“Where the waters meet” is the tagline of Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve tucked into a corner of northern Florida outside Jacksonville. Those waters are the Nassau and St. Johns rivers flowing into the Atlantic Ocean. This park is also a place where history and nature meet, and we found it to be a little jewel of a park that most people have probably never heard of.
We started at the Fort Caroline Visitor Center and strolled down to the recreated fort where French Huguenots established their first American colony in 1564. Local (and no longer existing) Timucua Indians contributed food and labor to build the triangular fort on the St. Johns River. The fort was no protection against the Spanish, however, who massacred most of the French a year later and largely ruled Florida for the next two centuries.
On the advice of the two very friendly and helpful rangers staffing the Visitor Center, we spent our first day hiking several looping trails in the Theodore Roosevelt section of the park. The paths wind through oak and palmetto forest, salt marsh and one extensive area with layer upon layer of oyster shells, which the Timucua piled in mounds.
The Willie Browne Trail cuts through the property owned by a man who lived in the area nearly all his life without electricity or indoor plumbing. A big fan of Theodore Roosevelt, Browne lived by Teddy’s axiom, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” A year before he died in 1970, Browne donated his land to The Nature Conservancy, which later transferred it to the National Park Service to create the preserve in 1990. We thoroughly enjoyed the hike and have adopted Teddy’s quote as yet another Project 100 refrain (another one being, courtesy of my wise brother, Matt, “The only thing in life you can control is your attitude”).
Our second day we drove out to the Ribault Club, formerly a private golf club on Fort George Island and now a preserved historic site in Timucuan. We had to time our kayak outing for the day pretty carefully. We wanted to move upriver with the tide coming in and have high enough water to avoid sharp oyster shells, then return with the tide going back out, all the while beating a thunderstorm that was in the forecast for mid-afternoon. What we didn’t factor in when looking at the tide chart was the clocks changing overnight for Daylight Savings Time! (We non-clock-changing Arizona residents tend to forget about such frivolities.) As we were putting in our kayaks at the small boat launch behind the old clubhouse, a local couple told us it was already high tide, so we hurried to paddle upriver before the tide would reverse the current on us.
We glided past a section of salt marsh over to the historic Kingsley Plantation, keeping an eye out for sharks that a ranger had told us sometimes come upriver in high tide. We had an easy, enjoyable two-hour paddle and were able to get back to the launch site with just enough time to dry out and fold up the kayaks before a few sprinkles arrived.
Despite the gray skies, it looked like the worst of the storm was still off in the distance, so we decided to check out the Kingsley Plantation from the land side. To get there we drove through a shaded tunnel of Spanish moss-draped live oak trees that gave this patch of forest a tropical, almost eerie atmosphere.
The eerie feeling stayed with us as we toured the plantation grounds. Despite its beautiful setting, Kingsley is monument to an ugly part of American history. Zephaniah Kingsley had made his fortune buying and selling slaves, then decided to go into the Sea Island cotton business in 1814 using slaves to build the house and work the plantation. The slaves lived some distance from the main home in 32 small cabins made of tabby, a cement composed of oyster shells and sand. Interestingly, he married one of the Senegalese slaves he had bought, Anna, and had four children with her, freeing her in 1811.
It’s impossible not to incur a stomach-churning feeling of shame reading about the treatment of slaves here in the South, even on plantations like this one. Kingsley reportedly believed that he could wrest higher profits out of his operations through “kindness” to his slaves. And signage at the plantation points out that Kingsley’s wife, Anna, went on to acquire her own land and slaves. No matter how you slice it, though, any profitability that depends on the exploitation and forced labor of human beings is undeserved.
In fact, Hector has found the use of “plantation-era” rather than “slave-era” to be a curious euphemism describing this period in history in interpretive materials throughout the South. Uncomfortable feelings aside, we enjoyed Timucuan immensely and were glad that we included this interesting, almost unheard-of park on our itinerary.