Sidebar 5: Fort Mose, St. Augustine, Florida - Lu Ann De Cunzo

In 1693, King Charles II of Spain issued a royal proclamation granting freedom to all runaway slaves seeking asylum in Florida. Hearing that the Spaniards offered freedom and religious sanctuary to those who would become Catholics, many captives escaped and made their way south to St. Augustine. In 1738, the Spanish colonial government finally established a fortified community, Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, to house the growing number of fugitives. Fort Mose became the first legally-sanctioned free black town in what is now the United States. Two years later, despite the heroic efforts of the African-American militia at Mose, English forces destroyed the fort in an attack on St. Augustine. Rebuilt in 1752, the new Fort housed mostly African-American soldiers and their families until abandoned for the last time when Florida became an English colony in 1763.

Fort Mose, a National Historic Landmark and the only site of its kind in the United States, symbolizes the courage and vision of African Americans who made selfless sacrifices for freedom when no choices seemed possible. Like Colono Ware pots, Fort Mose reminds us that colonial African-American history is not just a story of slavery and oppression. Kathleen Deagan led a team of archaeologists, historians, scientists, teachers, and politicians at Fort Mose to unearth the history of African Americans in the Spanish colonies. Their research interweaves evidence from documents, the fort remains, and fragments of weaponry, Indian pots, Catholic medals, bottles, food bone, and tools into a compelling story of a people’s pursuit of freedom.

Spanish self-interest coupled with altruism in the selection of a setting for Fort Mose, the northernmost frontier outpost built in the eighteenth century to defend St. Augustine. A small stake, cactus, and earthen affair surrounded by a shallow moat, the original fort enclosed a watchtower, guardhouse, and well. Sited next to a creek for defense, the fort today lies preserved underwater, after sea level rise and wetlands development inundated the site. It was the new, much larger but similarly constructed fort built nearby in 1752 that archaeologists rediscovered with the aid of aerial photographs, old maps, and test excavations.

At the site, archaeologists carefully traced soil stains left by wood buildings, palisades, and decayed garbage. They found hundreds of artifacts, most broken into pieces no larger than a thumbnail. Yet often these stains and artifacts offered the only clues we have to daily life at the fort. Who lived at Mose and what kind of a life did they forge at this fortress of freedom?

A mosaic of people with diverse origins in Africa, the Caribbean, Florida, and the Carolinas made Mose their home. Documents tell of intermarriage among Indian, African, and European peoples at Mose, a common practice throughout the Spanish colonies in America. Most people lived with their families, although some resided in all-male households. Soil stains marked the remains of their oval palm-thatch houses. Measuring an average of twelve feet in diameter, they provided living quarters that we would find too cramped to tolerate. Contemporary European observers thought they were poorly built. They called them “huts” to distinguish them from European style houses, and noted that they looked similar to the huts erected by local Indians. Despite Europeans’ disregard, the houses met the needs of people who preferred to live and work outdoors.

The Spaniards in St. Augustine wanted people at Mose to farm, to raise food for themselves as well as a surplus for the colony. They grew corn and maybe rice, but documents make it clear that they did not harvest enough to feed their families. Some men hunted and traded with native allies. Other families relied on government rations. The remains of the fish, shellfish, turtles, rabbits, and deer on which they dined survive in the ground. Plant remains did not preserve as well in the soils of Mose, but archaeologists did recover seeds and other remains of oranges, figs, nuts, squashes, gourds, melons, beans, blackberries, blueberries, huckleberries, plums, persimmons, grapes, and maypops. Clearly the residents of Mose came to know their environment well, and invested considerable time and effort in hunting, fishing, and gathering wild plants and animals in nearby woods and streams.

They also came to know each other well, and shared what they knew about everything from cooking to religion. The corn grinding stones and pottery cooking pots, spoons, and storage jars found by archaeologists show that many households at Mose adopted local Indian ways of preparing and storing food. On the other hand, imported buckles, thimbles, pins, and homemade bone buttons tell us that residents dressed much like other St. Augustine colonists. This sharing of lifeways didn’t mean that people no longer showed pride in their own heritage, and people likely still displayed African ornamental features such as scarring and hairstyle to identify themselves with particular social and ethnic groups.

The Fort Mose militia, a community-based free black militia, had primary responsibility for scouting and information gathering on the frontier. They mastered the intricacies of European warfare, and integrated elements from their own traditions. At Mose, archaeologists found pieces of the flintlock pistols, muskets and bayonets with which they trained, along with evidence that the soldiers learned to cast lead musket balls and work dense stone into gunflints.

The Spanish shaped African American culture in another crucial way by requiring that all runaway slaves given refuge at Mose must convert to Catholicism. Rosary beads and hand-made St. Christopher medals symbolized the converts’ new faith, although they never completely abandoned their African spiritual heritage. St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, had special significance at Mose for those who believed he had guided them along the path to freedom.