If you’re looking to understand a bit of Florida history, that’s often left out of text books, Kingsley Plantation in Fort George Island Cultural State Park is a good place to start.
Built in 1798 using slave labor, Florida’s oldest still-standing plantation house came to be during the Spanish occupation. After passing through several hands of ownership over the centuries, the Florida Park Service acquired the plantation in 1955.
Today, Kingsley Plantation is part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve managed by the National Park Service.
The site is free to visit, and in our opinion, the park service does a fantastic job telling the sobering story of the site and those who lived here.
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Early History Of Kingsley Plantation
The plantation home’s original owner was American Revolutionist, John McQueen. Exploiting the labor of 300 slaves, McQueen had the home built, and created the Sea Island cotton plantation.
After several misfortunes, McQueen had to sell Fort George Island in 1804.
Originally, the plantation covered the full island at 1,000 acres. Today, the forest has taken back most of the land. Visitors can see around 60 acres.
Now known as Kingsley Plantation, the home backs up to the Fort George River. It was common for plantations to utilize waterways to transport crops to market. During its plantation days, the property was only accessible by boat.
Initially renting the island, the plantation is named after, Zephaniah Kingsley, who purchased the property in 1817 and stayed there for about 25 years.
Who Was Zephaniah Kingsley?
Born in Bristol, England in 1765, Zephaniah Kingsley moved to South Carolina as a child, but was later schooled in London. Starting his career as a shipping merchant, he traveled the world following the most profitable trades. Kingsley eventually moved into the slave trade as demand increased in the Deep South.
In 1803 Kingsley arrived in Florida seeking land. He set up his first plantation in Laurel Grove (present day Orange Park) and later moved to what’s now known as Kingsley Plantation. He brought his wife and former slave, Anna Kingsley, along with their children with him.
Compared to most plantation owners of the time, Kingsley believed in “liberal provisions” for freed blacks. He advocated heavily for “fair treatment” as a way of enlisting the help of freed blacks in controlling slave populations.
The Kingsley family stayed on the plantation until the late 1830’s. By this time, Florida was in the possession of the U.S. This change brought further turbulent times and uncertainty for freed blacks. This prompted Zephaniah to move his family and many of his former slaves to Haiti.
Who Was Anna Kingsley?
Anna Kingsley (born Anta Madgigine Jai) has the most fascinating history. Taken from Senegal at a young age, then purchased as a slave by Kingsley in 1806.
In 1811, Kingsley freed Anna and their children. Anna took full advantage of the rights afforded to her through the Spanish laws. Petitioning for land, the Spanish government granted Anna 5 acres. She used this land to start her own plantation in Laurel Grove, near her husband’s.
Anna purchased goods, livestock, and slaves to begin her business. However, she burned her property as the American forces entered the Spanish territory. This was to ensure they couldn’t use her plantation for supplies.
As the American forces were not successful in their conquest of Florida, the Spanish granted Anna with 350 acres for her loyalty.
Sadly, not much is known about Anna’s life. What is known, paints the picture of a smart, courageous, and strong business-women, especially for the time she was living in and the hand she was dealt. It’s well worth reading more on her history at the park.
Entering the property, it’s hard to miss the semi-circle of white block-shaped buildings. Historians note the similarity of the semi-circle to villages in West Africa.
Made of tabby, an historical concrete mixture created from oyster shells and sand, the buildings are impressively in shape for their age. The community housed 60 – 80 slaves. Each house included a kitchen and sleeping area.
Each building is a different size. Historians believe those with extra responsibilities, or higher skills, stayed in the larger houses.
What’s Known About The Slaves Of Kingsley Plantation
Not permitted to read nor write, there’s little written recorded of the slave’s lives. However, through archaeology finds, photographic evidence, and authored accounts by Zephaniah Kingsley, the park does what it can to tell their stories.
Here on the National Park’s website you’ll find stories of six of the enslaved at Kingsley Plantation.
Personally, the story of Carpenter Bill struck me the most. He worked his whole life to purchase freedom for most of his family.
Kingsley Plantation Barn
Before heading into the barn, we recommend picking up one of the audio guides from the Visitor Center and bookstore. The building is a little hard to see. You need to walk towards the river and left of the house. The audio guides are free and contain a wealth of information about the site.
Alternatively, we used the Kingsley Plantation app and just used our smart phone as our guide.
The barn itself is not that interesting, however, there’s a ton of informational boards inside which explains a lot about life and tools used on the plantation.
Kingsley Plantation Home
Stretching out in an L shape, the plantation home consists of a kitchen and the main home.
Built in 1798, the main house consists of four corner rooms. This unique design was to allow a cross-breeze to cool the home.
The kitchen, built in 1814, stands away from the main house. A safety measure in case the kitchen caught fire, and to keep the heat out of the main house.
If you’re not able to make it out to Kingsley Plantation, but are still interested in the history, the park offers a free Virtual Tour of the grounds. They also have a lot of interesting information on their website.
Getting To Kingsley Plantation
Virtually impossible to stumble across, Kingsley Plantation is in the very back of the Fort George Island Cultural State Park. Despite being only 30 minutes outside downtown Jacksonville, Fort George Island is one of the lesser known state parks in the area. However, it’s an easy stop on the way to Amelia Island.
- From Jacksonville, make your way to Heckscher Drive (exit 41 off I-295). Follow Heckscher Drive for about 9 miles, to Fort George Road where you’ll make a left.
- When you come to the fork in the road, you can make a left to follow the dirt road for 2 miles. This will take you directly to the plantation.
- We recommend taking the paved road to the right. This does a circuit of the state park which includes the Ribault Club, well worth the stop.
Sadly, this detour doesn’t get you around the dirt road. Shortly after passing the Ribault Club, the road turns to dirt. Though it’s a beautiful drive, the road is not that wide and is pitted with potholes, so drive carefully.