A Visit from Old Man Mose

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Augustine today, one is still up against a barrage of extraneous, anecdotal dispatches.

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Commercial tourism competes with whatever real history beckons. The guided tours run all hours. They intersect and interrupt one another.

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A walking tour going one way, a rickety trolley going another. A horse-drawn carriage, a rickshaw. The tour guides always in mid-sentence, echoing down craggy cobblestone lanes. A desire exists, as W. Sebald once said, to reach out and rescue something from that stream of history rushing by. Driving north on U. Augustine, there is a brown road sign about the size of shoebox. I slammed on my brakes to make the turn, inciting some vitriol I spotted in the rearview. It snuck up on me a couple hundred yards north of the welcome sign for St.

Augustine, which seemed to imply that all things outside the sign, permanently fixed or not moving toward it, are somehow unwelcome. There had been some nasty weather. The sky was one massive cloud bank. The storms left small craters of standing water all around the park entrance, scourges of mosquitos conspiring above. A squat, ash-grey building, with a line of African tiles near the foundation that dress up an otherwise drab, government facade. The name was misleading in the sense that the building is conspicuously light on visitors. There was a lone group of birders standing in the empty parking lot with craned necks, binoculars pointed at the flashy, gray and white sky.

They were motionless — visitors, but not very good ones, what with their fey indifference to terrestrial matters. I found Carl Marchand, the park supervisor, in a small room adjoining the entrance. They had a set of doors propped up on sawhorses, rolling on a coat of paint. He put his brush down and led me into his office.

A large man, with a thick, salt-and-pepper mustache and a blocky head, his algae-colored park-ranger pants sagged below his stomach line. The first site of Fort Mose is now underwater, he said. All that remains of the second site — the larger more robust version built In , 12 years after Bloody Mose — is the half-eroded structural bank overlooking Robinson Creek formerly Mose Creek with salt marshes fanning out on all sides. Like [Flagler] College, which used to be the Flagler Hotel.

The site of fort mosa has reverted to salt marsh partly due to the dredging of Henry flagler in the s. He told me about the founding of St. The lead excavator on those digs, which began in the s, was the critically acclaimed archeologist and a person who would not respond to my emails Kathleen Deagan.

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She worked in conjunction with Jane Landers, then a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida, now a professor of history at Vanderbilt who answered my emails, albeit laconically. Together, they located the approximate sites of the first and second forts. Deagan and Landers are credited with the material discovery of Mose. Their names are everywhere — on placards, in pamphlets, in welcome videos. But little is said publicly of exactly how these two scholars arrived here in the first place. In other words, what led them to investigate this overgrown and anonymous purlieu of St.

Jane Landers said, not inaccurately, that everything I needed to know could be found in her book. Kathleen Deagan, on the other hand, showed commendable restraint.

The First Floridians

She literally said nothing, to the point of my triple-checking I had the right email address. Murmurs of a free black antebellum settlement near St. Augustine had been circulating since the early 20th century. There were mentions in Spanish and British colonial records and renderings on 18th-century maps. Irene Aloha Wright, one of the great underrated historians of the last century, produced volumes of English translations from the Archives of the Indies, in Spain, from which details about Mose were extracted.

And no less than Zora Neale Hurston, forever with her finger on the pulse, later contributed another report on Mose to the Journal in October But it wasn't either of these two women or the handful of rare texts that made passing mention of Mose that put Deagan and Landers on the trail.

Jack Williams ran an antique-weapons museum in downtown St. A somewhat fanatical historian of a prominent military bent, he was also a lifelong member of the St. Augustine Historical Society. He became interested in Fort Mosa MOH-suh, as he pronounced it, the Anglo version sometime in the s, after reading a piece of historical fiction set in Florida called The Flames of Time. His interest soon grew into a formidable obsession.

The exact location of Mose was still unknown, but Jack researched the site extensively until he became convinced the lost fort was somewhere beneath a salt marsh two miles north of town. The parcel of land he identified happened to be owned by the Historical Society at the time. Local Judge David R. Dunham donated the property to the society in the early part of the 20th century. Jack would show up at Historical Society meetings with his year-old maps and an armful of colonial documents, ranting with increased fervor about commissioning archeological digs, only to be met with a stifled yawn.

The s were troubled times for the Society. After losing its contract to operate one of the more lucrative tourist attractions — the Castillo de San Marcos — it began hemorrhaging money. The land that Jack said contained Fort Mose would thus be put on the market for developers to cover mounting debts. The year was The Williams family moved from their stately home in the center of downtown St.

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Augustine to a concrete block house on the salt marsh just outside the city. It was Jack, his wife, and their son and daughter — Dana and Diana. He financed land and aerial surveys of the property to pinpoint sections of interest. Pictured in aviator sunglasses, swamp boots, corduroy shorts, and terry-cloth bucket hat — often shirtless, occasionally with a revolver on his hip, looking every bit of Hunter S.

Thompson from the Sugarloaf days — he waded through tidal creeks, parted sawgrass and saw palmettos, digging.

Jack pulled materials from daily life at Fort Mose out of the marsh: glass shards, broken weapons, gun flints. His money dwindled. His wife left with their daughter in late His son stayed behind. A few years later, at the precise moment when Jack felt he was on to something incontrovertible, he put down his spade and called the University of Florida. The archeology department, where Kathleen Deagan was then a student, arrived in to conduct some preliminary tests. Diana was eight years old when her father purchased Fort Mose.

She remembers feral weekends on the island, picnicking and chasing quail with her brother while her father dug for artifacts. He was right, she said. It was at this point, Diana remembers, the State of Florida became interested in acquiring the property for historical purposes.

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Her father received a letter from Tallahassee congratulating him for the discovery. He wanted about ten times that. The value of a piece of coastal land that size had substantially inflated over the previous 20 years. Where they ended up was in the courtroom. Even before the sloppy custody battle over Fort Mose, there were certain members of the community who took a dim view of Jack.

It worked against him in the courtroom, and in the court of public opinion. He became the greedy, impudent landowner refusing to concede a historical site to the state, and he was no longer recognized or celebrated for being the sole reason no housing development or marina stands there today. Greed was not the worst charge. The more damning accusation was the one that branded Jack a stark racist. The indictments of his character were abundant and variegated. Augustine who had an adversarial relationship with his father.

And even if he wanted to, he could do little in the way of untangling the Gordian knot. Certain loyalties of his own manufacture hurt his case. She refers to the relatively unknown Patriot War of , which took place near Fort Mose 50 years after Francisco Menendez had sailed off to an uncertain future in Cuba, taking the story of the first free black settlement with him. During the Second Spanish period, American patriots, backed by James Madison, invaded North Florida with designs to overthrow the Spanish government and turn the peninsula into a U.

The war was a complete failure. But the story, which Jack first read about in The Flames of Time, a work of misty-eyed historical fiction, consumed him to the point that he bought the property and searched for the remnants himself. A military man at heart and deeply invested in history — which is to say never truly of the present moment — Jack was given to military euphemisms.

The First Floridians — THE BITTER SOUTHERNER

In this first government-backed secret war, Jack divined clever parallels with the secret wars of his day. Jack repeatedly said he was just not aware of the black narrative upon beginning his investigation all those years ago. But the claims of his exhaustive research, as stated by Jack and his family, make this notion difficult to abide. He could not have committed himself so entirely to the scholarship and history of this particular site without encountering some material regarding the slave sanctuary, especially those early reports from Irene Wright and Zora Hurston, which were published in an American academic journal right under his nose.

Hurston opens her story by outlining every which way the name of the fort may be uttered, including the variation Jack preferred:. There is a map of the Fort Mose, three miles from St.