Zephaniah Kingsley, a Charleston merchant originally from New England, acquired a plantation in 1814 from John McInstosh. It had been built in 1797 on St. George Island (originally known as Fort Georgia Island) that is located northeast of Jacksonville, Florida at the mouth of the St. John’s River. He grew cotton, sugar cane, citrus and corn. Many strange stories grew around this two hundred year old property known as the Kingsley Plantation, but none more disturbing than the demon spirit of Old Red Eyes.
The first planter on the island after the occupation by the Timucuan Indians was John McQueen. He emigrated from South Carolina in 1791 with 300 slaves. In 1793, he was rewarded with Fort George Island, and five years later built the house later to become known as Kingsley Plantation. In 1804, he sold it to John McIntosh who farmed it successfully. In 1814, he rented it to Zephaniah Kingsley who bought it in 1817.
Zephaniah Kingsley was an unusual man for those times. In 1803, seeking lands he immigrated to Florida and took the Oath of Allegiance to Spain. He was granted tracts of land and established a plantation known as Laurel Groves. He knew an African language used by many of his slaves. He established a “task system” in which once a slave finished their tasks they were allowed to take care of their own business and keep the profits. They could also buy their freedom.
He married a Senegalese slave named Ana which he bought in a slave market in Havana Cuba. The union produced four children. She went on to gain her own freedom and become a landholder in her own right.
Zephaniah Kingsley worked his plantation Laurel Grove (located south of Jacksonville) with several slaves along with Ana and their children. On March 1, 1811, he signed a manumission which insured her freedom, and in 1813 she was granted land from the Spanish government to five acres on the St. Johns River close to Laurel Grove, She became a slaveholder herself with plans to grow and sell agriculture, however, during those years, there was conflict between Spain and the American government, and Laurel Grove plantation was destroyed as a result of several skirmishes.
In 1814, Zephaniah moved his household and slaves to Fort George Island and he took over an abandoned homestead which became known as the Kingsley Plantation. Ana spent the next 23 years of her life there. During the years the family lived there Zephaniah increased his holdings to include four major plantations. The house where the family lived is sometimes called the John “Don Juan” McQueen house, after the person who first built Kingsley Plantation. Ana lived in an upstairs room from where the kitchen was located with her children. Zephaniah and Ana engaged in a polygamous marriage and followed the common West African custom of wives living separately from their husband. Kingsley took three other wives, all slaves, while at Fort George Island. Two of them gave him children.
In 1821, Florida came under the dominion of the United States. Kingsley who had been a loyalist against the Americans during the Revolutionary War did not agree with American laws concerning slavery. In 1837, he moved his family and their slaves to Haiti where they established their own community named Mayorasgo De Koka (presently located in the Dominican Republic). Six years later, 78-year-old Zephaniah Kingsley died while visiting New York.
In 1839, Fort George Island was sold to his nephew Kingsley Beatty Gibbs.
Some of Zephaniah’s white relatives contested his will, but the law upheld the rights of his bi-racial children. In 1846, George, Ana’s oldest son was lost at sea. She decided to return to Florida where her daughters lived in Jacksonville. Her son John stayed in charge of the plantation in Haiti. During the Civil War, the family moved to New York, eventually returning to Florida. By 1866, the property no longer belonged to anyone in the Kingsley family. Ana died in 1870.
A New Hampshire farmer named John Rollins purchased the island in 1869 and being unsuccessful in agriculture built a luxury tourist resort. New England socialites came to winter on Fort George Island at this hotel. The slave quarters were displayed as tourist attractions. The hotel burned down in 1888, then the Rollins family successfully cultivated citrus until a freeze in 1894 destroyed their crop. Rollins' daughter's family was the last to live in the main house; she sold the island to private investors in 1923
Two clubs were constructed on the island for wealthy Jacksonville residents. One used the plantation house as a headquarters. Private clubs were popular until the Great Depression and they subsequently went out of fashion during World War II. The Florida Park Service acquired most of Fort George Island in 1955, including the plantation houses, barn, and slave quarters, calling it the Kingsley Plantation State Historic Site. The land was transferred to the National Park Service in 1991.
In present day, what is left of the Kingsley Plantation along with several slave quarters arranged in an arc south of the main house sits on 25 acres of what was once hundreds of acres of the original property. This is the domain of Old Red Eyes. He is said to be the spirit of a slave that raped and killed several female slaves. Other slaves hung him on an oak tree close to the entrance of the plantation.
There are also stories of a ghostly woman seen wearing a white dress, that appears only on photographs of the back porch of the main house. There are those who say this is the ghost of Ana. However there is a twist to this ghost story. If you are a good-hearted person you see the specter of a woman in a white dress, however if there is darkness in your heart what you see is a wolf with red eyes.
A child who drowned in a well on the property is said to be heard screaming around the perimeter of the well. Another sighting is a ghost alligator that’s said to guard the bottom of a mysterious stairwell.
Frances Duncan, a volunteer guide who worked there during 1970s and 80s, retold researcher Alan Brown stories of furniture moving around, the aroma of gingerbread baking in the kitchen. She also encountered a ghost of a turban-wearing African in the main house. Duncan said the rangers maintained a tradition of never saying “Goodnight, Mr. Kingsley,” as “something bad” may happen. One night when she uttered the phrase before thinking and soon after she started feeling sick.
From Weird USA a blog entry details a witness to the ghost of Old Red Eyes:
Another blog entry from a witness:
Another witness blog story:
Another story involves the Tabby House which is situated on the road leading to Kingsley Plantation. The slave quarters and barn also constructed from tabby.
A planter had started to build it as a home for his daughter, but he died before completing it. It remained this way, with only walls, but no roof, doors or windows. The ghost is said to be a ghost in white, similar to what is spotted on the back porch of the main house.
Considering that this land was inhabited for hundreds of years there is a good chance the ghosts encountered there had origins outside of the time the Kingsley family lived there.
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer