People have long been enticed by Florida’s siren call of abundant natural beauty, blue water beaches, and agreeable weather. Answering that call, a thousand people a day now make Florida their home. But in the early 1700’s a compelling reason for crossing the line into Spanish Florida was to answer a far more powerful call: a call to freedom. Enslaved blacks from Georgia and the Carolinas fled to escape the brutal life they were living under British colonial rule.
The Spanish offered asylum to slaves beginning in the 1680’s but made it official in 1693. In exchange for conversion to Catholicism—and for healthy males a four-year stint in the Spanish militia—blacks were offered complete freedom. The reasons were twofold. The Spanish Crown hoped that by luring the slaves away, the British labor force would be diminished and the economy that depended on slave labor would be crippled.
Second, the blacks were expected to help enforce the Florida borders against British invasion. To that end, in 1738, the Fort Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mosé was built as a completely free black settlement. Now known as Fort Mose (Moe-Say), the log-walled-and-towered village two miles north of St. Augustine had about twenty homes, a church, and eventually one hundred inhabitants. They hunted, fished, grew crops, blacksmithed, cowboyed, and were tradesmen; some had jobs at St. Augustine.
In 1740, just two short years after the official establishment of the fort, the ongoing conflict between the Spanish and the English came to blows in what became known as The Battle of Bloody Mose. The battle was part of the larger War of Jenkins Ear—which refers, literally, to an ear severed from the very unfortunate head of one Robert Jenkins, which was pickled, preserved, and displayed before Parliament and used to fan the flames of hatred against the Spanish. Although the War of Jenkins Ear is not well known, it was of major importance to the existence of the state of Georgia and actually morphed into the very significant War of Austrian Succession.
In May of 1740, James Oglethorpe and Colonel John Palmer marched southward from Georgia with their troops and planters intent on retrieving their property, planning to attack Fort Mose. The inhabitants were forewarned and evacuated to the safety of St. Augustine. Oglethorpe returned to Georgia, while Palmer and 170 troops took up residence at the abandoned fort and settled in.
Before daylight, however, on June 26, 1740, Palmer’s forces were taken totally by surprise by Captain Antonio Salgado’s 300 troops, the free Black militia, and a band of Seminole warriors. It was a complete rout. The British were destroyed but, unfortunately, so was the precious fort. Again, the free blacks returned to St. Augustine, assimilated into the city, and remained for twelve years before the fort was rebuilt in 1752.
The second Fort Mose was relocated to slightly higher ground, just to the northeast of the original fort. Once again, this promised land, this utopia for free people of color, was to be short-lived. A mere ten years later, in 1763, Florida was ceded to Britain as a result of the French and Indian War. Rather than return to dreaded British rule and lives of slavery, the blacks chose to follow the Spanish to Cuba—and freedom.
The original site of Fort Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mosé was uncovered during an archaeological dig in 1986. Fort Mose is now a state park with a visitor center, picnic area, and observation boardwalks. Birdwatching is excellent. The marshes and tides have altered the terrain across the centuries, and the location is no longer directly accessible; the only direct-contact visitors are finned, clawed, or feathered. The site of the first sanctioned settlement for free blacks in the North American continent rests softly in the salt water marsh, while the resident bald eagles glide quietly, respectfully, holding vigil from above.
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