Did you know that the first free Black town within the present boundaries of the Unites States was founded in Florida? Located two miles north of St. Augustine, Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose stood for a time as the northernmost outpost of the Spanish empire. Today, you might know the community of freedom by its shortened name – Fort Mose (pronounced Moh-say).
In the 1600s and 1700s, the first American underground railroad shuttled African born slaves to Spanish Florida. Those brave enough to escape English plantations traveled southward with the aid of Native American allies. Why Florida? The King of Spain’s 1693 edict offered not only sanctuary, but freedom. In return, Spain asked for military service and conversion to the Catholic faith. St. Augustinians welcomed the newcomers’ skilled labor and military aid. By 1738, more than 100 freedom seekers achieved asylum.
That same year, the Spanish governor granted the creation of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose. Captain Francisco Menéndez – a military leader – led the new autonomous community of freed men and women. The homesteaders faced harsh conditions on Florida’s frontier. For as they farmed their lands and built their homes, they also patrolled Florida’s northern border. And bravely defended their allies when called upon.
So what happened to Fort Mose?
Following defeat in French and Indian War, Spain transferred Florida to Britain in the 1763 Treaty of Paris. Thousands – including the residents of Fort Mose and Native American allies – fled to Spanish Cuba. In the following centuries, marshes swallowed the abandoned community. And Fort Mose faded into history – like much of Florida’s Black heritage. Thanks to the work of those dedicated to uncovering our state’s diverse past, we can now share this story with you. And continue to expand our understanding of the past.
To read about the archaeological excavations headed by Dr. Kathleen Deagan from 1986-1988 that revealed so many of these details about Fort Mose, visit Florida Museum of Natural History’s website. And make sure to stop by Fort Mose Historic State Park – located at 15 Fort Mose Trail, St. Augustine – on your next outdoors adventure! Or head to Fort Mose Historical Society’s website to learn how you too can support the continuation of Fort Mose’s story.