St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream, 1888-1950
By DR. RAY ARSENAULT
The lower Pinellas frontier had no slaves to emancipate and no "fire-eater" politics to raise its ire, but the Civil War came to the area just the same. Although the peninsula was never a major theater of military operations, it did play an indirect role in the Union's campaign to blockade Florida's Gulf coast, which was a potentially important source of salt and beef for the Confederate army. Beginning in the fall of 1861, a small fleet of Union blockaders was stationed at Egmont Key, at the entrance to Tampa Bay. The port of Tampa, like most of Florida, was rabidly pro-Confederate, and the blockaders were given the almost impossible task of sailing off the bay. Egmont Key also served as a refuge for the local Unionist minority, which included James Hay, who fled to their land at the beginning of the war, after selling his Clam Bayou homestead to William Coons for twenty-five dollars and a silver watch. For a time some Unionists tried to remain on the mainland, but sooner or later they were either killed or driven out by the local confederate homeguard.
In one such incident, a well-known Unionist, Scott Whitehurst, was shot and killed in an ambush near Pinellas Point. Rightly or wrongly, the Union commander at Egmont key blamed the murder on Abel Miranda and vowed to bring him to justice. Miranda claimed that Whitehurst was a cattle thief who was supplying the Yankees at Egmont Key with stolen Rebel beef, but the commander was unmoved. In the end, Miranda avoided capture, but in February 1862, a naval raiding partly burned and looted his entire estate. According to John Bethel, who watched in horror from a nearby Indian mound, the Union raiders not only torched Miranda's home and destroyed his orange grove, but also killed or maimed most of his livestock. The entire experience only deepened Miranda's commitment to the Confederate cause. After removing his family to Tampa, which remained in Confederate hands until 1864, he extracted a heavy toll of revenge from the local Union forces, primarily as a blockade runner. Following the surrender at Appomattox, Miranda returned to the Pinellas Peninsula, but he never rebuilt his fish ranch at Big Bayou. Instead, he moved two miles inland, where, he claimed, no Yankee gunboat could ever bother him again. Unrepentant and unreconstructed, he lived on the peninsula until his death in 1900.
At the end of the Civil War, the only settlers still living on the lower Pinellas Peninsula were William Coons, the enterprising fisherman who had purchased James Hay's Clam Bayou property in 1861, and his wife. Abel and Eliza Miranda returned to the peninsula in early 1866, followed by John and Sarah Bethel in 1867; and a year later they were joined by a handful of new settlers, including Sarah Bethel's uncle, Vincent Leonardi. But, even with this trickle of immigration, the area remained a semideserted backwater, a half-forgotten frontier that played no significant role in the drama of Reconstruction. While Florida's political leaders were squabbling over railroad bonds and the implications of black citizenship, and while marauding Klansmen were trying to break the will of Scalawags and Carpetbaggers, the pioneers of lower Pinellas were preoccupied with the problems of survival and subsistence.
Of course, very few Floridians actually experienced the "Black Reconstruction" that later dominated the mythology of the New South. To the dismay of the state's seventy thousand freedmen, Radical Reconstruction in Florida was never very radical. Although Florida's Reconstruction lasted for twelve years, far longer than in most areas of the South, the state's ruling coalition of white Republicans presided over a conservative program of limited social change and racial adjustment. When the era was finally brought to a close by the infamous Compromise of 1877 - the backroom deal that put Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House in exchange for a formal end to the Reconstruction experiment - the freedmen of Florida were left with little but unfulfilled dreams and broken promises. While they generally retained the right to vote, Florida blacks were seldom able to acquire their own land, or to sidestep the social and educational restrictions of a white supremacist society.
One of the rare exceptions to this bleak reality was John Donaldson, the first black man to settle on the lower Pinellas Peninsula after the war. An ex-slave who had lived in Alabama, Donaldson migrated to the area in 1868 as an employee of Louis Bell, Jr., a white homesteader originally from the Florida panhandle. The Bell household also included Anna Germain, a mulatto housekeeper who later became John Donaldson's wife and the mother of his eleven children. The Donaldsons lived and worked with the Bells for several years, but they eventually struck out on their own, purchasing a forty-acre farm located one mile northwest of Lake Maggiore (then known as Salt Lake). Although illiterate, John Donaldson was a man of many talents and won the grudging admiration of almost everyone who knew him. Working as a truck farmer, drayman, timber cutter, and general jack-of-all-trades, he exercised considerable independence and earned a comfortable living for his large family. Writing in 1914, John Bethel remembered Donaldson as "a man universally respected and one who really kept pace with his white neighbors." Donaldson's success can be attributed, in part, to his own resourcefulness. But he also benefited from the physical isolation and racial homogeneity that characterized the Pinellas frontier: out on the fringes of settlement there was very little organized social life, and thus little reason for whites to be overly concerned with the dictates of caste and class - particularly when the local black community consisted of a single family. The tolerance and respect accorded John Donaldson would not be extended to later black settlers, no matter how talented or resourceful they were.
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