Traveling south on US-1 from Jacksonville, it’s easy to miss the Fort Mose State Historic Park entrance. Just before the two statues of conquistadors standing guard is a road leading east into what looks like a residential neighborhood.
Travel through this neighborhood towards the Intracoastal Waterway and enter one of Florida’s most significant cultural resources. The settlement of Garcia Real de Santa Theresa de Mose, now referred to as Fort Mose Historic State Park, was established in 1738 as the first legally sanctioned free Black settlement in the United States. Fort Mose’s inhabitants were mainly slaves of West African origin who escaped from the British colonies of South Carolina and Georgia to Spanish Florida in small groups. The first group arrived in 1687, comprised of eight men, two women, and a nursing child, traveling by dugout canoe. Along their perilous journey to St. Augustine, escaped slaves were often aided by Native Americans, creating an early Underground Railroad that ran south.
By 1738, more than one hundred brave men, women, and children had journeyed through swamps and dense tropical forests to Fort Mose. The Spanish government officially designated the settlement as Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose or Royal Grace of Saint Teresa of Mose. It was established as a military and residential community, guarding the northern boundary of St. Augustine. The Spanish crown made two provisions for Fort Mose’s residents – they needed to become loyal Spanish subjects and convert to Catholicism. It made sense that slaves would escape to Spanish La Floride. Since the thirteenth century, Spanish law made freedom a possibility for slaves – they were allowed rights and protections, including the right to own property, including “self-purchase,” as well as freedom of religion, the right to marry, the right to judicial representation, and a strict prohibition against separating family members.
The historic Fort Mose site was discovered in 1986 during an archaeological dig led by Dr. Kathleen Deagan, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Florida’s Florida Museum of Natural History. The property owner, Jack Williams, permitted the team to investigate the site and, once the discovery was confirmed, sold the property to the State of Florida in 1989. Fort Mose was nationally acknowledged in 1994 as a U.S. Historic Landmark. It is a key stop on the Florida African American Heritage Trail and a Site of Memory of the UNESCO Slave Route Project. In 2009, the National Park Service named Fort Mose a precursor site on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
Today, Fort Mose Historic State Park is a historical and cultural destination managed by the Florida State Parks Service. In addition to a museum and visitor center, the 41-acre park also offers opportunities for kayaking and canoeing, wildlife viewing, and picnicking. Guests can visit the settlement site, but the original earth and wooden structures that sheltered its inhabitants are gone, lost to the ravages of time. For now, at least. Thanks to the dedication of the Florida State Parks Foundation, in conjunction with partners from the Florida State Parks, the Fort Mose Historical Society, and Drs. Kathleen Deagan and Jane Landers, Fort Mose will soon rise from the ground and have a tangible representation of its magnificent history.