Originally built in 1798 by enslaved craftsmen under plantation owner John McQueen, this plantation house is the oldest planter’s residence still standing in Florida. Many changes have taken place through the years, but a tour still evokes what it must have been like long ago.
In the early 1800s, plantation-owner Zephaniah Kingsley brought a Senegalese wife he purchased, Anna Madgigine Jai, and three children to his Fort George Island plantation. A fourth child was soon born. Anna managed the plantation’s daily operations, including 60 slaves, while Zephaniah was away on business. They grew many cash crops: Sea Island cotton, whose long fibers and silky threads were picked and prepared for sale by sorting, cleaning, removing the black cotton seeds, and packing it in bales to be shipped; indigo, from which a dark blue dye was made, especially valued for its hue and absorbency in cotton; African okra, beans, potatoes, peas, squash and gourds; native citrus, sugar cane and corn. Zephaniah continued to buy farmland until he had 32,000 acres, worked by more than 200 slaves. He spent 25 years at the Plantation, which represents its longest time of private ownership.
Kingsley Plantation is now a quiet place. On the entrance lane you will pass the remains of 23 “tabby” slave cabins made of water, cooked oyster shell and lime. Once, there were 36, 16 on each side, unusually situated in a slight curve, all facing the master’s house. Close your eyes, imagine how it was back then.
Now, come on up further past the palm trees and oaks into the main house, look out over the water and imagine what it was like inside the houses – the master’s house and the slave house. Your visit to Kingsley Plantation will introduce you to a long-ago way of life.
Remnants of the community’s life on the Plantation have been found during architectural digs by various professionals, including those from University of North Florida. Glass, ceramic pieces, even a metal cross have been found on the property. In the slave cabins, clay pipes, a glass inkwell, even a harmonica have been found.
Anna bought her own property and slaves when Zephaniah freed her. Although a justifier of slavery, he believed in the humane treatment of slaves and was a change-agent in his time. He moved to Haiti after assessing that the new American government of Florida was more racially restrictive than the Spanish to his mixed-race family. He wrote about it in a 1828 book entitled, “A Treatise on the Patriarchal, or Co-Operative Systems of Society As It Exists In Some Governments…Under The Name of Slavery.”
Kingsley and Anna are the great grandparents of Mary Kingsley Sammis, who married Abraham Lincoln Lewis (1865-1947), Florida’s first African-American millionaire. Lewis was one of the founders of Florida’s first insurance company, later named the Afro-American Life Insurance Company. He later founded the all-black American Beach, and generations of his descendants take part in historical events at the Plantation and at the new American Beach Museum, which recently opened in American Beach, adjacent to Amelia Island.
After Kingsley left, the Rollins family moved into the plantation house in the late 1860s. It continued to change in structure and appointments. Today, the property is owned by the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, and Kingsley Plantation is operated by the National Park Service. Signs appropriately remind visitors not to remove or dig-up anything on the property, as it is part of the heritage of everyone. National Park Service Rangers offer tours. For more information, go to www.nps.gov.