Named for the Timucua Natives, who inhabited the region, the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve spreads over thousands of acres Northeast of Jacksonville, Florida. The Preserve, under the auspices of the National Park System, consists of Fort Caroline, Teddy Roosevelt Ecological Preserve, Kingsley Plantation, Ribault Club, American Beach, and many smaller units. Each unit has a unique story to tell.
The Timucua Nation settled this region for thousands of years. Both the men and the women were over six feet tall. Oysters and other sea creatures provided much of the protein in their diet. Eight-foot high middens of shells with tree growing from them dot the Teddy Roosevelt Ecological Preserve.
Their first known encounter with Europeans was with Jean Ribault and his French Huguenots in 1562. Catherine d’Medici allowed Ribault and company to sail to the New World, for God, glory and gold (not necessarily in that order). This was the beginning of the religious wars between the Catholics and Protestants in Europe. Catherine tried to relieve some of the pressure by letting Ribault explore the New World. He sailed into the Mai River, a.k.a., St. Johns River and encountered the Timucua, who were very friendly. He left a marker there and proceeded Northward into present day Charleston SC, where he established a small fort. Leaving a few men, he promised to return with reinforcements and supplies. He was slow to keep his promise, because he was imprisoned. When he did return, three years later, he could find no one there.
Meanwhile Rene de Laudonniere brought three hundred settlers to the Fort de la Caroline. One of group was the French artist Jacques le Moyne de Morgues who recorded the life of the Timucua on paper. These drawings were later published in France. The Timucua and French were allies. But when the Timucua asked for French help in a dispute with another group, the French refused. Relations between the two nations went South after that.
Fort de la Caroline was nicely situated near an eighty-foot high bluff overlooking the Spanish galleons heading to Spain loaded with the gold that the French sought. The Spanish caught wind of the French presence and sent Pedro de Menendez with ships of soldiers to remove Fort Caroline. He arrived shortly after Ribault returned with his men. The French ships were faster and more maneuverable than the Spanish galleons. Menendez retreated twenty-seven miles South and built a fort there at present-day St. Augustine. Ribault, against the advice of Laudonniere, sailed his fleet to destroy the Spanish. A hurricane struck them and they were marooned. Menendez retaliated by attacking Fort Caroline via land. Few Frenchmen escaped back to France, including le Moyne. Menendez found Ribault. He massacred him and all his men. Not only were they the hated French, but also Huguenots.
The present Fort Caroline is a replica of the original fort, which lies somewhere in the middle of the St. Johns River. The Visitors Center has many interesting displays about the Fort, the Timucua and the area. One of the most interesting objects is a ten-foot tall owl totem. This was found in the swamp near Gainesville, FL. It was carved using shark teeth and seashells. With five toes on each foot it stands on a perch looking at the passersby. The feathering on its back is exquisite. Also in the collection is a dug out canoe, which was not very useful. After spending so much time hollowing out the log, the natives found an unseen knot. When it was placed in the water, it sank.
Across the St. John River on Fort George Island sits Kingsley Plantation. The plantation house dates from about 1797, but has been closed to the public for the past seven years due to restoration work. New exhibits are panned for the house once it opens in the future. The plantation also has a large barn, a house that was the kitchen and alternative living quarters; Union Hall with meeting hall and employee residences upstairs and many tabby slave quarters.
Tabby is a building material found here, in Southern Georgia, and East Africa. The lime-based mortar is leeched from seashells and other ingredients, which cannot be duplicated as of this date. Seashells also form the aggregate forming the walls of the quarters. Each one has two rooms, is well ventilated. The houses are arranged in an arc facing the plantation house.
The principle crop grown there was Sea Island cotton, which is the finest cotton in the world; far superior to upland cotton, Egyptian cotton and Indian cotton. The plants grow to a height of seven feet and are harvested over a month’s time. The cotton has long fibers and cannot be ginned, because the fibers will be destroyed. The seeds, however, are smooth. So the cotton can be processed by hand; a very labor-intensive product. The last time it was commercially grown was during World War II. It was used for making parachutes, because silk was in short supply. Nylon and other synthetics have replaced the need for Sea Island cotton. You can see it growing in the small garden at the plantation. Sugar cane was also grown on the plantation and indigo under previous owners. Indigo is also labor intensive and those processing it have a short life expectancy, because of its carcinogenic properties.
Zephaniah Kingsley owned the plantation in the early nineteenth century. He was a slave trader from Charleston, SC and came to Florida to make his fortune. After the Patriot War of 1813, he purchased the plantation for pennies on the dollar and lived there from 1814-1836. He purchased a young slave girl in Havana, Cuba whose name was Anna Madgigine Jai. She had been a princess in Senegal, Africa, but was sold into slavery. After fathering three children with Anna, Zephaniah married her and manumissioned her in 1811. As a present he have her five acres. She petitioned the Spanish government for more acreage bought slaves and worked the land. She helped the Spanish win the war. They compensated her for her loses and gave her more acreage. She and her husband continued to buy up the land and ended with 32,000 acres, more than 200 slaves, and four working plantations.
When Florida became a territory of the United States (a hostile takeover) in 1821 Zephaniah was a member of the board to determine the kind of slavery which would be the law in Florida. Under Spanish rule a slave could buy his/her freedom, unlike the other states. Florida had been the end of the Underground Railroad under Spanish rule. Zephaniah lost the battle. Seeing that his family was in jeopardy of being enslaved again, he left Florida and started a new plantation in free Haiti.
He died shortly afterwards at the age of seventy-eight. After his death his white relatives contested his will and vied for Anna and her children’s inheritance. She returned to Florida and overcoming insurmountable odds won in court. She continued to live in the new Jacksonville on the St. John River. Kingsley Plantation had been sold to a relative previous to Zephaniahs death. When the Civil War erupted, Anna decided to move to New York to avoid the hostilities. She returned to Jacksonville after the war and died in 1870. She left no photographs, any letters. Her will of 1860 states that she had $3,000 in cash and four Negro slaves.
The Theodore Roosevelt Area offers the visitor 600 acres of quiet and solitude in an urban environment. Miles of trails take the visitor past eight-foot high middens of shells accumulated by the Timucua Natives over the centuries. Trees grow from their midst as a testimonial to the power of nature. A walk to the observation tower allows the visitor a view of the St. Johns River estuary salt marsh. At low time the oysters clack their shells in a concert. Look for heron, egrets and other birds that frequent the area.
Willie Browne, born in 1890, lived here his entire life and gave The Theodore Roosevelt Area in 1969 to The Nature Conservancy. In 1990 it became part of the National Park Service so that others could enjoy the beauty of “Old Florida”. Willie allowed no hunting on his property. It remains as pristine today as it was during his life. Developers offered him large sums of money so they could develop it. He wanted the property named after his favorite president, Theodore Roosevelt.
The Ribault Club on Fort George Island was built in 1928 as a resort for the rich and famous, who traveled there by boat. It sported a golf course, tennis courts, dining room, yachting facilities, etc. Membership declined during the Depression. It fell into disrepair, but subsequently has been restored to it former grandeur. The facilities are available for rental today for weddings, meetings, etc. One area contains exhibits about its history and the history of Fort George Island.
A recent acquisition to The Timucuan Historical and Ecological Preserve is The American Beach Sand Dune. American Beach on Amelia Island was one of the few beaches on the South Atlantic Coast open to the African American Community. Great Jazz musicians would meet there on weekends and play on. Local citizens flocked to the beach in numbers. Hurricane Dora destroyed much of the area in 1964 and The Civil Rights Act put the final nail into the coffin, because Daytona, Miami and other places opened their beaches to the African American. MaVynee Betsch, who passed away in 2005, tirelessly preserved this little place of history. A visitor center is planned in the future to preserve this unique location.