Why We Tell the Story!
It’s rarely found in history books. And yet, the Fort Mose Story adds an important dimension to America’s colonial past. It tells of courageous men and women who overcame enslavement in British colonies a full 175 years before the Emancipation Proclamation. It documents the courage and resilience of Africans who forged America’s first Underground Railroad and built the first free black settlement in land now called the United States. It’s a story of black, white and Native citizens living peaceably together and supporting one another, during the colonial era.
And, most of all, it’s a story about freedom. Read on!
Our story begins on the eastern coast of North America, in the mid-1600s. At this time, Spain and England are engaged in a constant struggle for control of the land between the English colony of Carolina and Spanish territory called La Florida. At the same time, Native peoples are fighting to retain or regain their occupied lands. The English colony of Carolina maintained a plantation economy. It relied heavily upon the skill and labor of enslaved Africans to sustain crop production.
The Spanish presidio of St. Augustine, founded in 1565, served as the main point of defense against British encroachment.
1686: The Spanish Offer Freedom
Spanish leaders needed soldiers. And so, as early as 1686, they employed a clever recruitment strategy. Through word of mouth, they let it be known that Africans who could successfully escape enslavement in English colonies would find religious sanctuary in St. Augustine.
News of this unique opportunity spread quickly. Africans who were being held against their will within the English colonies quickly took action.
This new ‘open door policy’ yielded many benefits for Spain. First, it could destabilize the British plantation economy. Enslaved workers were considered ‘property’, and reduction of the workforce was considered economic loss. Furthermore, successful escapes would encourage yet more resistance—it was a self-perpetuating process.
And finally, with this plan, the Spanish would gain skilled workers and soldiers.
Formal legal endorsement of the strategy came in 1693 when King Charles II of Spain issued a royal proclamation ‘giving liberty to all the men as well as the women so that by their example and by liberty they (other slaves) will do the same’. Specifically, the royal edict stated that each man arriving in St. Augustine would be granted freedom (along with his family), provided he convert to Catholicism and join the Militia in
defense of Spanish Florida. This edict became one of the New World’s earliest emancipation proclamations.
Did the Spanish Have Slaves?
The Spanish did uphold a system of slavery, but this system was remarkably different
from that of the British.
Under English law, an enslaved person was classified as ‘property’, lacking legal or civil
rights. Enslaved people could be bought and sold, and families could be separated. In
addition, in many instances, the law allowed for enslaved people to be severely
punished or killed, upon discretion of the ‘owner’.
In constraint, the Spanish system of slavery included some legal rights. Enslaved
people could purchase their freedom, for instance. They could own property, sue their
owners in court, or even petition the King. Families remained intact, by law. And
marriages of enslaved persons were recorded in official church records.
1687: Flight to Freedom
As early as 1687, the first group of enslaved workers escaped from a plantation in
British Carolina. Traveling first by canoe and then on foot, they swiftly made their way
to St. Augustine.
The flight to freedom was arduous and frought with danger. The freedom seekers
traversed treacherous swamps and forests. They dodged slave catchers and
constantly feared capture. Not all survived.
Along the route, the travelers received essential aid from Natives and settlers. Together,
they forged the first Underground Railroad which ran south, rather than north!
1687: First Arrivals in St. Augustine
The first recorded group of freedom seekers arrived in St. Augustine in late1687. This
small caravan included eight men, two women and a three year old nursing child.
Upholding their promise, Spanish leaders supplied housing. The men were given
waged work within the Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine’s coquina fortress,.
1738: The Founding of Fort Mose
As word of the new Spanish policy spread rapidly, flights to freedom steadily increased.
By 1738, more than one hundred free African refugees had resettled in St. Augustine.
In that year, General Manuel de Montiano y Luyando, Spanish governor of La Florida,
established a fortified town called Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose on St.
Augustine’s northern border. Mose (pronounced ‘Moh-say’) served as the city’s first line
of defense against English invasion. And, significantly, it became site of the first legally
sanctioned free black community in what’s now the United States.
From 1738 onward, Fort Mose played an important role in the defense of St. Augustine
and in the development of colonial North America.
The Fort Mose Community
Although their community was situated beyond city limits, Fort Mose citizens merged
with local Spanish culture. Many female citizens of Mose worked within city limits.
Mose citizens were routinely baptized, married and buried in St. Augustine.
The residents of Mose stemmed from diverse West African backgrounds. Records
indicate that, at a minimum, they represented iCongo, Carabali, Mandingo and Igbo
cultures. Many were highly skilled in native African technologies related to crop
cultivation, fishing and waterway navigation, cooking, construction and various other
trades and crafts. St. Augustine, and the Mose community, benefited greatly from the
Africans’ skills, and many of the skills persist today as important African contributions
to American life.
Together, the men and women of Mose formed a vibrant community. For many years,
Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose served as a beacon of freedom for those still
enslaved within British colonies.
The Original Fort
The original fort at Mose was just 22 yards square. Walls of the fort were made of
earth, stakes and cactus. The enclosure contained a watch tower, a well and a guard
house. The fort was surrounded by a shallow moat, and beyond the moat were fields
(Franklin, where are the interns on the Menendez stuff? If they’re not ready to publish
yet, I can fill in a few blanks temporarily.)
Francisco Menendez and the Fort Mose Militia
(Add just a little info here, then point to the page created by the interns.)
As the War of Jenkins’ Ear erupted between England and Spain in 1740, the citizens of
St. Augustine and Fort Mose became immersed in the conflict.
In June of 1740, the conflict reached St. Augustine shores. The English had deployed
dozens of ships and thousands of soldiers to destroy St. Augustine and to retrieve
Africans who had escaped enslavement.
General James Oglethorpe of Georgia led the invasion. King George had commanded him to ‘spare no personal...danger’. British troops established a blockade, and then bombarded St. Augustine for 27 consecutive days. St. Augustine and Mose militias were vastly outnumbered.
The governor of Spanish Florida, General Manuel de Montiano, feared for the safety of the Ft. Mose residents. He ordered them to abandon Mose, and to come to St. Augustine to help protect the city core. Spanish soldiers laid seige on Fort Mose, and gained control.
But 16 days later, on June 26, a battalion comprised of Spanish soliders, the Mose Militia and Native Yamasee warriors surprised the British in an early morning attack.
Through a fierce display of force, they reclaimed control of the fort. Casualties were high. The British named this ‘The Battle of Bloody Mose’. This battle successfully ended Oglethorpe’s siege of St. Augustine, and returned control of Florida to the Spanish. Tragically, Fort Mose had been destroyed during the conflict, and it would take twelve years to rebuild this important outpost.
1740-1752: Life in St. Augustine
With their homes and fort destroyed, members of the Fort Mose community migrated
to St. Augustine where the Spanish supplied housing and provisions. The Fort Mose
citizens became productive members of the St. Augustine community. They once again
integrated successfully into mainstream Spanish colonial life.
During their 12 year stay in St. Augustine, many of the Africans became property
owners. While in residence, the women of Mose sold baked goods and honey from
their homes. Mose citizens provided skilled labor as blacksmiths, charcoal burners,
carpenters and musicians. Some worked in the cattle industry as frontier scouts and
interpreters. Several former soldiers, including Captain Francisco Menendez, signed on
as ‘privateers’ for the Spanish. Their skill as watermen was useful in capturing British
ships and acquiring goods for the colony.
It would be 12 years before the citizens of Mose could return to their community.
1752: The Rebuilding of Fort Mose
In 1752, Spanish governor Fulgencio García de Solí ordered the citizens of Mose to
rebuild their fort at a slightly different location. Once the fort was completed, Captain
Menéndez again assumed command of the free black militia.
The second fort at Mose was significantly larger than the first, measuring about 71
yards per side. The fort was open on the side bordering a creek. The walls of Mose
were made of packed earth faced with clay and sod, and planted with live cactus. A
moat surrounding the fort was six feet wide and two feet deep. It was also planted with
cactus. Palm thatch houses and a church were built within protective walls of the fort.
In 1759 the Franciscan priest Father Juan Joseph de Solana penned an eye witness
account of the fort’s construction. He wrote:
The fort at Mose is situated on the banks of a river which runs to the north, at a
distance 3/4ths of a league (2 miles) from (St. Augustine). The part that faces the river
has no protection or defense whatsoever. It is formed by two small bastions which look
landward, on which are mounted two four pound cannons and six swivel guns divided
among them. The earth work embankment is covered with thorns and is 3 feet wide
and 2 feet deep. The houses which it includes are some huts of thatch. The Chapel is
ten verbs long, and six wide. The walls which are under construction are made of
wood, the scarcity of which, when it is finished, is a very small room and serves as a
chapel at the fort.
The expansive fields surrounding the fort were cultivated by Mose residents, providing
food for the community and, at times, for St. Augustine residents.
The new Fort Mose community was continually expanding. By 1759, it included 67
residents organized into twenty-two households.
1763: Flight to Cuba
St. Augustine, America’s ‘Oldest City’, had been a Spanish stronghold for nearly two
centuries. Since its founding in 1565, St. Augustine had successfully warded off British
encroachment, aided in no small part by valiant contributions of the Fort Mose militia.
But ironically, in 1763, the fate of St. Augustine was to be definitively and dramatically
altered by a simple stroke of the pen.
Beginning in 1756, the Seven Years war had engulfed Europe, the Americas, West
Africa, India and the Philippines in brutal conflict. The Treaty of Paris, signed in 1763,
guaranteed that Spain would retain control of Cuba. However, in making this
compromise, Spain had ceded all of its La Florida territory to the English.
As the treaty took effect, the Spanish scrambled to evacuate St. Augustine. And once
again, Fort Mose citizens faced the possibility of enslavement by the English. With few
other options at their disposal, they chose to flee from La Florida with the Spanish. And
so in February of 1764, 3019 St. Augustine and Fort Mose residents sailed for Havana,
Cuba. The entire city of St. Augustine was depopulated.
Many Fort Mose citizens resettled in Matanzas, Cuba where the Spanish government
granted them land and provisions. Nevertheless, life in Cuba proved to be harsh and
challenging. Eventually, Francisco Menéndez led many former Mose residents to
The British refurbished Fort Mose and used as a fort during their subsequent
In 1783, the Peace of Paris ended the American Revolution and, once again, returned
control of Florida to the Spanish. Once again, the Spanish used Mose as a military
In 1812, Fort Mose was destroyed and abandoned. It gradually fell into ruin and sank
into the Florida marsh, until being rediscovered more than a century later.
-End of Fort Mose Segment-
Following will be parts of the chronology that describe the ‘rediscovery of Fort Mose’
Through archaeological dig, founding of the Park, launch of Fort Mose Historical
Society, etc. It will end with ‘How YOU can help tell the Fort Mose Story’. The narrative
will be cross-linked in several ways.