St. Augustine is well known for being the oldest city in the U.S and a popular field trip destination for all 4th graders in the state of Florida. Most defined by its Spanish architecture tourist to St. Augustine often spend time visiting landmarks such as Castillo de Marcos, the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, St Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth, its distillery, and may I mention St. Augustine’s ghost tours, but less is known about Fort Mose Historic State Park, the first legally sanctioned free African American settlement in the U.S.
The history of this site dates back to 1688 when Negro slaves from the English colonies in the Carolina found refuge in the Spanish St. Augustine close to the site of a Spanish mission for the “Indians” (Native Americans) left homeless after Queen Anne’s war. In 1693, Spain’s King Charles II proclaimed that any English slave who reached Spanish Florida would be granted freedom upon conversion to Catholicism. Originally named Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, on March 15, 1738, Governor Manuel de Montiano freed over 100 slaves in the name of the Spanish king in this religious sanctuary. It has been noted by several to be the precursor site to the National Underground Railroad Network for these slaves who would cultivate the land and learn Catholicism. For their security and protection a moated earthwork of a community was erected as a defense outpost two miles north of St. Augustine called Fort Mose.
FORT MOSE I ~ A multicultural community, the inhabitants of Fort Mose were originally from West and Central Africa as well as some Native Americans. In 1759, militiamen at Fort Mose self identified as belonging to four distinct African ethnic groups: the Mandinga, Carabali*,Congo and Mina groups. Perhaps the most popular resident of Fort Mose, Francisco Menendez was a literate Mandinga who fought in the Yamasee War of 1715-16 against the English of the Carolina/Georgia. Another survivor of that war and resident of Fort Mose was Francisco Garzia who fled with his native American wife, Ana to Fort Mose. Three generations of their family lived in St. Augustine and Fort Mose. Many militiamen who fled to St. Augustine married Yamasee wives as well as other Indian cultural groups and joined forces with Indian Allies to defend Spanish Fort Mose against the English. All men who lived at Mose served in the militia and daily life consisted of scouting, farming, foraging for food. A church and sacristy were built for the Catholic priest who lived at Fort Mose though it is understood many residents still maintained African traditions and religious beliefs.
BLOODY MOSE ~ In 1740, the English under Georgia Governor James Oglethorpe attacked St. Augustine invading Florida with a sizeable troop force including Lower Creeks and Uchise Idian allies. Fort Mose inhabitants evacuated to the protective fortifications of St Augustine while Royal Navy ships sent from Jamaica bombarded the city in a month long naval attack. Just before daybreak on June 14,1740, Francisco Menendez led a detachment of Spanish forces who attacked the British at Fort Mose. They killed 75 unsuspecting English militia in hand to hand combat. This English loss at Fort Mose hastened their withdrawal from Florida at that time. English accounts referred to this battle as “Bloody Mose”.
FORT MOSE II ~ After “Bloody Mose”, most of the houses, fields and community was destroyed and from 1740-1752, Mose residents assimilated into everyday life in St Augustine. They engaged in artisanry, trade, craftmanship while others worked as blacksmiths and cattlemen. Some joined the Spanish forces as sailors and corsairs in raids against English settlements and ships. The new Spanish Governor Flugencio Garcia de Solis was troubled by the growth and migration of Africans and Indians into the city. He ordered the reconstruction of Fort Mose in 1752 and the blacks rebuilt their settlement near Fort Mose I which was known as Fort Mose II and again became the first line of defense in Spanish Florida.
EVACUATION OF FORT MOSE ~ The last year of life at Fort Mose was difficult. Because the Fort was under constant attack by English forces and their Indian allies, Mose residents would often seek refuge in St Augustine’s fortified walls each night. Once the English captured Havana in 1762 and Spain ceded Florida to England in 1763, Mose residents departed with over 3,000 Spanish colonists for Cuba. The Seven Years’ War ended with a peace treaty which called for Spain to transfer Florida to England in return for the island of Cuba. Many of the residents of Fort Mose and St. Augustine settled in the Matanzas province . These Spanish colonists were given land grants from the Spanish government, tools, seeds and a slave to help build their new homestead. It is not known if any residents returned.
FORT MOSE TODAY ~ Archeological research and findings illustrate Fort Mose was on dry land surrounded by agricultural fields but rising sea levels combined with recent human dredging have transformed the historic fields into brackish marshes observed today. This changed landscape is still home to some common wildlife such as the white ibis, and blue heron which we both spotted during our visit as well as the bald eagle. The vegetation seen is typical of a salty marshland but the Spanish moss are distinct reminders of its past.
** The Carabali ethnic group refers to people originating from the Cross River region in Nigeria and Southwestern Cameroon. Those who forcibly migrated from this area to the Caribbean and America from the 17th through the early 20th century are called the Carabali, a named derived by interchanging the “l and the r” in the name Calabar which was the last port they exited on the shores of Africa.**