Fort Mose and the first underground railroad – Freedom in Florida Part 1

On this week’s Florida History Podcast we discuss Fort Mose and runaway slaves to 17th and 18th Century Spanish Florida. The period from 1693 to 1739 is covered in this week’s podcast. It is the first in a series of podcasts on the “first underground railroad” which came not to Canada but to Florida.

Below is a short written summary about the period with photos and video. The audio podcast has far more details.

A stronger English presence in the south meant trouble for Spanish Florida. In addition to building the Castillo de San Marcos and fortifying St Augustine. The crown also aimed to make improvements to a major road that connected Florida’s settlements. 

The El Camino Real connected St Augustine with the settlements and missions to the west. The road ran roughly to modern-day Tallahassee by 1640. Along the road were over two dozen towns or missions. Following Searle’s sack of St Augustine and the founding of Charles Town, the crown aimed to improve and finish the road.  Throughout the 1680’s work continued though the road was never fully completed. Although not fully complete, El Camino Real provided the outlet for trade and movement of goods throughout Spain’s Florida settlement. 

Despite efforts to engage and pacify the Native Americans of peninsular Florida, the Spanish never built any roads south of St Augustine. No permanent or semi-permanent would be found along Florida East Coast south of the capital until the British settled New Smyrna in the 1760’s.  

During the 1680’s English pirates regularly raided Spanish ships off the coast of Florida and raided missions in Florida with its native American allies. In 1682, pirates raided the ship of provisions coming from Mexico to St Augustine leaving the town in crisis.  Pirates even raided inland Spanish missions using the Suwannee and Apalachicola Rivers as highways into the heart of Florida. In 1693, English-backed Native Americans burnt a Spanish mission near the Suwannee River and enslaved its residents. 

The thriving mission culture of the early-mid 1600’s was already beginning to collapse when tensions spilled over into war in 1702. In 1659, a Measles epidemic had brought the population of Florida down toward 20,000, significantly lower than it had been in the 1630’s. By 1700, many missions and towns in Florida had already been abandoned. 

With the founding of Charles Town, Spain began to see its Florida Colony as an essential bulwark against rivals and a line of defense for its Caribbean colonies. St Augustine was a critical stop on Spain’s commercial shipping routes and had been proven once again vulnerable to English attacks. 

In 1686 a Spanish attempt to attack Charles Town was aborted. The next year the Spanish crown began actively encouraging slaves to run away from the English colonies to the north and to serve the crown in Florida. 

Absent the gold of other Spanish colonies in the Americas, Spain actively looked for those who would “serve” the crown in its military and economic needs in Florida. This included enticing slaves from English territories to flee to Florida and achieve freedom if they converted to Catholicism. 

This willingness to harbor runaway slaves would alter the relationship between Florida and its neighbors to the north for the next 90 years. In fact, African runaway slaves and Native Americans would prove exceedingly loyal to defending Spanish Florida from English invasions during the 1700’s.  

In 1738, Fort Mose was established two miles north of St Augustine – A village to defend St Augustine that also was operated by free blacks – by 1740, the town had a population of 100 within its walls and was governed by a European of African descent. Fort Mose was the first legally sanctioned free African settlement in what would become the US.

Fort Mose site today

Word had reached Georgia and the Carolina’s about Fort Mose and the freedom offered in Spanish Florida. The promise of Fort Mose helped stimulate the Stono Rebellion in 1739. This rebellion in South Carolina was crushed but in the next two years, hearing of the freedoms offered to blacks in Florida, smaller rebellions popped up in the southern British colonies. This also stimulated the desire for the British to invade Florida and crush black freedom.

We pick up next week with what happened in 1740.

For the British in London, knocking Spain out of the war was strategic in a larger global conflict. For the Anglo-American colonists in Georgia and the Carolina’s invading Florida was more about crushing black freedom and extending slavery.  Another clear motivation was the hostility of Anglican settles to Catholics, a theme that would repeat itself in the French and Indian War as well as the American Revolution. 

On his way to St Augustine, Oglethorpe captured Fort Mose. The residents had mostly been runaway slaves from the British colonies. When the British captured Fort Mose, the free black residents fled to St Augustine where they played a critical role in the city defense.

Oglethorpe and his British forces began the siege of St Augustine on June 13th, 1740. The Spanish decided while St Augustine was under siege to launch a counter-offensive aimed at Fort Mose where the British had left behind a garrison. The Spanish and free black forces liberated Fort Mose and within weeks a Spanish fleet from Havana had reached St Augustine prompting a British withdrawal back to Savannah.

You can listen to the Florida History Podcast on Anchor (which hosts our show), SpotifyGoogleApple PodcastsRadio PublicBreakerOvercastCastro or Pocket Casts. Overcast, Castro, Spotify, Radio Public and Breaker have App Store apps for free which enable you to subscribe and listen on your iPhone if you do not use the Apple Podcast app. We release a new episode weekly.

All the episodes can be found here

3 comments

  1. […] note: It’s ironic that this past week we launched a four-part Podcast series on the first underground railroad which made its way to Florida from the late 1600’s to the […]

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  2. […] Educators must teach a sanitized mythical version of American History, one which not only is based on out-of-context views of events but one which also discounts Florida’s own role in shaping the real history of this country. […]

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