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African men crowded onto a lower deck; African women crowded on an upper deck.
The Africans of the slave bark "Wildfire"--The slave deck of the bark "Wildfire," brought into Key West on April 30, 1860. Illus. in: Harper's weekly, 1860 June 2, p. 344. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //

Key West Slave Ship Seizures and the Slave Trade in 19th Century Florida

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The following is a guest post by Ryan Schleifer, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida with a history major and a creative writing minor.

In 1860, three illegal slave ships (slavers) were captured near the coast of Cuba and subsequently processed in Key West, Florida for violating the 1808 Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves. An illustration in Harper’s Weekly portrays 510 Africans in “miserable, cramped conditions” on one of the ships. According to the accompanying article in Harper’s Weekly, around 60 women and girls were in the ship’s cabin. Approximately 400 of the captured Africans “were… ten to sixteen years” old.

The U.S. steamship Mohawk II seized the enslaved people from the Wildfire and arrived in Key West on April 30, 1860. According to Harper’s Weekly, “ninety and upward” Africans died before arrival, 40 Africans were hospitalized at Fort Taylor, and 100 more were inflicted with diseases such as dysentery. In the following days, Marshall Fernando J. Moreno constructed a shelter while the women of Key West gathered and donated clothes.

A colorful map showing the Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and present-day southeast US.
Map of Mexico, Central America, and the West Indies, 1860. W. Williams. 1860. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

On May 9, 1860, the U.S. steamer Wyandotte seized another slaver, the William. The Wyandotte’s entry to Key West was relayed in the July 14, 1860, issue of Friend’s Intelligencer. A woman on the Wyandotte, sang a “lament… about her home and children,” when out of nowhere people heard distant voices sing the song back to her. This continued as the Wyandotte approached the shore. Upon docking, the woman learned that those were the voices of her children who had already been liberated from a slaver. According to the Friend’s Intelligencer, when the mother was reunited with her children, people of all races were in tears.

The front page of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper with the slave ship Wyandotte and a long dock with people walking on it.
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, with text, and illustration of landing of the cargo of slaves at Key West, Florida. June 30, 1860. Open Parks Network.

On May 19, 1860, President James Buchanan issued a message to Congress in response to the seizures in Key West. President Buchanan implored Congress to pass legislation standardizing an 1858 agreement he made with the American Colonization Society following the seizure of the slave vessel Echo. In this agreement, freed Africans were to be sent to Liberia. On May 23, 1860, the U.S. steamer Crusader seized the slaver Bogota and subsequently arrived in Key West on May 25, 1860. Approximately 1,432 Africans were liberated from the slavers and 295 Africans died due to diseases and the conditions on the slavers. Between June 30 and July 19, ships arrived in Key West to transport the Africans from Key West to Liberia.

However, in 1860, while Key West residents banded together to help the African refugees, there were 451 enslaved people living in Monroe County, which primarily consists of Key West. According to the 1860 census, Monroe County’s enslaved population outnumbered its free population of 160 freemen and women. This is a consequence of the United States Army Corps of Engineers’ requests in the 1840s and 1850s for Key West residents to purchase slaves for the construction of Fort Taylor and Fort Jefferson which began in 1845 and 1847, respectively. According to the authors of a National Parks Service Report on African Americans’ experience at Fort Jefferson, enslaved workers “were administered physical punishment for even the slightest offense, real or imagined.”

A black and white image of a fort wtih a flag on top and waves below.
Fort Taylor, Key West, Fla. Engraved between 1861 and 1865, printed between 1880 and 1889. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. // 

In Key West, African Americans, whether free or not, faced laws restricting their behavior. For instance, African Americans were prohibited from being out or making “any other kind of noise” past 9:00 p.m. According to Florida Supreme Court Justice and Key West local, Jefferson Beale Browne, this law was created in 1832 by Key West’s first town council.

This contradiction of Key West restricting African Americans while supporting the Africans freed from the slavers is representative of a historic trend, dating back to George Washington, of viewing the slave trade as immoral instead of the system of slavery. George Washington, who owned enslaved people, expressed opposition to the slave trade as far back as the days leading up to the American Revolution. This is exemplified by Washington’s Fairfax Resolves which he co-wrote with George Mason.

Two pages of handwriting on a white page.
Image 5 of George Washington Papers, Series 4, General Correspondence: Fairfax County, Virginia, Citizens, July 18, 1774. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

In section 17 of the Fairfax Resolves, Washington and Mason made the following statement about the slave trade:

“Resolved that it is the Opinion of this Meeting, that during our present Difficulties and Distress, no Slaves ought to be imported into any of the British Colonies on this Continent; and we take this Opportunity of declaring our most earnest Wishes to see an entire Stop for ever put to such a wicked cruel and unnatural Trade.”

This view did not unite all the Founding Fathers. Consequently, in 1787 Article I, Section 9, Clause 1 of the Constitution stated that:

“The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.”

While the Constitution protected the importation of enslaved people until 1808, President Washington signed the Slave Trade Act of 1794 which banned the exporting of enslaved people from the United States. The Slave Trade Act of 1800 was signed by President John Adams on May 10, 1800. This act increased fines for ships exporting slaves.

An image of the act
An act to prohibit the carrying on the slave trade from the United Sates to any foreign place or country. March, 22, 1794. General Records of the U.S. Government. National Archives.

On December 2, 1806, President Thomas Jefferson, advocated for the end of the slave trade in his State of the Union address. On December 3, 1806, Joseph Bradley Varnum spoke on behalf of “a Committee of the Whole House on the state of the Union…referred to a select committee” to determine the future of the slave trade. Subsequently, on December 15, 1860, Peter Early introduced the 1808 Act Prohibiting the Slave Trade to the House of Representatives. The Act was signed by President Jefferson on March 2, 1807, and went into effect on January 1, 1808.

Handwriting on a yellowed piece of paper with signatures at bottom.
An Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves Into Any Port or Place within the Jurisdiction of the United States, From and After the First Day of January 1808. March 2, 1807. General Records of the U.S. Government. National Archives.

At the time of the Act’s passage, Florida was under Spanish control with ports in Florida being used to smuggle slaves into the United States. Florida’s transition to U.S. statehood began in 1819 with the Adams–Onís Treaty and continued through 1821 when Florida became a U.S. territory. As a U.S. territory, Florida was governed by the Legislative Council of the Territory of Florida. During this period, the American view of supporting slavery but disliking the slave trade spread into Florida, which is demonstrated in an address by Legislative Council member Zephaniah Kingsley Jr.

Once Florida was officially designated as a U.S. territory, the 1808 Act Prohibiting the Slave Trade became effective in the state. Florida achieved statehood in 1845, aligning with the federal government’s investment in the construction of Forts Taylor and Jefferson. During the Civil War, the Union identified these forts as crucial for naval control of Florida and seized Fort Taylor and Key West. Three years into Union control, command was transferred to the 2nd Regiment, United States Colored Infantry.

Drawing of Key West on aged paper
Key West–1862. William Waud. 1862 [ca. February]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // 

Fort Jefferson was briefly used during both world wars, though largely abandoned by the army in 1874. Today it is part of the Dry Tortugas National Park. Fort Taylor was used during the Spanish-American War and turned over to the Navy to maintain in 1947. In 1973 it was designated a National Historic Landmark and is a Florida Historic State Park. The Africans that did not survive the journey on the slavers were buried in the location of modern-day Higgs Beach. On June 26, 2012, the African cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places. All three locations have immense beauty woven into their tragic stories.

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