Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ft. Gadsden State Historic Site, Fla.

Curious phrase, "the middle of nowhere." Everywhere is somewhere. Then again, few things are quite as satisfying as driving down a two-lane highway through the middle of nowhere. Even if by that we only mean through the ignored peripheries of human ken, places given over to whatever shape the wilderness takes on either side of the road.

Florida 65 runs mostly north-south nearly the entire way from the ocean to the border with Georgia. It's a passage through incredibly lush forests, including parts of the Apalachicola National Forest and the entertainingly named Tate's Hell State Forest (poor Tate, alive before DEET), connecting only scattered outposts of humanity. I'm not remotely qualified as a naturalist to appreciate the riches of the territory, at either high speed or zero mph, but I could still marvel at the many green hues, the twisted trunks, the bushy undergrowth and the swampy patches of earth even from behind a wheel.

"The Florida panhandle, centered on the Apalachicola River Basin and part of the larger Southeastern Conifer forest ecoregion, is a well-known hotspot for biodiversity," writes Brett Paben of WildLaw, a "non-profit environmental law firm." Though steeped in eco-speak, he seems to have a better handle on the natural history of the area than I do.

"It is home to the richest endemic plant life in the South and 75 percent of Florida’s plant species," he writes. "These longleaf pine forests and their wiregrass understory also provide habitat for a host of rare species... Tree diversity and endemism is among the highest of any North American forest, with more than 190 tree species and 27 endemics. The wiregrass community contains some of the most diverse herbs in the world, with a single stand containing as many as 200 species."

The road roughly parallels the Apalachicola River, which runs the from the Georgia border to debouch into the Gulf at Apalachicola Bay. The river also happens to mark most of the boundary between Central and Eastern time in Florida. If you consult either Rand McNally or Michelin road maps of Florida, you'll see a point-of-interest spot denoting Ft. Gadsden State Historic Site (AAA maps ignore it), though one map puts it west of the highway and the other east.

It's actually west of the highway, along with Apalachicola River, which was the highway back when Ft. Gadsden was an active fort. From Florida 65, you take a west-bound, unpaved road a few miles to another semi-paved road that leads south to the historic site. The forest is very dense there, and the site feels like few people ever visit. No one else was there last Saturday afternoon when I arrived, except maybe the shades of the people who died there in 1816. describes the event: "On July 27, 1816, at the culmination of an invasion of Spanish Florida, a pair of U.S. Navy gunboats attacked a powerfully built fort on the Apalachicola River. Built by the British during the War of 1812, the post was called the 'Negro Fort' by the U.S. government. Inside its walls were 300 African-American men, women and children and around 20 Choctaw warriors...

"Troops from the 4th U.S. Infantry, reinforced by hundreds of allied Creek warriors, surrounded the fort and demanded its surrender. The occupants of the 'Negro Fort' refused to give up... The gunboats closed in and opened fire. The occupants of the fort fired back. A massive battle appeared in the making, but disaster struck. The fifth shot from the gunboats, a cannon ball heated red hot to set the fort on fire, fell into one of the main gunpowder magazines.

"In a blinding flash, the fort exploded. The commander of the American troops reported that the 'explosion was awful and the scene horrible beyond description.' ... Of the 320 men, women and children in the fort, 270 died instantly. The rest were taken prisoner and most carried back to Georgia and returned to slavery..."

A longer description and pictures of the site are here. I got out of my car to look around. The forest seemed even more oppressively dense with rain clouds gathering overhead. The air was warn and a little steamy. All I heard was the crunching of my footsteps, the mild rush of the wind, the twitter of birds and, suddenly, the buzz of mosquitoes. Mammals as large as human beings must be a tasty treat for the mosquitoes of the Apalachicola River Basin, because they attacked with terrific speed and in increasing numbers. For all I know, there are a dozen kinds, part of the wonderful biodiversity of the area. I had no chemical protection. I'd forgotten to pack anything with DEET in it, and the TSA might have taken it away anyway.

I took a short look at an interpretive kiosk that had some artifacts behind glass, and another look at the Milly Francis marker, but within a few minutes I retreated to the car. A couple of the mozzies followed me in, but I managed to dispatch the bastards in a pop of my blood.



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