Monday, October 26, 2009
One of my favorite stories of antebellum Florida revolves around the ghost of a young woman that supposedly haunts Bellamy Bridge, an old iron frame structure that spans the Chipola River a few miles north of Marianna.
As the story goes, the ghost is that of Elizabeth Jane Bellamy, the young wife of Dr. Samuel Bellamy who was a prominent resident of early Florida. Dr. Bellamy was a key executive with the Union Bank, which financed the purchase and development of many early Florida plantations, and also was a delegate at the 1838 Constitutional Convention in St. Joseph (today's Port St. Joe) that led to Florida's admission to the Union as a state.
Elizabeth supposedly died on her wedding night when she somehow came into contact with an open fire and her gown burst into flames. Before her husband could save her, she rushed from the house in panic and was severely burned. After lingering for a few days in severe pain, the legend maintains, she died and was buried in a lonely grave near Bellamy Bridge. Over the years that followed, her ghost supposedly began to appear in the river swamps around her grave and the bridge.
It is a fascinating story, even if the facts don't exactly match with the legend. If you would like to read the real facts behind this unique legend of antebellum Florida, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/bellamybridge. Be sure to check out the actual photo of the "ghost" and click the "True Story of the Ghost of Bellamy Bridge" link at the bottom of the page to read the results of the historical investigation into the story.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Much has been written about the conditions in which slaves lived in Florida and the South, some of it true, some of it not. For many, a visit to such places as the Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island would probably be enlightening.
Kingsley is one of the few places in Florida where visitors can learn about the daily lives of the African slaves who worked on a large plantation. The first thing you see as you enter the plantation grounds, in fact, is the long semi-circular line of slave cabins. Many are in ruins, but a restored example stands by the entrance road.
Historians and anthropologists believe that the semi-circular alignment of the slave houses on the Kingsley Plantation may reflect tradition brought over on the slave ships from Africa, as villages in some parts of the continent featured homes arranged in a large semi-circle.
The cabins themselves were made of tabby, a sort of poured concrete made using shells. This material was commonly used for construction of various types of buildings during the 18th and 19th centuries on the Georgia and Florida coasts.
Each cabin had two rooms, one for sleeping and one for other activities, and there was also a fireplace for cooking and heat.
While the cabins, of course, were nowhere near as fine as the main Kingsley House, they really were not that much different from the average Florida house of the time. In fact, they were quite a bit better constructed than some. Most Floridians of the antebellum era were small farmers or craftsmen who lived in one or two room houses, often with dirt floors. Not many average homes of the antebellum era remain in Florida, but some can still be seen in St. Augustine and Pensacola and at a few other locations around the state.
At Kingsley, there are exhibits and information panels that tell a great deal about all aspects of life on the plantation, including that of the slaves who lived and worked there. Zephaniah and Anna Kingsley ultimately freed 50 of the slaves who lived in the cabins at Kingsley Plantation and took them to Haiti where they formed a free settlement.
To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/kingsley.
Saturday, October 17, 2009
Although most visitors speeding south to the beaches and amusement parks do not realize it, Florida is home to some of the most beautifully preserved plantation homes in the South. One of my favorites is the historic Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island between Jacksonville and Fernandina.
Established during the Second Spanish Era (1783-1821), the Kingsley Plantation holds a unique place in Florida history.
The Kingsley Plantation house, built by slaves in 1798, is the oldest surviving plantation home in Florida and has been beautifully preserved and restored. It is now maintained by the National Park Service as part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, a national park area encompassing tens of thousands of acres both north and south of the mouth of the St. Johns River.
As is the case with many such homes, visitors to the Kingsley Plantation approach not the front but the back of the house. This was because rivers were actually more important routes of transportation than roads during the antebellum era. Plantation homes were often built facing rivers because that was the way that both people and commerce traveled to and from the farm.
The Kingsley Plantation takes its name from Zephaniah Kingsley, a planter who first arrived in Florida in 1803. The colony was then under Spanish control, but numerous Americans crossed the border and took up farming and other occupations in the coastal region between St. Augustine and the St. Mary's River (the border between Florida and Georgia). Kingsley purchased the home and farm on Fort George Island in 1814.
He set up there with his free black wife, Anna. He had purchased her as a slave in Cuba in 1806, but fell in love with her and legally freed both Anna and their children in 1811. Kingsley's thinking was unique for its time. He believed that blacks and whites were equal, but also believed in the legality of slavery. He felt, however, that free blacks should have the same rights and opportunities as whites. Anna Kingsley, in fact, was as successful in business as her husband and owned both plantations and slaves of her own.
In 1821 Florida was transferred from Spain to the United States and it was not long before the Territorial Council began to enact laws aimed at restricting the activities of both slaves and free blacks. Zephaniah Kingsley railed against such actions, even writing a major treatise on the equality of whites and blacks and the human rights of free blacks.
He and Anna finally became so frustrated with the situation that they freed 50 of their slaves and moved with them to Haiti, where they established a colony in the free black republic.
Kingsley Plantation today provides visitors an outstanding opportunity to learn more about the Kingsley family and to explore the buildings, grounds and even slave cabins of the farm. To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/kingsley.