News reports contribute to revisionist history

In the August 2nd issue of The Record, Peter Guinta wrote on the retirement of Dr. Bill Adams who honorably served 10 years as director of the city’s Department of Heritage Tourism.

Adams contributed generously of himself and was a good steward for the City of St. Augustine for the past 25 years.

One of the unintended consequences of recording the heritage of a culture is the inevitable commingling of facts and folklore. Worse yet for those of us who were not present when significant historical events occurred, we are relying on the news reporters and presumably authoritative sources for our facts.

We call the outcome “revisionist history” and some of that has occurred in the Guinta story according to two different local sources.

Guinta reported that Cathy Deagan credits Adams for his “early role in getting the Fort Mose project started.” Guinta says that in 1984 Adams got the state’s Black Legislative Caucus excited about supporting additional research to pinpoint the fort’s location and to validate the artifacts already found there.

Historic preservation consultant Paul Weaver is also quoted by Guinta saying that Adams was “ahead of the curve” on Fort Mose. Weaver reportedly said “That is where the state involvement began,” according to Guinta. “That got the whole ball rolling.” Guinta wrote.

Revisionist history notwithstanding, the truth is that on May 13, 1968, sixteen years earlier than the events reported by Guinta and quoted from Deagan and Weaver, Mr. F. E. (“Jack”) Williams (referred to as “Jack Wilson” in the Guinta article) purchased the Fort Mose property from the St. Augustine Historical Society for $10,000.

Using his own personal funds, Williams, who already owned the property, reports that he is the one who hired Dr. Cathy Deagan and financed the cost of her preliminary dig.

Dan Holiday, who is familiar with Jack Williams’ role in pinpointing and validating the Fort Mose site, accompanied Williams on some of his explorations of the North River property; years before Adams’ involvement.

Deagan admits in the Guinta article that she “was hired privately to perform excavations” and that “she took students to the site”, however, she never credits her benefactor and the property owner, Jack Williams.

Deagan goes on to say that “they found nails, more artifacts like buttons, bullets and crockery, as well as indications that a fort once stood on that site.” Those excavations were paid for by Jack Williams, on his property, and, therefore, belonged to him.

Guinta wrote, “Dr. Adams said the property — owned by Jack Wilson — was then marked by the state park system for purchase. “On my part, it was pure chance and quite accidental,” he said.”

Jack Williams’ role was not by “chance” of any type; nor was it accidental – even though the article and the city seem to be giving Adams more credit than is due with respect to Fort Mose.

According to Holiday, at the meeting when the Historical Society agreed to sell Williams the property, Louis Arana, who was the historian, was heard to say “The property on the North River is not the site of Fort Mose. I’ll bet my ass on it.”

Williams says that he knew better. Williams had already spent 15 years in the marshes of North City with his metal detector, shovel, trowel, small brushes and bug spray.

Holiday recalls one day that he and Williams sailed up the North River to a creek that led to a small landing that was still owned by the Historical Society. Holiday said, “I am sure we made quite a picture, two white men in a small dugout canoe on an expedition to discover a lost Negro fort.”

Williams’ research into Fort Mose took him to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., the Colonial Archives of Georgia in Atlanta, the Colonial Archives of South Carolina in Columbia, the British Colonial Records Office in London, the P. K. Young Library in Florida as well as many other sources.

In 1988, when the State of Florida finally did take an interest in Williams’ discovery, he says they countered his $200,000 asking price for the Fort and it’s artifacts with an offer to pay $23,784. April 4th, they upped their offer to $29,730.

When Williams refused the State’s final offer, the legislature passed a land acquisition act to condemn the Fort Mose site and to take Williams land. The case went to trial in January, 1991, and the jury brought in a verdict awarding Williams slightly over $100,000; which Williams still feels was too small a price to pay for 30 years of his life and experience in search of a priceless piece of lost history.

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