Researchers are studying artifacts from Manatee Springs in an effort to shed light on the lives of the Angolan settlers who once lived on the shores of the Manatee River. A month-long excavation of soon-to-be-developed land is giving researchers a better look at how escaped slaves lived their daily lives in the Angola settlement along the Manatee River.
Funded by a grant from Florida’s Department of Historical Resources, archaeologists at New College of Florida are sifting through findings from the Manatee Mineral Springs site where African descendants settled in the early 19th century.
An estimated 700 escaped slaves lived in the area now known as Manatee Mineral Springs Park, in the 1300 block of Fourth Avenue East. Historians say the site was occupied between 1800 and 1821 before a raid sent settlers to other parts of Florida and the Bahamas.
The archaeology team dug about 5 feet deep to find what settlers left behind — animal bones, metal, ceramics, glass and other artifacts that can explain how maroons, or escaped slaves, adapted to the land in present-day Bradenton.
“What we’re trying to get to is that history of the past. We’ll be able to robustly and empirically discuss the ways of life for these maroons and freedom-seekers who found liberty on the shores of the Manatee River 200 years ago,” said Uzi Baram, director of New College’s Public Archaeology Lab.
“These are not people living a simple life,” he added.
Some of the more interesting relics include wires that may have been used as fishing lines, a buried dog that may have been someone’s pet and a certified half-penny coin from 1808.
Dr. Uzi Baram refers to artifacts unearthed from Manatee Springs in a quest to shed light on Angolan settlers are examined at the Public Archaeology Lab at New College. “We just have to kind of imagine someone who escaped enslavement and was able to take something with them, and was comfortable enough to save some kind of charm,” Baram said, referring to the coin. “It didn’t just show up here. It’s not just an object, because we know what their life was like.”
Dr. Uzi Baram refers to artifacts unearthed from Manatee Springs in a quest to shed light on Angolan settlers are examined at the Public Archaeology Lab at New College. Baram’s January excavation took place just before the city of Bradenton moved forward with plans to use the land for an eastward expansion of the Riverwalk. Architects and city officials have agreed to work with Reflections of Manatee, a local historic preservation organization, to display some of the objects in and around the park.
“One of the things we’re looking for are pieces to tell the story and that will make for a good exhibit,” said Sherry Svekis, vice president of Reflections of Manatee. “That’s why we fall in love with archaeology.”
The site’s history has received local and national attention. The Angola Maroon Community is listed in the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom program, which documents locations linked to the Underground Railroad. Manatee’s Board of County Commissioners recently adopted a proclamation that declares September as Underground Railroad Month.
“Art and educational nodes will be located throughout the site and in various areas, weaving in art and signage that’s related to history and the environment,” Ed Dean, a landscape architect working on the Riverwalk expansion design, said in a recent presentation to the Bradenton City Council.
An eastward expansion of Bradenton’s Riverwalk is coming to Manatee Mineral Springs Park, the same place that escaped slaves founded their Angolan settlement in the early 1800s. City officials are working with historical preservation groups to install signage and artifacts recovered from the January 2020 excavation.
Svekis said the team found several artifacts that can be put on display to connect visitors with the site’s historical signifigance. In the meantime, Baram and his staff are putting their findings under the microscope to find out everything they possibly can about Manatee’s freedom-seekers.
By studying “the nuances,” Baram says his researchers are able to make conclusions about when certain items were made or what they may have been used for.
Jean Lammie, one of Baram’s lab assistants, specializes in man-made materials such as bottles and glass using ultraviolet lights and other examination techniques. For example, the presence of a medicine bottle could imply that a doctor may have lived in the settlement.
The analysis of recovered animal bones provides similar inferences, said Mary Maisel, another lab assistant. Evidence of “systematically butchered” bones provides information about the Angolan diet.
“We can tell what people were eating,” she explained.
Rosalyn Howard, a retired cultural anthropology professor, is also providing insights into the project. An expert on the subject, Howard spent time living among the present-day descendants of the Angolan settlers who fled to Andros Island in the Bahamas.
Even with 200 years between them, there are still a host of similarities between the two communities, Howard noted. From a reliance on seafood to deft craftsmanship and even the location of each settlement, the two Angolan communities are intrinsically linked.
“They chose places that were inhospitable, that were not easily accessible,” said Howard. “That was the case here because it was a strategic point where they could look out for ships coming in.”
“It’s the same thing as the Bahamian community; it’s located on the western coast of Andros Island — the only settlement there today,” she added. “They didn’t have to worry about ships coming to return them to Florida or to slavery. That is a very important aspect of these maroon communities.”
A full analysis of the recovered artifacts will take a few years but starting this month, the crew will begin cataloging their findings in a database. Once each artifact has been documented and studied, Baram will finalize the study with a written report.
“I’ve always understood this is an honor to be able to do this, to be able to retrieve the history for the maroons and these freedom-seeking people,” Baram said. “There’s a weight of responsibility to get this right and make sure we understand these layers and record the information correctly so that we can have empirical evidence of these people’s lives.”
“I tell my students that archeologists have the most unlikely job of saving the lives of people who have passed,” he added. “If it wasn’t for this work, we would know nothing about them.”