Tabby on Fort George Island

It’s not often that I can stroll around the great northeast part of Florida.

But when I am in the Fernandina Beach region, as my husband & I were recently to enjoy literature & dance a bit at the comprehensive & fun Amelia Island Book Festival, I think of shells.

This region’s coast is characterized by shelly public beaches. I have culled good whelks, olives and angel wings at Fort Clinch State Park in Fernandina Beach and also further south along Amelia Island and also at Little Talbot and Big Talbot islands, which are also state parks.

A particular architectural part of shell history connected to slaves places Amelia Island & its coastal neighbor,  Fort George Island, on many family history-focused travel journeys.

The shells involved were oyster shells, broken, mixed with lime and made into a construction material that picked up the name “tabby.”  When I first heard of this, I thought the color of this building material was taken from the popular nickname for kitties. But it’s not. Many people know that the oyster piles were left by earlier people in Florida, such as the Timucuans of the great northeast part of the state. But the connection to construction of slave cabins isn’t as widely known.

The stunning remains of 25 of 32 original tabby constructed cabins squat in a beige half-moon semi-circle on Fort George Island.

This unusual village site is at the immediate entry to a National Park Service historic site that provides excellent interpretation of the slave period in Florida. This is the Kingsley Plantation.  I like all the routes in my travel guide SCENIC DRIVING FLORIDA, but this is a favored one.

I am always stunned into silence when I am among the tabby cabins anew. The huts at the far end of the half-moon are most intriguing to me. They feel close to a dense jungle- like green understory, away from the drive into the park.

This makes it easier for me to imagine the children who the Kingsley family felt it owned, and also to think of the children’s mothers, attempting to make a life in these tiny shacks. We can thank piles of seashells for this lesson from 200 years ago.

How does the plantation connect to shells? Many buildings for slaves across the south were constructed of hand- me- down materials, and have disappeared through the ages. But where slave dwellings were made of tabby, some of them have endured. None more so than here. When parents who want to raise their children with a sense of history ask my top 10 sites in Florida to bring their children to, this is in that list.

An award-winning children’s novel for grades three through eight, by author M.C. Finotti,  focuses on  Mary Kingsley, one daughter in the unusual Kingsley family, whose mother was a tribal member kidnapped in Africa about age 13 as a slave. Ana Jai later became her white master’s wife, equal to him in owning & supervising his plantation property including the slaves. For more on that Mary Kingsley book:

M.C. Finotti is a former teacher and television producer who is a frequent presenter in schools on this important topic.

Contact Bookseedstudio: JGAoffice at / Jan Godown Annino