Soldier, Militia captain, Corsair, Freedom fighter
At less than ten years old, Francisco Menéndez was sold into slavery. It must have taken Menéndez’s extraordinary will to endure hunger, insufficient space, and the sight of dead enslaved people during the human cargo shipment from West Africa to Carolina. He was a sturdy and unique child. An abolitionist leader, Frederick Douglass, quoted, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
Not much is known of Menéndez’s early life, but he was an African-born slave freed and became the co-founder of the earliest free black town in the United States.
Menéndez, a man of Mandinga descent, was born in the Gambia, West Africa, around 1704 (1759 census-estimated his age as 55). He was enslaved at a tender age in Carolina, somewhere between 1709 and 1711, to do plantation work.
His original name was unknown, so they gave him a Spanish name, Francisco Menéndez. As he grew up, he became indispensable to his British owners. He learned to do the work of several men and speak several languages.
In 1715, Menéndez showed himself to be a fierce warrior and a valuable fighter during the Yamasee War. He fought the British alongside the natives.
The chaos during Yamasee War between 1715-1717 made it easy for many slaves to escape. Menéndez escaped with his wife, Ana María de Escobar, alongside other slaves.
After the escape, he sought to live with the Indian tribes in the north. They lived in the wilderness for three years. He learned to navigate his way through the forest without danger, mastered British firearms, and learned the tricks of tracking and hunting.
The Indian tribes and escaped slaves united against the Carolina English colonists and fled to Spanish Florida.
Menéndez went to Saint Augustine two years after the war. The escaped slaves had lived there for nearly half a century and had become an indispensable part of the community.
In 1718, they sold those who had escaped to Florida as slaves to Governor Juan de Ayala y Escobar and then again to Francisco Menéndez Márquez. It is here that Menéndez acquired his name after being baptized as a Catholic and named after his master, Francisco Menéndez Márquez.
In 1726, Menéndez received an appointment as St. Augustine’s black militia captain. Menéndez received a commendation from the governor in 1728 after the militia defended St. Augustine from an English attack.
In 1738, Governor Manuel de Montiano gave the slaves from Florida a piece of land, and he chose Francisco Menéndez, now a free man, to be their leader. “Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose,” this new community is the current, Fort Mose. It marked the first free black community to be allowed in the United States.
The formation of the free community occurred 125 years before the emancipation proclamation. The community had its own church with skilled blacksmiths, carpenters, farmers, and boatmen. This marked a prosperous period in the history of America. A time when Africans and Europeans could live together. Menéndez became the civil and military leader of the fortified town.
The new Catholics, Menéndez and Ana María de Escobar, formalized their marriage in the Catholic Church on December 28, 1739. They had four children.
In 1740, there was a bloody battle in the War of Jenkins’ Ear. A British expeditionary force under Georgia Governor James Oglethorpe captured Fort Mose. The Fort Mose community and the Spanish fought back and conquered the British. Though Fort Mose was destroyed during the war, it was later rebuilt.
In his report to the king, the Spanish governor praised Menéndez and other black troops for their bravery. Menéndez requested compensation for his services, but the king declined. To earn a living, he became a Spanish pirate.
A privateer Revenge seized and sold Menéndez as a slave to Mr. Stone in the Bahamas in 1741. He either escaped or was liberated by the Spanish. In 1759, he returned to Florida as the leader of the re-established Mose.
Exile in Cuba
In 1762, Spanish Florida was ceded to England. This occurred in the Treaty of Paris, after the War of Seven Years. Menéndez’s family, Fort Mose community, and Spanish colonists were evacuated to Cuba.
In Cuba, Menéndez established a new community called San Agustín de la Nueva, Florida in Matanzas Province.
In the 1770s, Menéndez and his family moved back to Havana because of harsh living conditions.
Legacy and Honors
In the 1990s, an archeological dig exposed Mose’s original site, which became a protected park. The Fort Mose Historic State Park was a precursor to the Underground Railroad of the antebellum years.
The United States designated this historic park as a National Historic Landmark in 1995.
Death of a Colonial Hero
Menéndez may have died in Havana in the 1770s. His life had taken him from slavery to freedom more than once. Against many odds, he had exceptional abilities that propelled him into positions of leadership and responsibility. He was the most resourceful among his peers and became a mighty warrior and leader of Fort Mose.
The Black Male Archives