Remembering the free blacks who saved Florida during the War of Jenkins Ear

In honor of Martin Luther King Day 2022, we look back at Fort Mose the the first free black settlement in what is now the USA and those from there who heroically saved Florida.

In July 1742, decisive battles between the Spanish and British took place in and around St Simons Island, Georgia. It was the culmination of a conflict which began when the British invaded Florida, partly because of the number of runaway slaves that had come to the Spanish colonies.

In the late 1600’s Spain began offering asylum for runaway slaves from the English colonies to the north.  The condition of asylum was conversion to Catholicism and service to Spain. The Spanish were interested in destabilizing the English colonies to the north, scuttling the economy. The easiest and most logical way to do this would be to break the backs of the southern plantation economy by inviting slaves to flee to safer ground.

By 1700, Florida was a prosperous Spanish colony probably as economically well-off as any English one to the north. For more information on Colonial Florida at this point, check out our archives at The Florida History Podcast.

In 1704, during Queen Anne’s War The British invaded Spanish Florida from the Carolina’s. The Carolina-based English colonists and their native American allies invaded Spanish-held Florida. Former Carolina Governor James Moore led the invasion on behalf of the English colonists. They were resisted by the Apalachee Indians who resided in the Big Bend region and were allies of the Spanish crown. Florida was left devastated by the war and according to some historians never really recovered until the 1770’s by which time the colony was under British rule and enjoying a renaissance due to the fleeing of loyalists from the Thirteen Colonies.

Wikipedia described the Florida front as follows:

Spanish Florida and the English Province of Carolina were each subjected to attacks from the other, and the English engaged the French based at Mobile in what was essentially a proxy war involving primarily allied Indians on both sides. The southern war, although it did not result in significant territorial changes, had the effect of nearly wiping out the Indian population of Spanish Florida, including parts of present-day southern Georgia, and destroying Spain’s network of missions in the area.

The most important battle of the conflict took place in 1704 at Ayubale. Wikipedia has a great write up on the battle which was a decisive victory for the English and its allied Indian tribes and .half the resisting Apalachee Indians were killed or captured.

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. The leader of Fort Mose was Francisco Menéndez, a runaway slave who would become the first decorated African-American soldier in Florida history.

In 1739, the War of Jenkins Ear which was essentially the North American theater of the War of Austrian Succession broke out. By 1740, Britain (England and Scotland were formally united by the Act of Union in 1707) felt they could knock Spain out of the American part of the war by capturing St Augustine. So in 1740 James Oglethorpe the founder of Georgia seven years earlier, and the colonies Governor led an overland invasion force into Spanish Florida. The establishment of the Georgia Colony by Oglethorpe had given the British a beachhead from which to invade Florida.

The British initially founded Georgia as a colony to be a strategic hedge against Spanish Florida. Georgia was to be a white-only colony. This was done to avoid the threat of runaway slaves to Florida. History has recorded Georgia as being founded as a penal colony – this is true to an extent but the motivation for Georgia’s creation was without question down to Florida’s growing militarization of the era and the Spanish colony’s increasing role as a haven for runaway slaves. 

On October 23, 1739, Britain formally declared war on Spain. Naval operations had begun the previous day by the Royal Navy against the northern ports of South America. Meanwhile Oglethorpe was raising an army to invade Florida. The force included English colonists from the Carolinas and Georgia as well as Native American allies. By December Oglethorpe was effectively raiding Spanish forts along the northern coast of Florida. 

Unbeknownst to the British, the Spanish had taken the founding of Georgia as impetus to reinforce and strengthen the Castillo de San Marcos. In January 1740, a tall watchtower and new parapet was completed in the fort. 

In May 1740, Oglethorpe’s force decided to take aim directly at St Augustine. Four forts outside St Augustine including Fort Mose fell to the British.

 On June 13, the British began a siege of St Augustine and the Royal Navy blockaded the town. Seven British warships sat just outside the inlet. Governor Manuel de Montiano had only about 900 soldiers at his disposal for the town’s defense. The Governor petitioned Havana for reinforcements and prepared for a long siege with minimal provisions. 

At this point St Augustine was surrounded. The British had occupied Fort Mose which was two miles north of the city walls with about 200 troops led by Colonel William Palmer. The Royal Navy blockaded the inlet and British land forces had been south of the town since landing in May. They occupied Anastasia Island, the current area of St Augustine Beach. 

The Spanish had to relieve some of the pressure around St Augustine so did so by attacking Fort Mose and inflicting heavy British casualties. The town’s inhabitants had already retreated to St Augustine before June 26, when Menéndez gathered Spain’s Seminole allies who were nearby.  They launched a surprise attack on Fort Mose with about 300 free blacks and Seminoles. The result was the Spanish force ended up killing up to 75 British soldiers. 35 others were captured while Spanish losses were relatively small – a total of 10 free blacks and Seminoles were killed. Palmer was among the British dead. 

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.

Following the surprise attack, the Spanish forces and its native allies fell back behind the city walls and the defense of Florida’s capital began. Eventually all the residents and those who had fled to the town were moved largely into Castillo de San Marcos.  Those who didn’t move into the fort fled into the woods. St Augustine and the surrounding area, home normally to 2,000 residents was empty. 

On July 6 the defense looked like it was cracking. Provisions had not arrived to reinforce the town and the British were bombarding the fort – killing two Spanish defenders. But the Castillo held and the long guns from the fort were proving a menace for the British attackers. 

Finally Spanish ships from Havava arrived on July 7 and incredibly broke the British blockade. The town was restocked, and now had provisions for the foreseeable future. With the population of the town behind the walls of the Castillo de San Marcos, Oglethorpe prepared to assault the fort. But with low morale and Hurricane season underway, the British opted to retreat. 

Once again St Augustine had survived an attempt to take the city by Britain. Now Montiano would look to attack Georgia as the war carried on. 

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 1742, Spanish forces numbering about 5,000 invaded Georgia from Florida and marched toward Savannah. This month in 1742- 250 years ago, the Spanish were defeated at St Simons Island. In the subsequent peace treaty the Florida-Georgia border was fixed to St Mary’s River where it remains today.

More on the decisive battle here. 

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