Updated: Aug 13
The Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve is a 46,000 acre preserve that lies on Florida’s Atlantic coast in Jacksonville. This geographical area, with abundant plant and marine life, has been home to different ethnic groups dating back to the pre-Columbian Timucuan peoples.
In 1562, French explorers landed in this area claimed the land, followed by a group of French Huguenots who arrived to colonize the area two years later.
Spanish colonists had already staked their claim to the Florida territory, irrespective of the natives livings there, and created a settlement forty-miles south at St. Augustine. When word reached them about French settlers building a village, they promptly attacked.
The Spanish took over the area that now encompasses the preserve in the mid-16th century. Other than a twenty-year period (1763-1783) when the Spanish ceded Florida to the British, the Spanish maintained control of Florida until the United States acquired it in 1819 through the Florida Purchase Treaty.
Native Americans already lived on the lands that the European colonists fought over. In northeast Florida, they were known as the Timucuan people. According to the National Park Service brochure, “Today, no known indigenous people call themselves Timucuan.” European diseases and fighting decimated these pre-Columbian people by the 1700s. We know about their presence today thanks to the shell mounds and artifacts they left behind.
We began our tour at the Timucuan Visitor's Center, where we viewed exhibits with artifacts and information before heading out to the many points of interest on the property.
Timucuan Visitor’s Center
Though the visitor’s center is small, the National Park Service has loaded it with information about the ecological features of the preserve.
The exhibits in the visitor’s center provided a chronological view of the people who inhabited the area, beginning with how the Timucuan Indians lived off the land. This group hunted, fished, made dugout canoes, and used the area’s waterways for transportation.
The exhibits delve into European settlement, as well as the start of the plantation period, when the British cleared the land and used slaves to plant and harvest Sea Island cotton.
Next, we visited the replica of Fort Caroline. This is a 1/3 scale model based on sketches from that time.
Timucuan Indians helped the French settlers build the fort and supplied them with food. However, as the French settlers began to starve, they fought with the natives and lost their much-needed support.
The National Park Service constructed the Fort Caroline replica of wooden logs in 1974. It has several cannons on its interior overlooking the St. John’s River.
As it stands, there is a debate among some scholars about whether French settlers actually constructed Fort Caroline in Jacksonville. To date, no one has found concrete evidence to confirm or dispute the location of the original fort and settlement. For more information, check out the links included below.
The Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve rests on Fort George Island. Dating back to the mid-1700s, this island was owned by different men, starting with Richard Hazard, who brought in slaves to work on his indigo plantation. By 1791, the island was owned by John McQueen, who turned it into a Sea Island cotton plantation. In 1798, his slaves built the plantation home that was eventually purchased by Zephaniah Kingsley, which still stands as a protected site on the island today.
Zephaniah Kingsley immigrated from England to Spanish Florida in his thirties. He purchased his future wife, Anta Madgigine Jai, from an auction in Havana in 1806. Anta was part of an elite slave-owning family before she was captured by raiders in her Senegal village at the age of thirteen.
Zephaniah took Anta as one of his slave wives and changed her name to Anna. He freed Anna in 1811, gifted her land and slaves, and placed her in charge of managing the plantation because of her prior experience managing slaves in Africa.
The Spanish, who controlled the territory upon Zephaniah’s arrival, were considered liberal in their beliefs about race by colonial standards. Slaves, like those belonging to the Kingsleys, could purchase their freedom from their owners, and eventually own land themselves.
This practice changed when the United States purchased Florida. Free blacks, like Anna Kingsley and her children, faced increased racial prejudice. In 1837, Zephaniah moved his family to the only free black settlement in the Western hemisphere, in Haiti.
Today, visitors to the Kingsley Plantation can see remnants of the plantation home and twenty-five of the original slave cabins. Skilled slaves built these cabins using a material called tabby, formed by cooking oyster shells (harvested from Native American shell mounds) in water until they created lime, which was combined with whole oyster shells and sand, forming a type of cement.
Visitors can walk through the barn, also constructed of tabby, to view exhibits about the atrocities of slave labor and what daily life was like for slaves.
Because of aging and other environmental factors, the National Park Service has limited the number of visitors allowed inside the plantation home. Guided tours are available on weekends. If you’d like to see the inside of the house, contact the park to schedule a tour.
There are several hiking trails available at the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. Keep in mind, if you visit this area from May through September, like we did, the weather may hinder your ability to use these trails. When we visited, the feels-like temperature was over a hundred degrees, the humidity and bugs were thick and intense, and the threat of thunderstorms loomed over us.
The Green Trail passes through Timucuan shell mounds and takes approximately forty-five to ninety minutes to hike.
The Hammock Trail is a 1.4-mile loop which takes approximately thirty minutes to walk through. The park allows leashed dogs on this trail.
Don’t forget to check out the observation tower at Round Marsh, in the Theodore Roosevelt wilderness area. This tower overlooks a salt marsh ecosystem and is a great spot for bird-watching.
Know Before You Go
This park is free for all visitors. There are no parking fees at any location in the preserve. National Park Passport Holders can find the park’s stamp at the Timucuan Visitor’s Center and the small museum/gift shop at Kingsley Plantation.
The Junior Ranger activity at the park involves a scavenger hunt around the property for kids eight-years-old and up. There is also a worksheet activity for children seven-years-old and under.
Though our trip took about three hours, we could have spent twice that amount of time here if the weather had permitted. Depending on how many activities your family would like to do at the preserve, and on Fort George Island, you could easily set aside a whole day for your visit.
There is one restaurant on Fort George Island, the Sandollar Restaurant. Due to our limited time at the preserve, we found it easier to bring our food and drinks. Please keep in mind the park does not allow food and drinks in the museums and exhibits.
Broaden Your Horizons
To learn more about the life of Anta Madgigine Jai and the Kingsley Plantation: https://wams.nyhistory.org/building-a-new-nation/early-expansion/anna-madgigine-jai-kingsley/#resource
For more information about Fort Caroline, click here:
For more information about accessibility, audio tours, hours of operation for each site, and things to do at the park: