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Thomson Tabby House | Photo © 2023, www.abandonedfl.com

Thomson Tabby House

Location Class:
Built: 1854 | Abandoned: 1855
Status: Gutted
Photojournalist: David Bulit

Early History of Fort George Island

Known as the Thomson Tabby House, this is the foundation of a home that Charles R. Thomson had begun constructing on Fort George Island in Jacksonville but was never completed due to his death. Fort George Island is at the southern end of a chain of barrier islands known as the “Sea Islands,” typically associated with the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. Fort George Island is best known for the Kingsley Plantation located on the far northwest corner of the island as well as the historic Ribault Club and the lesser-known Neff House.

According to historical records, the island was originally called Alicamani village, which was the land of a Timucua-speaking tribe known as Saturiwa. The Native Americans settled in this area starting from 1000 B.C. and used the waterway systems and marshes for hunting and fishing. The Timucua way of life is evidenced by large mounds of discarded oyster shells that still remain today, referred to as “middens.”

In 1562, French explorer Jean Ribault claimed the island, where he first encountered the Timucuan Indians. The Spanish Mission of San Juan del Puerto was founded on the island in 1587, and the Saturiwa tribes made peace with the Spaniards. However, the mission was not destined to survive for long. In 1702, during the War of Spanish Succession, an English raid led by Governor James Moore of South Carolina destroyed the mission, along with other Spanish settlements in the area. This marked the beginning of a period of British control over the island and the surrounding region.

In 1736, British General James Oglethorpe built a wooden fort known as Fort St. George for the fight for Florida territory from Spain. The fort was built on the tallest sand dune on the eastern seaboard referred to today as Mount Cornelia. Fort St. George was later abandoned, but the entire island retained the name.

Jean Ribault was a major figure in the French attempts to colonize Florida, laying claim to Fort George Island in 1562. Three years later, he took over command of the nearby French colony of Fort Caroline. Spanish Governor of Florida, Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, had simultaneously been dispatched from Spain with orders to remove the French outpost and arrived within days of Ribault’s landing. After a brief skirmish between Ribault’s ships and Menéndez’s ships, the latter retreated 35 miles southward, where they established the settlement of St. Augustine.

Ribault pursued the Spanish with several of his ships and most of his troops, but he was surprised at sea by a violent storm lasting several days. At the same time, Menéndez launched a surprise attack on Fort Caroline by marching his forces overland during the storm on September 20, 1565. Of the 250 people at Fort Caroline, about 50 women and children were spared while the rest were massacred. Ribault’s fleet was largely destroyed by the storm with all of the ships either sinking or running aground south of St. Augustine. Ribault and his marooned sailors marched northwards and were eventually located by Menéndez with his troops and summoned to surrender. Believing his men would be treated well, Ribault agreed. Instead, he and his men, all of which were French Protestants, were massacred as heretics at what is now known as the Matanzas Inlet.

Kingsley Plantation

In 1791, John McQueen, a Scottish merchant and planter, acquired Fort George Island as a reward from the Spanish government. McQueen moved to the island and established a timbering operation on the nearby St. Johns River, which was a critical transportation route for goods and raw materials in the region. As the island was in a highly valued location, it was vulnerable to attacks from pirates and privateers, who frequently prowled the waters of the St. Johns River in search of valuable cargo. To protect his operation, McQueen built a fortified mansion on the island in 1797, which still stands today as the Kingsley Plantation.

John Houston McIntosh purchased the Fort George Island plantation in 1804 from John McQueen, whose health was failing. McIntosh became involved in the Patriot War, an attempt in 1812 to foment a rebellion in Spanish East Florida with the intent of annexing the province to the United States. However, McIntosh fled Florida the following year during the disintegration of that movement and was later banned from returning by the Spanish government. Unable to inhabit his Florida plantation, McIntosh rented it to Zephaniah Kingsley Jr. for whom the plantation is currently named.

Kingsley moved his family to Fort George Island in 1814 and purchased the island from McIntosh just three years later. The Kingsley family remained at Fort George Island, continuing to grow cotton, oranges, and staple crops, until 1837, when they emigrated to Haiti. After taking his family to Haiti, Kingsley sold the Fort George Island plantation to two nephews, Ralph King and Kingsley Beatty Gibbs in 1839. This choice was likely influenced by the political climate of the time as the slavery abolitionist movement was on the rise.

Ralph King though was not at all interested in the island plantation and eventually sold his share to his cousin, Kingsley Beatty Gibbs. After his marriage to Laura Williams of Savannah, Georgia, Gibbs moved to the island in 1841. His slaves worked the soil to produce cotton, but the land was degrading by this point, producing fewer and fewer bales of cotton every year. The Gibbs family left Fort George Island in 1852 and sold it the next year to John Lewis. Two years later, John Lewis sold Fort George Island to Charles Russell Thomson of South Carolina.

Zephaniah Kingsley Jr.

Charles Russell Thomson

Charles Russell Thomson was born on October 25, 1794, the son of William Russell and Elizabeth Sabb Thomson. He was the grandson of Revolutionary War veteran, William “Old Danger” Thomson. William Thomson was a native of Pennsylvania, and a relative of Charles Thomson, a secretary of the Continental Congress. He was born about the year 1727, and while a child, was taken to Orangeburgh District in South Carolina.

William served as sheriff of Orangeburgh and was elected to the First Provincial Congress in January and June of 1775. He was commissioned as lieutenant colonel and commandant of the 3rd South Carolina Regiment of Rangers on June 18, 1775, and later promoted to colonel on May 16, 1776. On June 18, 1776, he led his regiment in the Battle of Sullivan’s Island for which he was recognized as a hero amongst the people of South Carolina. The battle is sometimes referred to as the first siege of Charleston, owing to a more successful British siege in 1780.

The Siege of Charleston took place between March 28 to May 12, 1780, considered one of the worst defeats of the Revolutionary War. At the fall of Charleston on May 12, 1780, William Thomson was taken prisoner and was paroled until the end of the war. He returned to his estate at Belleville, South Carolina, where he continued the pursuit as an indigo planter. Because of poor health, he moved to Sweet Springs, Virginia, in hopes that the medicinal springs would cure his ailments. He died there on November 22, 1796.

wm thomson 1727 1796 c2a9 image gibbes museum of art carolina art association website6
William “Old Danger” Thomson at age 63. Gibbes Museum of Art / Carolina Art Association
Thomson Tabby House

After purchasing Fort Geroge Island in 1854, Charles Thomson sent more than fifty of his enslaved laborers from Orangeburg District, South Carolina to Fort George Island to cultivate cotton, although he himself never moved there. He ordered the construction of a tabby house which was to be the home of his daughter and her husband, Charlotte Lucilla Thomson and Charles Heyward Barnell. Charles Thomson died a year later on July 21, 1855, and the building was never finished.

As the name suggests, the house was constructed of tabby, often called coastal concrete, which is basically manmade coquina. Tabby is composed of lime from burned oyster shells mixed with sand, water, ash, and other shells. As far back as the 1600s, Spanish and English settlers used tabby to build their homes and other structures, and to pave their roads, throughout the coastal Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. The slave cabins at Kingsley Plantation were also constructed of this material. Its origin is up for debate but likely originated in the coastal regions of Africa.

Tabby house ruins on Fort George Island in Jacksonville, Florida. State Library and Archives of Florida
Quarters for former slaves, made of tabby concrete, at the Kingsley Plantation. State Library and Archives of Florida

Following Thomson’s death, Charles H. Barnwell purchased Fort George, Batton, Big Sister, Little Sister, and Fanning Islands in 1860 from the estate of his deceased father-in-law for $6,280. That spring, Barwnell moved his wife and infant daughter to Fort George Island, bringing with them twenty enslaved laborers. Their work that first year would have included tilling and replanting the fields, which had lain fallow for the past two years.

On Christmas Eve 1863, Barnwell joined the Confederate Army and likely moved his family and slaves back to South Carolina. With the nationwide abolition of slavery following the war in 1866, Barnwell found himself unable to continue farming without his slave force and sold the property to two northern investors, George W. Beach, and Abner Keeney. Today, Kingsley Plantation and the Thomson Tabby House are open to the public and offer free admission, both of which are maintained by the Florida Park Service and the National Park Service.

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David Bulit is a photographer, author, and historian from Miami, Florida. He has published a number of books on abandoned and forgotten locales throughout the United States and continues to advocate for preserving these historic landmarks. His work has been featured throughout the world in news outlets such as the Miami New Times, the Florida Times-Union, the Orlando Sentinel, NPR, Yahoo News, MSN, the Daily Mail, UK Sun, and many others. You can find more of his work at davidbulit.com as well as amazon.com/author/davidbulit.

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