Kathleen Deagan, a Distinguished Research Curator Emeritus of Historical Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, discusses the Fort Mose excavation and its importance.
Founded in 1738, Fort Mose was the first legally sanctioned town of free black people in what is today the United States. The Fort Mose site has been the focus of a multidisciplinary historical archaeological research program since 1986, carried out by the Florida Museum and funded by the state of Florida.
Interview and videos produced by Amber L. Taylor for Explore Research at the University of Florida.
Kathleen Deagan: Fort Mose was founded near St. Augustine, Florida in 1738. That was its official date of establishment by the Spanish government and that really does make it the oldest, legally sanctioned town of free black people in what’s today the United States. But that community only lasted two years because it was attacked in 1740 by General Oglethorpe from South Carolina.
The second Fort Mose was built adjacent to the original fort. It was bigger, and a whole line of defense was built from Fort Mose all the way across to the river, to the west of St. Augustine, which is a distance of about a mile.
Historian Jane Landers of the University of Florida went to Spain as part of our project to see if there was any more documentation, and she found the census. It actually listed the names of all the people, many of their ages, where they came from, and so it’s been a really important insight into the people of Mose.
When we began excavating, we first were looking for things like the moat, and the wall, and watchtower because our first job really was to show that this is a fort. We did find the moat in three places, and we were able to map the wall, and conformed really closely to what the Spanish maps had suggested.
We excavated for three seasons and found evidence for a few of the people’s houses. We found the watchtower and then of course more of the defenses. We worked with some archaeologists and botanists to identify plant and animal remains the people were using for food, and we did find a lot of Native American pottery at the site, along with English and Spanish pottery, several rum bottle fragments, lots of pipes, and military uniforms, elements of buckles and buttons, and lots of musket balls. There was only one item that suggested religion, a rosary bead and a section of a rosary-joining element.
I think finding and uncovering Fort Mose as a physical place was a really important element in bringing that story to light. It is a story that’s very different from what was being told in most accounts about African American history at that time. It used to be just a story of slavery and oppression. The people who escaped from the Carolinas to Fort Mose really were early freedom fighters.
The State of Florida was convinced to purchase the land and make it into a state park, and it’s been a beloved place in the community.
Learn more about the Historical Archaeology collection at the Florida Museum.
Learn more about the Fort Mose at the Florida Museum.
Online Exhibit: Fort Mose