A Lien On Lincolnville
A town’s inability to celebrate its past comes to haunt it
By Michael Adno for Indoek's St. Augustine Issue, August 2018 (Available online here)
They call St. Augustine the Ancient City because, in 1513, Spanish conquistadors arrived, took the land from the natives by force and established a colonial settlement on a thumb of limestone they called Florida — from “florido,” full of flowers. That fleet of ships, led by Juan Ponce de Leon, led to Spain establishing the first European settlement in North America, earning St. Augustine the moniker of the oldest city in America. Of course, indigenous people had lived on this land for 14,000 years, at the least.
Ponce de Leon and Christopher Columbus garnered the title of “discoverers” and earned a litany of namesake holidays, housing subdivisions and public parks, but this land was in fact already found. It was simply a foreign place with a name they didn’t know and a history they didn’t care to learn — due to arrogance, dominance or maybe because it wasn’t written down.
When Ponce de Leon stepped onto the coarse sand of Florida’s East Coast, he brought both enslaved and free Africans with him, many from Havana. Slavery was not a prominent enterprise in the first Spanish period in Florida — outside of construction labor and slaves provided by neighboring Indian Chiefs. But when Pedro Menendez de Aviles arrived in St. Augustine fifty years later to officially declare St. Augustine a Spanish settlement, the Crown decreed that he would import 500 slaves within 3 years.
In the decades to follow, as the English colonized the central and northern East Coast, Spain retained control of Florida. From 1687 onward, Spain declared that if any slave from the northern colonies could make the journey through the swamps and hollers into Spanish territory and then profess their belief in Roman Catholicism, they would be set free. For those seeking freedom from the New World’s establishment slavery, Florida was the promised land.
In 1738, 38 men established Gracia Real de Santa Teresa or Fort Mose, just north of St. Augustine, serving as the Spanish line of defense against the English colony further north. Because so many runaway slaves composed the cavalry at Fort Mose, it was the first all-black settlement in what is now U.S. Territory.
Under the Treaty of Paris, in 1763, the Spanish were forced to cede Florida. They set sail through the Straits to Cuba, and records indicate that 3,104 people left under the Spanish mast on longboats. 350 were slaves.
In St. Augustine, the Spanish left behind a charming, storied little slice of Europe that is now the Spanish Quarter. As St. Augustine historian Amy Howard wrote, “Stories of our past have been a vital source of income ever since.” But, the Ancient City didn’t celebrate all of its past, much of which was painful.
By 1777, nascent British plantations brought 3,000 slaves to Florida. In the following century, the territory was colonized under five flags: Spanish, British, French, American and Confederate. On the eve of the Civil War, there were 61,000 slaves in the State, which made up half of the territory’s population.
The American slave trade was outlawed in 1808, but Florida didn’t become a U.S. Territory until 1821, and it served as a backdoor into the Deep South, where traders slipped across the Florida-Georgia border. The Clotilda, the last slave ship to bring human cargo to these shores, heeled through the narrow bayous of the Mobile Delta in Alabama as late as 1860. As to how slaves arrived in St. Augustine after America acquired the territory, historians reach different conclusions. But presumably, planters from Georgia, the Carolinas, and Alabama lured further South by the new territory brought slaves with them. The same slice of scrub that was once the promised land became forlorn under the star spangled banner.