Fort Mose, established in 1738, was the first legally-sanctioned free black community in North America. Its story began with enslaved Africans in the English colonies who escaped and made their way to St. Augustine, the capital of Spanish Florida, after hearing Spaniards would grant them freedom upon converting to Catholicism. This community of men, women and children played a pivotal role in the support of the Spanish colony until 1763, when Spain ceded Florida to England and the residents of Mose left with the Spaniards for Cuba. Today there is nothing left above ground at the site of Fort Mose, but its location and story have been revealed through historical and archaeological research, and a state park at the site commemorates its history. Fort Mose has come to represent a freedom born of fortitude and determination, an identity rooted in Spanish colonial practices and an alternative image to slavery during colonial times.
The background to the Fort Mose story centers on the colonial rivalry between Spain and England in the late 1600s. The English colony of Carolina abutted Spanish Florida to the north, and the two colonies tried to undermine each other’s survival. In 1686, Spaniards raided an English plantation and began to spread the word about religious sanctuary for enslaved Africans who escaped to St. Augustine. The first fugitives arrived in 1687 – eight men, two women, and a nursing child. People continued to arrive until finally King Charles II of Spain issued a Royal Proclamation to make the sanctuary policy official, “giving liberty to all the men and the women so that by their example and by my liberality others will do the same.”
By 1738 over 100 runaways had arrived, and the governor established Fort Mose as the northernmost outpost protecting St. Augustine. The full name of the community was Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, indicating that the new town was established by the king’s grace (Gracia Real) and that Saint Teresa was the town’s patron saint. Although we don’t know the meaning of the word Mose, it may have been an earlier Native American place name. Located two miles north of the Castillo de San Marcos, the small fort was four-sided with bastions, made of earth, and surrounded by a moat.
Men were members of the Mose militia, and all vowed to the King to be “the most cruel enemies of the English” and to spill their “last drop of blood in defense of the Great Crown of Spain and the Holy Faith.” Francisco Menéndez, a West African Mandinga, was captain of the militia. Menéndez was a remarkable man who spoke several languages, was literate (as evidenced by his signed letters), and even petitioned the King for fair payment for military service.
In 1740, just two years after Fort Mose was settled, Governor Oglethorpe of Georgia attacked St. Augustine and Fort Mose was destroyed . The Mose militia played a decisive role in the turning point of the battle and Oglethorpe retreated. All Mose residents made it safely to town and continued to reside in St. Augustine for the next twelve years.
In 1752, a second Fort Mose was built near the site of the first fort. This second fort was larger, three-sided with an open side along a creek, and also made of earth. A moat surrounded the fort, and inside were various palm-thatched buildings and a wooden chapel where a Catholic priest resided. The second Fort Mose was abandoned eleven years later in 1763, when Spain ceded Florida to England and the colonists moved to Cuba. Documents in Cuba indicate that former Mose residents moved to Matanzas province where they were given land to homestead. Apparently their new lives were difficult and at least some individuals, including Captain Francisco Menéndez, relocated to Havana, dispersing the Mose community. Although Spain regained Florida twenty years later, we do not know if any former Mose residents returned.
Spanish Slavery and Race
Why would the Spanish grant liberty to escaped slaves? In part they did so to undermine the English plantation system and gain new settlers. But the move was also related to Spanish practices regarding slavery. In 15th century Spain, slavery was not defined by race. Spanish slavery was based on Moorish practices because the Moors, who took slaves from the many lands they conquered, occupied Spain for 700 years. Spanish laws regarding slavery were based on codes from the 13th century, which in turn were based on Moorish law. The premise was that slavery was unnatural, people were born free, and slavery was a consequence of war or refusal to accept the conqueror’s religion. Slaves had rights: they could buy freedom, maintain family cohesiveness, sue masters in court for mistreatment, and be freed for service to the Crown.
This led to different practices in the Americas than the English system of slavery and to a wider range of statuses for African people. For example, nearly all early Spanish explorations included Africans, both slave and free. Black militia, both slave and free, were common throughout the Spanish colonies, and gave precedent to the Fort Mose free militia.
We know some details about the Mose residents from a wide variety of Spanish colonial documents, such as church, court and military records. The fort community included families as well as single soldiers, with as many as 100 residents. The only known census, from 1759, documented twenty-two palm-thatched homes with 67 people: 37 men, 15 women, seven boys, and eight girls. People farmed nearby agricultural fields, and the men, in addition to being soldiers, sometimes served as scouts, cattlemen, and corsairs.
Intermarriage was common in the Spanish Americas, and is reflected in the marriage and baptismal records of Mose residents. For example, the baptismal record of a boy named Calisto shows he was the son of a free black man and an Indian woman. Spanish records indicate that Mose residents were African (for example, Mandinga, Caravali, and Congo), as well as Latin American and Native American. This multicultural community must have been filled with the sounds and sights of different languages and cultural traditions.
The Rediscovery of Fort Mose
Archaeologists discovered the site of Fort Mose in the late 1980s. Limited testing had been done as early as 1971, but full scale research began in 1986 when the Florida Legislature passed a bill to fund the project. A University of Florida team led by archaeologist Kathleen Deagan and historian Jane Landers led the research.
Historical documents from the Spanish archives of Spain, Cuba and Florida provided information about the fort’s possible location. Comparing historical maps with modern maps and aerial photos provided clues about both the first and second forts’ locations. In addition, investigators created computer-generated “thermal images” that record how much heat is held by the ground. Where humans alter the landscape, the ground often holds more heat. Thermal images revealed a square outline resembling the size and shape of the first fort as shown on historic maps, in what appeared to be the right location. These images were the best clue to the first fort’s actual location. Occupied for just two years and now under water, the fort left no other discernable physical trace.
The map studies pinpointed the second fort’s location on a small island in the salt marsh. Excavations showed that slight contours of the ground surface marked the former ramparts, and also revealed the moat and the locations of wooden posts from fort structures. Across most of the site, just a thin ten-centimeter layer of soil represented the eleven years of life at the second Fort Mose.
The modest artifacts from the site provided details about daily life at the fort, from diet to building construction. Items such as buttons, buckles, nails, and pottery and glass fragments help us understand activities at Mose, and underscore that life was focused on the essentials. Gunflints and musket balls reflect military activity, and a few religious artifacts remind us that all the residents were Catholic. Fragments of animal bones and shells show that Mose residents ate mostly wild foods, such as fish, shellfish, turtles, rabbits, and deer, while documents indicate occasional government provisions of corn and beef.
After years of lying buried and forgotten in the salt marsh, the site and story of Fort Mose are again brought to life. The combination of details from historical documents and archaeological research paint a rich picture of this important time and place in history.
The State of Florida now owns the site where Fort Mose once stood, also recognized as a National Historic Landmark. Operated by the Florida Park Service, a visitor center  displays interpretive exhibits, and a boardwalk through the marsh allows visitors to walk close to the actual site. Many Florida history textbooks now include Fort Mose, and other resources offer additional depth. Historical research also continues to uncover new details about the community and its residents. Although nothing of the fort remains above ground, the site provides a touchstone to the past and to this amazing story of determination and freedom.
Brief introduction on Fort Mose Historic State Park located in St. Augustine, FL.
Further Reading: Books and Periodicals
Arana, L. “The Mose Site.” El Escribano, 10, 50-62. St. Augustine: St. Augustine Historical Society, (1973).
Colburn, D. R., & Landers, J. G. Eds. The African American heritage of Florida. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1995.
Deagan, K. Spanish St. Augustine: The archaeology of a colonial Creole community. New York: Academic Press, 1983.
Deagan, K. America’s ancient city: Spanish St. Augustine, 1565-1763. In D. H. Thomas Ed., The Spanish borderlands sourcebooks: Vol. 25. New York: Garland, 1991.
Deagan, K., & MacMahon, D. Fort Mose: Colonial America’s Black fortress of freedom. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1995.
Ferguson, L. Uncommon ground: Archaeology and early African America, 1650-1800. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.
Hall, G. M. Africans in colonial Louisiana: The development of Afro-Creole culture in the eighteenth century. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.
Hall, G. M. Slavery and African ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the links. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
Hanger, K. Bounded lives, bounded places: Free Black society in colonial New Orleans. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.
Heywood, L. Ed. Central Africans and cultural transformations in the American diaspora. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Henderson, A. L., & Mormino, G. Eds. Spanish pathways in Florida. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, 1991.
Hoffman, P. Florida’s frontiers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
Landers, J. G. Spanish sanctuary: Fugitives in Florida 1687-1790. The Florida Historical Quarterly, 62(3), 296-313. Tampa: Florida Historical Society, 1984.
Landers, J. G. Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose: A free Black town in Spanish colonial Florida. The American Historical Review, 95 no. 1 (1990): 9-30.
Landers, J. G. “African presence in early Spanish colonization of the Caribbean and the Southeastern borderlands.” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology , 1989), Quoted in D. H. Thomas Ed., Columbian consequences, Volume II: Archaeological and historical perspectives on the Spanish borderlands East Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990, 315-327.
Landers, J. G. Ed. Against the odds: Free Blacks in the slave societies of the Americas. London: Frank Cass, 1996.
Landers, J. G. Black society in Spanish Florida. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Landers, J. G. “Cimarrón ethnicity and cultural adaptation in the Spanish domains of the circum-Caribbean, 1503-1763,” in P. E. Lovejoy Ed., Identity in the shadow of slavery. New York: Wellington House, 2000. 30-54.
Landers, J. G. Colonial plantations and economy in Florida. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.
Landers, J. G. “Maroon women in Spanish America.” In D. B. Gaspar & D. C. Hine, eds., Beyond bondage: Free women of color in the slave societies of the Americas. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004, 3-18.
Landers, J. G. “Africans and Indians on the Spanish southeastern frontier.” In M. Restall ed., Black and red: African-Native relations in colonial Latin America Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005, 53-80
Landers, J. G. “Social control on Spain’s contested Florida frontier.” In J. F. de la Teja & R. Frank (Eds.), Choice, persuasion and coercion: Social control on Spain’s North American frontier. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005, 27-48.
Landers, J. G. “Transforming bondsmen into vassals: Arming the slaves in colonial Spanish America.” In P. Morgan & C. Brown eds., Arming slaves in world history New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006, 120-45.
Landers, J. G. “A nation divided? Blood Seminoles and Black Seminoles on the Florida frontier.” In R. E. Brown ed., Coastal encounters: The transformation of the Gulf South in the eighteenth century Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007, 99-116.
Landers, J. G., & Robinson, B. M. eds., Slaves, subjects and subversives: Blacks in colonial Latin America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006.
Leacock, E., & Buckley, S. Places in time: A new atlas of American history. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.
MacMahon, D. & Deagan K. “Legacy of Fort Mose.” Archaeology Magazine, 49, no. 5, (September/October, 1996): 54-58.
MacMahon, D. & Deagan, K. “Legacy of Fort Mose.” In L. L. Hasten ed., Annual editions: Archaeology, 97/98 Guilford, CT: Dushkin/McGraw Hill, (1998): 139-143.
Mullin, M. Africa and America: Slave acculturation and resistance in the American South and the British Caribbean, 1736-1831. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
Mulroy, K. Freedom on the border: The Seminole Maroons in Florida, the Indian Territory, Coahuila, and Texas. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1993.
Patrick, R. W. Ed. Letters of the invaders of East Florida, 1812. The Florida Historical Quarterly, 28, no1. (July, 1949): 53-69.
Porter, K. W. The Black Seminoles: History of a freedom-seeking people. Revised & edited by A. M. Amos & T. P. Senter. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996.
Price, R. Maroon societies: Rebel slave communities in the Americas. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press. 1979.
Rivers, L. Slavery in Florida: Territorial days to emancipation. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.
Thornton, J. Africa and Africans in the making of the Atlantic world, 1400-1680. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Usner, D. H. Indians, settlers, and slaves in a frontier exchange economy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.
Wood, P. H. Black majority. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1974.
Wright, I. Dispatches of Spanish officials bearing on the free Negro settlement of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose. Journal of Negro History, 9. 1924, 144-193.
Link to a full interactive publication produced by VISITFLORIDA and the Florida Dept. of State. This full color, magazine style publication offers a region by region tour of Florida's significant and noteworthy black heritage sites, individuals and events. Easy to use, clickable "page-turn" navigation and zoom-able features.
Two Views of the Stono Rebellion, South Carolina, 1739
Two perspectives on a 1739 slave uprising in South Carolina that was likely prompted by the lure of freedom in Florida. This comparison exercise is part of a National Humanities Center Toolbox titled "Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690 - 1763."
Link to a historical document on the PBS site "Africans in America." Prince Witten was one of the many enslaved blacks who sought refuge in Spanish Florida in the decade following the end of the Revolutionary War. In 1795, Prince Witten successfully petitioned the Spanish governor of St. Augustine to grant land to him and other blacks on the basis of their citizenship. This is his original petition.