Here’s what little we know about the slave-era residents of Tampa Bay

Tampa Emancipation Day is May 6, marking the 159th anniversary of the city’s enslaved people being set free.
Shackles from the Spanish slave trade during the 1700s, displayed at the Tampa Bay History Center in downtown Tampa.
Shackles from the Spanish slave trade during the 1700s, displayed at the Tampa Bay History Center in downtown Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published May 3, 2023|Updated Oct. 12, 2023

TAMPA — Historians refer to Samson Forrester as Tampa Bay’s Black Daniel Boone because he spent so much time in the Florida wilderness.

During his lifetime, Forrester was known in other ways.

When he was young, someone claimed him as a possession. He was then a Seminole Tribe prisoner and later reenslaved by the U.S. government.

Forrester was granted freedom as a Black man in the era of slavery, enslaved others, owned land and raised a child who was among Tampa Bay’s first Black residents born into freedom.

When detailing the history of slavery in Tampa Bay, Forrester’s life is intertwined with much of the timeline.

Tampa Emancipation Day is May 6, marking the 159th anniversary of the announcement by Union troops that the city’s enslaved people had been set free. It was earlier than much of the rest of the nation’s enslaved people were emancipated.

With the exception of Forrester and a few others, little is known about the stories of those enslaved here, and for good reason, historians told the Tampa Bay Times. Local history was written, in part, by the enslavers and their descendants. They chose to omit the ugliness of slavery. And the enslaved likely preferred to forget about their experiences rather than pass on those stories.

“People are still uncomfortable talking about it,” said Cheryl Rodriguez, professor of Africana Studies and Anthropology at the University of South Florida. “So not a lot of scholars have studied slavery and sought to find those stories to bring them to public attention.”

But there are numbers.

Dating to Florida’s time as a U.S. territory, statistics detail the history of slavery in Hillsborough County — which originally included modern-day Charlotte, DeSoto, Hardee, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota counties.

The Times aggregated those numbers from history books and journals, old government documents and letters sent to and from this area in the 1800s. The numbers, along with what is known about Forrester, tell a story that is both disturbing and dehumanizing and shed light on what life as a possession was like for Black Floridians.

“The time has come to awaken people to this history,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a brutal history, but it cannot be ignored.”

Slavery artifacts: shackles from the Spanish slave trade, bottom left, an enslavement contract, top, and a receipt from September 1856 for a one-year lease of enslaved woman Diana and her three enslaved children signed by Tampa’s first mayor, Joseph B. Lancaster.
Slavery artifacts: shackles from the Spanish slave trade, bottom left, an enslavement contract, top, and a receipt from September 1856 for a one-year lease of enslaved woman Diana and her three enslaved children signed by Tampa’s first mayor, Joseph B. Lancaster. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Around 1,000 free Black people lived in the U.S. territory of Florida from 1820 to 1840.

“The vast number of these people were descendants of runaway enslaved people,” said Anthony Dixon, author of “Florida’s Negro War: Black Seminoles and the Second Seminole War 1835–1842.” “During the 1600s, they began to abscond themselves from English plantations and sought out their own existence in the wilderness.”

When it owned Florida, Spain “made it known that enslaved people who escaped there would be considered free,” said Dave Scheidecker, a senior research coordinator with the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Historic Preservation Office. “It was in effect the first Underground Railroad, and this was a major cause of concern for American slave owners.”

Those who escaped then integrated with Florida’s Native American tribes and became known as “maroons” or “Black Seminoles,” Dixon said. When the U.S. purchased Florida in 1819 and sent the military into the territory, Black communities were pushed into Tampa.

Forrester was among those living with the Seminoles in this area.

Born somewhere along the St. John’s River in 1786, he was “a slave belonging to a man named Forrester,” according to a 1937 Works Progress Administration report detailing the stories of Florida’s formerly enslaved people. “Some years before the first Seminole War of 1835, when he was a small child, he was stolen by the Indians,” during which time he learned their language and customs and, eventually, lived with the tribe as a free man.

Those who were enslaved by the Seminoles “were different than those enslaved by Americans,” Scheidecker said. “They were more similar to bondsmen. They could be freed, could live separately, and their children would be free.”

But during the Seminole Wars, the United States sought to root out the Black people living among the Seminoles.

The Lower Creek Tribe of Georgia and Alabama was tasked with capturing escaped enslaved people in Florida. They turned over 35 to the military in Tampa in September 1837.

“Those Creeks were aiding the federal government and did not get along with the Seminoles,” said Rodney Kite-Powell of the Tampa Bay History Center. “Those Creeks enslaved people too and profited off the slave trade. In this case, they were soldiers for hire, mercenaries for the United States. Those captured were then likely sold into slavery, even if they had been born free in Florida.”

The U.S. military found other ways to separate the Black population from the Seminoles.

At least 30 escaped enslaved people living among the Seminoles in the Tampa area turned themselves in to the U.S. military in the late 1830s through early 1840s. For leaving the Seminoles and nothing more, they were promised emancipation by then-Gen. (and future President) Zachary Taylor. Some were allowed to remain in the area and live among the white residents. Others were shipped out west.

“This was purely a military tactic during the Seminole Wars,” Dixon said. “They wouldn’t fight anymore if freed. It weakened the overall Seminole Nation numbers.”

But Forrester learned that the military did not always live up to their word.

In April 1840, Forrester turned himself in with the promise of emancipation, yet remained enslaved by the government in Fort Brooke, serving as a scout and Seminole interpreter. He was one of 13 enslaved people who lived in Hillsborough that year.

At the bottom of this page is an emancipation order for Samson Forrester. It was signed in 1840 by then-Gen. (and future President) Zachary Taylor.
At the bottom of this page is an emancipation order for Samson Forrester. It was signed in 1840 by then-Gen. (and future President) Zachary Taylor. [ Courtesy of Hillsborough County Clerk of Court ]

By 1850, 728 enslaved people and 1,717 free residents lived in Hillsborough. Of the enslaved, 323 were women and 405 were men. Enslaved minors totaled 316. According to the book “Tampa: The Treasure City,” in Hillsborough, the enslaved had a value that year of $425,000, while buildings were worth $97,000 and land $183,946. And 30-40% of those enslaved worked in sugar plantations along the Manatee River.

“The largest plantations in Hillsborough were in the area that is now Manatee County,” Rodriguez said. “Back then, it was part of Hillsborough. There were some smaller farms and dairies in the area that is Hillsborough today, but most of those enslaved there had to do typical domestic work.”

All free residents are listed by name in the 1850 census, but the enslaved are categorized by age and sex with no names.

“Not including their name was something that was debated on the floor of Congress,” said Nicka Sewell-Smith, a genealogist who specializes in researching Black families. “Andrew Pickens, a senator from South Carolina, argued that on a plantation where there are many being enslaved that it was difficult for the slaveholder to know all their names. That was absolutely cockamamie. He likely had an ulterior motive. No names further dehumanized the enslaved. They were money walking on two legs.”

Forrester had been emancipated by the U.S. military by then. He was one of 11 free Black residents who lived in Hillsborough in 1850 and owned $350 in real estate. Other than Forrester, it is unknown why any were free.

According to the Works Progress Administration, Forrester was emancipated in 1842 and continued to reside in Fort Brooke and work as a Seminole scout and interpreter “at a good salary. As official ambassador to the Seminoles, he … rendered indispensable service in helping to round up the Indians for deportation to Louisiana and Arkansas. Instead of drawing and spending his money, he allowed it to accumulate in the hands of Major McKinstry, quartermaster at Fort Brooke, and these savings proved useful later.”

By 1860, 564 enslaved people and 2,417 free residents lived in Hillsborough. The number of the enslaved is lower than in 1850 because part of what had been Hillsborough became Manatee County, where 253 enslaved people lived that year. More than half of Hillsborough’s, 309, were children.

“Enslaved children were not typically sold apart from their mothers, but that was not always the case,” Sewell-Smith said. “The male children were more likely to later be sold than the females because she could have kids, which means you get another enslaved person who they didn’t need to pay for. It was all about economics.”

Said Tampa Bay History Center curator Brad Massey, “The prices of the enslaved often tracked with the price of cotton in the South. The price also depended on what work they would perform and their capabilities. There were instances when attractive Black females went for higher prices. But, as a general rule, men were more valuable.”

Forrester himself purchased enslaved women.

By 1860, he had moved to Key West, and enslaved three women ages 30, 70 and, allegedly, 125. The 30-year-old was his future wife, Rose, whom he purchased in Tampa for $1,400.

“Samson found time for romance,” the Works Progress Administration wrote. “Tropical moonlight and the philoprogenitive urge began to serenade the stout heart of the young adventurer, and a strong attraction drew him to the home of Captain William H. Kendrick, where he lingered under the delicious influence of a pair of languorous dark eyes, owned and operated by Rose, unusually attractive maid belonging to Mrs. Kendrick … she burst into tears, and, much to her master’s surprise, said that she was willing to be sold, but only to her husband, Samson.”

The Union Army marched into Tampa on May 6, 1864, and emancipated the enslaved. Emancipation for all of Florida was announced two weeks later. Nationwide, emancipation was celebrated on June 19, 1865, which is now known as Juneteenth.

Samson Forrester's gravesite in Loving Care Cemetery in Thonotosassa.
Samson Forrester's gravesite in Loving Care Cemetery in Thonotosassa. [ Paul Guzzo ]

By 1870, 546 Black residents were among the 3,216 people living in Hillsborough. Not all the Black residents living in the county were here at the time of emancipation.

“There were those who were enslaved all over the South who, following emancipation, wanted to find their family members who they had been separated from,” said Fred Hearns, curator of Black history at the Tampa Bay History Center.

Others were dropped off here like abandoned animals, Rodriguez said. “After emancipation, those who enslaved people didn’t know what they were supposed to do. They couldn’t afford to pay them or feed them anymore, so brought them here and left them.

“The Black community here then really had to band together to survive. They built their own neighborhoods with churches and schools. They worked hard to rise above the system that was pulling them down.”

Forrester was back in Hillsborough by 1870 with his wife, his granddaughter Nellie Forrester, David Taylor and Hannah Ruppell. He owned property near Lake Thonotosassa. Taylor was a formerly enslaved man. He was also Forrester’s godson who returned to Key West after being physically abused by his godfather. Ruppell was white.

That year’s census lists 23 children being born in 1864. It does not list birth months, so it is unknown if they were born before or after emancipation.

Forrester’s granddaughter, Nellie Forrester, was then among 21 Black Hillsborough residents born in 1865, the first full year in U.S. history without slavery.

“What a profound notion — the idea of that first generation of children being born free of slavery,” Rodriguez said. “Imagine being their parents? Imagine knowing that they will never experience that horrible reality? They came into a world with a distinctively different status than those born before them.”

In 1882, The Weekly Tribune included Forrester in an article about Thonotosassa. By then, it said, he had also become fluent in Spanish and Italian. Forrester died in 1888. He was 102, according to a Tampa Journal article.

“He has probably rendered longer and more valuable service to the government than any other colored man,” it reads. “This community has lost one of its oldest settlers in his death and many are the expressions of sympathy.”

Forrester’s funeral procession was a mile long. Those on the road stepped to the side and removed their hats out of respect.

He was buried in Loving Care Cemetery in Thonotosassa. His headstone is still there.

Facts in this story come from census records, genealogy records, Tampa Bay Times archives, Works Progress Administration reports, The Florida Historical Quarterly archives, Sunland Tribune archives, letters sent to and from Fort Brooke during the Seminole Wars, Hillsborough County records from the early 1800s, and The Florida Humanities nonprofit.

By the numbers

249 escaped enslaved people captured throughout the state were sent west of Mississippi from Tampa in 1838 to be sold.

Fort Brooke was the headquarters for the Southern Army, and it was in Tampa,” the Tampa Bay History Center’s Rodney Kite-Powell said. “So, Tampa was usually the port of embarkment for sending the enslaved out West.”

3 enslaved by Odet Philippe in 1840. Historians believe that Philippe had Black ancestors but was considered white.

Philippe introduced cigar rolling to the area and a Black Cuban woman whom he enslaved hand-rolled for him, said Fred Hearns, curator of Black history at the Tampa Bay History Center. “So, she was likely one of those he enslaved that year.”

2 free Black people lived in Hillsborough in 1860.

Mills Hollerman, who would later become Hillsborough’s first Black county commissioner, was one. John Cattlehana was the other. His place of birth says India, making him the first from that nation to reside here.

19 formerly enslaved people lived with their former owners in the years immediately following emancipation. (There could be more. This is how many the Times could identify.)

They include:

  • Rose Magbee, Sylvia Douglas, George Miller and Jeff Bell, who were enslaved by James T. Magbee. Rose Magbee took his last name, which was common among the enslaved. James T. Magbee was considered progressive for someone who once enslaved others. A judge, he sold land to Black residents and compelled white residents to serve on juries with them.
  • Savilla Allen, who was enslaved by William Mobley. Michele Houston-Hicks, one of Allen’s descendants, previously told the Times that her ancestor stayed with Mobley because the two were in a nonmarital romantic relationship.
  • Nancy Ashley, who was the only person enslaved by William Ashley. They were in a romantic relationship, according to historians, and are buried together in Oaklawn Cemetery, making her the only Black person with a headstone there. It identifies her as his servant.

“As for the others, perhaps they were treated fine, so it made sense to stay,” Hearns said. “Perhaps they had nowhere else to go.”

5 people in the 1870 Hillsborough census were known to have been fathered by their mother’s enslaver.

Their mother was Allen and father was Mobley, who had another three children with his white wife, Houston-Hicks said. Allen and Mobley had two more children by 1880 and she lived on property that neighbored his. Today, Mobley’s white and Black descendants get together for family reunions.

150 Black residents living in Tampa in 1870 were likely descendants of an enslaver. The census listed each as “mulatto.”

“That was pretty common,” said Drew Smith, associate librarian specializing in genealogy at the University of South Florida. “It was not always the white head of household either. It could have been his son or a nephew who fathered a child with the enslaved. And, in almost every case, it was probably not consensual. You’re not in a position when you are enslaved to give consent.”

100, the age of the oldest Black person in Tampa in 1870.

Milly Morton does not appear on previous censuses anywhere in the United States, which Smith said likely means she was enslaved. She was born in 1770, but a month is not listed. So, she was either 95 or 96 when emancipated. She was the only Black person living with the white Allen family.

“You have to wonder what that was like for her,” said Cheryl Rodriguez, professor of Africana Studies and Anthropology at the University of South Florida. “Was she excited? Scared? That is one of those things that I am curious about and might never know about those living here after they were emancipated. I wonder about the loneliness of being in a place where there are very few people like you and, at the same time, you are limited in your agency and where you can go and what you can do. I have been thinking a lot about the human element of it. She was in her 90s when free for the first time. That could be either amazing or terrifying, or both.”

Correction: Milly Morton lived with the Allen family. An earlier version of this story misidentified the family.