Freedom in Florida: The First Underground Railroad

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday, we’re re-running our series on the First Underground Railroad which has not been talked as prominently as it should in American History.

We did a total of three Florida History Podcast’s on the Underground Railroad to Florida

In Part I  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.

In Part II, we discuss the period from 1739 to 1763, including The War of Jenkins Ear.

In Part III, we discuss slaves fleeing the southern colonies that were in rebellion that found freedom in 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.

For the British in London, knocking Spain out of the war of Austrian Succession 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. Therefore in 1740, Britain in invaded Spanish Florida, in a conflict that would be known as the “War of Jenkins Ear.”.

The invasion was led by James Oglethorpe who in 1733 had founded Georgia. Fort Mose was destroyed in the invasion.

Fort Mose today

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.

In 1752, Fort Mose was rebuilt and survived as a an African-American free settlement until the British assumed control of Florida in 1763.

But as it turns out, Florida’s history as a haven for runaway slaves and a locale on the North American continent where African-Americans would be armed did not end in 1763. The acquisition of Florida by the British Crown temporarily relieved the pressure on the Carolina’s and Georgia in terms of runaway slaves, but the American Revolution meant all bets were off. 

British authorities much like their Spanish predecessors a hundred years earlier now were actively encouraging runaway slaves to seek refuge. The option for runaways was to defect behind British lines or to head south to East Florida. Many took advantage of the opportunity and made it to St Augustine.

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