In 1814, Zephaniah Kingsley moved to Fort George Island and what is known today as the Kingsley Plantation. He brought his wife and three children (a fourth would be born at Fort George). As you may recall from our previous post, his wife, Anna Madgigine Jai, was from Senegal, West Africa, and was purchased by Kingsley as a slave. She actively participated in plantation management, acquiring her own land and slaves when freed by Kingsley in 1811.
The plantation on Fort George Island produced Sea Island cotton, citrus, sugar cane, and corn. The Kingsley’s had an enslaved workforce of approximately 60 sixty people, whose labor was a deciding factor in the success of the plantation. Kingsley continued to acquire property in north Florida and eventually possessed more than 32,000 acres, including four major plantation complexes and more than 200 slaves.
For a time, Anna moved in between Fernandina and Fort George Island, taking over managing the plantation while Kingsley was away on business. At some point in the 1820s, they built a separate kitchen connected to the main house by a covered walkway. Sometimes called the John “Don Juan” McQueen house, after the person who first built Kingsley Plantation, it had a room above it where Anna lived with her children. As odd as it may seem, this followed the common West African custom of wives’ living separately from their husbands, particularly in polygamous marriages. Kingsley took three other wives, all slaves, while at Fort George Island. Two of them gave him children.
On the island, the slaves were quartered a fifth of a mile from the plantation home in tabby cabins. Arranged in a semicircle, there were originally 32 cabins, 16 on either side of the road. This area was the heart of the slave community–the homes of the men, women, and children who lived and worked on Kingsley Plantation more than 150 years ago.
The enslaved people were barred from both reading and writing; without written sources recounting their experiences, a true understanding of their lives proves difficult. Archaeology, oral histories, accounts authored by Zephaniah Kingsley, official documents and photographic evidence help to provide clues, though.
In 1821, the United States purchased Florida from Spain in 1821. It’s important to note that Spanish society had relatively liberal policies with regard to race, but the new American territorial laws brought many changes. Conditions for Florida’s black population, free and enslaved, deteriorated rapidly and Kingsley, who was against the restrictive laws, found himself arguing that more humane treatment would ensure peace and the perpetuation of slavery. In 1828, he published these opinions in “A Treatise on The Patriarchal, or Co-operative System of Society As It Exists in Some Governments . . . Under the Name of Slavery.”
When they felt that the political climate was irreversible, Kingsley, Anna Jai and their sons moved to Haiti in 1837. Kingsley reported that this was to escape a “spirit of intolerant prejudice.” Kingsley established a colony for his family and some of his former slaves. In 1839, Fort George Island was sold to his nephew Kingsley Beatty Gibbs. Zephaniah Kingsley died in New York City in 1843.
Stay tuned for our next post, when we start to really examine the tale of Old Red Eyes!
Local legends tell a harrowing tale of a ghostly spirit known to haunt the historic Kingsley Plantation. What revenant wanders the pastoral landscape and crumbling tabby walls of the slave quarters? If you believe the lore, it is the spirit of Old Red Eyes. Weird Florida shares the story on their website:
“Old Red Eyes is the wicked spirit of a slave that raped, brutalized, and killed, several of the plantation’s female slaves. He was caught by the other slaves and hanged from an oak tree near the entrance to the plantation. Although there are no historical records that document these events.”
The disclaimer they’ve appended to the end is found with nearly every description of Old Red Eyes. This, of course, leaves quite a bit of room for folkloric embellishment, which left us curious with regard to the life and times of those purportedly involved in this frightening tale.
If you’re a long-time fan of The GRIM Society, you probably already know what it means when our curiosity is peaked; if you’re a new visitor to our site, we hope you’re prepared to learn to love learning! We’re breaking this story up into a few posts, since there is a lot of history to cover and we have some really wonderful photographs to share with you.
Anna Kingsley: Senegalese Princess
Forget what you were taught about slavery. Rid yourself of preconceived notions of slave traders, plantation owners, and even of the life led by those held in captivity. Now imagine a young slave trader who, thanks to his growing wealth, is able to purchase a young black woman from the slave markets in Cuba.
Her name was Anta and she was West African, captured in present day Senegal. Her home country was ripped apart by warring factions and slave raids were frequent. There are rumors that Anna was born into the royal family, but these have yet to be substantiated. It is believed that Anna was 13 years old when she was purchased from the salve market in the fall of 1806.
Anna now belonged to a man who was both slave trader and plantation owner: Zephaniah Kingsley. Later, Zephaniah wrote that he and Anta, were married in a traditional African ceremony “in a foreign land” (likely Cuba) and that her name had been changed to Anna. By the time she arrived at Kingsley’s plantation in Laurel Grove, she was pregnant.
The Kingsley’s Plantations: Slavery in Spanish Florida
The slaves at Laurel Grove worked under a task system. They were given a daily quota for whichever job they were assigned; once they reached this quota, they were free to pursue personal tasks. Many of the slaves had personal gardens, some were even craftsmen who sold their finished goods to neighboring plantations and kept the profits for themselves.
In 1811, Kingsley granted Anna legal emancipation. Kingsley also granted their three children emancipation at the same time. He later wrote of Anna, describing her as “a fine, tall figure, black as jet, but very handsome. She was very capable, and could carry on all the affairs of the plantation in my absence as well as I could myself. She was affectionate and faithful, and I could trust her.”
In 1813, now a free woman, Anna Kingsley petitioned the Spanish government for land and was awarded 5 acres across the river from Laurel Grove. To get the farm going, Anna purchased goods, livestock, and 12 slaves.
A New Start
Zephaniah Kingsley was kidnapped in 1813. His captors wanted him to endorse the Patriot Rebellion, an attempt by Americans to annex Florida to the United States. Americans and the allied Creek Indians raided towns and plantations in north Florida; any person of color who was captured was sent into slavery, regardless of their legal status. These Patriots seized Laurel Grove and 41 of its slaves. They used the facilities as a headquarters while carrying out additional raids.
Anna approached the Spanish and negotiated for her escape, bringing along her children and a dozen slaves. Then she did something so brazen it still rings with defiance: she burned Kingsley’s plantation to the ground while the Spanish watched, then asked the Spanish to escort her to her own homestead, which she also set ablaze, preventing its use by the Patriots.
After the war the Spanish government granted Anna 350 acres thanks to her actions.
We’re going to leave off here today. Next up, the founding of the Fort George Island plantation and Anna’s House. Don’t miss it!
Over the past few days we have continued to research the Devil’s Tree and the legends surrounding it. We’ve come up with some very interesting information that we wanted to share. In order to explain the information to the fullest, we’ll break it down into sections.
Oak Hammock Park is a local hangout for fishermen and boaters along the C-24 Canal. On January 8th, 1973, long before the park was built, the deranged serial killer beat, raped, hung, then buried 2 girls beneath the “Devil Tree”.
A bit of research into this has shown us that this part of legend is actually untrue. Let’s start with the date. According to the legend, the murders took place on January 8th. The truth is that the victims, 19-year-old Iowa residents Collette Goodenough and Barbara Ann Wilcox, left Biloxi, Mississippi and began hitchhiking to Florida around that time; however, an exact date of their death was never established. We can confirm that they disappeared between January 8th and January 15, 1973- when serial killer Gerard Schaefer was jailed for assaulting two other hitchhikers, Pamela Sue Wells and Nancy Ellen Trotter.
Wells and Trotter managed to exact a narrow escape from Schaefer, who left them handcuffed and gagged, “balanced on tree roots with nooses around their necks, at risk of hanging if they slipped and fell.” Schaefer left the area and the two escaped, leading to the capture of Schaefer. You might find yourself wondering how we know he is tied to the remains of Goodenough and Wilcox. The answer was found in Schaefer’s mother’s home during a search- a passport, diary and book of poetry owned by Collette Goodenough and the drivers license of Barbara Wilcox. Because of this, we can reasonably assume that Schaefer murdered Goodenough and Wilcox, but the date of the murders would fall between January 8th and January 15th, most likely somewhere after the 8th as they would have had to hitched all the way to the Treasure Coast prior to him discovering them.
The next point that is made in this first section of the legend is that the women were hung from the Devil’s Tree and then buried beneath it. Both of these points are actually incorrect. According to newspaper articles discovered during our research, the remains were actually scattered in a palmetto thicket several hundred feet from the tree; additionally, there is this statement, taken from the same article:
“Former St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Detective Rick McIlwain, now an investigator for the State Attorney’s Office, said he found several pieces of the Iowa girls’ dismembered bodies at the base of a small tree off Leafy Road, about 300 feet from the oak.”
In January 1977, almost 4 years to the day that the murders were committed, two fishermen discovered the skeletal remains of the two bodies, and the hanging ropes were also found.
Yet again we can turn to eyewitness reports to debunk this portion of the legend. An article run by the Palm Beach Post in the 1990s, which focused on the history and fate of the Devil’s Tree, tells us:
“West Palm Beach resident XXXXXX, who found the Iowa girls’ bones when he was having a barbecue with friends off Leafy Road 16 years ago, was happy to hear the mighty oak will be spared and called it “one of the finest live oak specimens around.”
“Investigators believe Schaefer hanged his victims up with telephone wire in the smaller tree by kicking out an orange crate from beneath their feet. Wire and a crate were found near the small tree, which also may have been an oak, McIlwain said. Authorities removed a branch believed used in the murders and still have it in an evidence locker, sources said.”
As you can see, this pretty much decimates that section of the legend. However, the same article reveals something previously unknown about the Devil’s Tree:
“One of the inverted crosses was drawn by a friend with marital problems who committed suicide under the tree in 1983″
Over the years people have reported hearing screaming, and seeing hooded figures walking around the woods. In 1993 an exorcism was held, and a cross was erected, after two boys claimed to have seen a Satanic ritual taking place near the tree, and being chased away by the Satanists who yelled that they wanted their blood.
This rather astounding information has proven to be true. Again, from the article:
“After two children reported being chased by youths in black hoods off Leafy Road last weekend, XXXXXX and a group of pastors blessed the tree at neighbors’ urging Thursday and made plans to chop it down.”
This leads us into the remainder of the legend, which tells us:
Before the park was built, they were going to cut down the tree, but their chainsaws kept malfunctioning in the area surrounding the tree. They tried to cut down the tree manually with a two-man saw, but the teeth of the saw broke off, so they left the tree where it was.
We can not confirm or deny this portion of the legend at this time, but we did find this, again in the newspaper:
“Pastors gathered at a 150-year-old oak in Port St. Lucie Thursday and chanted, ‘ Demons be gone,’ to drive away the evil they say resided in the tree. The tree won a reprieve Friday when the owner decided not to cut it down.”
Whether that decision was based on a desire to preserve the tree or because the tree wouldn’t ‘allow’ itself to be cut down, we can’t say at this time.