Plantations lined the banks of tidal waterways and freshwater rivers in northeast Florida by the late 1700s. Planters sought wealth from rice and indigo and later sea island cotton.
Florida’s Spanish government offered free ownership of land to settlers after ten years of homesteading. But repeated raids and invasions destroyed most homesteaded plantations. Josiah Dupont and then Miguel Crosby owned Mala Compra (Spanish for Bad Bargain) and were plagued by raids and thefts.
When Joseph and Ana Maria Hernandez purchased the plantation in 1816, they could not know that later events would prove the appropriateness of the name and continue the cycle of struggle, loss, and abandonment.
The Ruins of Mala Compra (1816-1836)
Mala Compra was one of the barrier island plantations. The waters if the Atlantic Ocean washed its eastern shore, one the west, the saltwater Matanzas River. These waterways offered the best way to travel among the Hernandez properties and to St. Augustine where a variety of goods were available and religious services, festivals, and political rallies were held. Just a few feet below the soil where the crops were planted are layers of coquina (compressed shell stone) easily used to build the walls and foundations of houses and fortifications, The coquina ruins of Mala Compra have fascinated passersby for over 165 years.
Funded by Flagler County Board of Commissions, Florida Department of State Division of Historical Resources, Visions 2020 Historical Task Force
Archaeology: A Key to the Past
Archaeologists study the things people leave behind. Using scientific methods they find evidence that helps us understand yesterday’s and today’s societies. Many tools and methods are used to map and excavate sites, keep records and catalog artifacts. The process is slow and detailed.
Did They Find Useful Information?
Archeologists discovered two plantation buildings and found artifacts related to the daily activities of Hernandez’s time. In spite of previous modern activity, they found artifacts related to food, clothing, personal items, household structural items, and labor-related tools.
Why Did They Dig Here?
The coquina ruins of the building foundations were still visible in an 1818 plat map showed the original building locations. Archaeologists cleared debris from the ruins and excavated the soil around them. The building ruins also appeared on a 1944 coastal map. A detailed description of the plantation was found among the Second Seminole Ware claims in Congressional Records
What Were They Looking For?
Archaeologists sought to add to the Hernandez story by examining construction details, finding lost or broken artifacts, and looking for patterns in the soil caused by plantation activities.
Native Americans Were Here First
The archaeologists also found small amounts of pottery left behind by historic people hundreds of years before historic use of the site.
The Main House
Historic documents tell us that the main house was 30 by 18 feet with a 10-foot piazza (porch) on one side. A tabby and coquina foundation supported a 1 ½ story house with a shingled roof. There were 16 shuttered windows, 9 paneled doors, and wooden floors. The house had 6 rooms with plaster walls and a staircase and a brick and coquina double fireplace. Archaeologists actually found a larger building than described with coquina and the fireplaces and some tabby (oyster shell concrete) floors. Excavation showed on the tabby floor over another, suggesting an earlier structure beneath the 1816 dwelling. Post holes were found on the west side of the house that may relate to a porch with the piazza to the east. Evidence of the house included thousands of early machine-made nails, a few earlier handmade nails, and hand-blown window glass.
A cellar contained hundreds of bottle fragments and some whole bottles. Was it a wine cellar?
Other lost possessions found 165 years later included bone and shell buttons, medicine jars and bottles, pieces of ceramics and fragments of clay smoking pipes. A Spanish silver coin dated 1810 was also found. Flooring suggests that an earlier smaller structure was incorporated into the Hernandez residence. Perhaps it was the house of Josiah Dupont, who settled the area earlier but abandoned due to Seminole raids. Weapon related artifacts included gunflints, lead shot, and part of a Spanish flintlock pistol, found in the main house. A well-worn door sill is still in place. Wall debris and one fireplace indicate that portions of the building were whitewashed. The other fireplace in the main house was lined with red tiles.
Archaeologists and Historians Searched for Clues
Experts have used early maps, historical descriptions and excavations to piece together what Mala Compra plantation was like in the early 19th century.
Techniques Bring History to Life
Using shovels and small trowels, archaeologists, with the help of community volunteers, carefully removed thin layers of soil. The sifted it for artifacts and mapped and photographed color changes seen in the layers.1998-99 work emphasized exposing the building remains. In 2001, work focused on the search for other cultural features and artifacts. All artifacts were bagged according to location, then taken to the laboratory for analysis. While archaeologists and volunteers worked on Mala Compra, historians conducted background research on Joseph Hernandez and his era.
The walls of a substantial coquina well stand undamaged at Mala Compra, but portions above ground have been rebuilt. The part below the ground is original. It is between the main house and the kitchen. South of the kitchen building archaeologists found a dense trash deposit and a demolished outbuilding or work area. Almost 3000 artifacts were collected there.
A historic account described a 1 ½ frame building on a stone foundation measuring 18 by 30 feet.
It had 9 windows, 3 doors, plastered walls, two fireplaces, and a baking oven. The upper room was used to cure tobacco, the lower rooms were a kitchen and a laundry room. Archaeologists found a building with the approximate dimensions that included two rooms, a double hearth, and a possible oven. A tabby floor remains in the laundry room. The kitchen building had a poured tabby floor outside the eastern side that may have been a covered porch or a patio. It was grooved to drain water away from the building. The main house and the kitchen were built of wood, supported by shaped coquina blocks and tabby mortar.
Tabby was a popular concrete-like building material in early Florida composed of lime, sand, oyster shell and water. It could be made into walls, bricks or floors.
Coquina is a local type of limestone formed of tiny shells cemented together. It comes from the Anastasia Formation and is between 12,000 and 2 million years old. It lies beneath the barrier islands between St. Augustine and Melbourne. At Mala Compra natural formations of coquina lie less than five feet below the surface. Kitchen utensils found included a large pot handle, spoon fragments, and a knife blade. Numerous animal bone fragments were recovered in the kitchen yard. The bones are food remains. Their diet included beef, pork, sheep or goat, and chicken, supplements with fish, alligator and other wild species.
Joseph Hernandez was a significant person in early Florida with a fascinating life. Part of it was spent at his Mala Compra Plantation, and the main buildings were located on this site. Planter Joseph Hernandez acquired three plantations in today’s Flagler County. He purchased Mala Compra (Spanish for Bad Bargain) in 1816, Bella Vista (Beautiful View), to the north and St. Joseph, named for himself, across the Matanzas River. On these plantations, he planted cash crops of cotton, sugar, and oranges. Mala Compra grew sea island cotton that offered longer, stronger fibers than short-staple cotton, grown throughout the south. It required many more hours of labor to harvest, clean and pack. Ownership of plantations and a large workforce place Hernandez in the planter class. Planters identified themselves with their plantations. Hernandez referred to himself as “of Mala Compra. ”Planter families were considered members of the highest social class. They held political offices influenced voters and served as militia officers. They were expected to be gracious hosts. Hernandez invited the naturalist John Audubon to visit, Audubon immortalized Mala Compra in his illustration of the American coot, which he found “in every ditch, bayou and pond” on the plantation. But Audubon considered Hernandez a provincial Spaniard and Hernandez say Audubon as an uncouth backwoodsman engaged in a useless quest.
Hernandez was commissioned by President James Monroe as a brigadier general in the territorial militia in 1823. He was mustered into active service in December 1835. In addition to problems with the Indians, he had to contend with untrained, undisciplined and too few troops. General Joseph Hernandez led about 250 troops to a conference with Seminole leaders near Fort Peyton, five miles south of St. Augustine. U.S. Army General Thomas Jesup had ordered Hernandez to ignore the Indians’ white flag of truce and capture them. Hernandez captured Osceola and 80 others. Floridians were delighted by the capture of Osceola, but Americans beyond the fighting area were scandalized at what they considered dishonorable behavior by the Army. Hernandez and Jesup were courts marshaled, but not convicted.
Florida’s First Voice in Congress
Hernandez was the first Hispanic person to serve in Congress. His parents came to Florida from Minorca, an island off the coast of Spain, in 1768. He was born in Spanish St. Augustine in 1788. When Florida became part of the United States in 1821, Joseph stayed in the new territory while his relatives moved to Cuba. Hernandez was the first presiding officer of Florida’s territorial legislature in 1822, and he helped select Tallahassee as the state capitol. In 1845, Hernandez was elected Mayor of St. Augustine. He also served with other influential Floridians as a director of the Union Bank in Tallahassee. He was apparently the first Hispanic to serve in Congress as well, but additional efforts to further his political career ended without success.
Hernandez acquired a ready-made family when he married widow Ana Maria Hill Williams in 1817. To the marriage came her four young children and assets, mostly slave laborers, inherited from her late husband. Joseph and Ana Maria then had ten more children. The walls of the Mala Compra residence echoed the sound of many voices at play, at prayer, at work or sick.
During the Seminole War, they lived in St. Augustine. Ana Maria died in 1849. In the 1850s, Hernandez moved to his family’s sugar estate in Mantas, Cuba. He is buried there.
The People of Mala Compra
Planter Family Ana Maria Williams Hernandez brought 4 children to her marriage with Joseph Hernandez and then had ten more. The Williams children were: William, Samuel, Eliza Ann, and John Theophilus. The Hernandez children were: Ana Eduarda Teresa –b. 1814, Ellen Justa Rupina –b. 1817, Fernando Martin Valentin –b. 1821, Martin Edwardo –b. 1822, Lucia Catalina –b, 1823, Jose Mariano –b. 1825, Maria Josepha –b. 1929 (sic), John Gaspar, Dorotea Frederica Ignacia, and Jose Tomas. Ana Maria Hernandez was already familiar with plantation life along the saltwater “rivers” south of St. Augustine. She had learned the role of plantation mistress while married to her first husband. Upon his death, she was responsible for keeping the plantations working and profitable – and for trying to protect them against Indian raids. As a plantation mistress, Ana Maria Hernandez assumed the duty to provide clothing, health care and food for the plantation residents – the family, visitors, and many workers. Curing, pickling and otherwise preserving food grown on the plantation required much of her time. When Joseph Hernandez was absent with frequent political and business responsibilities, Ana Maria was in charge. The life of a planter’s wife was hard work – seldom a life of parties and luxury portrayed in television shows or movies.
Enslaved laborers of African descent worked at Hernandez’s plantations. In 1832 his slaves ranged from one-month-old Lawrence to 65-year-old Lucy. They planted cotton in March and harvested in the hot days of August, continuing into October. During bad weather, they worked indoors cleaning the cotton. Workers were moved from one Hernandez enterprise to another as needed. An overseer, William Broadnax, supervised work at Mala Compra and across the river at St. Joseph. Daily work was managed by a driver, who reported to the overseer. Drivers were usually blacks and might be either slave or free. Cotton plantations on the barrier islands used the task system. When the assigned task was finished, laborers could hunt, fish, or ten their own small cotton crop. Planters allowed a day in the spring for slaves to plant and a day in the fall to harvest the crop which they sold and kept the profits.
NOTE: Our present barrier island, with the Matanzas Inlet on the north and Ponce DeLeon Inlet on the south, did not become so until the Florida East Coast Canal Company’s dredge, the South Carolina made the final cut on May 13, 1907, in our Hammock south of Mala Compra – Sisco Deen, November 7, 2011.
In 1837, twelve of the slaves’ houses were made of “wood posts and wattle.” Wattle is a method of construction using slender branches and saplings interwoven with poles. Two others were of wooden clapboards and had palmetto frond roofs. There was a wooden privy nearby. An 1818 survey depicted the workers’ houses in two rows at right angles to each other. The driver’s house, built of coquina, might have been at the intersection of the two rows. This would have placed the overseer at the head of each row, symbolizing his higher rank among the workers.
The Seminoles at Mala Compra
Seminoles Become Residents of Florida Groups of Lower Creeks began moving into Florida from central Georgia about 1715. Fifty years later they had established a separate identity as Seminoles. Seminoles were not a united tribe but a group of bands with common traditions and language.
Seminoles dealt with the British in Florida (1763-1784), the Spanish (1784-1821), and then the Americans. Conflicting Needs of Seminoles and American Floridians Americans began pressuring for Seminole lands even before the U.S. acquisition of Florida. Arriving settlers wanted the Seminoles to move to the west, like other groups. Not only land was disputed. Cattle held an important place in the Seminole economy, and rustling by both Seminoles and whites led to retaliation. The United States and the Seminoles made a series of treaties. A big problem with the agreements was that the Seminoles had no single strong leader. Some chiefs would support a treaty while others denounced it. In 1800 a Black militia detachment was headquartered at Mala Compra, then owned by Josiah Dupont, to ward off Indian attacks. After they withdrew to Fort Matanzas, a famous Indian raid happened here. In 1802 Josiah Dupont returned home to Mala Compra to find Seminoles in war paint. They took 10 horses, 4 Negroes and all the household goods they could carry.
War Begins at Christmastime, 1835
Murders of whites on Dec. 28, 1835, marked the beginning of the Second Seminole War, or the Florida War, as it was called at the time. General Hernandez commanded the militia units in East Florida. Plantations in coastal Florida were abandoned, including Mala Compra, and residents fled to St. Augustine and further north. The Army and Militia occupied rural plantations that were damaged by fighting or modified for defense. Officers were quartered in the manor house at Mala Compra and it may have been a briefing station for detachments heading south. It was also a holding place for slaves recaptured from the Seminoles. St. Joseph, one of Hernandez’s other plantations, was the main military depot for the entire region south of St. Augustine. Mala Compra and St. Joseph were occupied and abandoned several times by troops. As the Seminoles moved northward, both were totally destroyed. Hernandez claimed $99,000 in losses resulting from the war. The loss of crops and livestock, the expense of supporting slaves unable to work the plantation, damages to several buildings, his orange groves and cotton gins at Mala Compra totaled $9,951.
Participants in the Conflict
Seminole Indians fought to retain their lands and in hopes of improving their negotiating position. Decentralized in war as in life, the Seminoles primarily fought scattered, guerilla raids in familiar territory. Some African Americans fought with the Seminoles. Others, who had lived among the Seminoles, served as interpreters for the Army. Problems of translation and mixed loyalties added to the complex war. Factions existed among the white fighting forces and politicians too. Florida Militiamen felt they answered to the governor of the territory, not the U.S. Army commander. Volunteers from Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and as far as Missouri answered to their own leaders. When the action was slow, the volunteers went home in boredom. While residents were frustrated and angered by the Army’s lack of success in the conflict and criticized the Army high command in Florida newspapers.
War Reaches an End
By 1842, few Seminoles remained in Florida. Most of them went to reservations in Arkansas and then to Oklahoma where their descendants live today. But the war had devastated the old plantation economy of the area. With the remaining 200 or so Seminoles pushed into the Everglades, General William Worth declared the second
Seminole War over on August 14, 1842.
No treaty or surrender was ever signed. This officially ended the longest of the three Seminole Wars. The First Seminole War was a short skirmish in West Florida in 1818. The Third Seminole War was fought from 1855 to 1858 when the war was again merely declared ended.