Micanopy: Secrets and Sanctuary
A mere two miles from antique-lovers’ charming Micanopy sit sparse remnants of the 1,000-acre Pilgrimage Plantation, a Jewish settlement with big aspirations that failed to thrive. Here’s the fascinating story of Florida’s unsung antebellum pioneer.
Behind a curtain of Spanish moss, buried beneath palmettos and kudzu, lies one of our country’s most unremarked historic sites, one that speaks to America’s foundation and rich mélange of culture and reminds us that freedom didn’t extend to the frontier but rather returned from it. Only 2,000 feet from Interstate 75, two miles northwest of Micanopy, a small clearing flanked by live oaks and long-leaf pines sits quietly undisturbed. Here, along the edge of a wetland near present-day Wacahoota, sat Pilgrimage Plantation, built in 1822. While a plantation in name and model, its aims were different than a typical plantation. A plan for the abolition of slavery emerged from atop the hill here. Idylls of free public education, means to restructure religious rigidity, and the hope for a homeland for Jewish people took root here. With such significant thinking and events occurring at this sanctuary of sorts, why don’t more Floridians know about it?
The closest town, Micanopy, with a population hovering at around 600 people, hasn’t grown much since it was settled, but the area’s deep well of history begins before that of this country and its colonial forbears. The town—named after Seminole Chief Micanopy—became the first distinct settlement after Florida became a U.S. territory in 1821. The stretch of the town’s charm remains as elastic as its age. Passing through to peruse the antique shops, admire the oaks and cypresses that march around town, and talk story with the locals, Floridians adore the place for its outside-of-time aura. Years ago, I came across the name Moses Elias Levy by accident while mining the archives at Micanopy’s Historical Society. John Thrasher, the society’s founding president, turned me on to Levy. Thrasher led countless historical initiatives locally, and he’s known not only as a living encyclopedia but as a stand-in for the town’s spirit.
With Thrasher, I sifted through boxes outlining Levy’s life in Florida. There were bios, army memos of Indian attacks, and more, but nothing amounted to a thorough account of this mythic specter. The idea of a Jewish homeland, let alone a plan for the abolition of slavery hatched in the Deep South by a Jewish settler, struck me. Hell, it seemed far-fetched, considering I was there researching groups like the Ku Klux Klan. For years, it stuck with me. But what gnawed at me was this: how could such a remarkable story remain unsung?
Levy arrived in Florida as a merchant with a deep well of ambition. Born in Mogador, Morocco in 1782, Levy grew up in Gibraltar and landed in St. Thomas at 19. Judging from accounts, I imagined the man stoic at times, with a smile as wide as his mandible. He seemed like a ruthless pragmatist, warm but intensely focused and with an adept sense of diplomacy. While he belonged nowhere, he fit in everywhere.
Without Levy, Florida would have remained in a developmental stalemate, toeing the line between pioneer promise and impending conflict. His vision—which he considered a necessity—was to create a homeland for European Jews fleeing persecution. His initial 53,000 acres in Florida came via the Arredondo Grant that he acquired through a friend close to the Spanish Kingdom; with them, he helped forge the town of Micanopy and garnered interest in taming the fringe of the unforgiving free world: Florida. Yet in all my time poking around Alachua County, I had heard little about the role he played until Thrasher pointed me toward Pilgrimage.
LEVY IN CONTEXT
In Europe, the slow push of Jewish emancipation affected Levy. In 1819, the Hep-Hep riots in Germany made Jews across the world nervous. There was a sense of dread. At the purported height of the Enlightenment, those outside the bulwark of religious or ethnic privilege feared a return to the Middle Ages. So, Levy began to build a refuge. C.S. Monaco, the principal historian regarding Levy, believed that to do anything else would have been—in Levy’s mind—ungodly. To remain in the Islands—wealthy and complicit—rather than settle on the Florida frontier was unthinkable for Levy.
On March 4, 1822, after the ratification of the Adams-Onís Treaty made every person within the Florida territory (except Indians and slaves) American citizens, Levy swore his allegiance before St. Augustine’s mayor.
That same year, Levy’s first settlement, Hope Hill, crumbled along the banks of the St. Johns River, near present-day Palatka. With that first flare extinguished, he went farther south to set in on his second. Near what is now Wacahoota, Levy cleared 120 acres for crops and began building while establishing a safety net: to support the frontier by representing it to the Florida Association. This led to wealthy investors’ interest in the territory and the first steps toward taming the unrelenting landscape. In the process, Levy would start a revolution that was partly philosophical and partly political but, moreover, an inkling of our country’s coda.
When I asked Monaco how he’d describe Levy in the context of American history, he told me, “He encompasses an immense part of American history.” Yet when scanning the historical record, you’d be hard-pressed to find a sign of Levy. And that absence seemed odd considering all that I was picking up, piece by piece. But Monaco noted, “His vast contribution to the territory didn’t go unnoticed.”
The social hierarchy that reigned throughout the South was nascent in Florida. The territory was made up of so many different milieus that it evaded any characterization easily applied to the rest of the South. I asked South Florida-based Jerry Klinger, president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation (JASHP), about the challenges Levy might have faced as an outsider. He explained, “When the Indians are coming over the hill, you don’t hear anybody yelling, ‘Give everybody a gun but the Jew’.” Nobody was an outsider here. For Levy, the concept of America was heartening, yet aspects of the country seemed antithetical to its founding principles. Jews could own land—a windfall in Levy’s mind considering the plight of Jews in Europe; yet others in America, such as slaves, could not. The paradox seemed to be his departure point.
A CAMPAIGN FOR A PLANTATION
Aside from creating a physical refuge, Levy aimed to stage a return to an agrarian society, to turn away from the quasi-urban lifestyles European Jews lived. This was evident in his appeals to the Freemasons of London. While there were Jewish power brokers, “They didn’t enter the public stage like Levy did,” Monaco said. In the late 1820s, Levy traveled to London from Florida. As Monaco explained, “The fact that a Jew from God-knows-where Florida arrived in front of the Freemasons’ hall [which was comparable to Parliament], good God. He became notorious and famous in his own right.” While his attempt to spur an interest in Pilgrimage waned, his plan for the abolition of slavery was bolstered in London.
With his diplomatic prowess, Levy weaved together different religious sects from within and outside Judaism. And he moved freely in Catholic colonies at a time when the Inquisition persisted. “He was a person of the Atlantic world,” Monaco said. Klinger added, though, “He kept his name relatively quiet on this side of the Atlantic, because he would have been stretched otherwise.” His beliefs might have killed him had they been public. But it’s also unavoidable to find issue in the fact that Levy owned slaves and sought abolition. How could a slave-owner be an abolitionist?
Abolition’s most prevalent connotation is the immediate end of slavery, yet the North ended it through gradualism. And Levy favored gradualism, as he saw an abrupt ending of slavery as crueler for slaves. So, he called for the end of American slavery in 50 years, not solely through attrition but also through education. “He was a dreamer, but he wasn’t alone,” Monaco explained.
In St. Thomas, a Caribbean island where he spent years of his life, Levy had met Zephaniah Kingsley, a fellow Florida planter. Kingsley—another contradictory figure—traded slaves and concurrently fought for their emancipation. Kingsley and Levy are inextricably bound because both published pamphlets calling for the abolition of slavery—in the same year. Evidently, the two men influenced each other and published their plans almost simultaneously. In 1828, Levy published—albeit anonymously—A Plan for the Abolition of Slavery, and Kingsley published A Treatise on the Patriarchal System of Society.
Today, the Kingsley Plantation still stands near the mouth of St. Johns River, on Fort George Island, as part of the National Register of Historic Places.
In the Deep South, then, the slightest sign of resistance to the ways of the land would have had you floating above the rolling pinelands in short order: The pioneer culture was volatile. Still, Levy advocated for the humane treatment of slaves and the abolition of slavery, though he reaped the benefits. Monaco, reflecting on Levy’s holding these beliefs, let alone entering the public sphere with them, said, “This was something radical.” Ultimately, Levy equated slaves’ rights with Jewish rights.
By 1823, 25 families lived at Pilgrimage, but the burgeoning utopia didn’t attract more settlers after the first push. A scarcity of housing prevented nearly 50 families from making the trip from Europe, which might have been the momentum needed to set the haven in motion. In its prime, the plantation was made up of a modest main house, surrounding homesteads, and infrastructure—supported by 10 to 31 slaves.
To sustain the plantation, Levy turned to sugarcane. Though Pilgrimage remained static, Levy’s fortune dwindled. When he went to London in the mid-20s, the plantation declined in his absence. And when he returned, there weren’t enough hands to harvest the standing sugarcane. Pilgrimage unraveled.
Thirteen years after its first trees were felled, Pilgrimage burned down at the onset of the Second Seminole War in 1835. Once more, Levy’s dream turned fevered.
To buoy himself, Levy tried to sell off land parcels, but his contested citizenship and the Arredondo Grant’s questionable authenticity plagued him. Tedious litigation drained what he had had left. Later, however, he regained his wealth. And even though he could have left Florida and its challenges behind, he stayed
HERITAGE IN THE MIRE
Queries about Levy often lead to his son, David. In 1841, David was elected as a delegate from the Florida territory to the U.S. House of Representatives. Then, in 1845, when Florida attained statehood, he became a senator—the first of Jewish heritage. History reveals that John Quincy Adams called David the “alien Jew delegate.” Amidst the onslaught of anti-Semitism, David changed his surname from Levy to Yulee.
David’s older brother, Elias, followed suit, which beset their father. While Levy had always had an unseemly relationship with his sons, their relationship deteriorated after Pilgrimage’s demise. In Levy’s will, he left Elias and David $100 each and gave the rest of his assets to his daughters and sister. Bitter litigation finally split Levy’s assets five ways, but the jab from six feet under must have made an indelible mark.
David became known as the “Florida Fire Eater,” a Southerner who revered antebellum values—unlike his father. He built his own plantation and became known for chartering the Florida Railroad in 1853. The town Yulee, located in northeast Florida, is named after him, and the county that abuts the Pilgrimage site, Levy County, is too. In 2000, David was recognized as a “Great Floridian” by the state of Florida. While his son’s legacy endured, Levy’s legacy was left to the swamps.
In 2015, Micanopy erected a Florida Heritage Site plaque commemorating Levy near the town’s most popular haunts. Monaco told me, “I don’t think that plaque would have been possible ten years ago.”
Another local explained, “There’s that old-time Southern bullshit, especially in this part of Florida where the crackers just aren’t exactly friendly toward Jews.” It begged the question of whether this kernel of reform in Florida was at times glossed over to tell more palatable stories.
In 1854, Levy died in Greenbrier, West Virginia, nine years before the Emancipation Proclamation confounded his life’s work. He died among friends, who buried him nearby. The site of the grave bore no marker and dissolved into lore.
The JASHP—which has erected markers in 27 states and five countries—tried to erect one in Greenbrier, but they couldn’t persuade the owners of the historic Greenbrier resort to do so. Klinger even told them he’d “pay for the damn thing,” reasoning that a marker would highlight how Levy revitalized the American experience and galvanized some of the most inimitable archetypes which we claim. But he was resigned: “It’s up to them.”
As for Pilgrimage, rumblings about National Historic Landmark status are circling around. “It rings all the right bells. And it hasn’t been done enough, especially with Jews,” Monaco said. He’s been working with the Gulf Archaeology Research Institute to make the case to the National Park Service (NPS). “It highlights the NPS’s priorities for ethnicities” and speaks clearly of “our national code,” he said. Klinger too believes there is an opportunity to talk about the contradictions of America but also to talk about the possibilities of freedom through the NPS.
Differences in historic preservation in the North and South loom large, especially concerning Jewish heritage. Monaco called it “historical amnesia.” Inevitably, the process of preservation relies on the community’s “individual gatekeepers.” He explained that 99.9 percent of property owners are cooperative, and that in Florida much of the work of preservation concerned wars, allowing researchers to wave a flag and be quickly obliged. But he asked, “Jewish identity?” Then he laughed and added, “That’s another thing entirely.”
Beside the plaque in Micanopy, the state has done little to acknowledge Moses Levy, yet the ruins of David Yulee’s plantation in Homosassa joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.
PILGRIMAGE TO PILGRIMAGE
After Monaco gave me directions to find Pilgrimage, he said, “It certainly shouldn’t be forgotten.” At the bottom of the hill, a serpentine ravine crept up toward the site of Pilgrimage. I thought about how Levy’s legacy made clear the ebb and flow of justice in America, then and now. And how the unsettling paradox conjures up what this country continues to be: a place as troubling as it is inspiring.
But one question hung over me: Is America in its finest moments not antithetical? In recent months, we’ve seen an uptick in bomb threats, anti-Semitic rhetoric, and the vandalism of religious sites. I feel increasingly cautious claiming I’m Jewish in some parts of Florida, not just in the backwoods anymore. The national discourse regarding these events seems fervent, at times, and for sites like Pilgrimage to attain National Historic Landmark status would undoubtedly temper a resurgence of anti-Semitism and protect our country’s values.
At the base of the property, a withered, gray tree-trunk stood wrapped in kudzu—the vine dead, set in place. But at the trunk’s base, two young palm fronds poked out, suggesting another period of promise here at Pilgrimage. Maybe the spirit of Pilgrimage would return.
As I left the field where the plantation once stood, and approached the back road where I parked, the noise of passing cars grew louder—a far cry from the hummingbirds and cicadas that blanketed Pilgrimage—and a strange sensation washed over me. As a first-generation Jewish-American born in the South—with my family strewn across the world—Levy’s muted legacy offered me hope; a well to return to, to draw from, to belong to; and ultimately a place to remind me of the great promise this country still holds.
Photography by Mary Beth Koeth