Black History

Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose

In 1687 eight men, two women, and a nursing child escaped from Carolina to Spanish St. Augustine and requested baptism into the “True Faith.” Florida’s governor sheltered the runaways out of Christian obligation and refused to return them when an agent from Carolina came to reclaim them.

The slaves’ “telegraph” quickly reported this out-come, and soon other runaways began arriving in St. Augustine. Florida officials repeatedly solicited Spain for guidance, and finally, on November 7, 1693, Charles II issued a royal proclamation “giving liberty to all … the men as well as the women … so that by their example and by my liberality others will do the same.”

Although some later freedom seekers were reenslaved by a governor who tried to appease the Carolinians and avoid war, those not freed persisted in claiming the freedom promised by Spain’s king. Led by the Mandinga commander of the black militia, a man baptized as Francisco Menéndez, they repeatedly petitioned the governors and church officials, but to no avail. As war with England threatened, however, Florida’s new governor reviewed their petitions and granted all the enslaved runaways unconditional freedom.

In 1738 the newly freed men and women established the town of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose about two miles north of St. Augustine. Mose was considered a town of “new Christians,” and its residents were the “subjects” of Captain Francisco Menéndez. The founding population of thirty-eight men, “most of them married,” suggests a total population of about 100 people. Because so few men came with wives, the remainder had formed unions with local African and Indian women, making Mose a multiethnic and multicultural settlement.
Florida’s governor clearly considered the benefits of a northern outpost of ex-slaves carrying Spanish arms. The freedmen also understood their expected role and vowed to be “the most cruel enemies of the English,” and to risk their lives and spill their “last drop of blood in defense of the Great crown of Spain and the Holy Faith.” Mose was a valuable military resource for the Spaniards but also a continuing provocation to English planters.

In 1739 “Angolan” slaves revolted near Stono, South Carolina, killing more than twenty whites before heading for St. Augustine. The following year General James Ogle-thorpe of Georgia led a massive invasion of Florida, supported by Carolina troops and volunteers, allied Indians, black “pioneers,” and seven warships of the Royal Navy.

The Mose militia joined Spanish troops and Indian militias in guerrilla operations against the invaders and also in retaking Mose, which had been occupied. Just before daybreak on June 14, 1740, Spanish forces, Indians, and free blacks led by Menéndez launched a surprise attack on Mose. The combined Florida forces killed about seventy-five of the unprepared invaders in bloody hand-to-hand combat. British accounts refer to the event as “Bloody” or “Fatal” Mose, and the Spanish victory there led to Oglethorpe’s subsequent withdrawal from Florida.

Mose was badly damaged in the fighting and was not resettled until 1752. It was finally abandoned at the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, when Spain ceded Florida to the British. Menéndez and his “subjects” joined the Spanish exodus to Cuba, where they became homesteaders on the Matanzas frontier.

Mose was the earliest free black town in what became the United States, and it provides an important example of initiative, agency, and empowerment in the colonial history of African Americans. The enslaved Africans who risked their lives to become free and establish Mose also shaped the geopolitics of the southeast and the Caribbean. The Spanish Crown subsequently extended the religious sanctuary policy to other areas around the Caribbean and applied it to the disadvantage of Dutch and French slave-holders, as well as the British. The lives and sacrifices of the people of Mose thus took on a long-term international political significance that they could not have foreseen. The sanctuary policy they helped implement was only abrogated in 1790, under pressure from the new government of the United States.

Kathleen Deagan and a research team from the Florida Museum of Natural History excavated Mose and found artifacts including pottery, pipes, musket balls, and a handmade St. Christopher medal in or around the fort. This material evidence augments English and Spanish documentary sources for Mose’s history, including a village census and petitions written and signed by Menéndez. In 1994 the state of Florida purchased the Mose site, and in 1996 it was designated a National Historic Landmark.