Plantation Run By An African Princess
The Kingsley Plantation in Florida
In March of 1811, white plantation owner Zephaniah Kingsley put his signature on a document that forever changed the life of a young African woman.
The document was a manumission paper which ensured her legal freedom.
But that’s not where the story begins...
A Trip Back In Time
Did you ever travel to a place and not realize how special it was until after you left?
That’s how I feel about my visit to Kinglsey Plantation on Fort George Island in Florida. After attending a book signing at the Amelia Island Book Festival, I headed to St. Augustine, but took a detour to visit this historical landmark.
The trip involved a ferry ride and a wonderfully scenic drive on the island that included a sand and oyster shell road that traversed miles of swamp, mangrove jungles and deep, sprawling forests. There was so many visually stunning and historically significant sites to see that I couldn’t process it all.
Though Fort George Island was named for a fort built in 1736 to defend the southern flank of Georgia (a colony at the time), there is much more history to this remote location. Starting with Native Americans, it is a site of human occupation for more than 5,000 years.
This is just one of the stories I discovered.
Historic Kingsley Plantation
This story begins in 1793 when Anta (Anna) Madgigine Jai Kingsley was born to the tribal ruler of what is now Senegal, making her an African princess. At the age of 13 she was captured, (most likely by a neighboring tribe) and sold as slave.
Taken to Cuba, Anna was purchased by 36-year-old Zephaniah Kingsley, Jr., a wealthy plantation owner, ship captain, and slave trader. Kingsley took Anna to his Laurel Grove plantation, located near present-day Orange Park, Florida, where she assisted with the management of his plantation—and became his wife.
By the time Kingsley signed Anna’s manumission papers, she was the mother of his three children. For a little history refresher, East Florida was a colony of Great Britain from 1763 to 1783 and a province of Spanish Florida at the time of this story—from 1783 to 1821. As a free woman, Anna petitioned the Spanish government for land. In 1813 she was granted title to five acres on the St. Johns River, located across the river from Laurel Grove.
Anna purchased goods and livestock to begin a business. Additionally, she purchased 12 slaves, becoming one of a significant number of free people of African descent in East Florida to own slaves. Although slavery was supported, Spanish race policies encouraged manumission and self-purchase and slavery was not necessarily a permanent condition. The free black population held certain rights and privileges and they had opportunities to take an active part in the economic development of the colony.
Fight For The Land
Unfortunately, Anna’s blossoming business lasted only months. The arrival of American forces as they attempted to wrest East Florida from Spanish control caused upheaval in the region. Anna knew if these troops succeeded and an American system replaced the comparatively liberal Spanish policies, the future of the freed people would be in jeopardy.
When the Americans approached, Anna herself lit the fire that consumed her house and property to keep it out of their hands. She then escaped with her children and slaves on a Spanish gunboat.
In the end, all was not lost. The American expedition failed, and the Spanish governor rewarded Anna’s loyalty with a land grant of 350 acres.
Laurel Grove, Mr. Kinglsey’s plantation was also destroyed as a result of the conflict, so in 1814 Zephaniah and Anna Kingsley, along with their children and slaves, moved to Fort George Island, a sea island near the mouth of the St. Johns River.
On this island they restored the abandoned plantation house. In this home, that featured views of the tidal marsh and ocean beyond, Anna spent the next twenty-three years of her life.
A Visit To The Plantation
Fort George Island was owned by many planters during Florida’s plantation period from 1763 to 1865, but it is named for the Kingsley’s, who lived there from 1814 to 1837.
The island is made up of 1,000 acres that used to be completely covered with Sea Island cotton, citrus, sugar cane, and corn. This rich agricultural land became idle around 1900, allowing the reestablishment of lush and dense forests over the past century. No trace of the fields remain, only a deep canopy of trees and tropical vegetation.
In the 1790s, Sea Island cotton was the main cash crop at Kingsley. This type of cotton, which was known for its long, silky and strong fibers, grew best on the islands along the coast of South Carolina, Georgia and north Florida.
Many island planters treasured their particular strain of cotton seed, jealously guarding it and handing it down through the generations. The plants grew as high as seven feet, and were picked daily from late July to December.
Unfortunately, between the devastating aftermath of the Civil War and the invasion of the boll weevil between 1892 and 1932, the Sea Island cotton industry suffered too much to ever fully recover.
The Kingsley Plantation house is unlike other Southern plantations I’ve visited, but it is said to be the best example of an 1800s Sea Island cotton plantation in Florida. Dating back to 1798, it is the oldest plantation house still standing in the state.
Approachable only by ship in the year 1798, when the Plantation was built, the island provided a gentle climate, isolation and protection from invaders.
The house was designed so that windows on all sides of the rooms would allow breezes to cross-ventilate, a necessary feature in the hot Florida climate. It consists of a rectangular great room with two fireplaces, and a large room attached at each of four corners. Porches run the length of the north and south sides of the house. An outside stairway leads up the second floor bedrooms and an attic. A trapdoor opens from the attic to the open-air observation deck.
A separate saltbox house and kitchen are attached to the main house.
The historic park that is open to the public includes the main plantation house, a kitchen house, barn and the ruins of 25 of the original slave cabins.
The main house is not the only unique feature of this plantation. The remains of the slave quarters, which stand about a 1/5 of a miles from the main house are the first thing that visitors see upon arriving at the plantation.
Constructed nearly 200 years ago, these cabins were made of tabby, a labor-intensive concrete made from oyster shells, sand and water. Tabby was poured into forms, layer by layer until it became the buildings that housed the slaves. The shells, left in 4 foot high mounds by the Timucuan Indians, provided ample building material for the plantation’s buildings.
The houses would have served as the home for 60 to 80 men, women and children. Each house had a fireplace for a kitchen and a room for sleeping.
On this plantation, slaves were assigned according to the task system, which means a task for a specified amount of work was given to each slave to finish daily. When the task was finished, slaves used whatever remained of the day to hunt, fish, garden or tend to other personal needs.
The slave quarters at Kingsley are laid out in a unique way. Instead of a straight line like is seen at many other Southern plantations, the houses formed a semi-circle. This pattern is similar to village design in some areas of West Africa.
Another noticeable difference is that the buildings were not all the same size. The larger ones at the end of the row were given to the “driver” and his family for the extra responsibility of managing work assignments. The other large cabins were either shared for community activities such as cooking, or were given to skilled slave craftsmen as a show of status.
During the years at Fort George, Zephaniah Kingsley's Florida landholdings increased to include extensive timberland and orange groves, and four major plantations producing sea island cotton, rice, and provisions. He also owned ships that he captained on trading voyages. Kingsley had managers at his various properties to whom he entrusted his business operations when he was away.
At the Fort George plantation, Anna took this responsibility and, Kingsley later declared that she "could carry on all the affairs of the plantation in my absence as well as I could myself."
Conditions for all of Florida's people of color—free and enslaved—changed drastically when Florida became a territory of the United States in 1821. Legislation of the 1820s and 1830s blurred the distinction between freeman and slave until there was virtually no difference.
By 1830, Kingsley realized there was no immediate hope of changing laws in the United States. He freed 50 of his slaves and took them to Haiti where he established a free settlement. He died in 1843, but Anna lived until the 1870s and eventually returned to Florida to live out her last days.
When Kingsley and Anna moved their two sons to Haiti, their two daughters remained in Jacksonville, married to wealthy white men. In 1847 Anna purchased a 22-acre farm located on the St. Johns River between the homes of her daughters, property now owned by Jacksonville University. Her farm, known as Chesterfield, was tended by her 15 slaves.
Many descendants of the Kingsley’s still live in Florida today.
Don’t miss next week’s post on a Civil War-era house that reveals secrets.