the natural landscapes on Santa Rosa Island included as part of a transportation route,” said National Park Service Ranger Casimer Rosiecki.

As lead researcher for the application, Rosiecki pulled together historical documentation showing the use of Santa Rosa Island for the march of hundreds of freedom seekers as part of the historic Marianna Expedition.

“So, the Okaloosa area near Destin, the Santa Rosa area between Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach, and then this entire Fort Pickens area; the natural landscape were all included in that recent application because those 600 freedom seekers traveled with the U.S. soldiers across this island to get to Pensacola Bay, where Fort Pickens and Fort Barrancas were located," he said.

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Sandra Averhart
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WUWF Public Media
From the Fort Pickens Fishing Pier, Park Service Ranger Casimer Rosiecki points over to historic Fort Barrancas, which is where the 1864 Marianna Expedition began. U.S. troops returning from the expedition were joined by some 600 freedom seekers as they slowly marched back along Santa Rosa Island.

Rosiecki shares more of the backstory from the Fort Pickens Fishing Pier, just across the bay from Fort Barrancas, which was a sprawling U.S. Army post during the American Civil War.

This is where newly recruited soldiers were enlisted, drilled, and staged for expeditions and campaigns into West Florida and South Alabama.

The Marianna Expedition launched from Barrancas in early September 1864.

“The U.S. general in command of the post, Alexander Asboth, had reports of isolated Confederate infantry and cavalry in and around Jackson and Washington counties here in the state of Florida. He also had some rumors of U.S. prisoners being held there,” said Rosiecki, adding that Asboth’s response was to plan a strike in the eastern part of West Florida.

With support of the steamship, the Lizzie Davis, the general organized an expeditionary force of 700 mounted soldiers, including both White and Black troops.

The Union soldiers crossed from the Pensacola Navy Yard to the Gulf Breeze peninsula and used the sandy Jackson Trail, which extends to the capital city of Tallahassee, to begin their journey to Marianna.

“There’s going to be a few, small, minor skirmishes between U.S. forces and militia and Confederate forces leading up to Sept. 27 when you have the Battle of Marianna, itself, explode,” Rosiecki explained.

Following the battle, Asboth, who was among the many casualties, turns his exhausted force south toward the Gulf of Mexico and then west toward their Pensacola base.

Santa Rosa Island’s approval as an Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site is due to Asboth’s decision to use the 40-mile barrier island from Choctawhatchee Bay to Pensacola Bay for the return of the expeditionary force.

The sandy terrain, with few areas of forestation, made for a long, tough slog for all involved.

“But, you don’t just have those soldiers, you have upwards of 600-700 horses. And, if they were marching along in a military column, that line would stretch up to a mile in distance of just soldiers,” Rosiecki said.

Add to that numerous wagons of supplies.

“Then, you add in the freedom seekers, the men, women, and children who are traveling in that column of human beings and horses and mules.”

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Courtesy Curley Potter
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Gulf Islands National Seashore
Armstrong Purdee, who became the first Black attorney in Jackson County, was one of the freedom seekers who marched to Pensacola Bay along Santa Rosa Island.

Records show that all along the way, the formation picks up about 600 enslaved individuals who’d been newly liberated. Many of those who escaped, enlisted in the United States Colored Troops and fought through the remainder of the Civil War.

At the time, Armstrong Purdee was too young to enlist. Years later, Purdee would return home and become the first Black attorney in Jackson County. In 1931, he wrote about the 1864 experience.

“Armstrong will recount how he, as a young boy of 8 years of age, was picked up by a U.S. trooper, a cavalryman, a man on horseback and he’s going to be brought with the U.S. soldiers from the Waddell Plantation outside Marianna, back here to Pensacola Bay, where eventually he’s going to be reunited with his father,” said Rosiecki.

That reunion likely occurred at Fort Pickens, at the time a sub-post to Fort Barrancas, which marked the end of the long march to freedom along Santa Rosa Island.

“And, when they arrive here with the 600 freedom seekers, there’s going to be one U.S. soldier, Sgt. Alexander Bedford of the 25th U.S. Colored Troops," Rosiecki said. He’s going to be here (Fort Pickens) and he’s going to write of the arrival of those freedom seekers."

Bedford reportedly recounted the arrival of hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children in early October of 1864, in an article published in a black newspaper in Philadelphia.

Fort Pickens 2022.jpg
Sandra Averhart
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WUWF Public Media
The Mariana Expedition concluded at Fort Pickens, on the western end of Santa Rosa Island, with the arrival of some 600 freedom seekers in early October 1864.

“One of the aspects that I really admire about Bedford’s account is that he writes that when the enslaved people arrived here, they were received and greeted by these black soldiers, some of whom had been enslaved themselves,” he said.

“And, the U.S. soldiers here are going to boil up kettles of coffee and provide those freedom seekers with coffee.”

Rosiecki said if he had to guess, that must have been the best cup of coffee those people had ever had: “For a moment, that would have been more than just a cup of coffee that would have been the taste of freedom.”

The Network to Freedom currently contains over 690 locations nationwide with a verifiable connection to the Underground Railroad.

Down the road, National Park Service officials plan to erect wayside exhibits marking each listed site located within Gulf Islands National Seashore.