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“More than anything, home offers safe refuge and a means to create stability, both physical and psychological,” writes Madeline Ostrander in the prologue of her new book, At Home on an Unruly Planet: Finding Refuge on a Changed Earth. But what if your home is threatened? And not by rising interest rates, but by rising sea levels or more frequent wildfires or other fallout from a rapidly changing planet? In her book, which is released today, Ostrander tells the stories of people fighting to protect the places they love from increasingly dangerous circumstances and explores what it means to maintain a sense of place in an age of climate change. In this excerpt, she travels to St. Augustine, Florida, and meets a preservationist working to defend one of North America’s most historic cities and explores the site of the first legally recognized free Black community in what is now the United States.
What do we lose when places dense with ghosts and relics and remembrances fall within the grasp of salt water?
I spent a week asking myself this, as I wandered through layers of history in St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest European-settled city in North America, now threatened by the rising sea.
Does it matter, I asked myself, to remember what had transpired here over the centuries? I didn’t like these questions, but I knew others would ask them—powerful people with money, people who could make decisions about what mattered and what didn’t, about what to salvage and what to abandon, and about who would keep their homes and their histories and who would lose them. “We all hated to take US history, right?” Leslee Keys, a historic preservationist based in St. Augustine, tells me—in a tone of half jest, half alarm. “Well, don’t worry,” she says. Maybe teachers wouldn’t be able to push such lessons on young minds if history were underwater and out of reach.
Across North America, places that hold the evidence of both our most iconic and most underappreciated histories face mounting threats from the swelling oceans—from the Fortress of Louisbourg, a historic French fortified town in Nova Scotia and Canada’s largest archaeological site, to Tulum, the coastal resort that holds some of Mexico’s most significant Mayan and Tultec ruins. I remembered years ago walking Boston’s Freedom Trail with my brother past the house once owned by Paul Revere—who famously rode from there to Lexington in 1775 to warn American Revolutionary soldiers that the British were on the march. Some spots along that trail are already at risk of flooding and will become more so. Places like this won’t disappear from textbooks, but some of them will become inaccessible, and we will lose the ability to revisit them.
What would we lose in St. Augustine?
Founded in 1565 by the Spanish, a sometimes-forgotten colonial force in the early history of the United States, St. Augustine reveals stories that are not often heard in a school classroom—about the ways we have wrestled with identity in North America. The city’s most iconic structure is a star-shaped 17th-century stone fortress called the Castillo de San Marcos—built from coquina, a stone formed by the compression of piles of tiny clamshells deposited here more than 100,000 years ago when much of what is now Florida was underwater. North of city hall is a tight cluster of narrow 18th-century colonial streets full of shops. And to the south lies a neighborhood called Lincolnville—one of the key battlegrounds of the 1960s civil rights movement.
The people who settled this place were culturally diverse. And there are glimpses of pluralism here, both deliberate and accidental, some dating to a time well before it was any kind of cultural ideal. On the side of a building along one colonial avenue, for instance, I found a plaque dedicated to “the memory of the 400 Greeks who arrived in St. Augustine, took on fresh supplies, then journeyed south to help settle the colony of New Smyrna, Florida. After 10 difficult years, the survivors of that colony sought refuge in St. Augustine … the first permanent settlement of Greeks on the continent.” The building is the oldest surviving Greek Orthodox house of worship in the United States.
The most extraordinary place I encountered in St. Augustine was already submerged and buried under a combination of water and earth and salt marsh. About five kilometers from the downtown, Fort Mose Historic State Park [Fort Mos-ay] is understated compared to many of St. Augustine’s attractions—just a green L-shape on the map not advertised by flashy billboards.
Fort Mose was not grandiose, like so many historic sites. There were no imposing and monumental structures, no lavish European-style architecture built by industrialists and the nouveau riche. But to my mind, it evoked something far more dynamic and important than such places.
History has always been a contentious project. But the stale, broken-spined history books I remember from my school classroom were not at all like the experience of encountering raw, cacophonous, unfiltered history—the struggles, the strangeness, the misdeeds and crimes, inventions and ingenuity that often speak in shockingly direct ways to the present condition. Heritage allows people to find belonging in a place, to claim it as their own and gather strength from the lessons of the past. But written history can easily gloss over complexities and rob people of their stories, alienating or marginalizing some in order to make others feel comfortable or powerful.
“We have always been a pluralist nation, with a past far richer and stranger than we choose to recall,” writes New Yorker journalist Kathryn Schulz in an article recounting the history of tamales in the United States. Social and racial reconciliation—the restoration of dignity to people who have been wronged—always requires wrestling with ghosts. But reengaging with history in this way often means returning to the landscape and to the places where past events occurred. Sometimes even the tiniest details matter when making sense of a community’s origins—a broken piece of pottery, a cannonball, an etching on a wall, a corroded metal button, a bead, a bit of paint, flecks of rock or ash or pigment in old layers of earth help us locate people from the past who might otherwise have been erased, people deemed ordinary or inconsequential in their time but who later became a clue or even a momentous symbol. If we are not careful, when we lose a place like St. Augustine—especially if we do not safeguard the records and evidence of its existence—we will forfeit some of our ability to recollect, reclaim neglected stories, and correct our mistakes. To lose the past is to let go of possible futures as well.
An archaeologist I met at a conference put me in touch with one of Fort Mose’s chief defenders and advocates, Thomas Jackson, who agrees to meet me one afternoon at a coffee shop off one of the main highways through the area—in the strip mall zone just beyond city limits, southwest and across the river from the historic district. Jackson has wire-framed glasses and a voice like a cello, low and mellifluous with a warm drawl. He grew up in St. Augustine and remembers visiting the Castillo de San Marcos as a kid on Easter Sundays, and some of the older people would murmur, “We had a fort, too.” He would hear it a handful of times in the Black community in St. Augustine, but he didn’t fully understand its meaning until later.
Over time, rain and wind and decay concealed the evidence, but Fort Mose was the first legally recognized free Black community in what is now the United States. “Freedom seekers came down from the Carolinas,” Jackson explains as we sit at a café table, “and made their way here to Spanish Florida.”
Fort Mose was a product of the bravery and perseverance of those who escaped slavery and the opportunism of the Spanish colonial government. “Black history is so intertwined with Spanish history, and the story is not told,” Jackson continues, tapping the table with his hand emphatically, “especially in English-speaking society.”
Spanish slavery was brutal, but, in its legal code, Spain treated slavery as an “unnatural condition” and “established mechanisms by which slaves might transform themselves from bondsmen into free vassals,” writes historian Jane Landers. When Pedro Menéndez and his crew founded St. Augustine in 1565, the sailors turned settlers included both white Spaniards and people of African descent, some who were free and some who were enslaved. Then in 1687, when eight Black men, two women, and a child fled from their captors in St. George, Carolina, in a boat and landed in St. Augustine, the men were given paid jobs building the Castillo and working as blacksmiths and the women as domestics. When an English officer arrived to try to apprehend them, the governor of Spanish Florida refused to release them and sought input from the king of Spain. Eventually, in 1693, the king issued an official edict on such refugees from slavery, “giving liberty to all … the men as well as the women.” Conveniently, this would also bring new laborers and soldiers to the Spanish colonies and destabilize Spain’s rivals, Landers notes.
But it was a guarantee in writing only, and colonial leaders were often loath to enforce it. Fort Mose might never have existed without the unwavering determination of one West African man, who would take the Spanish name Francisco Menéndez. Menéndez escaped British slavery and fought against British colonial forces with the Indigenous Yamassee Nation but was forced back into slavery when he came to St. Augustine. He became captain of St. Augustine’s Black militia while still enslaved and had to petition the governor of the colony for freedom for himself and other fugitives, which was granted in 1738.
Menéndez’s efforts resulted in the establishment of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose (meaning the “royal grace of St. Teresa of Mose”), a community of initially about 40 people. He became its leader.
“They could live free at Mose, as long as the able-bodied men joined the militia, and everybody in the community became Catholic,” Jackson says. “Catholicism was the official religion of the Spanish crown, so that was a requirement. And the militia would help defend the city from the north.” The place evolved into a multicultural society—the refugees had roots in a number of different African cultures such as the Mandinga, Mina, Kongo, and Carabalí, and some intermarried with Florida’s Indigenous communities. The residents grew crops, served as blacksmiths, set up their own retail shops selling provisions, worked on construction projects in St. Augustine, and received rations and supplies from the Spanish colonial government. They built a fort, similar in shape to the Castillo de San Marcos, but made of earth and palm logs, with prickly pears and yucca (also nicknamed Spanish bayonet) planted around the edges to deter intruders. Fort Mose was burned down by the British two years later; then a second fort was rebuilt a dozen years after that.
When the Spanish ceded Florida to the British in 1763 at the end of the Seven Years’ War, the inhabitants of Mose mostly fled to Cuba and the fort was abandoned. But Fort Mose remained in the memories and stories of the community’s descendants, and Black Americans’ connection to this place endured. “We’re almost sure that the inhabitants of Mose who left with the Spanish in 1863 and moved to Cuba—some of them moved back,” Jackson tells me.
He feels that the legacy of Mose resonates through the entire arc of Florida’s Black history: “I think there’s a direct connection between the Mose community and Catholicism, and the Lincolnville community,” which was established in 1866, the year after the Civil War ended. The influence of the Catholic Church continued to thread through this storyline. In the early 20th century, white Catholic nuns were arrested in Lincolnville for running a school for Black students. The neighborhood became a key battleground in the American civil rights movement and was the site of a series of important protests, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that helped galvanize the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Jackson’s grandfather had come to Lincolnville in the 1920s, and the younger Jackson attended school and church in the neighborhood as a kid. When Jackson asked why his family chose this place, his father had said, “We had been there before,” though Jackson is still trying to find out what that meant.
But it would take centuries for this community to be able to reclaim both this story and the place where it happened. In the 19th century, a civil engineer hired by Standard Oil founder Henry Flagler obliviously dredged sand from the area that held the ruins of the forts, partially marring the site: Flagler wanted to fill a tidal creek downtown, so he could build his fancy hotels atop land that had been marsh. In the 1960s, a military historian bought the property suspected to hold Fort Mose’s remains. But it wasn’t systematically excavated until the mid-1980s, by a team led by archaeologist Kathleen Deagan and supported by the archival research of Jane Landers. With aerial photos, they found the imprint of the second fort. Then their excavations uncovered wooden posts, the edges of earthen walls, and a “smaller oval or circular wood and thatch structure … which may have been residential,” the scholars wrote. Jackson watched what was being uncovered at the site. “I started getting involved with Fort Mose once I realized that there is a story that needs to be told.” After the dig was complete, the state of Florida purchased the land that held the archaeological site. In 1996, Jackson and other locals set up a citizen advocacy group that prevented an adjacent parcel on higher ground from becoming a condo development. Both properties became part of Fort Mose Historic State Park, and the upland now houses an interpretive center.
Jackson volunteers to accompany me to Fort Mose. And three days after our coffee conversation, we stroll the park’s boardwalk to the edge of the salt marsh. “When we first started, none of this was out here,” he explains. “We had to pretty much tell the story in the thickets.”
To make the experience more tangible to visitors, Jackson learned to fire a musket and acquired a costume in the style of an 18th-century Spanish colonial militiaman, sewn by a woman in St. Augustine. He practiced the Spanish military drill regularly both at Fort Mose and with a group from the Castillo de San Marcos that performs musket firings for the public. And over the years, he and a group of locals have held annual reenactments of a 1740 battle against the British at Mose. They have also organized regular events in which they play the parts of Black militiamen, priests, the Spanish governor, and other characters from the era. Members of the public can listen to each character tell a story about the journey from the Carolinas to Fort Mose—sometimes along the same path where Jackson and I are now standing. One of his favorite parts to play is Mose founder Francisco Menéndez: he admires what a resourceful character Menéndez had been—warrior, sailor, speaker of multiple languages.
Today, Jackson is dapper in a white polo shirt and black walking shoes, and equipped with a stylish long black umbrella for whatever the gray sky might unleash. Looking out into the river and marsh, I see no visible traces of human history, just a lushness of cedars and oaks and palmettos, an anole lizard scurrying along one of the railings, fiddler crabs running through the mud, a heron carving through the sky, and an orchestra of birds chirruping and insects singing. Farther out into the marsh is a rookery with a breeding colony of wood storks. In the distance, the land rises into a small, low island. A series of blue and white signs, cracked and heavily weathered with some of the letters smudged, describes the vista before us: “All that remains of Fort Mose is underground—on the island before you, and in the surrounding salt marsh.”
Now it is simply home to the plants and animals of the marsh.
“Just 250 years ago, during the occupation of Fort Mose, the area surrounding this dock was dry land used for farms, ranches, and forts,” announce the signs. “Global climate change is also having an impact. What would happen to our local coastlines if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet melted, raising global sea levels by as much as 20 feet [six meters]?” The signs are about 10 years old, Jackson says.
When the water rises even farther and the site becomes inaccessible even for research, the story of Fort Mose will have to live in the retelling, repeated by people like Thomas Jackson and those who come after him—people who believe that memory matters, that stories help keep us grounded and alive and give us a way to feel like we still belong in this unruly, unpredictable world.
Adapted from At Home on an Unruly Planet: Finding Refuge on a Changed Earth published by Henry Holt and Co. on August 2, 2022. Copyright © 2022 by Madeline Ostrander.