Julianton Plantation

Francis Levett, Sr., acquired a 10,000-acre estate on what is now Julington Creek that he named Julianton Plantation in honor of his wife, Julia Levett. In 1767, the wealthy London merchant Richard Oswald encouraged Governor Grant to set aside prime acreage for Levett, a "worthy friend" to whom he owed "particular obligations." Oswald advised Grant to do the same for Levett’s brother-in-law, Colonel Patrick Tonyn, who later became East Florida's second governor.

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France]is Levett, Sr.'s Julianton Plantation was one of the most elaborate residential complexes in all of East Florida, with dwelling house and gardens modeled after English country manors. Located at Mandarin Point, Levett's dwelling and garden looked on the St. Johns River and Julington Creek.

Levett's intention in 1767 was to continue as a merchant in London while his East Florida property was developed by an agent, Alexander Gray. Levett had only recently returned to London from Leghorn, Italy, where he had worked for the Levant Company. An acquaintance of Dr. Andrew Turnbull, Levett planned to use his own Mediterranean contacts to import Greek laborers if Turnbull's New Smyrna colony south of St. Augustine succeeded. By 1768, Levett had developed health problems that prompted him to move to East Florida to seek a cure. "Having been for a great part of his life accustomed to the warm climates of Asia and Italy," according to Richard Oswald, Levett decided to move "away from our fog." His illness apparently coincided with the inheritance of a fortune following the death of Levett's uncle. Levett therefore accepted a commission as plantation agent for Lord Egmont and moved to East Florida. The Crown appointed him to a seat on the Royal Council, and once in the province he was made an assistant judge.

The first East Florida plantation for Levett was a 10,000-acre tract on the St. Johns River three miles from the Cowford, apparently purchased from Christopher Thornton. Disappointed with this tract, Levett acquired another 10,000-acre estate upriver from the Cowford. Bounded by Julington Creek on the south, Julianton Plantation extended north along the St. Johns River around what is today Mandarin Point and for several miles to the east. Travelers on the King's Road heading south toward St. Augustine crossed through the eastern corner of Levett's property.

In addition to indigo fields and vats, expansive fields of corn, potatoes, and peas were under fence, and dams and dikes were constructed to control flooding and draining of substantial rice fields. Levett installed a formal English garden, a peach orchard, several orange groves, a vineyard with 3,000 imported vine starts, and two “hanging gardens” that fronted on the St. Johns River just south of the vineyard. More than fifty farm buildings and a network of roads, bridges and causeways were built by Levett's enslaved laborers, along with slave quarters, kitchens, barns, poultry houses, and a large two-story dwelling measuring sixty-feet by thirty-feet, with seven rooms on each floor. Stallions, breeding mares and sheep grazed on the pasture grasses. Ships docked at a 180-foot wharf.

On the surface, Julianton Plantation appeared to be an opulent and glittering success, its owner a prosperous English gentleman settled in His Majesty's East Florida colony supplementing his inheritance with income derived from managing the plantations of several absent grantees. But beneath that facade lay several concealed problems. The cost of developing Julianton may have exceeded Levett's inherited resources. The Reverend John Forbes wrote several letters to James Grant gossiping about "a most shameful and scandalous embezzlement discovered in the management of Mr. Ashby's plantation." Levett, Forbes wrote, had been "charged with purchasing Negroes on Ashby's account and claiming them as his own, with employing Ashby's Negroes at his [own] work, with carrying boatloads of corn from Ashby's place to his [Julianton] settlement without giving credit for them, and with many such extraordinary and unjust transactions."

Frederick Mulcaster, the acting Surveyor General of the province, said to "mention his [Levett's] name" in St. Augustine was "to hear contempt. He will be called on for his previous tricks," which included placing title for land and slaves in his son's name to avoid confiscation in future lawsuits. The talk didn't seem to bother Levett unduly; he remained at his St. Johns River plantation building a large house and planting indigo.

Thomas Ashby initiated legal action against Levett and sent a relative to manage Suttonia Plantation. By this time, January 1773, the town residents were aroused: "it is impossible to conceive anything equal to it," Mulcaster wrote, "the whole town crying out shame upon him. Mr. Potts plantation I fancy in the same situation. I think he [Levett] can never have the face to return here, he is still on the Council, he would have done well to have resigned as hardly anyone will sit with him if he returns."

The rumors prompted Francis Levett, Jr., to come to his father's defense. After a series of dinner and drinking parties, "Frank" Levett challenged Arthur Gordon, the attorney general at the time, to a duel and the two "exchanged a brace of pistols" without either man receiving a wound. Mulcaster said the younger Levett initiated the dispute "over the Ashby affair. He hasn't whitened the character of the father."

Reverend Forbes said the accusations and investigations threw Levett into "violent convulsions and fainting fits" which prompted him to go first to "Carolina until the storm is over," and then to spend the summer of 1773 in Rhode Island while his son-in-law, David Yeats, medical doctor and Secretary of the province, stood bail. By February of 1774, Levett had returned to East Florida and resigned his seat on the Royal Council when he heard no other members would sit with him. Six months later the lawsuit was settled by arbitration. Reverend Forbes wrote: "[Levett's] account against Ashby was a balance due to him of about £250 that [Levett] gives up, and he has paid besides...[to lawyers and the courts] upwards of £650." He predicted that Levett's troubles were far from over, as "Potts is to attack him next and it is thought the like dirty work was carried on at [Pottsburgh] Plantation and that Levett will not have less than £600 to pay him."

By this time, however, Levett's brother-in-law, Colonel Patrick Tonyn, had become the second Governor of East Florida, prompting Mulcaster's sarcastic jibe: "Levett seems to emerge from darkness." Tonyn asked the Reverend Forbes and Lt. Governor John Moultrie to quietly settle the "mess" between Levett and Potts. Forbes reported in November 1774 that all was settled and that "Levett lives at his plantation near town quite obscure, taken little notice of by the governor."

Levett died soon after, leaving his widow, Julia, and his son, Francis Levett, Jr., in charge of operations at Julianton Plantation. The Levetts' considerable rural properties thrived during the revolutionary years. In the last years of British control of East Florida, prompted by the economic dislocations attendant the American Revolution, the enslaved laborers at Julianton Plantation had slashed and boxed 150,000 pine trees for turpentine production.

The Treaty of Paris in 1783, however, spelled doom for the Levett fortunes in East Florida. Following the cession and arrival of Spanish troops, Francis Levett, Jr., complaining of being exhausted of finances, transported as much of his movable property as possible to Jamaica and to New Providence in an effort to "collect his affairs" and support his family. Prior to departing, he hired a carpenter and an assistant for fifteen months to construct two very large house frames he planned to erect after arriving in the Bahama Islands. Wages for the carpenter amounted to £79 Sterling, plus £37 and 10 shillings for board and maintenance. The carpenter's assistant was paid £25. Despite these plans and expenditures, Levett was forced to abandon in East Florida two very large house frames and 40,000 cedar shingles when captains of the British transport vessels claimed they were fully loaded and could not accept the bulky cargo.

Governor Tonyn certified that Levett's losses were heavy; when the vessels departed Levett still had a "considerable proportion of his property...[was left] upon the Beach." Levett even purchased a large schooner to carry his possessions away but his losses were still severe. Six horses were left at the beach on the St. Marys River where property was assembled awaiting the transports. Levett also lost nine enslaved men and women who escaped during confusion at departure, including Monday, age twenty-four years and "a complete servant,” and Hagar, a cook and washer woman. At New Providence, he lost the newly purchased schooner.

Neither Levett nor his wife were able to sell their considerable rural properties in East Florida; the land and buildings were abandoned, a prize awaiting new Spanish owners. From the Bahamas, the Levett's moved to London in an attempt to recoup something from his "paternal estate."

At some later time, Francis Levett, Jr., and his wife, Charlotte Box Levett, returned to America to settle in the State of Georgia. They established a plantation on Harris Neck Peninsula overlooking Sapelo Sound in Mcintosh County, naming it Julianton Plantation in honor of his widowed mother. Levett died in 1802, leaving Julianton Plantation to his widow.

Bibliographic Information

A Note On Sources

biblio: T77/10/11-Francis Levett, Julian Levett, and David Yeats. Richard Oswald to James Grant: June 1, 1767, Feb. 19, 1768, April 3, 1769; Col. Patrick Tonyn to Grant, July 9, 1769; Dr. William Stork to Grant, May 18, 1769; Rev. John Forbes to Grant: Feb. 23, 1773, Aug. 23, 1773, Jan. 12, May 3, and Nov. 1, 1774; Frederick G. Mulcaster to Grant: Nov. 11, 1771, April 7, June 13, 1773, May 14, 1774; David Yeats to Grant, Nov. 20, 1773 (all in James Grant Papers). Henry Laurens tried to persuade Levett to settle in South Carolina rather than East Florida: Laurens to Levett, Oct. 7, 1767 , Papers of Henry Laurens V, 334-5. For Levett's Georgia plantation, see Manuscripts Collections, Perkins Library, Duke University.