Forrester survived a kidnapping by Seminoles, enslavement by the U.S. Army, and lived to be 102 years old

The area now known as Hillsborough County witnessed several tense and violent decades during the Seminole Wars. Over the course of the conflicts, enslaved people fled to the Florida Territory in pursuit of freedom. Many former slaves joined forces with the Seminoles and integrated with their communities. American slave owners, wanting to recoup their human property, resorted to forceful means. Other skirmishes over land and trade disputes also contributed to the battles that defined the Seminole Wars.

Amid these historic years, a local resident named Samson Forrester lived a long and legendary life. Being abducted by Native Americans, detained by the military, freed by a man that would become president, and eventually owning an orange grove are only a few aspects to his impressive story.

Born into slavery

Samson Forrester was born into slavery in 1786. His exact place of birth is unknown, though it’s said to have been on property referred to as “Forrester’s Point” along the St. John’s River. According to a 1937 Works Progress Administration report, Forrester was kidnapped by Seminoles as a young child. It was during these early years that he supposedly learned Seminole language and customs.

By 1835, around the age of 50, Forrester is thought to have changed hands, again, and was enslaved to a former Indian agent and land developer named Gad Humphreys.  As an Indian agent, Humphreys was authorized to interact with Native American tribes on behalf of the government. It’s thought that Forrester assisted Humphreys’ diplomatic efforts during the Seminole Wars, which raged from about 1816 to 1858.

Five years later, in 1840, Forrester found himself enslaved by the U.S. government at Fort Brooke, in the area where the Tampa Convention Center now stands. Some accounts indicate that Forrester had been sold for $1,500 to the U.S. military. Other versions say he turned himself in to the army with the hopes of being granted emancipation, only to find himself deemed property for at least a third time.

However it came to be, Forrester was forced to become a scout and Seminole interpreter for the U.S. Army. At this point, the Second Seminole War was going strong and Forrester’s skills as a guide and his ability to speak the Seminole language were invaluable to the army.

Emancipation

Finally, in the early 1840s, Forrester was granted his freedom by General Zachary Taylor, who would live on to be the 12th U.S. president. No longer a slave, Forrester earned wages and continued to aid the military as an ambassador to the Seminoles. He remained at Fort Brooke where he worked and saved his salary. Living with him on the garrison grounds was his wife, Rose Bennet, who he had purchased for $1,400.

Around the time of the Third Seminole War concluding in 1858, Forrester and Bennet relocated to Key West. While they were living in the Keys, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Eleven days after the end of the Civil War and two years after Lincoln’s proclamation, slavery was abolished in Florida in 1865.

Land and legacy

Sometime prior to 1870, Forrester and his wife returned to Hillsborough County and bought land near the east side of Lake Thonotosassa. The couple named their farm “Samsonville” and grew a robust orange grove.

Like most aspects to Forrester’s life, varying sources tell different stories. In terms of children, one account—an interview with a godchild of his—implied that Forrester had numerous children outside his marriage. Another record indicates that he had just two children, Thomas, born in 1843 or 1844, and another son, Samuel, born in 1848.

In 1886, Forrester suffered a debilitating stroke. On November 29, 1888, he died at home at the age of 102. As a landowner and respected figure in the community, historic accounts tell of mourners bowing to him along his lengthy funeral procession. His grave can still be visited today in Loving Care Cemetery in Seffner, Florida.

Details in this story come from Works Progress Administration reports, The Florida Historical Quarterly archives, and “Family Records of the African American Pioneers of Tampa and Hillsborough County” by Canter Brown, Jr. and Barbara Gray Brown.

Image Caption: Samson Forrester’s grave can still be visited today in Loving Care Cemetery in Seffner, Florida.
Last Modified: 6/21/2024, 7:01:59 PM

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