Do you believe in ghosts? Rumor has it Kingsley Plantation off Heckscher Drive is haunted. Local folklore speaks of Old Red Eyes who is said to be the spirit of a slave who was hanged for unforgivable crimes and now frequently spotted wandering Kingsley Plantation Road. There have also been sightings of a woman in a white dress believed to be Anna, the wife of Zephaniah Kingsley, on the porch of the main house.
Adam and I recently visited Kingsley Plantation and although we didn’t see any spooky business, we did learn the haunting history of Zephaniah Kingsley, his family, and his plantation.
Zephaniah Kingsley moved to Fort George Island in 1814 with his wife and three children where he built a plantation producing corn, Sea Island cotton, sugar cane, and citrus. Kingsley ultimately acquired over 32,000 acres including four plantation houses and more than 200 slaves. Kinglsey’s family was a polygamist and multiracial household which bucked the norms of race and slavery.
The plantation home is said to have been built sometime around 1797 and is the oldest surviving plantation house in the state of Florida. The plantation also includes a kitchen house, barn, and 25 remaining cabins which served as slave quarters. The cabins are made of tabby, a mixture of lime acquired from oyster shells, sand, and water, and form a semi-circle at the entrance to Kingsley plantation.
Zephaniah Kingsley’s relationship with his slaves was unique starting with his wife Anna Madgigine Jai, who was from Senegal, West Africa and purchased as a slave by Kingsley. Kingsley married Anna in a traditional African ceremony and freed her in 1811. Anna became a valuable part of Kingsley’s success and eventually amassed her own success by owning land and becoming one of the richest women in East Florida. Anna was a pioneer for slave and women’s rights but ultimately fled to Haiti with her children due to increasing racism in this country. (Read more about Anna.)
Kingsley managed his slaves using the “task system,” meaning that once the slaves had finished their daily work, they were free to look after their own responsibilities like tending to gardens, hunting on the grounds, or taking care of their cabins. Kingsley also allowed his slaves to own firearms which they used to protect the land and hunt wildlife. Slaves regularly bartered and traded goods and wares to sustain their families as well as save up money to buy their freedom.
Zephaniah Kingsley was an activist for slave rights and campaigned for lawmakers to acknowledge free people of color and allow mixed race children to inherit land and property. When asked if he felt his role as a slave trader was contrary to his activism with slavery, Kingsley replied, “Yes; and I am glad of it. They will look upon a slaveholder just so, by and by. Slave trading was a very respectable business when I was young. The first merchants in England and America were engaged in it. Some people hide things which they think other people don’t like. I never conceal anything.”
Shortly thereafter, Kingsley sold the plantation to his nephew and moved his family to a plantation he had established in Haiti. He redistributed his slaves to other properties and moved some to Haiti where they worked as indentured servants on his new land. Kingsley died in 1843 while traveling to New York City. In 1846, Anna returned to Florida to settle an inheritance dispute with Kingsley’s family and was granted control of Kingsley’s estates. She settled in the Arlington neighborhood of Jacksonville to live out the rest of her years.
Meanwhile, a farmer from New Hampshire purchased the Kingsley estate. When he realized crops weren’t as successful in Florida, he turned the property into a tourist attraction with a luxury hotel. The hotel burned down in 1988 and the land was ultimately sold to private investors in 1923.
In 1955, the Florida Park Service acquired most of Fort George Island and named it Kingsley Plantation State Historic Site. The land was transferred to the National Park Service in 1991.
Entrance to the park is free and the grounds are open to walk at your leisure. Unfortunately the plantation house is off limits but may be viewed by joining one of the weekend group tours. I would highly recommend stopping by the ranger station at the back of the property and picking up a free audio tour. This GPS enabled tour shares the history of the plantation at strategic points around the property. I learned so much from this tour and experienced the history of Kingsley Plantation at my own pace.
For more information on Kingsley Plantation, including history, events, and hours of operation, visit nps.gov.