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Fort George Island Florida : The Zephaniah Kingsley Plantation
The young man’s first view of Kingsley Plantation was of the big house facing the river. The brilliant whiteness of it hurt the young slave’s eyes as he was brought up from the gloom of the lower decks of the ship into the midday sunlight. This was to be his home for many years to come and perhaps his final resting place, as it had been for many others over the decades.
Having been sold by the chief of his village and then surviving the long ocean voyage to this new land, the young man was thankful to be alive and could not imagine anything worse than he had already experienced. The arduous journey itself seemed to soften up many of the slaves enough to make most of them resigned to their circumstances.
The weak and old had died quickly on the crossing. Only the strong could endure the unsanitary conditions and cramped space in the lower decks of the ship. The dead were collected daily and unceremoniously dumped over the side of the ship. A slave ship had its own escort of sharks, waiting for the next dumping of the bodies.
But the situation could have been much worse for the young slave, for the master of this island was not typical of the times. Zephaniah Kingsley had his own idea of how slaves should be treated and used to his, and their own, best advantage. Better a good master than a bad one, some might say.
A trip back in time
Driving back in time
The planted palm trees on either side of the lane seemed almost eerie when we approached them after a lonely drive along the oyster shell road through the thick forest of live oak and palmettos. Much of this sub-tropical jungle was once cleared fields, planted in sea island cotton and other plantation staples. The profusion of midden mounds of oyster shells along the shoreline and waterways gave evidence of the island being occupied for thousands of years.
Shortly after encountering the avenue of ghostly palms planted among the thick oaks, the tabby columns of an ancient gateway indicated the entrance to the Kingsley Plantation grounds. A vast semi-circle of tabby slave cabins stretched on either side of the gateway, giving the appearance of two arms encircling the area where the house and outbuildings occupied the center area.
Past the big house itself could be seen the Ft. George river as it meandered past and into the Nassau Sound. The quietness, which seemed to blanket the area, was in direct contrast to the sounds which obviously once rang around the slave quarters and the big house. This is often the case in such a place as this. The memories demand it.
Tabby Slave Houses at Kingsley Plantation
Kingsley Plantation : Earlier Owners
Although Zephaniah Kingsley was best know for operating this plantation, he was not the first to run a plantation on St. George Island.
The ancient huge live oaks and palms which covered the sea island had to be removed to provide room for the vast fields needed for the cotton he planned to grow there.
Of course, there were already some cleared areas created by the Timucuan Indians as they used the island for cultivating corn and squash, among other crops.
The first attempt at using Ft. George Island as a plantation was by a man named Richard Hazard. In 1765 he endeavored to grow indigo on the island using several dozen slaves to achieve cultivation of the lucrative plant used for creating the much desired indigo dye.
This was during a short spell of British rule over the island. Spain regained control in 1783 and the plantation was abandoned.
The next attempt at cultivating crops on St. George Island was in1793 when John McQueen made a deal with the Spanish government and was given title to the island.
Using the labor of several hundred slaves, McQueen built the original plantation house which has been altered over the years since then. But McQueen’s efforts were short lived and the plantation passed to John McIntosh.
John McIntosh soon fell out of favor with the Spanish when he was found complicit in the Patriot Rebellion and had to flee back to Georgia. He originally leased the plantation to Zephaniah Kingsley in 1814 and eventually sold him the island in 1817.
Kingsley already operated several other plantations in the Jacksonville area so the purchase was no hardship as far as slaves or supplies were concerned.
Crops grown on Kingsley Plantation
Zephaniah and Anna Kingsley
Zephaniah Kingsley was not the stereotypical southern “Massa” found in many historical accounts of slave owners of the era. His tenure of Kingsley Plantation was under the Spanish rule in Florida, which was more lenient in the treatment of slaves than the British version.
Kingsley believed slaves should be allowed to work and earn their freedom and have certain rights after this was obtained. When the Spaniards eventually ceded Florida to the British government, Kingsley moved his family and slaves to Haiti which had become a slave free country.
Kingsley gained his start from his father Zephaniah Kingsley Sr. by being educated in London and later by slave trading and shipping endeavors. His first plantation, Laurel Grove, was in the Jacksonville area. He began training slaves for highly sought occupations such as being a blacksmith, cooper, cabinet or furniture maker, or in other agriculturally related skills, thereby increasing their worth by one half or more when sold.
Helping Kingsley run the plantations was his wife Anna Madgigine Jai. Anna was a 13 year old slave bought by Kingsley while in Cuba. She quickly married him in an African ceremony and eventually bore him several children. He also had children by at least two other of his concubines, also African descent. He treated his offspring well, educating them in Europe and furnishing their every need.
Anna acquired land of her own to produce income, using slaves she purchased in the manner of her husband Zephaniah. She was eventually awarded over 300 acres of land by the Spanish for her loyalty in the Patriot’s Rebellion. She received this grant because at one time she burned her plantation home to keep it from falling into the Patriot’s hands.
Both she and Zephaniah were in favor of the Spanish laws concerning slavery. But the British and Americans had other ideas on how slaves should be treated. This eventually caused the Kingsley family to move to Haiti, then called Liberia, eventually founding a colony just for former slaves.
The "Big House"
The Kingsley Plantation House
The large plantation house, constructed around 1797 by John McQueen, is said to be the oldest standing plantation house in North America.
The slave cabins and the foundation of the house, adjoining summer kitchen complex, and the large barn are all made of tabby.
This durable material was made from oyster shells found in mounds and piles all along the waterways of the island.
These were tossed into piles over a period of thousands of years by the native people. These mounds were mined for the oyster shells which were conveniently nearby.
The shells were burned and the resulting lime was mixed with sand, water, and more oyster shells and poured into a wooden form. The results was a concrete like material which would last for many years.
The slave cabins were well insulated against the elements by the use of this material. The chance of fire was also lessened somewhat. Seven of these cabins have been destroyed for the material which was used on other construction projects .
The house has gone through several renovations during its lifetime with electricity added in the 20th century. It is presently undergoing a face lift now and is closed for these repairs.
The kitchen complex is open and the accompanying photos give a glimpse of the interior. Anna lived upstairs and ran the plantation from this building.
The Plantation Lives On
Kingsley Plantation ; The later Years
Zephaniah’s nephew, Kingsley Beatty Gibbs, bought the plantation from him in 1839 and lived there with his wife until 1852 when he sold the property to an unknown buyer.
After the Civil War ended the island was used by the Freedman’s Bureau with some former slaves still residing in the tabby cabins and cultivating crops in the old fields.
The island was sold to John Rollins in 1869 and a resort hotel built on the island. In 1888 the hotel burned and Rollins planted citrus groves on the land which was a successful venture for several years. Rollin’s daughter was the last to live in the big house, selling the island to private investors in 1923.
The Florida Park Service obtained the plantation grounds in 1955, preserving the site and beginning efforts to protect and improve the property. Ft. George Island is now part of the Timuacan Ecological and Historic Preserve, which highlights the rich history of this very small area. The first protestant prayer in North America was made on this tiny isle by the Jean Ribault settlers in 1562.
There is no doubt the slave complex and plantation grounds once rang with laughter and music. Hard times were had here, but there were some happy times too. Our history has its share of misery and sadness to account for.
But we hope there are lessons learned because of it. The true bearers of the burdens of building a new world are forever unsung. We must give them what due we can by never forgetting them altogether.
More Kingsley Plantation PhotosClick thumbnail to view full-size
Books About historical Florida
The story of Anna Kingsley, African princess and wife of a slave owner