BRADENTON, Fla. (WFLA) – Sifting through dirt and digging deep into the grounds at Manatee Mineral Springs Park, historic preservation group Reflections of Manatee, along with local archaeologists, are hoping to unearth the history of Bradenton’s first settlers.

“Although there is very little on the surface for anyone to see, underneath the surface is a really rich heritage of people’s lives,” said Dr. Uzi Baram, Professor of Anthropology at New College of Florida and Director of the New College Public Archaeology Lab.

The rich history of both Native Americans and Angola Freedom Seekers can be traced back to the park’s grounds as early as the 1700s.

“People looking for freedom in Spanish Florida came to the Manatee River. They had been enslaved, some had been born in freedom in Spanish Florida. They came here in order to live peacefully in a community we refer to as Angola,” said Baram.

Angola, by 1821, stretched from the Manatee River down to Sarasota Bay. Dr. Baram estimates the community included up to 700 people.

Angola was eventually destroyed in 1821. Many who lived there eventually settled in the Red Bays area of the Bahamas.

“That place was destroyed in 1821 just as Florida became a part of the United States. Twenty years later, Anglo-American settlers came to this exact spot by the Manatee Mineral Springs and started a community known as the Village of Manatee,” said Baram.

Nicholas Frech, an art history grad student at the University of Florida, studied abroad with the descendants of those who once lived in Angola. Frech is now taking part in the archaeological dig.

“It’s bringing everything that I studied back to the beginning, it’s completing the circle,” said Frech.

The archaeological dig, which is scheduled to continue for the next month, comes ahead of Bradenton’s Riverwalk expansion project which would directly impact the park and its archaeological record.

“We are recording everything very carefully, documenting all the finds and going down through it, through the centuries. That evidence was recently evaluated by the National Park Service and last January, the site of Manatee Mineral Spring was put on what the National Park Service calls ‘The Network to Freedom-The Southern Route to The Underground Railroad,’” said Baram.

In the meantime, artifacts are already surfacing for the team including what they believe to be an old milk jug, nails, ceramics and burnt animal bones.

Dr. Baram hopes to share their findings during their public open house on Jan. 20 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.

“We have some good hints we are already on the right trail,” said Baram.