Intrigue Along the Inlet: Commerce and Conflict at Bunce’s Pass
A two-part series
Part 1: Fishing on a Militarized Frontier
Florida’s fall weather makes this an ideal time to visit Fort De Soto County Park where, after passing the Pinellas Bayway’s last tollbooth, you cross over Bunce’s Pass. This popular destination carries an intriguing history – one involving a man named William Bunce, the fish camp he operated, and a federal military operation that wiped it out 180 years ago.
Captain William Bunce came to Florida shortly after the U.S. took possession of these lands from Spain. This week, we learn about Bunce’s arrival along a militarized frontier and his fishing camps near the mouth of Tampa Bay. Next week, we’ll visit his second camp, the one he created along Bunce’s Pass, before troops from Fort Brooke annihilated it in October 1840.
A Fortress Mentality
Spain’s tenuous hold on La Florida faced regular threats in the early 1800s due to pressures that began long before the U.S. existed. During the early 1700s, slave-owning colonists in British North America grew impatient with runaway slaves that fled from their lands into Spanish Florida. Unlike the Underground Railroad that aided fugitive slaves before the Civil War, this first path to freedom went south, rather than north.
Spain welcomed these runaways, even establishing a fortress for them – Fort Mose – a little north of St. Augustine. During the War of Jenkins’s Ear, England attacked Fort Mose in 1740 with plans to capture fleeing slaves. England took possession of La Florida in 1763 and Spain grabbed it again in 1784 after helping the patriots to the north secure their independence from Britain in the American Revolution.
While this colonial back-and-forth took place, another displaced population came into Florida. Beginning in the 1740s and continuing into the early 1800s, some members of the Creek Nation and other Native American tribes escaped to Florida as settlers pushed them from their ancestral lands. These people settled in north Florida and took the name “Seminoles.”
Andrew Jackson led military expeditions into Spanish Florida during the War of 1812 and the First Seminole War during the 1810s. He violated international law as he chased down Indians and runaway slaves by illegally crossing into Spanish Florida. His Indian removal efforts solidified his political career, encouraged Spain to transfer its colonial holdings of La Florida to the U.S. in 1821, and helped Jackson win the presidency in 1828.
As Jackson and other Americans attacked Seminoles and fugitive slaves in Spanish Florida between 1812 and 1821, the largely unpopulated Tampa Bay area became a safe, isolated refuge. These hunted populations quietly lived and fished along the Pinellas Peninsula, Tampa Bay, and Sarasota Bay. They tried not to attract any attention, but faced capture and relocation after the U.S. acquired Florida.
Federal officials permitted slavery in territorial Florida and encouraged the seizure of runaway slaves. They also wanted to remove the Seminoles to lands west of the Mississippi. They established forts throughout Florida – not to protect from foreign invasion, but to subdue, control and remove Indians and runaways.
Colonel George Mercer Brooke sailed from Pensacola and established a remote fort at the site of the Tampa Convention Center in 1824. A tiny village of merchants took shape north of Fort Brooke. This remote outpost along the Hillsborough River became Tampa, a settlement with fewer than 100 people in the 1820s and 1830s.
A Pioneer In A New American Territory
Born in Baltimore, Captain William Bunce found his way to Key West as a young man during the 1820s. He fished, engaged in shipping, and briefly served as a customs officer who monitored commerce along Florida’s largely uninhabited west coast – including shipments entering Tampa Bay.
Bunce spent more time fishing and sailing around Tampa Bay in the early 1830s. He became a trusted guide to Colonel Brooke and other officers at Fort Brooke during fishing expeditions. Bunce knew the waters of Boca Ciega Bay, Tampa Bay, and the Manatee River better than anyone else. He caught large sea turtles to feed the troops at the fort. They considered his turtle “steaks” a delicacy, and his knowledge of area waters a strategic asset.
During a time when local waters teemed with fish, Bunce set up a fishing rancho along the mouth of the Manatee River in 1834. Earlier Spanish ranchos in the 1700s and early 1800s were temporary camps, locations where rugged folk harvested tons of fish along Florida’s west coast, smoked and salted them, and sailed them to markets in Cuba and the Florida Keys.
Bunce hoped to establish a permanent operation. During the fall, winter and early spring months, he needed laborers to catch, prepare and preserve mullet and other fish for merchants in Havana and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Seminoles and runaway slaves soon worked for him, as did Spaniards, Cubans and people of mixed racial ancestry.
By the mid-1830s, nearly 150 people lived at Bunce’s rancho. Workers harvested a variety of sea life, smoked and boiled their catches, collected fish roe, and sent these products to markets that suffered from overfishing. Women and children at Bunce’s fish camp wove cord rope nets from the fibers of palm fronds.
This multicultural rancho along the Manatee River had more residents than Tampa. Aside from federal military funds streaming into Fort Brooke, Bunce’s fishing enterprise became the largest economic entity in the sparsely-settled Tampa Bay region.
The Second Seminole War and a First Attack on Bunce
Tensions between authorities and Seminole Indians escalated while Bunce’s Manatee camp thrived. President Jackson wanted to remove Native Americans. Congress supported the president’s policy by passing the Indian Removal Act in 1830. Jackson handily won re-election in 1832. Some historians have characterized a notable Indian war during Jackson’s second term as the largest slave uprising in American history.
In December 1835, Major Francis Langhorne Dade led more than 100 soldiers from Fort Brooke to Fort King, near Ocala. Seminoles and some allies ambushed them near Bushnell, killing Dade and nearly all of his troops. This skirmish marked the beginning of the Second Seminole War, a series of hostilities between 1835 and 1842 that pitted Seminoles and runaway slaves against settlers, soldiers and militiamen.
Bunce’s successful operations in Manatee became an obvious target. Officers from Fort Brooke demanded that Bunce surrender the Seminoles and other supposed “enemy combatants” working at his rancho. Bunce argued that the laborers posed no threat. The workers minded their business, harvested fish and did not take up arms.
Commanders at Fort Brooke responded with force. They dispatched gunboats to the Manatee River, launched an attack on Bunce’s rancho, destroyed it, and scattered the occupants. Simply stated, soldiers obliterated the largest fishing enterprise along Florida’s west coast because of the racial makeup of the peaceful, hardworking people who had made it successful.
Stubborn and resolute, Bunce established a new camp along the pass that bears his name. Despite the attack by soldiers at Fort Brooke, Bunce remained a notable leader among Tampa’s tiny merchant community. He continued to lead fishing parties that included troops from Fort Brooke. His new fish camp took shape with the same kind of workers that he used in Manatee County. It would not last.
Next week, we visit Bunce’s Pass to learn about the biggest business along the Pinellas Peninsula before troops decided to eradicate it in 1840.
A graduate of Boca Ciega High School, James A. Schnur previously served as president of the Pinellas County Historical Society and as a member of the Pinellas County Historical Commission. He has authored four photographic history books on the cities of Largo, Madeira Beach, St. Petersburg, and Seminole, as well as a history of Pinellas County. He taught Florida and U.S. history classes at Eckerd College for nearly 20 years.