In the process of doing research for my book, The Marauder, I stumbled across the fascinating history of Fort Mose, (pronounced “MOH-say”), north of St. Augustine, Florida. Established in 1738, Fort Mose was the first free black settlement in what is now the United States. Fort Mose played an important role in the development of colonial North America and I felt compelled to include it in my story.
As Great Britain, France, Spain and other European nations competed for control of the New World and its wealth they came to rely on African labor to develop their overseas colonial possessions. Exploiting Spanish Florida’s proximity to plantations in the British colonies in North America and the West Indies, King Charles II of Spain issued the Edict of 1693. Any male slave on an English plantation who escaped to Spanish Florida would be granted freedom provided he joined the Militia and became a Catholic. This edict became one of the New World’s earliest emancipation proclamations. In effect, Spain created a maroon settlement in Florida as a front-line defense against English attacks from the north. Spain also intended to destabilize the plantation economy of the British colonies by creating a free black community to attract slaves seeking escape and refuge from British slavery.
In 1738, the Spanish governor of Florida ordered construction of the Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose military fort about 2 miles north of St. Augustine. Slaves who had escaped from the British colonies were directed there. They were recognized as free, and men who passed inspection were taken into the Spanish militia and placed into service. By 1738 there were 100 blacks, mostly runaways from the Carolinas, living in what became Fort Mose. Many were skilled workers, blacksmiths, carpenters, cattlemen, boatmen, and farmers. With accompanying women and children, they created a colony of freed people that ultimately attracted other fugitive slaves. The village had a wall around it, with dwellings inside, plus a church and an earthen fort.
When war broke out in 1740 between England and Spain, the people of St. Augustine and nearby Fort Mose found themselves involved in a conflict that stretched across three continents. The English sent thousands of soldiers and dozens of ships to destroy St. Augustine and bring back any runaways. They set up a blockade and bombarded the town for 27 consecutive days. Hopelessly outnumbered, the diverse population of blacks, Indians and whites pulled together. Fort Mose was one of the first places attacked. Lead by Captain Francisco Menendez, the men of the Fort Mose Militia briefly lost the Fort but eventually recaptured it, repelling the English invasion force. Florida remained in Spanish hands, a haven for fugitive slaves from the British colonial possessions of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
My story takes place much later, just as the Seven Years’ War is coming to an end. Spain handed over Florida to Britain. In return, Cuba was ceded back to Spain. Most of the free black inhabitants of Florida migrated to Cuba with the evacuating Spanish settlers.
The fort has been recognized as a National Historic Landmark since 1994, and in 2009 the National Park Service titled Fort Mose as a precursor site of the National Underground Railroad Network. Visitors can stroll along the scenic boardwalk and take in the landscape of where the fort once stood. A Visitor Center and museum are available for guests to explore and learn more about the history of Fort Mose.
The Marauder https://goo.gl/oK3keZ