Slaves of A. H. Cole of Putnam County Florida

(There is an update at the end of this post thanks to the hard work of Daniel L. Schafer)

White southern tradition holds that we readily lament the loss of our plantations…whether we held one or not. We openly speak of the antebellum south and everything that happened to us during that time. We mourn the loss of what we’ve been taught was a happier and simpler time. We pass down as much as we can through oral tradition and records kept in crumbling family bibles. Basically, we got to keep our memories.

But for blacks born of the American south, those memories were often too painful to have any desire to readily recall. Blacks didn’t get to keep their memories…their memories of the era would be dictated to them instead.

I think it’s time to remedy this.

In researching the non-white side of my family I noticed a startling lack of information available. Most non-whites, free or otherwise, aren’t even named in antebellum census or other documents. There are few court and other records available since most areas of the United States did not allow slaves and other non-whites legal recourse against grievances. This means that a significant portion of the American population has almost no way to find their roots. And what is available is only available with payment. I have a problem with this.

Slaves were an integral part of our society for hundreds of year. They carved out huge swathes of this country and made it ready for habitation. Step one for every plantation was always: have the slaves clear the area. These men and women were the ones who quite literally built this nation. They, and their amazing accomplishments, should not be forgotten simply because remembering makes you uncomfortable.

Because of that, I’ve decided to list as much as I can concerning the slaves my family owned. I hope that someone finds their ancestry in the limited information I can provide.

I’ve already mentioned a slave called Prince, and possibly his family, and a slave called Peter. This time I am focusing on another wealthy planter in Putnam County Florida named Archibald H. Cole.

I’m going to give as much as I can on his history. I’m not doing this to brag about how many people we once owned. I’m doing this in the hopes that someone can piece together their own roots through the information I can provide.

Because slaves were kept intentionally ignorant and uneducated, many families only have broken oral histories to rely on in finding their heritage. The name of some landmark, some abandoned town, or some event may be all that some families have had to try and place their roots. I’m going to provide as much as I can concerning local landmarks of the time, as well as neighbors and major events. My hope is that if I provide enough, it will help someone else find their past.

I’m luckier with Archibald than I was with my other ancestor, Louis Rossignol, in that the main plantation was the scene of a Civil War skirmish that included a regiment of colored soldiers liberating several slaves from Archibald’s plantation, as well as slaves from neighboring plantations. That story below.

Archibald H. Cole

Archibald Hamblin Cole (1813-1879) was a slave holder in Putnam County Florida from about 1840 until Emancipation. He came to Florida through Virginia and Georgia. He may have been part of the Militias raiding Florida before he settled here. He was also my great, great, great, great grandfather on my maternal grandfather’s side.

The family knows very little about this man; even though many of his descendants still reside in Putnam County. For years, the most persistent rumor was that he had died before his first son was born. I’ve since discovered that this was a rumor that was later started by his descendants because of social changes that had occurred which made being officially “legally” married important where it had not mattered before. The closer truth seems to be that Archibald and Susan, the mother of his first two children, simply decided they no longer cared for each other in that way and separated.

Everything we’ve been able to discover about him is recent information that has been made available through the work of those translating and digitizing the old documents from the Spanish and Territory periods of Florida.

We know that in 1840 Archibald is living in Duval County with a prominent mixed race woman named Susan Clarke. The couple had a daughter baptized in Fernandina in 1842; registered in the “colored baptisms” section. The names of the daughter (Mary Laura Cole) and the father were recorded, but not Susan’s. They had a son (John Henry Cole) in 1846; the romantic relationship seems to have ended sometime around John Henry’s birth.

He bought his first Florida property in 1846 in Marion County. He bought his first Putnam County property in 1848.

We know that he was buried in a small family cemetery in Orange Mills Florida.

We know he will eventually marry into a family that becomes notorious in their cruelty towards their slaves*; at least according to Neil Coker’s narrative of his life as a slave, documented in the WPA Slave Narratives. Much of the Mays family still lives in that area, possibly on that same property, to this day.

During the Civil War, Archibald served as Quartermaster and Inspector General under Gen. Joseph E Johnston. He attained the rank of Major and served as Quartermaster in Palatka until the end of the war.

We also recently discovered his application for Presidential pardon immediately following the Civil War.

He was also one of the founding members of the original Florida Historical Society that Benjamin A. Putnam began in 1856.

Archibald Cole was associated with the Mays, Call, Starke, and Lamar families; and had properties adjacent to families such as the Hernandez, Baza, and Sanchez families as well. Some of his slaves may have had children with slaves of these families.

For those not familiar with the location, Putnam County is located between St. Johns County (St. Augustine) and Alachua County (Gainesville) in Florida. The county seat is Palatka. Archibald Cole’s main industries, and the industries of his in laws, were located in and around small towns in Putnam County such as Starke, Bardin, Orange Mills, Bostwick, Hawthorne, and Grandin. Commonly mentioned landmarks in and around these areas at that time include Bellamy Road, Newnansville, Etoniah, Doctor’s Lake, Black Creek, Rice Creek, Deep Creek, Dunn’s Lake, Orange Lake, Lake George and George’s Lake. The names of everything in these areas changed a lot between the Second Spanish period and full statehood; but most of these names were fairly constant. Palatka itself was once spelled Pilatka; and was sometimes called Abraham’s village during the Second Seminole War. It was also the location of Fort Shannon, also called Fort Palatka (Pilatka). Palatka is one of several places along the northern St. Johns that was either narrow enough, or shallow enough, or both, to allow cattle to cross; and the name itself means “cow crossing” since it was a fordable area. It’s possible to confuse the location with Picolata and Cowford…which were both farther north.

We know that his main house was located on the west bank of the St. Johns River in a place called Orange Mills. His orange groves could be seen from the steamships traveling the river at the time.

His main property at Orange Mills, across the river from Palatka, was the site of a skirmish during the Civil War.

Col. James Montgomery’s Colored Troops attempt to take Palatka, and raid several plantations that lie across the river at Federal Point/Orange Mills. During the raids, several slaves are liberated and the regiment absconds with as many supplies as they can carry, before being routed by the efforts of The Swamp Fox and several women from Palatka. The men of Palatka’s Calvary and Col. Montgomery’s Colored Troops will meet again at the ill-fated Battle of Olustee.

According to the 1860 census, he and Rhydon G. Mays are sharing an overseer named William Spiers. (In 1860 William Spiers lives in Archibald Cole’s home and owns 1 slave: 60 female black) According to legend, the Mays seems to have a problem holding onto overseers who are particularly brutal.

Archibald’s Slaves

The following are the slaves held by Archibald Hamblin Cole in Putnam (Palatka) and Nassau (Fernandina/Amelia Island) Counties, Florida, according to the 1860 Federal Census.

I believe the ones in Nassau were for a town home he may have held there. Researchers should avoid excluding possible Gullah or Geechee connections as Nassau County marks the southernmost point of the Gullah Geechee Corridor.

None were listed as fugitive. Those in Putnam were housed in various locations around the county, depending on their industry.

I’m listing them in the order they appear on the records.

Nassau County

28 male black

10 female black

10 male black

50 male mulatto

45 female black

18 female mulatto

40 female black

6 female black

Putnam County

65 male black: may have been called Renta (Update at the bottom of the post)

60 male black: may have been called Renta (Update at the bottom of the post)

55 female black

30 male black

35 male black

30 female black

6 female black

4 male black

1 female black

36 female black

14 male black

25 female black

8 female black

5 female black

2 female black

34 female black

5 female black

1 female black

26 male black

35 male black

30 female black

14 female black

12 female black

12 male black

10 male black

8 male black

4 male black

26 female black

6 female black

4 female black

2 female black

30 female black

20 male black

25 female black

18 female black

16 female black

12 male black

24 female black

28 female black

25 female black

10 female black

5 female black

1 female black

*This is difficult for me to examine without personal emotion getting in the way since the Mays family are related to me through marriage and the Cole family is related by blood. But I feel that I need to note that when Neil Coker discussed mistreatment, he specifically referred to the overseers of the Mays and Prevatt families.

The Mays family he mentions in his narrative is the family of Rhydon Grigsby Mays, brother of Richard Johnston Mays of Madison County Florida. I would be remiss if I did not include the excerpt from Richard’s will that stated: I commit my Negroes not as property but as human beings to be treated and cared for as such as a charge from God our Maker to them which must not be neglected; it is duty sanctioned by your interest, and their welfare.

However, this was said by his brother, and not by Rhydon himself. Meaning that Rhydon may not have shared his brother’s views on the subject. This seems likely since it looks like Rhydon is the only Mays to settle outside of Madison County….but it also seems as though Rhydon doesn’t really lament the loss of his more brutal overseers either.

Update Oct. 30, 2014: I was finally able to read Daniel L. Schafer’s 2010 book Thunder on the River, which is about the Civil War in northeast Florida. On page 234 he talks about the above-mentioned raid at Orange Mills. His research tells of about 75 slaves, men, women, and children, being liberated from plantations on the east bank of the St. Johns and brought to St. Augustine. A witness to their arrival in St. Augustine speaks of their condition as “the most destitute objects I ever saw, many…almost entirely naked”.

I hate having this information but it is information that I cannot ignore. As the descendants of slave owners we have to confront these facts and admit that these things DID happen and that our own blood did it. This doesn’t mean we need to carry around an excess of guilt, or weep over their actions for the next two and a half centuries; but we do need to see these things for what they were. We have a responsibility to the descendants of the lives we held in bondage; they deserve to know their history as much as we do. It’s not right for us to deny them simply because we might feel uncomfortable. 

No, these ancestors are not us, and we can’t change their actions. But we can do everything in our power to honor this part of our history. The fact that we find these acts so distasteful, so abhorrent, is a sign that we have learned from it. But we still have a ways to go. We can’t stop learning and accepting these things just because it starts getting harder. Allowing ourselves to become cynical or to just brush it all aside, means that we WILL repeat these mistakes. We must face these things so that we may remain vigilant against it ever happening again.

Update July 1, 2015: In 1842 Archibald Cole was given a “One Negroe Man Slave (black) named Renta aged about forty five to fifty years, the same formerly belonging to Henry Lindsey”. A man named G. Tyner was indebted to Archibald for $800; Renta was part of the settlement of that debt.

Suggested addition reading: If you had been a slave


About pynomrah

I like stuff, and things.
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6 Responses to Slaves of A. H. Cole of Putnam County Florida

  1. Kathi Hall Vincent says:

    I have been searching for information about Archibald H. COLE. I found an article in the Tampa Tribune where a Dr. J.E. FORBES stated that he was the son of D.W. FORBES who surveyed for the FLORIDA RAILROAD going from Fernandina to Cedar Key. Her husband said he was the “step-grandson” of Gabriel PRIEST (my 5th great-Grandfather) and “nephew” of Gov. Ossian Bingley HART
    His wife stated that his wife was a “cousin” of Archer Cole who had been president of the FLORIDA RAILROAD. I finally figured out that Archer was Archibald but since I don’t have a first name for the wife I cannot find her in the family. Do you know of any of Archibald’s family that married a FORBES? I am hoping this will lead me to Gabriel PRIEST’S 1 or 3rd wife. (He had at least 4). The first, Ann left him and disappeared. and the third I don’t have a name for…. she could’ve been a widow with children. Any help would be appreciated.


  2. pynomrah says:

    You are getting into a very complex history when you start looking into Forbes, Priest, Hart, and the rest. And one that makes me very bitter. I’m not the one to ask about them since, in my narrative, they are the villains of the story because they spent most of their time in Florida using racist policies to strip free black families (like mine) of their rights and their property.

    Archibald Cole is not remembered by history because he refused to deny his two illegitimate free black children. During his life, they kept him around because they needed his money. Once he died, all bets were off and his family was continuously persecuted by these families. The families of these men later ensured that Cole’s son ended up in Palatka’s poor farm for a time and ran his daughter out of the area completely. My family has never recovered from that. I’m sorry but I have no information on them outside of the damage they caused to my family.

    My 5th great grandfather, George J.F. Clarke, tried very hard to play nice with these men that he previously termed “Ragamuffins from the fag end of Georgia” and they betrayed him for it. Since I am currently homeless, and likely wouldn’t be had we been able to keep the 33,000 acres of land that they stripped from us, I am very bitter towards these historical figures.

    Priest, however, is already considered a Pioneer so perhaps someone with the Florida Genealogical society could be more help…and less bitter. I’m sorry but I am a little blinded by resentment to be any real help.


    • Kathi Hall Vincent says:

      Thank you for taking the time to respond.


    • 3/5/17

      This is Gylbert Garvin Coker writing. I’ve completed two books on the Cummings, Clarke family. I find all this additional information fascinating. I am now hoping to find photographs or graphics or drawings of some of these family members and extended family members and business associates. I would like images of the towns (if they exist) or the farms, and or plantations. Susan is the first woman I’ve seen visually documented. I have the image of George JF Clarke and William Garvin (Felicia Clarke Garvin’s son). Given the look of Susan I wonder if her two children with Cole were not “white” in appearance? They must have been.
      Thank you in advance for any and all information you can provide.
      G. Coker

      My books: Dona Honoria Cummings Clarke, One of the Wealthiest Women in 18th century St. Augustine, Florida (1746-1804) and Nearest and Dearest The Descendants of Thomas and Honoria Clarke. Working on the third book now.


  3. Pingback: Can I Love My Blackness If I’m White? | Almost Interestingly Enough

  4. john w mcrae says:

    In 1892, my Great Grand Father, William Jasper McRae, moved to Putnam County, Florida. He and his family, lived at the Cole Plantation until 1895, when he bought land at Harlem, Putnam County , Florida , near Bardin. In a letter written by one of his sons, my Grand Father, Rev. Louis Earl McRae, he mentions them paying a Teacher named Cauthen to teach the children, while they were at the Cole Plantation.. He also says they traveled 9 miles along the Georgia Southern railroad on Sundays to attend the Paren Baptist Church at Grandin. Do you know the location of the Cole Plantation ?
    Thank You in advance.


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