The British Invasion (Part Two)

The War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-1748) was but a single episode in the prolonged series of imperial conflicts between England and Spain in the 18th century. In the summer of 1740, the conflict came to Florida.

James Oglethorpe, English military commander and founder of the Georgia colony, led the expedition against St. Augustine. In January 1740, Oglethorpe presented his plan for a swift victory before the South Carolina General Assembly. He envisioned a decisive surprise attack led by English soldiers and militia, aided by Creek and Cherokee warriors.

"A New and Accurate Plan of the Town of St. Augustine," by John de Solis, 1764

“A New and Accurate Plan of the Town of St. Augustine,” by John de Solis, 1764

Surprise proved nearly impossible for the English invaders. Leading up to the advance of the main force, England’s Native American allies–principally Creek and Euchee (also Yuchi) warriors–periodically raided Spanish settlements north of St. Augustine. An incident on Amelia Island in late 1739 also alerted the Spaniards to the likelihood of an attack.

By the time Oglethorpe’s army reached the south bank of the St. Johns River on May 9, 1740, the Spanish were certainly aware of their intentions. On May 12, Oglethorpe took Fort Diego, located 20 miles north of St. Augustine near the head of the Tolomato River. Four days later he advanced on St. Augustine, but pulled back to Fort Diego on May 18. At this point, several commanders expressed dissatisfaction with Oglethorpe’s tactics. Some questioned why he did not immediately besiege the town as Colonel James Moore had done with great success four decades earlier.

During the ensuing month, Oglethorpe repeatedly marched his troops within sight of the city without launching a full assault. Regular soldiers, militia, and Indian auxiliaries again lodged complaints about the incessant and seemingly pointless marching. A group of Creeks even threatened to abandon the field, and apparently some did. Oglethorpe also divided his force, weakening their ability to defend any particular position. He left some men at Fort Diego, sent a group across the bay to Anastasia Island, and encamped another on Point Quartell (modern-day Vilano Beach).

After much maneuvering on the English side, the most significant battle of the campaign took place in the early morning hours of June 15 (modern calendar June 26). A company of Scottish Highlanders and a number of Creeks had occupied the abandoned Fort Mose north of St. Augustine. Fort Mose was established in 1739 to defend the northern approach to the city; its defenders were free-blacks and escaped slaves organized into a militia unit. The African defenders of Fort Mose had left the four-square wooden and earthen structure in anticipation of Oglethorpe’s advance on the city, which never fully materialized aside from sporadic artillery fire.

"Plano de la Ciudad y Puerto de San Agustin de la Florida," by Tomas Lopez de Vargas Machura, 1783. The location of Fort Mose is noted on this map as "Fuerte Negro."

“Plano de la Ciudad y Puerto de San Agustin de la Florida,” by Tomas Lopez de Vargas Machura, 1783. The location of Fort Mose is noted on this map as “Fuerte Negro.”

Colonel Palmer, commanding the troops at Mose, warned the men to be on alert the evening of the 14th. He reportedly had heard “Spanish Indians dancing the War Dance.” Apparently the soldiers did not heed his call for vigilance and when the combined force of Spanish soldiers, African militia under the command of free-black Francisco Menendez, and Indian warriors attacked the fort, they easily routed the Highlanders and Creeks inside.

Conflicting reports surfaced on English causalities suffered at the Battle of Bloody Mose, as the event became known. Oglethorpe reported 20 Highlanders killed, plus “several Indians and some Others” as well as 27 taken prisoner. Thomas Jones, a Creek interpreter, counted “about fifty Whites and Indians” killed in the action. Jones also added gruesome details about the aftermath of the battle. “[A]fter their Victory at Moosa,” he explained, the victors “cut off the Heads and private Parts of the Slain, and carried them into Augustine in Triumph.”

The Battle of Bloody Mose proved to be a turning point in the siege. In the weeks that followed, Oglethorpe proved incapable of rallying his troops to the cause. By early July he had also lost the support of vessels patrolling the entrance to the Matanzas River. Citing possible hurricanes ships left the area, which allowed the Spanish to easily resupply the besieged settlement. By mid-July the English retreated and St. Augustine survived another British invasion.

Castillo de San Marcos, ca. 1950

Castillo de San Marcos, ca. 1950

The subsequent investigation by the General Assembly of South Carolina enumerated at length the failures of Oglethorpe’s expedition. First, unrestrained attacks by England’s Indian allies as well as preemptive raids near Amelia Island spoiled the element of surprise, long before the army marched into Florida. Second, the repeated marching and dividing of the troops without attacking weakened both morale and the potential for success. Third, several incidents alienated Oglethorpe’s Indian allies, without whom victory was unlikely. Fourth, the Assembly did not feel as if they had been properly advised on critical decisions during the campaign; Oglethorpe had acted without their advice and paid for it in defeat. Finally, the departure of the blockading vessels in early July dealt the final blow to an ill-conceived and poorly executed mission.

Ironically, Great Britain did gain control of St. Augustine 23 years later in 1763, following the end of the French and Indian War (1754-1763), also known as the Seven Years War. This time, a bloodless transfer took place and the British finally breached the city walls and entered the Castillo de San Marcos as victors.

To learn more about the investigation of Oglethorpe’s failed expedition, see John Tate Lanning, ed. The St. Augustine Expedition of 1740: A Report to the South Carolina General Assembly (Columbia: South Carolina Archives Department, 1954); on Fort Mose see Jane Landers, Black Society in Spanish Florida (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999); on Creek – English relations, see Steven C. Hahn, The Invention of the Creek Nation, 1670-1763 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004).

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.