When Milton businessman Joseph Forsyth died in 1855 just outside the then-non-existent community of Navarre Beach, the dozens of slaves that called Arcadia Mill home faced an uncertain future.
“There would have been a lot of uncertainty. They are not told about the ways of the world,” said Adriane Walker, Arcadia site manager. “When they find out that their owner has died, they have no idea what is going to happen to them.”
But one young woman and her children were given a chance at a better life. “My girl Eliza” and her three eldest children were listed in Forsyth’s will. He expressly called for them to be transported to a free state, a state where slavery had been abolished, and he called for a stipend for living expenses to be paid out of his estate to her and her children.
Eliza’s story is one of many shared as part of the rich history of Arcadia Mill Archaeological Site and Homestead. This “museum” is located just north of Navarre Beach, and offers a variety of ways to dive into history in the region.
Whether you choose to walk the expanse of boardwalks through the site, tour the interactive homestead property, attend a history talk or check out the mill site exhibits, this site is a history buff’s dream.
Eliza’s story captures a big part of the debate around slavery at the time.
A large population of African-American slaves lived at Arcadia throughout the years working the dangerous wood mill equipment. But when the complex added a cotton mill in 1845, roughly 40 female slaves were purchased and brought to the mill.
Walker explained that conventional wisdom at the time held that women and girls were better at working the machinery because of their smaller fingers.
But the mill also called into question some deeply held prejudices.
One of the notions used to justify slavery was that African-Americans were less capable of skilled labor than white workers, Walker explained. As the cotton mill thrived in the area, those prejudices were challenged.
A Pensacola Gazette article at the time read: “To suppose, as many have pretended to do, that they are not equal to white girls in a factory is ridiculous nonsense. It is to suppose that the power of manipulation depends on the color of the fingers.”
Multiple generations began to occupy the slave cabins that lined the property.
But with Forsyth’s passing, many of these families were in danger of being separated. Eliza’s family was no different. While Forsyth’s wishes were expressly listed, Walker said it was not guaranteed that those wishes would be carried out. Luckily, Forsyth’s representatives did work to free Eliza.
The journey would have been long and dangerous. The family was making its way to the free state of New York, but to get there they would have to travel through Southern states that heavily supported slavery.
Despite having legal documentation freeing her and her children, the family would have faced danger of being detained or even sold back into slavery if they were spotted along the way. They were likely escorted by one of Forsyth’s business associates.
“I would imagine a lot the journey meant them literally hiding, covertly traveling to get to a free state. It was probably a very dangerous trip. It is amazing they made it,” Walker said.
At just 29 years old, Eliza’s entire life was about to change. She was accompanied by her three freed children: Laura, 9, Francis, 8, and Augustus, 7. Walker said researchers were unsure whether she had successfully made the journey until a student was able to find census records in New York showing her name a year after the trip.
There is another surprise in Eliza’s story.
In the census records confirming her successful escape, there are not three children listed but four. A 1-year-old girl named Susan was among the family. Adding to the mystery, the infant Susan was found listed among an inventory of slaves to be sold after Forsyth’s death.
Susan had somehow escaped.
Further records showed that stipends of $1,200 were paid to Eliza and her children by the Forsyth family for years after Joseph Forsyth’s death, as requested in the will. Only through records uncovered and archaeological work done by the university students and employees could these lives be revealed.
Many questions regarding Eliza’s story remain unanswered. Walker said no one knows why Forsyth chose to free her, though it was not an unheard-of practice, especially for slaves that worked in the household of their owner. Walker said it’s also possible that Forsyth was the father of Eliza’s children. On census records, their race is listed as mixed. But there is no way to know for sure, at least not yet.
Exploration of Arcadia’s history continues. The site hosted their grand opening of the homestead site to the public this month, offering a new perspective on the history of the region from the days of slavery and into the 21st century.
Make this unique stop part of your vacation plan at Navarrelistings.com.