The African Cemetery and the Slave Ships Wildfire, William, and Bogota
In the spring of 1860, three slave ships - the Wildfire, William, and Bogota - were intercepted by the US Navy in an effort to stop the illegal trade in humans, and they were brought to Key West, the nearest US port. These US-owned ships were bound for Cuba, where their human cargo was to be sold to the thriving sugar plantations. A total of 1,432 Africans were rescued from these ships, and they arrived with nothing. The 3,000 citizens of the small island, led by United States Marshal Fernando Moreno, came together, built housing, donated clothing, and provided food and medical attention for them during their stay.
For eighty-five days, the newly liberated refugees found shelter at Key West. But because of the horrific conditions they had suffered aboard the slave ships, many of the Africans were quite ill, and 295 of them died on the island. They were buried in shallow sand graves along the southern shore.
It was eventually decided the survivors would be sent to Liberia, a country on the West African coast established as a home for liberated American slaves. Ships were chartered by the United States government for yet another voyage across the Atlantic: The ship Castilian carried 400 people from the Wildfire; the South Shore 355 from the William; and the Star of the Union 383 from the Bogota. Three months after they had first arrived, the Africans left Key West and were on their way to a new life.
This remarkable incident speaks to the pivotal nature of the times. Slavery was the leading topic of political discussion, and its polarizing effects were about to tear the United States in two. The confused character of the American, and even global, mindset is expressed in so many ways when looking at the microcosm of events that occurred here in 1860. Despite all the missteps and contradictions, this was adding up to a tremendous shift in the social and political mindset from even a few years before. As difficult and messy as abolition might be, slavery, and the support for it, was rapidly collapsing. With the interrupted missions of the Wildfire, the William, and the Bogota – among the last slave ships to touch on American shores – an institution nearly four centuries old was coming to a close.
For the 295 Africans who died at Key West, a cemetery was established on a sand ridge along the southern shore of the island. The burials were carried out by Daniel Davis, a local carpenter. Davis was paid $5.50 by the government for each of the burials. A poignant description of one of the funeral services was recounted in the Key of The Gulf newspaper:
"The first burial was of a child six weeks old, whose young mother was barely in her teens. Her devotion to her offspring made her an object of much sympathy to the visitors to the camp, and, upon the death of the child, our people provided a handsome coffin to bury it in. The interment took place some distance from the barracoon, and the Africans were allowed to be present at the services, where they performed their native ceremony. Weird chants were sung, mingled with loud wails of grief and mournful moans from a hundred throats, until the coffin was lowered into the grave, when at once the chanting stopped and perfect silence reigned, and the Africans marched back to the barracoon without a sound.”
The African cemetery appears on an 1861 map drawn by the US Army Corps of Engineers. It was located in a then-uninhabited tract of land, along the beach. On the map, it is labeled "African Cemetery," and nine small X's are drawn to represent the location of the graves. This same location was later chosen for the site of the West Martello Tower, constructed in 1862 to fortify the island during the US Civil war.
Using this map, and transferring the information to a modern map, the general location of the African Cemetery was determined. According to this, the graves were under the West Martello structure, and extended out onto the beach towards the east. In 2002, the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society organized an archaeological survey that was designed to test the theory of their location. Though it was important to find any graves, it was imperative that the search would not cause any disturbance to them, or otherwise affect their integrity. Ground-penetrating Radar (GPR), a technique that uses the reflection of pulses of energy transmitted into the ground to “see” below the surface without disturbing anything, offered the best solution.
GPR data was collected near the West Martello Tower. On Higgs Beach, approximately 40 feet east of the fort’s brick walls, rows of closely-spaced graves were found. Though the GPR did not reveal details such as coffins or skeletons, it clearly showed fifteen 5 to 6 foot long oval holes starting 2 to 3 feet below the surface of the beach sand - a series of excavation features exactly where the African Cemetery was recorded in 1861.
Working with Monroe County and the Key West African Memorial Committee, staff from the MFMHS helped design and implement a memorial for the African refugees buried on Higgs Beach. The memorial was installed in 2007, and through artwork and traditional West African motifs, it tells the story of the cemetery and the tortuous journey the 1860 Key West Africans were forced to endure.
When the West Martello Tower was built in 1862, it was recorded that many graves were encountered and removed, which explained why so few of the 295 burials had been found on the beach. As Monroe County developed plans to renovate the Higgs Beach Park, additional historical research showed that they had been reburied in landward areas of the park, and it was proposed that additional GPR surveys should be conducted to locate the missing bodies. In 2010, a new round of surveys found many more burials. The majority of these graves were found across Atlantic Boulevard, in an existing dog park. Today, the dog park has been relocated, and plans have been drafted to move the street and join the more-recently discovered, unmarked burials with the African Cemetery Memorial. When this happens, the site will be whole.
The Key West African Cemetery – a cemetery of African refugees rescued from the slave trade – is unique in the United States and represents a particularly compelling story from the last days of the centuries-old Transatlantic Slave Trade. So much so that it has been deemed “nationally significant” and placed on the National Register of Historic Places. And it was a combined effort of historical research, archaeological investigation, and public interest that brought the cemetery to light and made it a part of today’s world.