Historic City Memories: Two mules for widow Abbott

Two mules and two slaves for the widow Abbott

By Geoff Dobson

To the north of the Castillo de San Marcos and lying to the east of San Marco Avenue is the so-called “Abbott Tract”.

Within the Abbott Tract lies Abbott Street. And on Joiner Street within the Abbott Tract lies the Abbott Mansion. Actually, two separate structures claim to be the “Abbott Mansion.” To separate the two, one goes by the title the “Lucy Abbott Mansion”.

The latter, on San Marco Avenue, does not quite meet the writer’s concept of a “mansion”. To the writer a mansion is a large, almost palatial pile. The one at 14 Joiner was originally a Second Empire pile constructed by Lucy. Second Empire featured mansard roofs and with the development of newer styles began to be considered “outdated” and ugly. A particularly ugly example is the “Old New York State Capital,” almost as ugly as the University of Oregon’s Administration Building, Deady Hall, designed by William W. Piper. Piper, perhaps in remorse for have designed such a structure, took a dive off the end of a Union Pacific train passing through Medicine Bow, Wyoming, and is now the most famous occupant of its cemetery.

In the 1920’s the house on Joiner was remodeled. The prime example left of a Second Empire building in St. Augustine is the St. Francis Inn at 279 St. George Street. The mansard was added to that structure between 1888 and 1890, just in time to go out of style. Both Abbott mansions are claimed by some tour guides and writers to be haunted — possibly by the ghost of Miss Lucy. But then, some ghost tours claim that the writer’s mother-in-law’s house is haunted. The stories told of the writer’s mother-in-law’s house are beyond absurd.

Lucy Bellenger Abbott (1838-1929) never married and was the first woman real estate developer in St. Augustine. Following the Second Seminole War, many South Carolinians and Georgians settled in Florida and established plantations and cattle operations. The wealthy started plantations and the poorer cattle. Florida was an open range state and, thus, the poorer did not have to buy large amounts of land. In the latter class of names on the map of St. Augustine were the Mizells, one of whom was the famous Florida cowhunter “Bones” Mizell. Bones was noted for his skill with a branding iron, allegedly on others persons’ cattle.

Lucy Abbott and her mother Margaret Evans Larkin Starke Abbott were members of the Starke family from Fairfield, South Carolina, and were of the wealthy class. Lucy’s father was Thomas Abbott, a physician. Lucy’s Grandfather was also a physician as was her uncle James Douglas Starke, today regarded as the founder of Ocoee, Florida. By the time of the Civil War, many of the Starke family had moved from Fairfield to Florida. Madison Starke Perry arrived in Alachua County by 1845 where he established a plantation. Soon he was a member of the State Legislature and by the outbreak of the Civil War was governor. Dr. James D. Starke, Lucy’s uncle, arrived in Florida and acquired land in both Marion and Volusia Counties in the 1850’s. Prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, Lucy’s father died and Lucy and her mother also moved to Florida, and settled in St. Augustine.

At some point, Lucy acquired in her own right portions of the Noda Concession to the north of the Castillo. Portions of the Noda Concession later became the Abbott Tract. Jose Noda, a native of the Canary Islands, had been granted two parcels by the Spanish Governor of East Florida Enrique White in 1808 and 1809.

Government moves slowly. There is no need for haste in government. In 1825, Jose Noda, pursuant to the treaty with Spain, dutifully presented his claim for confirmation of his title. It was ordered filed and there it sat and it sat, un-acted upon. By the time of Jose’s death in 1855, it still sat un-acted upon. Indeed, Noda’s proof of ownership was not finally approved by the Government until 1887. The government and Lucy Abbott’s lawyer, W. W. Dewhurst, were still arguing the extent of her ownership as late as 1914.

But that was not the only difficulty Lucy Abbott had with the Government. With the advent of the Civil War, Lucy’s uncle, James D. Starke, enlisted in the Florida Cavalry. He sent to his sister Margaret and to his niece Lucy in St. Augustine two slaves and two mules.

By then, St. Augustine had been occupied by federal forces. The federal forces immediately seized the two mules. Additionally, the federal government claimed the real estate owned by Lucy.

Ultimately, about 1872, Lucy was able to redeem the real estate. The mules owned by Margaret and Lucy Abbott were a different question.

Following the war in 1868, Lucy even went to the extent of writing General Grant requesting the return of the mules. In her letter she indicated that her uncle was a “union man” who had been “forced” into Confederate service.

Lucy wrote:
“The right to the mules, such as it is, was released to me by my uncle who was their owner—I write this frank statement, on the truly distressing situation in which two women find themselves, to ask that this little property given up to me for out benefit. I feel, General, that I am appealing to one of noble and generous impulses—to one who thought it not unmanly to weep at the downfall of an opponent, and cannot believe he will disregard the prayer of the unfortunate orphan.”

As observed above, neither the Widow Abbott, nor her daughter, nor Lucy’s Uncle James D. Starke, were exactly destitute. It has been observed that Dr. Starke’s gardener at his plantation following the war had previously been employed by Queen Victoria.

Although General Grant was magnanimous in his treatment of Confederate soldiers at Appomattox Courthouse, allowing them to keep their privately owned mules, not all former Confederates appreciated his generosity.

Regardless, today, 142 years later, the heirs of the Widow Margaret Abbott and her daughter Lucy Abbott are undoubtedly still awaiting a response as to whether the federal government will return the Abbotts’ two mules.

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 33 years, is a western and Florida history writer and was former General Counsel for the Florida Department of Transportation. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at horse.creek.cowboy@gmail.com

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