I’ve been a history buff for some time, believing that the more you understand about the way things were, the more you start to understand about the way things are.
In the course of living in and traveling around Southwest Florida, I was aware of a historic site near Bradenton called the Gamble Plantation but had never visited it until recently. A 16-acre state park, the grounds include a restored mansion, built in the 1840s in columned Greek Revival style, and several other structures — a cistern, a wood-frame house built in the 1890s, remnants of a sugar mill, old drainage canals and an odd building with four compartments whose function is unknown.
Historically, Florida isn’t associated with the plantation culture of the Deep South to the same degree as states like Mississippi and Louisiana. But there were plenty of plantations in the state before the Civil War. More than 1,000 cotton-producing operations existed by 1850, most in an area south of the Georgia border between the Apalachicola and Suwannee rivers that was then known as Middle Florida.
Among the immigrants to Middle Florida in the 1820s were members of the Gamble family, Virginians who amassed 10,000 acres east of Tallahassee and grew cotton and tobacco. Part of their plan was to grow sugarcane, but Middle Florida’s soil and weather made that venture problematic.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government, to push economic expansion south, waged two wars against the Seminole Indians, killing or relocating most and driving the rest into southern Florida. To discourage insurgency by the surviving Seminoles and encourage white settlers, the federal government passed a law, the Armed Occupation Act of 1842, which gave 160 acres to anyone with a rifle who could maintain a house and grow crops for five years.
Surfing on the settlement surge, Robert Gamble came south in 1844. He was familiar with the area because he’d served nearby in the second war against the Seminoles. He and his brothers, John Jr. and William, acquired more than 3,400 acres along the Manatee River with an eye toward growing sugarcane and manufacturing sugar and molasses.
The Gambles were somewhat inept and very unlucky, according to a 2008 graduate thesis written by a student at the University of South Florida, Felicia Bianca Silpa. William was killed during a hurricane in 1848. Fire destroyed the first sugarcane harvested in 1849, along with crops in the field and the wooden sugar mill. Sugar prices fluctuated. A frost destroyed crops one year, and the Gambles took on too much debt as they expanded.
By 1854, the plantation had gone through two foreclosures, and the Gambles were forced to sell it in 1858 to businessmen from New Orleans. The land subsequently passed to other owners — at one point a fertilizer company used the mansion to store manure. The property ended up in the hands of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who were interested because Judah Benjamin, the secretary of state for the Confederacy, hid out at the mansion as he fled the U.S. for England after the defeat of the Confederate rebellion in 1865.
Florida can thank the UDC for buying the property and deeding it to the state as a park in 1925. The tour of the mansion offers an interesting look at many aspects of daily life and 1850s technology, including the use of a construction material called tabby — a mixture of lime, oyster shells, water and sand — and design features meant to mitigate Florida’s heat and humidity.
The legacy is mixed, however. Missing in the historical record I’ve summarized, and also in the otherwise informative tour and exhibits, is any direct, forthright acknowledgement that the whole “way of life” embodied in plantation culture — and celebrated at the park — depended on the enslavement of Africans. My tour guide spoke of the slaves and the tasks they performed, from clearing the land to digging miles of drainage canals to cutting and processing cane. But he talked of them in the same way as if they had been hired hands, not human chattel with no choice where to sell their labor or where to live. And, of course, they had to live in families where a spouse or child could be sold off at the owner’s need.
When he sold the plantation in 1858, Gamble listed the names of 185 enslaved people. There’s no other information about them. In his writings, “Gamble’s tone concerning his enslaved people is much like a farmer who views the economic value of his livestock,” Silpa wrote in her thesis. The lack of historical context at the Gamble mansion extends to where slaves lived — despite archeological explorations, the location of the slave cabins is unknown.
Meanwhile, the UDC has branded the park as the “Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial at Gamble Plantation Historic State Park.” There’s a granite marker memorializing Confederate soldiers and several paintings of Robert E. Lee, who came to Florida once after the Civil War but didn’t get farther south than Palatka.
It’s impossible to imagine many black Americans — even those who determined that an ancestor had been enslaved at the Gamble property — would feel comfortable visiting the park given its Confederate memorial overlay.
I understand that working people — enslaved or not — mostly end up nameless in history books. And I understand that there is little we can do now about “the way things were” in bygone times, aside from create as much opportunity as we can for all Americans today. The point here is not to guilt-monger, just to encourage the state to do better at presenting an honest, historical record that reflects the “way things were” for everybody, not just the guy in the big house.
— Mark Howard, Executive Editor
Read more in Florida Trend's April issue.
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