As many of you know, I’m not usually a fort person for reasons having to do with the federally sponsored genocide of Native Americans, but I’ve learned that north eastern Florida forts are really old, at least one in the 1600’s, and were built not for Indian warfare but the Spanish English fight for control of the land. So this afternoon, knowing nothing about Fort Mose (Moh-say) we drive down to check it out and are we surprised.
The fort itself is long gone although this is the land where it stood and a reproduction is in the works. But that doesn’t lessen the impact of the information provided both in the line of screen boards on the walk to the museum and in the museum itself which is fantastically well done in the space of one large room.
The fort itself was located 1/2 mile east of the first marker we see. That makes it out in the marsh today. There were constant battles between England and Spain over northern Florida. In one effort to vex the British, in 1688 Spanish St. Augustine was offering Negro slaves refuge. Many came from South Carolina and for those who did, the Spanish Governor gave them their freedom in the name of the king. He later formed a village for them if they would cultivate the ground and convert to the Catholic religion. A moated earthwork was created for their safety and named Fort Mose.
Fort Mose was thus the first Free African American town in the territory that became the United States.
The Africans who settled here were largely from four distinct African ethnic groups, Mandinga, Carabali, Congo and Mana. The areas in Africa from which they came are highlighted on the informational signs which line the walk and tell of their forced trip through what was known as the middle passage.
I have never seen such a frightening illustration of the stacking up of people on these slave ships as was shown here. Look closely so you can see the slave bodies. No wonder they were more than willing to come to Florida and change religions or at least incorporate Catholicism into theirs and to subsequently fight the British alongside the Spanish at every opportunity. I found the chart of South Carolina population by race and date also very interesting. No wonder they were worried about slave rebellion. The wonder is there weren’t more.
In 1740 the British attacked, the freedmen evacuated Mose and fled to the coquina fort at St. Augustine which the British were unable to take. Spanish Forces, free Blacks and Indians defeated the British later that year at Fort Mose. The freedmen resettled, rebuilt the earthwork and formed a malitia. They became the Spanish first line of defense for St. Augustine. Hmmm was that the plan all along?
This business between the English taking the fort and the Spanish and residents retaking it went on and on. The English capture of Havana sealed the fate of the Spanish settlements. In the 1763 peace treaty ending the 7 years war, Spain transferred Florida to England for what Spain considered the more valuable Cuba. At that point, most of the former slaves went to Cuba with the 3000 Spanish colonists where they retained their freedom.
We learn all of this on the walk up to the Visitor’s center. But before going inside we take a walk on the boardwalk out into the wetlands. It’s a long boardwalk and goes on beyond the tree scape in the distance in this picture.
Walking along here, we spot an osprey and a juvenile ibis sharing a tree. Looks like the osprey is snacking on something.
I think the wood stork was trying to hide in the vegetation but his white color gives him away.
Beyond the tree line, at the end of the boardwalk, our view is directed to the small island in front as the location of the former fort. There has actually been excavation done there during times of lower water. Not sure how they manage that in tidal areas where everything would get covered up twice a day.
Inside the museum building we pay our $2 fee. The grounds are free but the really well done museum and film are more than worth the charge. The room in which the film is shown has African masks all around the top of the walls. These were made by kindergarten through 5th grade local students from St. Augustine.
One of the reasons we remember so much about what we learned here is that we read about it outside, they showed us a more detailed and extremely well done film and then we were sent into the museum for another and more artistic rendition of the story of this place and these people. It’s the educator’s adage, tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.
But don’t think it was boring or repetitious to hear it 3 times. Each telling was in a different format which added to the effectiveness.
The museum exhibit is entitled Flight to Freedom. It has filled this small space with audio and visual learning exhibits. When you stand on each circle, you hear the story of one of the people who lived at Fort Mose including the famous Francisco Menendez a freed Black man who was the leader of the militia and the Freed Black Settlement.
All of the vegetation here is metal sculpture. David is standing on the circle so he can listen to the directed speakers above him.
I really loved this two viewpoint art work – Slavery and Freedom depending on where you stand.
If you look straight on, it’s difficult to know what you are seeing.
But stand to one side and it becomes clear. Fascinating.
This is a history not only of this Fort and this area but of these people, where they came from, how they got here, how much they contributed and where they went.
Where they came from again.
This map shows Fort Mose as the first line of defense between the British Colonies and Spanish St. Augustine.
The time line runs around the wall with more exhibits beyond.
Contrary to appearances, this man is not sleeping, he’s reading.
The installation covers women of the time as well. David’s listening to her story.
The day is growing short by the time we leave the museum but we want to take a look at the boat launch out back. This is a tidal creek and wetlands. We’ve been told that you have to pay strict attention to come an hour or so before high tide and be out by an hour or so after to avoid having to drag your boat through the mud. There is no fee to launch. But you do have to get your boat from the parking lot through the grounds and down the boardwalk.
Looks like a spot mostly for canoes you can step into. Perhaps when the water is higher a kayak would be possible.
These are the perfectly designed boats for a marshland used in the past with both oars and poles.
Amazingly not one other person was here this entire Sunday afternoon. Good choice for a weekend visit but I wonder if this little gem is being overlooked by visiting folks. If you come to St. Augustine, do make time for it. It’s an enlightening look at history that even with a masters in American Studies, which is heavy in American history, I never encountered before.
Just as we pull out of Fort Mose to head back, I spot what was once the entrance to St. Augustine. Stop stop! I say to David who actually manages to pull over on such short notice in traffic right by the statue on this side. They are very impressive as the traffic flies on by oblivious to the gate and the fort.
Too late to cook dinner or just a good excuse for visiting the very near by Steak N Shake on the way home? Sweet ending to a great day!