Roger Kelsall’s father, John, of Scottish descent, came to the colonies from England and settled in South Carolina. He owned a large plantation near Beaufort. Roger and his younger brother, William, grew to be successful merchants like their father, and owned large plantations with numerous slaves to work them. Cotton is what Roger grew, even developing a special strain, called sea-island cotton which thrived on coastal lands, and commanded much higher prices than the inland variety. But due to conflicts with those fighting for their independence from the Crown, Roger Kelsall, a staunch Loyalist, moved from South Carolina to Georgia, where the English had a stronger hold. He settled in Sunbury around 1770, which quickly became, along with Savannah, a large and prosperous port city. Roger Kelsall, along with a Mr. James Spalding established a number of businesses there and was quite successful, becoming the leading Indian trade company from Georgia to East Florida. Though based in Sunbury, he also took 1,000 acres of land in British East Florida awarded by the Crown to its supporters, and established large plantations there. Despite all of this, he had to be always on alert, watching for the rebels. There were a number of skirmishes through the mid 1770s, with the British prevailing at times and the Americans at others, though the Americans never were able to completely wrest control of Georgia from the British. During this time, Roger served as a military colonel, and during one of the later conflicts, in 1779, Roger and another officer were captured at a plantation, but ultimately released in exchange for an American prisoner. The story goes that Kelsall was being escorted to the woods to be shot, when a local woman put up such a lament that the guard taking Colonel Kelsall agreed to let him go. But not before reminding him that several years earlier, their positions had been reversed, and Kelsall had treated his then-captive cruelly and with disrespect. Kelsall was then forced to admit that he had been less of a gentleman than the other man was.
The Loyalists continued to defend Sunbury from the Americans into the early 1780s, but their forces were spread thin around the area. Finally, after a few more conflicts of the same nature, by 1782, the British and their supporters had completely lost control of Sunbury and evacuated the town. The American Revolution was officially ended by a treaty with Great Britain in 1783. Roger Kelsall was forced to leave. He went to live and work exclusively in East Florida, where he’d still had property. But shortly thereafter, Florida reverted to Spanish rule and Roger once again packed up his remaining slaves and his cotton seed and sailed for the Bahamas. There, as in East Florida, the Crown had purchased most of the land there for those loyal to it to settle.
Roger Kelsall established himself in Nassau, and at an estate called Pinxton on Little Exuma, where he tried to grow cotton, but the soil was poor and rocky. He raked salt from a nearby lake in large enough quantities so that he could export it to Nova Scotia, Canada, and America. But it was not nearly as profitable as cotton had been, and Kelsall began to suffer financially.
He was also alone; his wife had died over a decade ago, and his two children, John and Anne, had been sent to England to be educated. Roger took up with one of his slaves, Nelly, and she bore him a daughter, Portia. Apparently, at least for some time, Portia was accepted as one of the family by her half-siblings and cousins. But her mother was a hard drinker, and resentment of Nelly and her daughter by other family members made things very difficult. Because her mother was a slave, so Portia was also a slave. As the family fortunes dwindled, Portia faced a real threat of being sold. Though most of the family distanced themselves from her and her mother, her half-sister finally purchased her and her mother’s freedom in 1807. Not much is known about her after this time, but a portrait of Portia remains. A picture of it was sent to me by one of Kelsall’s descendants- someone I had contacted though a genealogy forum. Portia, in a simple dress and head wrap, stares out at us with large dark eyes from a shadowy canvas. Just a part of her face and upper body are illuminated. I find the picture strangely haunting.
Along with Portia’s portrait, came pictures of portraits of Roger Kelsall’s son, John, and John’s wife, Lucretia. John had earned his law degree from Cambridge and married the beautiful Lucretia Moultrie, daughter of John Moultrie, former lieutenant governor of East Florida. By contrast, their portraits, perhaps a marriage portrait set, are brighter, with both of them in the elegant clothes of aristocrats, though they each stare out at us as well. John and his sister Anne both settled in the Bahamas after their father’s death. Anne married a doctor and John became Vice-Admiralty Judge and Speaker of the Assembly before dying at an early age in 1803.
So, into this sparsely-populated, sea-based colonial island, came Roger Kelsall, having run from one place to the next, losing more of his wealth as he went, embittered by his losses, most likely with feelings of superiority toward the old inhabitants who were easy-going, and accustomed to quite a different life than Roger had, and than Roger wanted. Different too were the master-slave relationships here, and it was a place with a large free black population that outnumbered the whites. Here he was, with his driving ambition to remake his fortune and to assume positions of leadership within the community and perhaps within the government. Here he was, alone, with his cotton crops failing, clearing land for more planting that would also fail, and not knowing what else to do. And so he set sail one final time- this time back to England in 1786. I’ve not been able to uncover what he did while he was there. It seems he was exhausted and sick. He wrote his will on 29th of July, 1788. On 5th of December of that year, he died- 51 years after he was born.