The SSDA St. Augustine collection contains the ecclesiastical documents of the Diocese of St. Augustine. These are the oldest serial records for persons of African descent in what is today the United States (1594-1882). The Diocesan records also document European and Indian Catholics from the sixteenth to the late nineteenth century and capture the multi-racial and multi-ethnic history of Florida. They reveal marriage practices, miscegenation, and the extensions of kinship through god-parentage. St. Augustine’s first black baptism, for example, was recorded in 1606.
Founded in 1565 by Spanish conquistador Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the city of St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in North America. Menéndez’s La Florida once stretched as far north as present-day South Carolina but the settlement was plagued by a myriad of problems from indigenous rebellions to pirate attacks, most famously that of Sir Francis Drake in 1586. In the end, these hardships made the Spanish Crown focus on St. Augustine and its immediate environs, abandoning hopes of northward expansion. Nevertheless, the colony remained of vital importance for the security of the larger Spanish Empire. Each year the galleons of the Fleet of the Indies, loaded with gold and silver from Mexican and Andean mines, sailed up the Gulf Stream with the St. Augustine harbor serving as the only Spanish station for six hundred miles of coastline.
Always in need of labor and military defenders, Spanish officials recruited both slaves and free blacks to serve in Spanish militias. After English settlers founded Charles Town in 1670, black and Indian militias helped defend St. Augustine from English-sponsored attacks. Enslaved Africans from the English colony soon began escaping to the Spanish colony where they claimed and received, religious sanctuary and admission onto the Catholic Church. In 1738 Governor Manuel de Montiano established a free black town called Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose (commonly known as Fort Mose) two miles north of St. Augustine. Mose’s black militia, led by its Mandinga captain, Francisco Menéndez, was entrusted with the defense of Florida's vulnerable borders.
Following the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763 Florida became an English colony. In the wake of the transfer, thousands of Spanish colonists, including the free black militia of Mose, were removed to Cuba. By 1771 British colonists had imported thousands of African slaves to work on nascent indigo and rice plantations. Florida became a Loyalist haven during the American Revolution, but at the conclusion of the war, Florida was returned to Spanish control.
Florida, and St. Augustine, remained Spanish until the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1821 when Florida became a U.S. territory and many of the colony’s black Catholics evacuated to Cuba and Mexico, where the Catholic Church and the local Spanish governments continued to document their histories.
Meanwhile, race relations deteriorated in Florida and chattel slavery became the norm. While the inhabitants of Florida experienced upheaval and held in St. Augustine, Florida, transformation under each new government, the transition from a Spanish colony to an American territory was one of the most difficult and disruptive. Key tensions included religious differences and contradictory policies regarding slavery.