Fort Mose: The First Black Settlement in the U.S.

  • Established in 1738, Fort Mose was the first free black settlement in what is now the United States.  Located just north of St. Augustine, Florida, Fort Mose played an important role in the development of colonial North America.

    The first African Americans came to Florida in the late 1500s. The Europeans brought them here from Africa. Most were enslaved in the British Colonies, but there were some free Africans who settled in St. Augustine. In 1693, the King of Spain wanted to weaken England's rule in the New World. He decreed that slaves who ran away from the British colonies would be free if they converted to Catholicism and declared loyalty to Spain. As this information spread throughout the colonies, many slaves escaped to freedom. Large numbers of these freed slaves helped the Spanish settlers build the Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine's great stone fortress. In 1738, the governor of Florida, Manuel Montiano, decided to set up a separate town for the free Africans. The location for this settlement was carefully considered. The decision was made to build it two miles north of St. Augustine in a salty marsh so that it could act as a military outpost for the town. It was named Fort Mose after the Indian name for that area.

    The one hundred African Americans settled in Fort Mose alongside Indigenous Americans.  Fort Mose settlers raised food for themselves and other settlements in St. Augustine. They built churches and shops. The men formed their own militia, captained by Francisco Menendez, who was recognized as chief of Fort Mose. Word of the settlement of free blacks at Mose reached the British Southern Colonies of South Carolina and Georgia and attracted escaping slaves. Fellow blacks and their Indigenous allies helped runaways flee southward to Florida.

    When war broke out in 1740 between England and Spain, the people of St. Augustine and nearby Fort Mose found themselves involved in a conflict that stretched across three continents. The English sent thousands of soldiers and dozens of ships to destroy St. Augustine and bring back any runaways. The Fort Mose militia led by Captain Menendez along with Spanish soldiers defended St. Augustine and the surrounding area from an attack led by English general James Oglethorpe. They set up a blockade and bombarded the town for 27 consecutive days.  Hopelessly outnumbered, the diverse population of blacks, Indians, and whites pulled together eventually repelling the attack. I large portion of the fort was destroyed during the assault. A second Fort Mose was built, but it never really thrived. After the British gained control of Florida in 1763, the inhabitants of Fort Mose, along with most of the Spanish settlers, fled to Cuba.

    The existence of Fort Mose is believed to have helped inspire the Stono Rebellion in September 1739. This was led by slaves who were new to South Carolina. During the Stono revolt, several dozen Africans believed to be from the Kingdom of Kongo tried to reach Spanish Florida. Many were successful and rapidly adjusted to life there.