|City/Town: • Tallahassee|
|Location Class: • Residential|
|Built: • 1832 | Abandoned:|
|Status: • Abandoned|
|Photojournalist: • David Bulit|
Benjamin Chaires Sr., Plantation Owner
Verdura was a large cotton plantation of 9,440 acres located in eastern Leon County near Tallahassee and established by Benjamin Chaires. Benjamin Chaires was born in Onslow County, North Carolina on January 25, 1786, the son of Joseph and Mary Green Chaires. He first moved to Jefferson County, Georgia, and married Sarah Jane Powell on February 8, 1811, in Baldwin County, Georgia.
Chaires began buying land in Florida while it was still controlled by Spain, buying a one-third interest in a plantation on Amelia Island in 1818, and purchasing additional land near Jacksonville and St. Augustine. While living in northeastern Florida, Chaires was involved in a lawsuit with Zephaniah Kingsley, best known as the developer and owner of the Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island. The lawsuit involved timber Chaires had harvested from Kingsley’s Greenfield Plantation located at the juncture of the St. Johns and Pablo Rivers.
In May 1820, Chaires and Thomas Fitch purchased 59 slaves from George Atkinson of Camden County, Georgia, with Chaires receiving 32 of the slaves as his share. Fitch was also a plantation owner and slaveholder in South Georgia and East Florida. When Florida was ceded to the United States in 1821, Fitch was appointed the first Judge of the new territorial government in St. Augustine. That same year though, the yellow fever epidemic had come to St. Augustine, and within days of his appointment as Judge, Thomas Fitch, his wife, and children died of yellow fever.
When the city of Jacksonville was founded in 1822, the survey of the first section of Jacksonville was conducted in June 1822 under the supervision of Chaires and two other commissioners. Duval County was created out of St. Johns County on August 12, 1822, and Jacksonville was designated the county seat of Duval County. Chaires was friends with William Pope Duval, governor of the Florida Territory, who appointed Chaires County Judge for Duval County for a term in 1823 and 1824. Chaires was also a justice of the peace in Duval County.
In 1824, Chaires received a contract to provide rations to the Seminoles as provided for in the Treaty of Moultrie Creek. Although he held the contract for only a year, the profits that he made from that contract partially funded his future land purchases. Eventually, he came to own 30,000 acres in St. Johns, Duval, and Alachua counties. Under an Act of Congress on May 23, 1828, Chaires claimed part of the 20,000-acre Arredondo Grant located around Alachua and High Springs. According to Sharyn Heilman Shields, author of the book Whispers from Verdura: The Lost Legacy of Benjamin Chaires, Chaires had purchased up to 45,000 acres in Florida.
Chaires moved to Tallahassee in the late 1820s where he became one of the wealthiest landowners in Leon County. In 1832, he built the Verdura plantation house, which was reputed to be the finest in Florida, on 500 acres ten miles east of Tallahassee that became the core of the Verdura Plantation. His brothers Green H. Chaires and Thomas Peter Chaires also established plantations in Leon County, Evergreen Hills Plantation and Woodlawn Plantation, respectively.
Chaires and his brothers all had slaves on their plantations to produce bricks by hand. Chaires used these bricks for the Columns, a home he built in Tallahassee for William “Money” Williams in 1830. He and his brothers also supplied bricks for the Apalachicola Arsenal in Chattahoochee, Florida, the second state capital building in Tallahassee.
According to Marc R. Matrana in regards to Verdura, author of Lost Plantations of the South, “The mansion, which was built in the early 1830s, sat on a hill encircled by a stream. It was a three-story building constructed of clay and bricks, which were each handmade on the plantation by one of the estate’s sixty slaves. The front and rear entrances were approached by broad staircases. On the east and west sides of the house there were verandas supported by great Tuscan columns. The mansion contained some thirteen to fifteen rooms, and for gran parties and balls the great rooms of the lower level could be thrown open to create a flowing eighty-foot wide space. Inside, double stairways led to the upper floor, and above, in the attic, one could see the Gulf of Mexico on a clear day.”
Benjamin Chaires died on October 4, 1838, at the age of 52. He left one-tenth of his personal estate to his wife Sarah, including the Verdura mansion and 500 acres around it, the furniture in the mansion, a carriage and its driver. Each of his ten children received a one-tenth share of the estate as well, except for his daughter Mary Ann Chaires Burgess. Seemingly having disdain for his son-in-law, Chaires left Mary Ann $10,000, to be transferred to her only after the death of her husband, William Gaither Burgess, specifically stating that “William Burgess shall not have any part of the same or enjoy any benefit whatsoever.”
In 1839, Joseph Chaires began operating his father’s Verdura plantation. Tax records that year showed Chaire’s estate to consist of 9,440 acres, 80 slaves, and “pleasure carriages” worth $800. In 1860, the US Census reported 63 slaves at Verdura had produced 160 bales of cotton and 25,000 bushels of corn. Following the Civil War, however, Verdura suffered due to the loss of slave labor and a depression in the cotton market. The main house burned in 1885, and the plantation was abandoned. The Chaires family sold what was left of Verdura in 1948.