“I send you a copy of my memoir, which has been reprinted in a pamphlet, under the direction of my friends in Albemarle. I have sold my slaves in that county, to Col: White of Florida, who will take them in families, to that territory. He gives me for them, (with the exception of a few sold there) five thousand dolrs., which are paid, by obtaining for me, a release in that amount, from J. J. Astor, for a loan obtain’d of him in the late war, offerd by himself, on hearing that I was pressd for money”. Monroe to Madison, Oak Hill, March 28th. 1828.
A group of enslaved families arrived in Jefferson County, Florida in 1828. Joseph Mills White, the owner of Casa Bianca plantation, had made a deal with President James Monroe for the people that Monroe owned at his Highland plantation in Albemarle County, Virginia. Monroe had sold the plantation and had no more use for the enslaved men, women, and children who had labored there.
Those forcibly sent to Florida took very little with them, save their memories, and when those memories left Virginia, the knowledge of their enslavement at Highland left with them. For years the assumption had been that the stories of their lives had been lost. Oral histories of their descendants, so important in the histories of the plantations of the Virginia founding fathers, would possibly never be part of Highland’s history.
Then the history of Monroe’s Highland plantation began to be entirely reexamined in 2014, leading to the discovery of the foundation of his original 1799 home, which had been destroyed by fire and long lost to memory. As a result of, and in parallel with this inquiry, researchers questioned the story of the fate of the enslaved men, women, and children at Highland. An effort began to locate the Florida plantation to which they were sold, and shortly after that it was learned that there were also local descendants living in Albemarle County, Virginia, not far from Highland.
Joseph White began purchasing land for his Casa Bianca plantation, a business venture with Richard Henry Wilde, in 1826, and by White’s death in 1839 the plantation had grown to over 3000 acres. As he accumulated land, he also acquired enslaved workers, sometimes with their families. One group came from President James Monroe’s Highland plantation in Virginia. White and Monroe had known each other at least since 1817- White was from Kentucky but his mother’s family was from Albemarle County, Virginia, and White had lived for a short time in the county.
White and his wife, Ellen Adair White, also from Kentucky, were absentee landowners, travelling widely for both business and pleasure, and White relied on his three brothers for plantation management. His brother Everett, described as “a practical industrious farmer and honest man” by Wilde, played the principal role in managing the plantation’s interests and holdings until his untimely death in one of the frequent duels that took place in Florida during this period.
The plantation had originally been intended for sugar cane, but the large capital investment for that type of enterprise caused White and Wilde to primarily plant cotton instead. Both crops were labor-intensive, and the original enslaved population at Casa Bianca had a heavy male bias. But their numbers steadily grew over time: 60 in 1830, 94 in 1844, and 126 in 1859.
The early years at Casa Bianca would have been a shock to the newly arrived enslaved families from Monroe’s Highland plantation. Forced to leave the long-settled Virginia Piedmont environment, they came to a wilderness frontier in Middle Florida. New fears and panic surrounded the Indian raids that took place around Monticello during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). A series of attacks by the displaced Native Americans in May 1836 sent the Casa Bianca slaves to the town of Monticello to build stockades for defense. In addition to the stress of these raids, in which people were killed, dwellings burned and crops stolen, disease in the form of malaria and yellow fever also ravaged the local population.
After White’s death in 1839, his widow Ellen hired George Anderson to manage the plantation for about three years. After Ellen remarried, she and her new husband, Theophilus Beatty, decided to live at Casa Bianca and manage it themselves. Beatty mortgaged the plantation in 1844 and included 96 enslaved people as part of the collateral for the loan.
Beatty’s death in 1847 caused Ellen to return to the plantation from New Orleans, where the couple had been living during the latter part of Beatty’s illness, and she was faced with having to manage on her own. In 1856 Ellen’s niece Etta and her husband James Patton Anderson (no relation to George Anderson, the former manager) moved to Casa Bianca, and Ellen entered into a business arrangement with Anderson, who would pay Ellen a stipend, relieve her of debt, and manage the plantation. Anderson also assumed the responsibility for the enslaved population to, “keep them in order, make them do their duty, take care of them in temporal things and provide for their religious instruction…”
With war imminent, Ellen made the decision to sell the plantation. Robert W. Williams, a Tallahassee lawyer, purchased the core 3000 acres of Casa Bianca and 82 enslaved families, promising to ensure their safety on the voyage from Florida to his plantation on the Mississippi. J. Patton Anderson purchased 400 acres of the plantation known as “The Scrub,” which was about two miles away from the main house, and 38 enslaved people from his aunt Ellen. After the Civil War, Anderson moved with his family to Memphis, Tennessee and rented out his Jefferson County land to his former slaves. He died in Memphis in 1872. Ellen lived off the charity of her relatives and died impoverished in Oxford, Mississippi in 1884.
James Monroe, whose political career would culminate in the Presidency, 1816-1824, began building Highland, the home that would be the center of his 3500 acre plantation in Albemarle County, Virginia in 1799 . His plantation was within a short distance of his friend Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and only a day’s ride from Montpelier, the plantation of another friend, Founding Father and the 4th President, James Madison. Indeed central Virginia was home to many plantations, and one thing they all had in common was their enslaved work force, primarily men, women, and children whose ancestral origins were African.
The fates of those owned by Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe were very different, however. Jefferson’s enslaved people were auctioned off after his death to pay his debts, Madison’s, in spite of his request, were disposed of piece-meal by his widow, Dolly, while Monroe’s were “sold down the river” in 1828 to a man named Joseph M. White who was building a cane and cotton plantation in Florida. As a result, oral histories, so important to the understanding of slavery at Monticello and Montpelier, have so far not been part of the history of Highland.
Efforts to learn about those sold to Florida began in 2014, and the project that led to this website began a year later. This research has expanded to include the entire African-American community of Casa Bianca, and has become an independent project.
What was Highland? A grain belt plantation–it’s main cash crop was wheat, occasionally supplemented by the sale of tobacco, although that crop never reached the market value of wheat. It’s main house, built according to his own plans, was a relatively modest farmhouse of approximately 2000 square feet, with guest space after 1818 in two additional buildings.
For more information on James Monroe and Highland please visit James Monroe’s Highland
In the summer of 1820, the United States revenue cutter Dallas intercepted the Antelope, a slave ship flying an American flag, off the coast of Florida. Over 250 chained Africans were found on board. Their average age was fourteen. The Antelope had been off the coast of Africa where it had plundered a Spanish and a Portuguese ship and stolen their human cargo. Slave importation to the United States had been prohibited by Congress in 1807. Further legislative acts passed during President Monroe’s administration in 1819 and 1820, enhanced the slave trade prohibition, placing any illegally imported slaves under Presidential control and declaring the offenders to be engaged in piracy, an offense punishable by death. The Antelope was escorted to Savannah, where an eight-year court battle began which reached the Supreme Court and spanned both President Monroe’s and John Quincy Adams’ administrations. The Antelope captain was indicted for taking the property of a Portuguese subject and a Spanish subject. He was not tried for piracy, nor was the illegal transportation of the Africans mentioned in the case. The jury found the captain not guilty. The next cases determined how the Africans would be divided between the two primary claimants: the Spanish and Portuguese. This process took until the end of 1827 to resolve.
After the 258 African captives arrived in Savannah, a yellow fever epidemic ravaged the city. A month later, 184 captives remained, half of them children under ten years old and the other half between the ages of ten and twenty. While waiting for the determination of their fate, the Africans were forced to work on public works projects and on plantations near Savannah. By 1827, the courts had decided that 134 of the African captives were to be freed and sent to Liberia. Thirty-nine of the captives were determined to belong to the Spanish claimant and were ordered to be taken out of the United States. But the Spanish claimant sold his share of the captives to Richard H. Wilde, a Georgia Congressman and the business partner of Joseph M. White. The two men created the Casa Bianca plantation as a joint business venture, and these slaves that Wilde purchased became part of Casa Bianca’s enslaved population.
Around thirty of the Antelope Africans, all young men except for one woman named Lucy, now enslaved for life, arrived at Casa Bianca in 1828, the same year the enslaved families from Virginia arrived. They would clear the Florida wilderness, and then labor there growing sugar cane and cotton.
Many black churches were established during Reconstruction, with congregations that had been worshiping together for years, often in secret. These new churches became the social focal point of their communities, and today serve as a rich and valuable link with the past, preserving records and traditions so important to family history researchers.
Two churches have played a major role in revealing the early histories of the African-American communities at Casa Bianca and Highland: The Middle Oak Baptist Church in Albemarle County, Virginia, and the Casa Bianca Missionary Baptist Church in Jefferson County, Florida.
The Middle Oak Baptist Church was established in 1871. It is in some ways a typical small rural church, but with a congregation that is almost exclusively descended from those enslaved by James Monroe. Although small, it is a vibrant community, and their annual Homecoming Day draws a large crowd of families and friends from all over.
As a community that has been together for over 200 years, their combined memories are a major source of information about slavery at Highland. One story, collected by the WPA in the late 1930’s illustrates how valuable and informing such information can be. This is the story of Garland Monroe and his father and older brother, which is reproduced in the Stories section of this website.
The most unexpected part of the history of Middle Oak is that until 2017, it was virtually unknown to James Monroe’s Highland, the remaining part of his plantation which has been owned by the College of William and Mary since 1975. Since then, Middle Oak and Highland have begun forming a new community together, and on March 8th of 2018, Highland invited church members, other descendants and interested parties to its first (and hopefully annual) Descendants’ Day, beginning what will certainly be a new tradition that will be of benefit to everyone concerned. In fact, the College of William and Mary has begun the project of collecting and recording oral histories from descendants, which will hopefully include those of many church members.
The Casa Bianca Missionary Baptist Church was established in 1872 on former Casa Bianca plantation land and it was formed by families emancipated from that plantation. The Works Project Administration wrote a one page history of the church in 1938 which provides evidence that documents this connection. It names the first pastor in 1872- D.S. Straws, who appears in the 1856 inventory of the enslaved people of the plantation. This inventory, one of three – the first from 1830 and the second from 1844 – was the first link to the Highland origins of some of Casa Bianca’s enslaved population. Names appearing in databases created by Highland researchers reappeared later at Casa Bianca, identifying slaves sold by Monroe to White. One couple originally from Virginia are connected with the history of the Casa Bianca Missionary Baptist Church. Dudley and Eve from Virginia had a daughter, Hannah, born in 1830 at Casa Bianca. She married David Straws, who became the first pastor of the Church in 1872. In 1873, the deed to the land where the church was built was signed by the trustees of the church:
The first three (Alfred, Wm. and Isham) were former Casa Bianca enslaved workers. Furthermore, William McGuire had been enslaved by Monroe. Son of Dudley and Eve, William would have spent his early years at Highland. They and others who were ultimately sold to White very likely took part in the religious observances of their community in Virginia. Thus these two churches are related, not only by their similar histories, but directly, through their memberships.