Born in West Central Africa, Pedro Graxales was captured and enslaved in the Carolinas before escaping to Spanish Florida. There he became a resident of El Pueblo de Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, a community two miles north of St. Augustine also known as Fort Mose.
Ana was a Native American Indian who escaped from the British colony of Carolina with her husband Francisco Garzia. After they became slaves for a family in St. Augustine, they were baptized in the Catholic Church and later freed, along with their daughter, to become residents of Fort Mose.
Juan Antonio was born at Fort Mose in 1752. As a young boy, he helped patrol the fort, farmed the land and fished the waterways to help feed his large extended family.
Visitors to Fort Mose Historic State Park today can learn all about Pedro, Anna, Juan and the lives of other residents of the first settlement of free blacks in what is now the United States. In 1987, a University of Florida archeology team unearthed physical evidence of the important fort, and historians were able to learn more about what had been a lost chapter of American history. Although nothing remains of the community’s earth and wood structures, the state park includes a visitor center and museum surrounded by marshlands, woods and creeks. A quiet walk down a 700-foot-long boardwalk gives visitors a chance to reflect over the vista of the marshy wetlands of the original site of the fort.
Enslaved people in the English colonies began escaping to Spanish Florida in the late 1600s. In 1738, the Spanish Governor freed those slaves who agreed to convert to Catholicism in the name of the King. After more than 100 runaway men, women and children arrived from Carolina, the governor established Fort Mose.
Markers, artist drawings, maps and displays around the grounds and in the museum tell the story in ways that make it easy to imagine what life would have been like there.
The fort was the first northern line of defense for the Castillo de San Marcos fort in St. Augustine, and its male residents served in the Spanish militia. The people built homes and a church, and farmed the land.
In 1740, English forces attacked St. Augustine, and Fort Mose inhabitants evacuated to the safety of the Castillo de San Marcos. Spanish forces that included free blacks and Indians attacked the British at Fort Mose. They won the bloody battle, driving the English from Florida. Fort Mose was destroyed, so residents settled in St. Augustine until 1752, when a larger Fort Mose was rebuilt.
When Spain ceded Florida to England in 1763, Fort Mose colonists joined about 3,000 Spanish colonists in an exodus to Cuba.
In its short history, Fort Mose was a haven for desperate people, a beacon of freedom. But its history makes clear: those who made it there were the lucky ones. They had to journey through many miles of wild land filled with alligators and English slave trappers who were out to capture them and bring them back. That’s also part of the story.