Kingsley Plantation, located at the end of a long dirt road on the remote Fort George Island northeast of Jacksonville, Florida provides an intriguing look into the history of the First Coast. It wasn’t always as pretty as it is today and as much as modern society deplores slavery and the wretched injustices it imposed on millions of people, it turns out nothing in history is as simple as it might seem.
At the turn of the 19th century, Florida was Spanish territory and in the land along the northeast coast of Florida were dotted with several plantations where the major cash crop was sea cotton, prized for its long sinewy fibers that could be made into fine, sturdy cloth.
The plantation on Fort George Island was already a going concern when Zephaniah Kingsley leased it in 1814 and settled here with his family. The original plantation was built by slaves in 1798. The slave quarters were built of tabby, a concrete mix of seashells, sand and water.
One of the original quarters for the Kingsley Plantation slaves has been restored and is now on display. Remains of the rest of the homes are spread out in a large semicircle not far from the main house.
The old image below, courtesy of Wikipedia, shows how the slave quarters at Kingsley Plantation looked before the Civil War.
Slaves at Kingsley Plantation worked under what was known as the task system. Each worker was given a quota of work to be accomplished each day. Once their task was complete, the slaves were free to tend to their own needs.
Zephaniah Kingsley must have been a complex man. He was a well to do slave trader from London with business interests all over the South and Caribbean. He travelled extensively. He converted his original lease of the plantation to ownership and purchased the land and buildings in 1817 for $7,000. He also owned several other sea coast plantations along the St. John’s River near modern day Jacksonville.
The location of the plantation on the Fort George River provided easy access to the sea for export of the cotton crop. Today the waterway is a popular destination for local boaters who picnic on the sandy bars across the water from the old plantation.
Under Spanish rule, Florida’s population lived under relatively liberal racial policies. People of color had similar legal rights as whites and slaves were allowed to buy their freedom, own land and property, and even own slaves of their own. These conditions changed dramatically in 1821 when Florida became part of the United States. The progressive policies of the past were replaced by the oppressive racial laws of the antebellum South.
Anna Kingsley, Zephaniah’s wife, was originally Anna Madgigine Jai from Senegal. Kingsley purchased her off a slave ship in Havana when she was 13 and married her. They eventually had four children.
Anna was an interesting woman. She was freed by Kingsley in 1811 and oversaw the operations of the plantation on Fort George’s Island and owned more than 60 slaves in her own right. She also ran plantations in other parts of the Caribbean and Florida.
It must have been a fascinating household because Kingsley took three other women slaves as concubines, freed them, and kept them all together at the big house on the river. Throughout all this, Anna acted as the matriarch of the household.
The building above was known as “Anna’s Parlor” and was the spot where Kingsley’s wife presided over operations at the plantation, supervised the kitchen, and conducted daily business with the slaves working the plantation.
In 1837, to escape the oppressive racial laws in Florida after it became a state, Anna and some of her children moved to Haiti, a colony founded by freed slaves. Some of the Kingsley daughters had married white planters in Northern Florida by this time and they remained behind. Anna returned to Jacksonville after the Civil War and lived there with two daughters until her death in 1870. Zephaniah died in New York City in 1843.
Today Kingsley Plantation is a Florida State Park. Admission is free. It is a beautiful place with shady trails, panoramic views of the water, and broad lawns. Visitors can tour the slave quarters and parts of the main buildings. The small visitor center has an excellent collection of books for sale that provide many fascinating details of plantation life, slavery, and the intricate web of families and relationships that developed during these periods.
Travel safe. Have fun.