If you ever have the opportunity to travel in the region south of Tampa, there are nuggets of exceptional American history in this region. There is no better example than the Gamble Mansion and Plantation in Ellenton, Florida. This is the only surviving plantation mansion in South Florida. It offers a glimpse of what living in an antebellum mansion on a working plantation would have been like; well, only if you were one of the white owners.
What Does It Mean to Be An Antebellum mansion?
The term Antebellum is commonly used with respect to mansions and plantations of the former Confederate States of America. Images of the infamous Tara plantation on the movie Gone With the Wind come to mind.
The word is derived from the Latin phrase “ante bellum” which translates literally, “before the war.” The term is used to romanticize the historically and culturally significant homes and structures that were in use before the American Civil War (1861-1865). It also denotes a particular architectural style such as hipped or gabled roofs, Greek-style pillars and columns, balconies, covered porches, and a central entryway with a grand staircase.
The Slave Based Economy of Manatee County
The plantation story starts with Major Robert Gamble Jr., son of a wealthy tobacco grower from Tallahassee and war hero who had arrived in Manatee in 1843. He took advantage of the Federal program called the Armed Occupation Act of 1843, which gave him 160 acres for free if he would agree to clear and cultivate it. The Act was put in place after the Second Seminole War (1836-1842), which removed many Native Americans from the Florida territory. After securing the land patent in 1847, he purchased an additional 3,300 acres of land for $10,000.
Gamble took six years to build the house and plantation between 1845 and 1850. The land was drained with an extensive network of drainage canals. A wharf was built on the Manatee River to ship and receive goods. The two-story house is made of red brick with walls nearly two feet thick. 18 large pillars, 18 inches in diameter, and 25 feet high support the roof, forming upper and lower verandas giving it the appearance of Greek Revival Style plantation architecture. The house is small by southern plantation standards with a total of 10 rooms.
Gamble utilized slave labor to develop the land for agriculture and sugar mill operations. However, despite the use of slaves and the production of tens 0f thousands of pounds of sugar, a series of hurricanes, overuse of debt, and poor market conditions for the sugar commodity drove Gamble into debt. He sold the plantation in 1859 to John Cofield and Robert Davis of New Orleans for $190,000. 185 slaves were individually listed in the sale of the Gamble mansion in 1859. Most, if not all, slaves were transported to New Orleans after the sale.
The Gamble Plantation Was A Huge Enterprise
At the time of the 1860 census, 190 slaves lived in 57 slave houses on the plantation. None of the slave quarters remain or are evident today. The ages of the slaves ranged from a two-month-old baby to a 105-year-old woman. Thirty-one slaves were between the ages of twelve and twenty-one. Ninety-four slaves were over twenty-one. Twenty-five were between the ages of five and ten, and thirty-seven were less than four years old.
The census in 1860 showed 601 white settlers and 253 slaves living in all of Manatee County, Florida. Most of the slaves were owned by J.C. Coefield, owner of the Gamble Mansion. There is very little documentation available about the identity of these individuals beyond the census data. However, they are acknowledged as among the first inhabitants in the Manatee River region and are credited for the plantation and sugar mill development success.
Just prior to the Civil War, Manatee County was on the edge of the wilderness. Florida only had two major cities; St. Augustine and Key West. The rest of the state was sparsely populated. When Florida ceded from the United States it was acknowledged that it would offer not men to the Confederacy, but beef cattle, sugar, and salt.
Manatee County stretched from Tampa Bay to Charlotte Harbor, then deep to Lake Okeechobee in the interior. During the Civil war, ranging cattle were rounded up and drove north to supply the troops by the “Cowboy Cavalry.” One famous cowboy was Jacob Summerlin, known as “King of the Crackers,” who led an estimated 25,000 beef cattle on cattle drives between 1861 and 1863.
Manatee was primarily an agricultural focus for its economy. At the time, sugar was the greatest export in Manatee County, with an estimated yearly output of 230,000 pounds. Nearly all of it processed by Gamble’s sugar milling operation.
Gamble was one of two sugar plantations in Manatee. Dr. Joseph Braden held the other. In 1851, Braden had acquired approximately 900 acres of land on the southern shore of the Manatee River and built a steam-operated sugar and grist mill. Braden constructed his “Castle” using slave labor. – a large two-story structure. The walls were poured “tabby,” composed of lime, sand, crushed shells, and water. Today the ruins of the Braden Castle are still visible. The castle served as his residence and headquarters of the plantation.
Out of the approximately 400 plantations that were operational with slaves in Florida during the civil war, only the Gamble Mansion survives.
The Role The Gamble Plantation Played During the Civil War
When Florida ceded from the Union on January 10th, 1861, Manatee County marched into the ranks of the Confederacy 100%. Those who remained acted to supply the army with beef cattle, sugar, and other agricultural supplies of the region. Some took the dangerous step of running the Union blockade stationed in and around Tampa Bay and the Manatee River.
How Former Slaves Became Union Soldiers and Sacked the Gamble Plantation’s Sugar Mill
In 1864, Theodore P. Green, Commander of the Eastern Gulf Blockading Squadron, reported a large sugar mill on the north shore of the Manatee river owned by Jefferson Davis of Richmond. It was further surmised by sources that the owners were a “Davis” and a “Cofield” both residents of New Orleans. Green’s intelligence reported that the plantation had made over 1,500 hogsheads of processed sugar the prior year, selling two-thirds of it to the Rebels. Gamble was the leading producer of sugar and molasses in Florida.
The Union officers were determined to cease the delivery of supplies to the Confederacy. As a result, they staged a raid at two key locations in the area. Utilizing a gig from the schooner Stonewall attached as a tender to the James L. Davis ascended the Manatee river. First, the soldiers of the 99th Colored Soldiers Regiment destroyed the grist mill in the city of Manatee, then crossed the river to deal with the sugar mill at the Gamble Plantation. It was reported that loaded artillery shells were placed at several locations within the mill’s pulp extracting engines then the building was ignited. The resulting explosion could be heard and felt across the river in Manatee City.
Commander Green was wrong about who owned the Gamble Plantation, but he was correct about its role to supply the Confederate Army. John Calvin Cofield and Robert McGroyson Davis did have an interest in the plantation; indeed, in 1857, they held the mortgage. However, at the start of the war, Cofield and Davis ceased mortgage payments as the Confederacy took over operations of the Gamble plantation.
In 1862 by a notorious blockade runner named Captain Archibald McNeill and his family resided at the mansion. McNeill was a deputy commissary agent for the Confederacy. As commissary officer, his superior was James McKay, Sr., another blockade-runner who served as Tampa’s mayor before the Civil War. McKay knew the area from pre-war shipping and maritime ventures as well as cattle business with once-local Leroy Lesley
The Gamble Mansion Provided Sanctuary for a Wanted Confederate Fugitive
At the close of the Civil War, Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin fled Richmond with Jefferson Davis as far as Georgia, began on April 2, 1865, with the fall of the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia, and the evacuation of the Confederate government. Benjamin declared to a confidant, “I’ll never be taken alive.”
Benjamin proceeded into Florida on horseback under the false name of a Frenchman, M. M. Bonfals. Armed with letters of introduction from his South Carolina relatives, and dressed in homespun clothes. He continued until he reached Leroy Lesley of Brooksville, near Tampa, Florida. He was then escorted to Manatee and Benjamin’s resided at the Gamble plantation from May to June. It was here he worked with Archibald McNeill to formulate an escape from Florida.
Approximately one week into Benjamin’s stay, a Union patrol did arrive. McNeil and Benjamin fled the house and hid in the trees. McNeill’s dog nearly gave the pair away. Benjamin began his final leg of escape on June 23rd in a “yawl boat open to the weather,” reaching Bimini in the Bahamas on July 10, 1865. The fugitive arrived in Southhampton, England, via Nassau and Havana. on August 30, 1865.
Decades of Neglect and Decay of the Gamble Mansion and Plantation
In 1925 the Judah P. Benjamin Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy purchased the mansion and 16 acres for $3,200. It had been vacant for many years and was in a run-down condition. In a manner not unlike the foundation of the plantation, the State of Florida took over the property and funded the restoration and ongoing upkeep of this relic of Florida’s role in the Civil War.
Now operated by the Division of Recreation and Parks, Department of Natural Resources, it has been restored and houses one of the finest collections of antebellum furnishings to be found in the south.
The Amazing Engineering of the Cistern at the Gamble Mansion
A large 40,000-gallon cistern was positioned next to the main house. Rainwater was collected for use as the ground and surface water were brackish. The holding tank of the cistern was not that un- similar to a typical home in-ground swimming pool used today. It had both a shallow and a deep end.
In the middle, there was a limestone slab. Limestone is porous, and the water would slowly seep through toward the deep end, with the limestone acting as a filter. Minnows were also added into the cistern to eat any mosquito larva in the holding tank. It was genius for its practical engineering simplicity.
The Gamble Plantation Was An economic Failure
After spending some time researching the story behind the Gamble Mansion and Plantation, one cannot retire from the subject without the feeling the entire enterprise was a failure from the start. The initial land for the plantation was acquired as a result of a Federal subsidy. Major Gamble took advantage of the Armed Occupation Act of 1843, which was meant to offer settlers incentive to populate the interior of Florida after the Second Seminole War, not jump-start a major agricultural operation. While Gamble said he did not get the land patent for free, he bought acreage from other claimants at the dirt-cheap price of $1.25 to $5 an acre.
After six years, he had endured two hurricanes, one of which took the life of his youngest brother. Even with the use of slave labor and cheap land Gamble was deep in debt. He was facing foreclosure and had to sell his entire holdings in Manatee. This included the land, buildings, tools, mules, horses, and slaves.
The property went into almost immediate default at the start of the Civil War. The Confederate government forcibly took possession of the plantation and continues with sugar cane planting, processing, and shipment until at least 1864, when the Union raiding forces blew up the sugar mill.
Subsequent owners attempted to make a go of the operation after the war. Most notable was George Patten, who was interested in the property shortly after the war but acquired it for back taxes in 1871 after it was in foreclosure. He owned it until his death in 1891. It went through a series of owners until 1914 when Ellenton Mayor J. R. Wood purchased it for a mere $1600. He sold the property to the Armour Fertilizer Company for $2000 in 1920. Where it appears it was used for storage and even as a manure compost operation until 1927.
The Gamble Plantation is an obscure yet fascinating attraction showing the role Florida played in the Civil War and how slavery propped up the economy of the Confederacy. The romanticized view of the old south belays the fact that the Gamble plantation was an economic failure. Its existence today is only at the good graces of the state who stepped in and saved it from assured destruction by a Florida developer.
Sources for the Gamble Mansion Story
- WPA County Histories – Historical Sketch of Manatee County
- NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES INVENTORY – NOMINATION FORM 1970
- Portrait of Major Robert Gamble – Ellenton, Florida. 1870 (circa). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. Accessed 2 May. 2021.<https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/29750>.
- Silpa, Felicia Bianca. “Reflections of Virginia on the Manatee River.” Historical Archaeology, vol. 46, no. 1, 2012, pp. 74–93. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23264525. Accessed 2 May 2021.
- Coles, David J. “Unpretending Service: The James L. Davis, the Tahoma, and the East Gulf Blockading Squadron.” The Florida Historical Quarterly, vol. 71, no. 1, 1992, pp. 41–62. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30148186. Accessed 2 May 2021.