Forming a nation: the free black settlement at Fort Mose

Historian Adam Wasserman's account of Fort Mose, the first free black settlement established in the United States.

Submitted by Wiseman55 on June 28, 2009

This article is an extract from Wasserman's A People's History of Florida.

In 1693, King Charles the Second of Spain pronounced an important edict declaring freedom for fugitive slaves seeking refuge in St. Augustine:

“It has been notified … that eight black males and two black females who had run away from the city of San Jorge, arrived to that presidio asking for the holy water of baptism, which they received after being instructed in the Christian doctrine. Later on, the chief sergeant of San Jorge visited the city with the intention to claim the runaways, but it was not proper to do so, because they had already become Christians....As a prize for having adopted the Catholic doctrine and become Catholicized, as soon as you get this letter, set them all free and give them anything they need, and favor them as much as possible. I hope them to be an example, together with my generosity, of what others should do.” 1

Almost a century before the Spanish Crown’s proclamation of freedom, slaves were occasionally escaping from St. Augustine and making their way inland or down south. In December of 1603, seven runaway African slaves absconded from St. Augustine and found a safe-haven in the Ais tribe of South Florida. The Spanish slave patrols captured five of the runaways but the other two married into the Ais and received protection from the tribal chiefs. Runaway slaves already seemed aware that intermarriage was a way to form relations with native allies, guaranteeing their protection through family and social ties. The Spanish were as incensed as the British would eventually be, threatening war if the fugitives were not returned. After two years of negotiations with the Spanish Florida government, the Ais finally caved in, returning the two blacks to the Spanish as a gesture of good will and alliance. 2 The symbolic importance of this small event far outweighed its recognition. Florida’s dense swamps and sparse settlement made it ideal for runaway slaves. It foreshadowed centuries of natives and blacks cooperatively defending each other from whites, as Floridian natives and runaway slaves continued to integrate and develop intimate social relations. In the 1680’s, Spanish Florida commissioned their Yamasee native allies on numerous slave raids in Carolina. The influx of slaves became larger as it was circulated around the underground slave network that the Spanish governor repeatedly refused to return them to the British planters. For this, among other reasons such as trade access, the British sought to take possession of Spanish Florida. On February 24, 1688, Governor Quiroga reported the arrival of fugitive slaves with eight males, two females, and an infant child who escaped by boat. By 1689, the Lords Proprietors of Carolina were already instructing Governor James Colleton to prevent slaves from deserting to St. Augustine. 3 As Spanish Florida suffered increasing threat of British penetration, it found a weapon to simultaneously protect itself and undermine its colonial rivals. The Carolinian plantation economy was completely dependent on slave labor for its prosperity and the Spanish Florida sanctuary compromised the stability of the British colony.

Slaves had more opportunities for freedom as the geopolitical exertion of Spanish Florida’s colonial rivals made the sparsely populated territory more dependent on free people of color for defense. But other than the strategic advantages of providing refuge to runaways, the Spanish held a significantly different concept of slavery than Anglo planters in the British colonies. The rigid legal codes that prevented breathing room under a system of chattel slavery were virtually absent under Spanish law and custom. Slaves were viewed as human beings with certain inalienable rights, not property to be utilized and dispensed with as pleased. Slaves were granted certain rights and protections, i.e. there were even legal mechanisms by which to escape a cruel master. A slave had the right to own and transfer property and initiate lawsuits; which in accordance with a liberal manumission policy, granted them the right of self-purchase. Spanish religious and social values promoted honor, charity, and paternalism towards the “miserable class,” which included the enslaved. The liberal characteristics of Spanish slavery gave slaves the ability to “work the system,” essentially achieving freedom through their own personal merits and actions. This made it possible for a large free black class to eventually form and thrive in the Spanish American colonies. A number of aspects of Spanish Florida slavery mitigated some of the most oppressive features of chattel slavery: 1) It was organized by a task system, giving slaves more free time to engage in social and economic activities 2) Slaves were able to utilize the resources of both the frontier and coast to their advantage 3) There was never a massive slave trade, given that Spain never utilized Florida’s soil to produce vast quantities of cash crops 4) The paternal mode of plantation management prevailed. 4 Taking this into consideration, the Spanish Crown’s promise of freedom for British slaves escaping the Carolinas is not as surprising as it may seem at first glance.

A runaway slave was granted freedom on the preconditions that they defended St. Augustine, pledged loyalty to the Spanish King, and converted to the Catholic faith. The former slaves were more than willing to strategically accept this if it secured them freedom in the mean time. The dialogue of some Carolinian slaves reflected this tacit alliance: “I heard him say somethin’ like ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ He was talkin’ ‘bout the Spanish down in Florida. Jemmy said if we struck out together we could make it to St. Augustine.” 5 During the Queen’s Anne War, the Spanish commissioned Yemassee slave raids on the Carolinas. Free blacks and natives were establishing their first contacts in these frontier raids. A report steamed at the loss of “property”: “The slaves themselves at length, taking advantage from those things, deserted of their own accord to St. Augustine, and upon being Demanded back by this Government, they were not Returned, but such rates paid for those that could not be concealed as that Government was pleased to set upon them.” 6 The British raids on Spanish Florida in 1704 were partially motivated to retrieve runaway slaves who took refuge at St. Augustine. The incensed British planters angrily protested the Spanish government for this violation of accepted standards. They sent multiple agents requesting that the Spaniards return their “property.” In 1716, Major James Cochran was sent from the Carolinas to demand that the Spanish government return the slaves, but to no avail: “Their refusing to deliver up those slaves has encouraged a great many more lately to run away to that place.” 7 In 1719, a captain and twenty men were garrisoned at the inland water passage from St. Augustine to prevent any further slaves or white people from deserting. 8 In 1724, Governor Nicholson of the Carolinas wrote to the governor at St. Augustine with surprise that a messenger Capt. Wilson was treated with such contempt when he made demands for some of the runaway slaves and that a party of natives raided Charles Town, killed some whites, and stole a slave. 9 The Spaniards, along with their native and black allies, made numerous raids onto the British colonial settlements, devastating the frontier plantations. On June 13, 1728, Governor Middleton of the Carolinas wrote to the Duke of Newcastle:

“I am sorry we are obliged so often to represent to the Government the difficulty we labor under, from the new situation of St. Augustine to this place, whom without any regard to peace or war, do continually annoy our Southern frontiers. The hostilities they commit upon us may be rather termed robbery, murders, and piracies, they acting the part of bandittis, more than soldiers, their chief aim being to murder and plunder. We formerly complained of their receiving and harboring all our runaway negroes, but since that they have found out a new way of sending our own slaves against us, to rob and plunder us; They are continually fitting out parties of Indians from St. Augustine to murder our white people, rob our plantations and carry off our slaves, so that we are not only at a vast expense in guarding our Southern frontiers, but the inhabitants are continually alarmed, and have no leisure to look after their crops. The Indians they send against us are sent out in small parties headed by two three or more Spaniards and sometimes joined with negroes, and all the mischief they do, is on a sudden, and by surprise: and the moment they have done it, they retire again to St. Augustine, and then fit out again, so that our plantations, being all scattering, before any men can be got together, the robbers are fled, and nobody can tell how soon it may be, or where they intend to make their next attempt.” 10

Carolinian slaves, mostly recent arrivals from Portuguese-speaking Angola, voluntarily ran off the plantations with the numerous excursions of free blacks and natives. The Angolans were able to take advantage of the underground slave network that was established by runaways in St. Augustine, because of the characteristics that Portuguese and Spanish culture closely shared. They formed into militias and successfully defended St. Augustine from parties of slave raiders that entered Florida to seize them: “the Spaniards had grounded their hopes of success upon the strength of the runaway negroes, who are now very numerous, and grown much more insolent upon their having lately defeated a considerable party sent out to reduce them.” 11 In 1732, Georgia was chartered as an all-white buffer state between the Carolinas and Spanish Florida. In 1735, it was instituted as a free state: “for rendering the Colony of Georgia more Defencible.” 12 Over a century later, white frontier settlers were still used as a buffer to prevent runaway slaves from passing into free sanctuaries. This would be the precedent for the Armed Occupation Act of 1842 in Florida. As runaway slaves continued flocking to St. Augustine, the Spanish government increased their rights and freedoms. The ties between the Spanish and runaway slaves were strengthened as the blacks pushed the Spanish to come through with their promise of liberty. On March 3, 1738, the refugee slaves demanded their complete liberty on the authority of royal edicts. On May 31, Governor Mantiano fulfilled the promise of the King’s edict and granted them unconditional freedom. Even with the King’s edict, they had not been truly granted their liberty up until this time. 13 In that same month, a group of slaveholders from the Carolinas assembled to meet Mantiano and demand that he return their slaves. Mantiano regretfully claimed that he was under no authority to return them and referred them to the King’s orders. 14 In 1738, Mantiano granted a settlement for the runaway slaves about two miles north of St. Augustine and named it Gracia Real de Santa Teresa De Mose, or Fort Mose. Its strategic location made it essential for the defense of St. Augustine. Mantiano hired a Spanish military officer, Don Sebastian Sanchez, to oversee the construction of the settlement. A young Franciscan priest was appointed to advise the freedmen in religious matters. 15 In some sense, the free black settlement was formed in almost a similar fashion to the tribal mission outposts characteristic of Spanish Florida, being only semi-autonomous. The blacks were expected to farm and provide a portion of their crop for the sustenance of St. Augustine. On November 21, an additional 23 runaways arrived at St. Augustine. 16 Even though the freedmen that established the settlement numbered only 38, Mantiano was optimistic that they could form a successful village. The total population of men, women, and children eventually numbered somewhere around one hundred. The free blacks at Mose incorporated into their community incoming fugitives, natives from local villages, and urban slaves from St. Augustine. 17 In the mean time, the free blacks ensured the King that they would faithfully defend St. Augustine to the fullest extent: “That we shall at all times be the most cruel enemies of the English; and that we shall risk our lives in service to Your Majesty until spilling the last drop of our blood in defense of the Great Crown of Spain and Our Holy Faith.” 18

A report from the Carolinas gave the most detailed description of Mose: “This fort…made in the middle of a Plantation for Safety of the Negroes against Indians; it was 4 Square, with a Flanker at each Corner, banked Round with earth, having a Ditch without on all sides, Lined round with Prickly Palmetto Royal, and had a well and a House within, and a lookout.” 19 Mose was the first autonomous free black settlement in North America. In the mean time, the British Carolinas were imagining that the maroon uprisings of Jamaica had now arrived at their doorstep. A fugitive slave notice around this time applied the term “nation” to the free black community at Mose, a word that was mostly used to describe the maroon settlements that constantly revolted in Jamaica: “As there is an abundance of negroes in this Province and as there is [an] abundance of that Nation, [my runaway] may chance to be harboured among some of them.” 20 Over time, the Spanish sanctuary fermented slave insurrection in the Carolinas. The Spanish sent emissaries among the slave population to offer them freedom if they defected. A Carolinian slave organized an elaborate system of escape to Florida, considered the first “Underground Railroad” in North America. In August 1739, a native ally reported to Mantiano that the English had attempted to establish a fort in the Apalachee province with about one hundred slaves. The slaves revolted, killed all of the English soldiers, hamstrung their horses, and scattered afterwards. Four slaves were reported to have been seen in a native village before they disappeared. The English sent two large bodies of allied natives to track down and recover the rebels. The blacks encountered several Apalachees in the woods and asked them for directions to St. Augustine. Fifty were eventually seized and executed but only speculation exists for the remnants of the slaves who fled to St. Augustine. 21 In 1739, a group of twenty Carolinian black slaves assembled near the Stono River and marched to St. Augustine in hopes of the Spanish promise of liberation. Along the way they burned several plantations down and killed 23 whites. Their numbers increased to eighty as more and more disaffected slaves fled from the reduced plantations. The slave revolt, which officially became known as the Stono Rebellion, was successfully suppressed before they could reach Spanish territory. A report concluded: “The Negroes would not have made this Insurrection had they not Depended on St. Augustine for a place of Reception afterwards was very certain.” 22 Before they began their march to freedom, the slave insurrectionists avidly discussed escaping to Spanish Florida:

“Dellah, she took a newspaper from Mastah Boswell’s study, and Jemmy asked me to read it, which I did, tellin’ ‘em ‘bout slaves who fled to the Presidio at St. Augustine, Florida, was free. Jemmy listened real close when I read that newspaper. His eyes got real quiet. Then he told the others what I said in Portuguese.” 23

The British planters were thoroughly incensed and frightened at the example of the free black settlement. No longer able to tolerate the existence of a large slave sanctuary right below their colonies, the British declared war on Spanish Florida. To the Carolinas, St. Augustine was a “Den of thieves and Ruffians, Receptacle of Debtors, Servants, and Slaves, Bane of Industry and Society.” 24 By late December, Governor James Oglethorpe of Georgia initiated attacks on several of the outposts on the St. John’s River west of St. Augustine. General Oglethorpe was abundantly clear about the main objective of the British excursions: “And I do further declare, that all Negroes which have deserted from South Carolina, which shall be taken in Florida during the said Expedition, shall be delivered up to their respective owners, on paying a Sterling per head to the Captors.” 25 In turn, the blacks and native allies made reconnaissance missions to gather intelligence on British movements around the territory and imprison British soldiers to extract information. They were employed in strengthening the defenses around St. Augustine in preparation for a British siege. Mantiano formed a regiment of fugitive blacks. They appointed their own officers, received the same pay, and wore the same uniform as Spanish soldiers. 26 Although the war was officially titled “The War of Jenkins’ Ear,” to the Spanish it was “La Guerra del Asiento de los Negros,” or the “the war over the contract with the negroes.” This was because the British were flagrantly violating their treaty with Spain about the importation of blacks into Spanish territory. In January 1740, the English gained several victories, reducing a Spanish fort and capturing another. The British blockaded St. Augustine and gathered their soldiers and native allies to siege the city. A blockade was initiated to starve out the citizens of St. Augustine since siege was practically impossible. In May, a British lieutenant captured two blacks he found outside of St. Augustine who had withdrawn from the city due to the starving conditions. In the mean time, the native allies to the English made slave raids up and down the east coast, forcing Mantiano to withdraw the free blacks from Fort Mose and into St. Augustine. 27 The British reduced Fort Mose and established themselves there for further excursions on St. Augustine. But the British found themselves without the necessary means to actually seize the city. 28 Over the previous decades, the main Spanish stronghold in Florida had improved its defenses in anticipation of a British invasion. The town was entrenched with ten salient angles, on each of which, at least one cannon was mounted. Fifty cannon pieces were mounted on the nearly impenetrable castle, several of which were 24-pounders. The city was further protected by a force of seven hundred - 462 Spanish regulars, a detachment of Apalachee warriors numbering eighty, sixty militiamen, forty armed free blacks, and 50 native allies. This doesn’t include the large supply of free blacks that could be detached from Cuba for assistance. The armed free blacks were often commissioned in detachments, accompanied by native allies and Spanish soldiers, over the course of the several month siege. 29

The most dramatic occurrence of the war was the re-conquest of Fort Mose from the English force garrisoned there, completely upsetting the British efforts to seize Spanish Florida. On June 25, Governor Mantiano detached a force of three hundred men, consisting of Spanish regulars, militiamen, Yamasees, escaped convicts, and free blacks. The English and their native allies posted at the fort numbered about 170 and were commanded by Colonel John Palmer. The attack was initiated two hours before the British soldiers awoke so that they could not prepare their arms for defense. The Spanish detachment quickly swept over the camp, leaving 68 dead and capturing 34 soldiers. The blacks brutally mutilated the bodies of dead soldiers. The English account that the Spanish excursion cut off the heads and private parts of the dead and brought them to St. Augustine for triumph. The Spanish account also includes a native prisoner at Fort Mose who had reported seeing Colonel Palmer dead and decapitated. This may be a result of the pact made between the runaway slaves and the Spanish King, promising to be “the most cruel enemies of the English”. In the end, the blacks retook Fort Mose. By July 10th, the British, finding themselves weary and destitute, retreated back to Georgia. 30 Mantiano commended the free black militias for their bravery in protecting St. Augustine: “The constancy, valor and glory of the officers here are beyond all praise; the patriotism, courage and steadiness of the troops, militia, free negroes, and convicts, have been great. These last I may say to Your Excellency, have borne themselves like veteran soldiers. I especially commend their humble devotion, for without ceasing work by day, they have persevered by night with the care and vigilance of old soldiers.” 31 The free black militias had successfully warded off a full scale invasion by the British Carolinas, establishing that their freedom was really based on their own determination, not that of the Spanish government.

With the destruction of Fort Mose in 1740, the blacks lived as free and equal citizens among the Spanish residents at St. Augustine for the next decade. Some parties of British and native slave raiders continued to make raids into Florida but the free black militias continued to repel them. 32 In 1749, Governor Melchor de Navarette replaced Mantiano and proceeded to re-establish Fort Mose, placing many of the free blacks within. However, the free blacks had been perfectly content within the city walls of St. Augustine and had no desire to live outside society as isolated citizens. 33 In 1752, his predecessor Fulgencio Garcia de Solis met resistance from the free blacks when he attempted to relocate a faction of them back to the reconstructed fort. The blacks claimed that they feared the attacks of pro-British natives but the governor knew it emanated from their “desire to live in complete liberty.” 34 It didn’t occur to the governor that both could be very possible considering the native parties were constantly scouring Spanish Florida for slaves. He was condemning a people who simply wished to live free, peacefully and prosperously, as they were promised by the Spanish King himself. The living conditions of St. Augustine were far from glamorous but the hardships encountered at Fort Mose made daily living difficult. At Fort Mose, the free blacks were nothing more than semi-free tributaries to the Spanish government. But no matter, the free blacks were restricted in their freedom to actually choose where they wished to live. Garcia de Solis lightly punished the two leaders of the protest and threatened even worse punishment to any who would continue to resist. 35 During this time, slaves continued to run away from the Carolinas to the safeguard of St. Augustine. The free black settlement was abandoned in 1763 when Spanish Florida was formally ceded over to the British from Spain. A huge exodus of Spaniards, free blacks, and native allies left for Cuba. 36 The introduction of British colonialism to Florida meant the institution of rigid race-based slave codes. During the period of British rule, some free blacks from St. Augustine, who had already long-established ties with natives in the Florida interior, were incorporated into the forming nucleus of the Seminole tribe. The organic formation of Oconees, Lower Creeks, Yamasees, and various forms of native Floridian tribes, into what would later be called the Seminole tribe, had already incorporated runaway slaves from the late 17th century. Fugitive slaves escaping to the sparely populated swamps of North and Central Florida would now find a safe-haven in the Seminoles rather than the provincial authorities.


1. Cited in Twyman, Bruce E. The Black Seminole Legacy and Northern American Politics, 1693-1845. Washington: Howard University Press, 1999. 36.
2. Davidsson, Robert I. Indian River: A History of the Ais Indians in Spanish Florida. West Palm Beach, Florida: University of Florida Press, 2004. 107-108.
3. Wright, Irene A. “Dispatches of Spanish Officials Bearing on the Free Negro Settlement of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, Florida.” Journal of Negro History 9 (Apr., 1924): 150.
4. Fortescue, J. W. “America and West Indies: December 1689.” Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies, Vol. 13: 1689-1692 (1901), 186.
5. Johnson, Charles, and Patricia Smith. Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery. New York: Harvest Books, 1999. 102.
6. St. Augustine Expedition of 1740: A Report to the South Carolina Assembly Reprinted from the Colonial Records of South Carolina with an introduction by John Tate Lanning. Columbia, S.C.: Historical Society of South Carolina, 1954. 15.
7. Calendar of State Papers, Vol. 29, 211-232.
8. Ibid. Vol. 31, 293-311.
9. Ibid. Vol. 34, 37-56.
10. Ibid. Vol. 36, 129-143.
11. Ibid. Vol. 37, 291-298; Mullin, Michael. Africa in America: Slave Acculturation and Resistance in the American South and the British Caribbean, 1736-1831. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995. 44.
12. Davis, David B. The Problem of Slavery in West Culture. New York: Oxford University Press US, 1988. 145-146.
13. Wright, “Dispatches of Spanish Officials,” 172-174.
14. “Letters of Montiano: Siege of St. Augustine.” Collections of the Georgia Historical Society, Vol. VII, Part 1. Savannah, Georgia: Georgia Historical Society, 1909. 29-30.
15. Ibid. 28-29.
16. Wright, “Dispatches of Spanish Officials,” 176-177.
17. Smith, Mark M. Stono: Documenting and Interpreting a Southern Slave Revolt. Columbia, SC: University Press of South Carolina, 2005. 48; “Letters of Montiano,” 28-29; Landers, “Traditions of African American Freedom,” 23.
18. Wright, “Dispatches of Spanish Officials,” 175.
19. “St. Augustine Expedition of 1740” 25.
20. Mullin, Africans in America, 24.
21. “Letters of Montiano,” 32.
22. St. Augustine Expedition of 1840, 18.
23. Johnson, Africans in America, 100.
24. St. Augustine Expedition of 1740, 18.
25. Ibid. 34.
26. “Letters of Montiano,” 35-36.
27. St. Augustine Expedition of 1740, 39-43.
28. Ibid. 43.
29. “Letters of Montiano,” 48.
30. Ibid. 54-62; St. Augustine Expedition of 1740, 166-170.
31. “Letters of Montiano,” 61.
32. Landers, Jane. “Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose: A Free Black Town in Spanish Colonial Florida.” The American Historical Review 95, (Feb. 1990): 22-25.
33. Ibid. 25-26.
34. Ibid. 26; Wright, “Dispatches of Spanish Officials,” 185-187.
35. Landers, “A Free Black Town,” 26.
36. Ibid. 29-30.



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