Resource

Life Story: Nansi Wiggins

Plantation Slave to Plantation Mistress

The story of a Black woman who rose from plantation slave to plantation mistress in colonial Florida.

Content Warning: This resource addresses sexual assault.

Doña Nansi

Karen Hampton, Doña Nansi, 2005. Photo by Sibila Savage. Courtesy of the artist.

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Nansi Wiggins was born in Senegal, a country on the western coast of Africa. In the late 1700s, she was captured and sold into the slave trade. She survived the Middle Passage and was taken to the Spanish colony of Florida.

Nansi was purchased by Jacob Wiggins, an English settler who had come to St. Augustine, Florida, when it was briefly held by the British. The laws governing slavery in the Spanish colonies were very different from those in the French and English colonies. For example, it was illegal for male slave owners to have sex with their female slaves unless the woman consented. However, it was both legal and common for slave owners to marry enslaved women and set them free. Nansi quickly learned her rights under Spanish law, and used them to improve her situation. She married Jacob sometime around the year 1781. Through this relationship, Nansi rose from the status of plantation slave to plantation mistress.

Between 1781 and 1795, Nansi gave birth to six children, four daughters and two sons. All of her children were born free. Nansi and Jacob were not Catholic, but they had all of their children baptized in the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church was a powerful force in Spanish society, and Nansi and Jacob understood that membership in the church would bring their children advantages later in life.

Jacob died in 1797, leaving Nansi the sole guardian of their young children. Under Spanish law, Nansi was entitled to inherit half of Jacob’s estate. She became the owner of a plantation house, fourteen hundred acres of land, one hundred cattle, and fourteen enslaved people. With the help of her eldest son, Benjamin, Nansi managed the daily affairs of her property. She began to pursue her own business interests. She appears frequently in the St. Augustine legal records, buying and selling horses and enslaved people.

Nansi also arranged for her children to make advantageous marriages. Her son Benjamin married Nicolasa, the daughter of prominent free Black land owner Felipe Edimboro. Her eldest daughter, Isabella, became the mistress of Carlos Clarke, the brother of one of the most powerful government officials in St. Augustine. Isabella and Carlos had four children together, and Carlos recognized all of the children as his own and included them in his will. These relationships solidified the Wiggins family’s social status.

But for all her wealth and status, Nansi was still vulnerable. In 1798, she was raped by Pedro Cassaly, a St. Augustine man who came to her plantation to buy a horse. Pedro drowned on his way home from the crime, but Nansi was left pregnant. She appealed to the colonial court for financial aid to support the baby, but her petition was denied. The government knew she had plenty of resources from her plantation and family network.

Nansi rose from the status of plantation slave to plantation mistress.

In 1800, the Seminole and Muscogee tribes declared war against the Spanish government, and St. Augustine was in immediate danger. Nansi and most of her family moved north to the new settlement of Fernandina, on Amelia Island. Benjamin, who had learned the local Native languages as a child, stayed behind to work as translator for the free Black militia of St. Augustine, earning his family honor in the eyes of the Spanish government. Isabella’s relationship with Carlos Clarke made it easy for Nansi and her family to resettle in their new area. She and her daughters all received generous land grants from the government. They built new homes close to one another, and began to participate in local trade and business ventures.

In 1808, when the U.S. government banned the transatlantic slave trade, U.S. plantation owners from Georgia and South Carolina began traveling to Fernandina to purchase enslaved people brought over on Spanish ships. This turned the small settlement into a booming port, and the Wiggins family prospered.

Although she had once been an enslaved person, Nansi was evidently unmoved by the plight of the enslaved people she bought, sold, and employed. In 1810, Nansi was sued by the free Black militia man Jorge Sanco. Jorge was trying to purchase the freedom of his wife, Rosa. Nansi owned Rosa, and was refusing to acknowledge that the payments Rosa and Jorge had made were enough to buy Rosa’s freedom. Spanish law guaranteed enslaved people the right to purchase their own freedom provided they could raise a sum that a government council deemed fair, so Nansi lost the case. As this episode shows, her own family and business interests mattered more to Nansi than securing the freedom of other women like her.

The exact date of Nansi’s death is unknown, but by the time she passed away, her family was well established and prosperous. Her children and grandchildren would continue her legacy, contributing to the growth of one of Florida’s most important free Black communities.

Vocabulary

  • acre: A unit of land equal to about 43,000 square feet.
  • baptize: To undergo a special ceremony to be admitted to a Christian community.
  • Catholic Church: The Christian religious group that follows the authority of the Pope in Rome.
  • estate: All of the money and property owned by a person.
  • Middle Passage: The part of the Triangle Trade that brought enslaved people from Africa to the Americas.
  • militia: A military force of volunteer citizens.
  • Muscogee: The preferred name of the people previously known as the Creek. The Muscogee originally lived in the Eastern woodlands in territory spanning modern-day Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida. Today, there are Muscogee communities in Alabama, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Texas, and Florida.
  • plantation: A large estate where cash crops are grown.
  • Seminole: A Native tribe that originally inhabited the area known today as Florida. Today there are Seminole communities in Florida and Oklahoma.
  • transatlantic: Crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
  • will: a legal declaration of a person’s wishes regarding the disposal of his or her property or estate after death.

Pronunciation

  • Jorge: jorg
  • Nansi: NAHN-see
  • Seminole: SEHM-ee-noll

Discussion Questions

  • How did Nansi gain her freedom? What does this reveal about the status of enslaved women in colonial Florida?
  • What steps did Nansi take to make sure her family would remain prosperous?
  • Why is it important to know the stories of women like Nansi?
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Suggested Activities

Themes

DOMESTICITY AND FAMILY; WORK, LABOR, AND ECONOMY

Source Notes
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