Florida’s Underground Railroad (Part Two)

Fort Mose

Many might assume that the Underground Railroad traveled in one direction: north to freedom, away from slavery and the plantations of the South. Few realize that runaway slaves also fled south into Florida for almost two centuries before the Civil War.

In recognition of Black History Month, this three-part series of blog posts introduces aspects of resistance to slavery in Florida history. This post describes Fort Mose, the first legally-sanctioned free-black community in what is now the United States.

Africans resisted slavery from its inception in the Americas. From the mountains of Jamaica and Brazil, to the swamps of Florida, Africans formed independent communities and forged alliances with Native peoples. In the United States before the Civil War, thousands of slaves sought freedom north of the Mason-Dixon Line as well as in Canada, with Native American societies in the South and West, and even in the Bahamas. Africans found refuge in Abolitionist-minded communities, particularly in New England, or, in the case of Florida, with the Seminoles.

Before Florida became a territory of the United States, Spanish Florida offered a haven for freedom-seeking people.

“Plano de la Ciudad y Puerto de San Agustin de la Florida,” by Tomas Lopez de Vargas Machuca (ca. 1783)

“Plano de la Ciudad y Puerto de San Agustin de la Florida,” by Tomas Lopez de Vargas Machuca (ca. 1783)

Fort Mose, perhaps the best known free-black community in what is now the United States, traces its roots to the late 1600s. In the 1680s, the Spanish organized an African militia unit in St. Augustine to help protect against raids and, in 1693, King Charles II of Spain established legal sanctuary for runaway slaves who reached Florida. Though not all blacks in Florida obtained freedom, the policies of the Spanish government provided a path out of slavery.

Free blacks established Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose just north of St. Augustine in 1739. The settlement contained Fort Mose, depicted on the map above as “Fuerte Negro,” and the homes of its defenders and their families. On several occasions the free-black militia participated in the defense of their city against English and Native American invaders.

In 1763, at the conclusion of the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years’ War), the residents of Fort Mose left Florida for Cuba with the Spaniards and Christian Indians (Apalachee and Timucuan) living in St. Augustine before the war; some Africans returned when Spain resumed control of Florida in 1783.

In Black Society in Spanish Florida, historian Jane Landers documents several African-owned plantations in East Florida during the Second Spanish period. Some grants, such as the one below awarded to Prince Juan Bautista Wiet (or Witten), resulted from loyal service to the Crown.

Petition by Prince Juan Bautista Wiet, St. Augustine, November 1795

Petition by Prince Juan Bautista Wiet, St. Augustine, November 1795

Freedom in Spanish Florida required military service and acceptance of Catholicism. Many free blacks continued to practice a mixture of African-based and adopted foreign beliefs. Africans living in the Spanish colonies also joined secular and religious mutual aid organizations known as cabildos and cofradías.

Much is written on the role of African men in Spanish Florida, particularly their military service in defense of St. Augustine. African women also contributed to the economy, owned land, and engaged the Spanish legal system to their benefit. As with men, African women did not enjoy the same social status as white residents of Spanish Florida, but their conditions and potential for economic advancement exceeded those of many Africans in the Americas until the late 19th century.

To learn more about the African peoples who resisted slavery in the southeast, visit the National Park Services’ Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor website.

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