The Kingsley Plantation – a 60-acre waterfront property on the banks of the Fort George River in northeastern Florida – is all that remains today of a once thriving 1,000-acre cotton farm owned by slave trader Zephaniah Kingsley, managed by his wife (and former slave) Anna Jai, and cultivated by his workforce of nearly 60 indentured African laborers from 1814 to 1839. It is a place of both haunting beauty and profound devastation, a moving reminder of one of the darkest and most tragic periods in American history.
This post documents the plantation’s history under Kingsley’s management, and includes images we captured during a brief visit to Fort George Island in July 2015. In typical Florida summer fashion, temperatures soared well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) on the date of our visit. While the heat and humidity were intensely uncomfortable – and indeed suffocating at times, limiting the length of our stay – they served as stark reminders of the conditions in which Kingsley’s slaves labored for much, if not all, of their lives. The plantation is both “physically beautiful and emotionally evocative” (Gross, 2014), and absolutely worth the short (45 minute) drive from Jacksonville.
The plantation complex – officially known as the Zephaniah Kingsley Plantation Home and Buildings – originally included over 1,000 acres, most of which has been taken over by forest. The structures and grounds of the park now comprise approximately 60 acres.
In 1814, Zephaniah Kingsley moved to Fort George Island and what is known today as the Kingsley Plantation. He brought a wife and three children (a fourth would be born on the island). His wife, Anna Madgigine Jai, was from Senegal, West Africa, and was purchased by Kingsley as a slave at the age of 13. She actively participated in plantation management, acquiring her own land and slaves when “freed” by Kingsley in 1811. Zephaniah also maintained relationships and fathered children with three other African women who acted as co-wives or concubines.
With an enslaved work force of approximately 60, the Fort George plantation produced Sea Island cotton, citrus, sugar cane, indigo and corn. Kingsley continued to acquire property in north Florida and eventually owned more than 32,000 acres, including four major plantation complexes and more than 200 slaves. Labor at Kingsley Plantation was based on a task system: each slave was given an assigned set of tasks for the day, completion of which afforded “freedom” to engage in personal activities. This system contrasted sharply with the cotton and tobacco plantations of Virginia and other parts of the South, where an overseer drove slaves to work the entire day. Archaeologist Charles H. Fairbanks described Kingsley as “an unusually permissive slave owner” who wrote about the physical superiority of Africans to Europeans, armed his slaves for protection, and gave them padlocks for their cabins (Davidson, Roberts & Rooney, 2006). Kingsley himself noted an aversion to interfering in their family lives, suggesting he “encouraged as much as possible dancing, merriment and dress, for which Saturday afternoon and night, and Sunday morning were dedicated” (1829). Historian Daniel Stowell, however, suggests Kingsley’s relatively “hands-off” approach to plantation management was intended to prevent his slaves from running away, indicating motives less humanitarian than financial. Indeed, unusual permissiveness merely masked a terrible, stark reality: slaves on the plantation were imprisoned, indentured servants, enjoying no real freedom of movement. They were prohibited from learning to read or write, and were routinely – and cruelly – separated from their family members and loved ones in the interests of plantation profits.
Life on the Kingsley Plantation worsened still when the United States purchased Florida from Spain in 1821. While the Spanish had relatively liberal policies regarding issues of race, American territorial law brought many changes. At a time when many slaveholders feared slave rebellions, oppressive laws were enacted and conditions for Florida’s black population, free and enslaved, deteriorated. Kingsley was against the restrictive laws, arguing that more humane treatment would ensure peace and the perpetuation of slavery (an institution from which he profited as both an owner and trader). Kingsley used his appointment to the Florida Territorial Council in 1823 to advance this argument, publishing a three-tier defense of slavery in which he stated: “color and condition, if properly considered, are two very separate qualities … our legislators … have mistaken the shadow for the substance, and confounded together two very different things; thereby substantiating by law a dangerous and inconvenient antipathy, which can have no better foundation than prejudice.” (1829)
The council rejected Kingsley’s treatise, passing laws forbidding interracial marriage and the right of free blacks or mixed race descendants to inherit property. Kingsley – the patriarch of a multiracial household – resigned in protest. To escape what he ironically described as a “system of terror” and “spirit of intolerant prejudice”, Anna Jai and their sons moved to Haiti in 1837. In 1839, Fort George Island was sold to his nephew Kingsley Beatty Gibbs. Zephaniah Kingsley died in New York City in 1843.
The ownership of the island and farms immediately following its sale by Gibbs is unclear. Free blacks and several private owners lived at the plantation until it was transferred to the State of Florida in 1955. It was acquired by the National Park Service in 1991.
The main residence of the Fort George plantation is a unique two-story house that was likely constructed between 1797 and 1798 by American Revolution veteran John “Lightning” McQueen. The house—inspired by 17th century British gentry homes —has a central grand room and four one-story pavilions at each corner. This design allowed air to circulate through the pavilions, keeping them cooler in the summer; each also contained a fireplace to heat more efficiently in the winter. The house faces Fort George Inlet and features two porches on the front and rear of the house. A brick walkway – now absent – joined the back porch to a wharf on the inlet while Kingsley was in residence. The Florida Division of Historical Resources believes the structure may be the oldest plantation house in the state.
Next to the main house is a two-story kitchen house known as “Ma’am Anna House” while Anna Jai was on the island. It was probably built in the 1820s and doubled as a center for food preparation on the ground floor and Anna Jai’s residence with her children on the second. A roof was added to the walkway between the kitchen house and main house between 1869 and 1877.
During the plantation era, the main house and Ma’am Anna House were surrounded by a grove of orange, lemon, and banana trees.
A barn (construction date unknown) sits 150 feet from the plantation house.
The slave houses were constructed of a material known as tabby, and built by their occupants in the 1820s or 1830s. Tabby was composed of shells left over from Timucua middens, burned in open pits or kilns, then pounded into lime particles, mixed with water, sand, and whole oyster or clam shells, then poured into wooden foundations approximately one foot high, and set to dry. The process was repeated and stacked until the desired height of the wall was reached. The floors of the kitchen house, walls of the barn (see photo above), and the basement of the owner’s house were also constructed of tabby. The material made the houses remarkably durable, resistant to weather and insects, better insulated than wood, and the ingredients were accessible and cheap, although labor-intensive. The slave quarters at Kingsley Plantation are widely considered some of the best surviving examples of the use of this building material.
Each cabin consisted of a room, fireplace, and sleeping loft. The arrangement of the quarters is distinctive: there were originally 32 cabins laid out in a semicircular arc interrupted by Palmetto Avenue, the main thoroughfare to the plantation. Historian Daniel Stowell surmises that it may have given slave families a degree of privacy, although he also suggests overseers and slave managers may have arranged the quarters to be able to watch all the slaves from the owner’s house at the same time. Author Daniel Schafer, however, suggests that Anna Jai may have been responsible for this layout, as villages in her native Senegal were commonly constructed in a circular pattern with the king or ruling family living in the center.
Source: Daniel Stowell (1996)
Slaves on Fort George Island were African or first generation African-American. Historical records and archeological information suggest they were primarily from Nigeria and the area today known as Guinea. Anthropological study of several cabins – initiated by the Florida Park Service and the University of Florida – found evidence that Kingsley’s slaves kept many of their African traditions alive at the plantation.
Today, Kingsley Plantation is part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, a 46,000-acre tract composed of wetlands, waterways and other habitats in Duval County, Florida. The plantation grounds – including slave quarters, barn, waterfront, kitchen house, and interpretive garden – are open seven days a week, from 9am to 5pm (except on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Years Day). While the main plantation house is closed during the week for structural work, weekend tours are available on a limited basis at 11am and 3pm (please call ahead for reservations). Pets are permitted in outdoor areas, but must be on a six-foot leash. Admission is free.
As noted on the National Park Service website, Kingsley Plantation “symbolizes a time and a place in history. More than that, [it] represents people, free and enslaved, ordinary and extraordinary, and their efforts to survive in a changing land.” The stories of these people, and of their contributions to history, await visitors at this stunning Florida monument.
Thank you for viewing! – T. & B. June
Next week’s journey: Sedlec Ossuary – Czech Republic
- “An Inhabitant of Florida” (Kingsley, Z.) (1829) A Treatise on the Patriarchal or Co-operative System of Society as it Exists in Some Governments, and Colonies in American, and the United States Under the Name of Slavery With its Necessary Advantages.
- Author unknown. National Park Service website for the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve (accessed 6 August 2016)
- Davidson, J.M., Roberts, E. & Rooney, C. (2006) Preliminary Results of the 2006 University of Florida Archaeological Field School Excavations at Kingsley Plantation, Fort George Island, FL. African Diaspora Archaeology Network, September 2006 newsletter. (accessed 6 August 2016)
- Gross, B. (2014) ‘Kingsley Plantation: Fascinating tale of slavery could only happen in Florida’, FloridaRambler.com, 9 May. (accessed 6 August 2016)
- Schafer, D.L. (2003). Anna Madgigine, Jai Kingsley: African Princess, Florida Slave, Plantation Slaveowner, University Press of Florida.
- Stowell, D. (1996) Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve: Historic Resource Study, National Park Service.
- Wikipedia entry for the Kingsley Plantation (accessed 6 August 2016)