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Fort Mose

Despite the blood-letting at Fort Caroline the French merely settled themselves in at the mouth of the Mississippi River at a place they called New Orleans. The English colonies now trickled down the east coast of the continent, and Spain could do nothing about any of it. On June 9, 1732 the English established a colony called Georgia, and a lot of problems begin. Georgians had black slaves and many of them fled to St Augustine and the safety of the Spanish government. This was a problem that would define Florida’s history for over a century, slaves running to Florida.

The Spanish was glad to have them. Spain was hard put to defend all of its interests in the New World. Black men could fight and Spain needed men. If an escaped slave arrived in St Augustine and declared himself willing to become a Catholic and defend the Spanish Crown he was accepted into the community. Problem was, too many were coming. Slaves from Georgia and the Carolina Low Country were over running St Augustine. Something had to be done. That something was the creation of Fort Mose.

More about the Mandingo


As captain of the Fort Mose militia a huge black man called the Mandingo was the town’s boss. The founding population of Mose rose sharply in the fall of 1738 when 23 more black men, women, and children arrived, having fled from Port Royal, South Carolina, near present-day Beaufort. In 1739, a group of recently imported Angolan slaves revolted and escaped from South Carolina to Spanish Florida. Many of these people ended up at Fort Mose. Not much time passed before the blacks at Fort Mose got a chance to prove their value in defense. In 1740, tensions over British smuggling in the New World led to a small-scale war between England and Spain, bearing the unlikely name of the War of Jenkin’s Ear. In May, British troops in newly established Georgia moved against St. Augustine causing much damage to Fort Mose. The fort was too small to defend so the blacks living there were brought into St. Augustine and protected, along with the rest of the population of the city, inside the thick walls of the Castillo de San Marcos.

The British rendered a great deal of damage to St. Augustine, but their forces were repelled after several days of conflict. In a nighttime ambush, the Spanish and their black allies decimated the British troops. Later the British charged that blacks committed atrocities against English soldiers during the battle. After the confrontation, the Florida governor wrote a special commendation for the Mandingo. He praised the captain’s valor in the battle that had driven the British from St. Augustine. Since his devotion to the Spanish cause had reduced him to poverty, he embarked on a disastrous quest for material gain. He became a pirate, hoping it would supply funds to care for himself, his wife, Ana Maria de Escovar, and their four children. He sailed on a Spanish ship operating out of St. Augustine.

In July 1741, the British man-o-war Revenge captured the Mandingo’s ship. He was soon identified as the leader of the blacks, mulattoes, and Indians who had engaged the British at St. Augustine and at Fort Mose when it was retaken from the British. “Still bristling at the mutilation and castration of wounded British prisoners after the Battle of Fort Mose, his captors tied him to a gun and ordered the ship’s doctor to pretend to castrate him.” The Mandingo denied being responsible for the atrocities at Fort Mose, stating that they were done by Indians in the Spanish defense force. The British believed his story, but to show a measure of disapproval, they gave him 200 lashes and pickled him. Though it is not clear how and when he did it, the Mandingo in time, made his way back to St. Augustine.

However it came about, he was back at Fort Mose leading the free blacks when Fort was rebuilt in 1752; it had suffered severe destruction in the 1740 battle. While it was being repaired, the blacks that were to live there were allowed to live in St. Augustine. They earned their wages by working on government projects or by serving as members of the crew on ships and privateers.

What was to be done with the escaped Georgia and Carolina slaves who were crowding into St Augustine in ever-increasing numbers? Also a buffer was needed between St. Augustine and the approaching English who were certain to attack the city at some point. Fort Mose (pronounced Moh-Say) was the answer. It was established in 1738, just two miles north of St. Augustine. Aside from maroon settlements, it was the first free black community in what is now the United States.

A key figure in the history of Fort Mose was a black man called by the Spanish Francisco Menendez, but known among the blacks as the Mandingo. The story of Fort Mose is intricately connected to this man. Born into the Mandingo tribe of West Africa, he was about 20 years old when he and nine other slaves made it to St. Augustine, having fled the Carolina low country for freedom in Florida. The journey of just 400 miles had taken three years as they hid out in swamps and forests to evade slave-catchers then, joined forces with the Yamassee Indians to fight British colonists.

The new black town was to be located two miles north of St. Augustine at the head of Mose Creek, a tributary of the North River. The governor named the town “Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose,” combining the creek’s name with a reference to the King of Spain, Gracia Real, and the name of the patron saint of Spain, Teresa of Aviles. Naturally people just called it “Moh-say.” The fort was the northernmost defense of St. Augustine. The reason for its location was not only to provide a place for escaped slaves to live, but also to serve as an early warning system for the garrison at St. Augustine in the event of an attack by the English. As Spanish officials saw it, no one would fight harder against the invaders than those who had escaped from slavery under English whips.

The first objective of the former slaves was to build their own town. They constructed primitive thatched huts, positioned south of a four-cornered stone fort, approximately twenty yards square. The fort could house six catapults, two cannons, and about two dozen soldiers bearing muskets. A moat, four feet deep and three feet wide, was constructed and filled, not with water, but with a treacherous plant called Spanish bayonet. Fertile land encompassed the fort, and a saltwater stream afforded fish and shellfish.

The site of Fort Mose

The constant stream of slaves coming from the Carolinas into Spanish Florida, particularly to St. Augustine, created serious problems for Spain. The problem worsened with the settlement of Georgia in February, 1733, as yet more slaves escaped into Spanish Florida. What was to be done with these people who were crowding into the city in ever-increasing numbers? Also, a buffer was needed between St. Augustine and the approaching English who were certain to attack the city at some point. Fort Mose (pronounced Moh-Say) was the answer. It was established in 1738, just two miles north of St. Augustine. Aside from maroon settlements, it was the first free black community in what is now the United States.[1]Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.1.

Graves at Fort Mose The reconstructed Fort Mose,(after it was taken by English forces in an attack on St Augustine but later lost), consisted of 22 structures serving as homes, a church, and a house built for its Franciscan priest. The 1759 census, the only one ever documented, listed a total population of 67 persons. Blacks in Mose spoke several languages. Many spoke Spanish and other European languages, and some spoke Indian dialects and the languages of West Africa. In 1763, when the British defeated the Spaniards and claimed Florida as their victory prize, Fort Mose ceased to exist as a town. When the Spaniards evacuated St. Augustine, the blacks left Fort Mose and sailed away to Cuba with them. Many of these blacks became homesteaders in Matanzas, Cuba. The frontier lands there were rugged, and the blacks from Fort Mose continued to have a hard-scrabble existence, living in what seemed like endless poverty. Still, they had their freedom.

Although Fort Mose was no longer a town, the Spanish used it as a fort from time to time until it was leveled in 1812. Except for occasional references to it in scholarly publications, the historic town was generally forgotten until the 1960s, when blacks in St. Augustine began a movement to establish the fort as a historic site. In 1968, Jack Williams, a retired armaments worker from Maryland, discovered an old map that showed the location of the old fort. He decided to buy the property and asked the state to excavate the site, which is just east of U.S. 1 behind the Ponce de Leon Resort Hotel. Fort Mose has now been established as a state park.

Boardwalk leading to Fort Mose

A key figure in the history of Fort Mose was a black man called Francisco Menendez by the Spanish. To the blacks of Fort Mose, Menendez was known as The Mandingo. The story of Fort Mose is intricately connected to this man. Born into the Mandingo tribe of West Africa, he was about 20 years old when he and nine other slaves made it to St. Augustine, having fled the Carolina low country for freedom in Florida.

The journey of just 400 miles had taken three years as they hid out in swamps and forests to evade slave-catchers, then, joined forces with the Yamassee Indians to fight British colonists. Two years following his arrival, now using the name Francisco Menendez, The Mandingo was appointed by the governor of Florida to lead a slave militia. Although sheltered by and allowed to live in Florida, Menendez and his band were technically still escaped slaves.

Menendez and several other petitioners were finally granted freedom on March 15, 1738. At about this time, Spain decided to establish Fort Mose with Menendez as the recognized leader. The new black town was to be located two miles north of St. Augustine at the head of Mose Creek, a tributary of the North River.[2]Dunn, p.2.

Graves uncovered during research on the Fort Mose site

“Menendez, The Mandingo, was back at Fort Mose leading the free blacks when the fort was rebuilt in 1752. The fort had suffered severe destruction in the 1740 battle. While it was being repaired, the blacks that were to live there were allowed to live in St. Augustine. “They earned their wages by working on government projects or by serving as crew on ships and privateers. They helped track escaped prisoners and foraged for food for the city. In the spring they rounded up wild cattle and wild horses. Some worked as artisans. Racial restrictions were minimal in a frontier settlement so small that everyone knew everyone else. Prejudice, however, was still a factor. As ex-slaves they remained at the bottom of the social order, trapped in continuing poverty. In St. Augustine’s marginal economy, the free blacks were seen by some of the poorer whites as threats for scarce jobs.”[3]Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.5.

A rendering of Fort Mose

“A key figure in the history of Fort Mose was a black man called by the Spanish Francisco Menendez, but known among the blacks as the Mandingo. The story of Fort Mose is intricately connected to this man. Born into the Mandingo tribe of West Africa, he was about 20 years old when he and nine other slaves made it to St. Augustine, having fled the Carolina low country for freedom in Florida. The journey of just 400 miles had taken three years as they hid out in swamps and forests to evade slave-catchers then, joined forces with the Yamassee Indians to fight British colonists.The new black town was to be located two miles north of St. Augustine at the head of Mose Creek, a tributary of the North River. The governor named the town “Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose,” combining the creek’s name with a reference to the King of Spain, Gracia Real, and the name of the patron saint of Spain, Teresa of Aviles. Naturally people just called it “Moh-say.”[4]Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.2.

The Battle of Fort Mose

“Menendez, The Mandingo, was back at Fort Mose leading the free blacks when the fort was rebuilt in 1752. The fort had suffered severe destruction in the 1740 battle. While it was being repaired, the blacks that were to live there were allowed to live in St. Augustine. “They earned their wages by working on government projects or by serving as crew on ships and privateers. They helped track escaped prisoners and foraged for food for the city. In the spring they rounded up wild cattle and wild horses. Some worked as artisans. Racial restrictions were minimal in a frontier settlement so small that everyone knew everyone else. Prejudice, however, was still a factor. As ex-slaves they remained at the bottom of the social order, trapped in continuing poverty. In St. Augustine’s marginal economy, the free blacks were seen by some of the poorer whites as threats for scarce jobs.”[5]Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.5.

“As captain of the militia, Menendez basically ran the town. There was a sudden increase in the founding population of the fort in 1738, when in the fall of that year 23 more blacks who had been recently imported from Angola revolted and escaped from South Carolina to Spanish Florida. In May 1740, British troops in newly established Georgia moved against St. Augustine causing much damage to Fort Mose. The fort was too small to defend so the blacks living there were brought into St. Augustine and protected, along with the rest of the population of the city, inside the thick walls of the Castillo de San Marcos.

The British rendered a great deal of damage to St. Augustine, but their forces were repelled after several days of conflict. In a nighttime ambush, the Spanish and their black allies decimated the British troops. Later the British charged that blacks committed atrocities against English soldiers during the battle. After the confrontation, the Spanish authorities wrote a special commendation for The Mandingo. The commendation praised The Mandingo’s valor in the battle that had driven the British from St. Augustine. “Since his devotion to the Spanish cause had reduced him to poverty, he embarked on a venture that he hoped would bring funds to care for himself, his wife, Ana Maria de Escovar, and their four children.” He sailed on a Spanish ship operating out of St. Augustine.

In July, 1741, the British man-o-war Revenge captured Menendez’s ship. The Mandingo was soon identified as the leader of the blacks, mulattoes, and Indians who had engaged the British at St. Augustine and at Fort Mose when it was retaken from the British. “Still bristling at the mutilation and castration of wounded British prisoners after the Battle of Fort Mose, Francisco’s captors tied him to a gun and ordered the ship’s doctor to pretend to castrate him.” Menendez denied being responsible for the atrocities at Fort Mose. He said that they were done by Indians who were helping to defend the fort. The British believed his story but gave him 200 lashes and then pickled him. Though it is not clear how and when he did it, Menendez, in time, made his way back to St. Augustine.”[6]Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.4.

A drawing of Fort Mose

“The constant stream of slaves coming from the Carolinas into Spanish Florida, particularly to St. Augustine, created serious problems for Spain. The problem worsened with the settlement of Georgia in February, 1733, as yet more slaves escaped into Spanish Florida. What was to be done with these people who were crowding into the city in ever-increasing numbers? Also, a buffer was needed between St. Augustine and the approaching English who were certain to attack the city at some point. Fort Mose (pronounced Moh-Say) was the answer. It was established in 1738, just two miles north of St. Augustine. Aside from maroon settlements, it was the first free black community in what is now the United States.”[7]Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.1.

References

References
1 Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.1.
2 Dunn, p.2.
3 Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.5.
4 Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.2.
5 Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.5.
6 Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.4.
7 Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.1.