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Chinsegut History – The Pearson Settlement Years

c. 1842-1851

The documented history of the Chinsegut Hill property began with the Florida Armed Occupation Act of 1842. The Act was passed by Congress to encourage the settlement of Florida and gave 160 acres to the head of any family under three conditions: (1) the land selected could not be within two miles of a military post; (2) the settler must be able to bear arms and live on the land for five years; and (3) the settler must clear five acres and build a house. Through this Act, the property that contains the Chinsegut Hill Manor House was granted to South Carolina lawyer Colonel Bird M. Pearson in 1842. There he moved his family, slaves and household good to the property in 1847 and created a slave-run plantation where he grew corn and sugar in the old Indian fields. He also served as the first lawyer in the area. Pearson owned the property for less than a decade before deciding to relocate and enter Florida politics, but not without clearing 150 acres for planting and constructing a small house. He later became a Florida Supreme Court Justice.  His daughter, Floride Lydia Pearson, who spent much of her childhood at Chinsegut Hill, then known as Mount Airy, was married to Florida’s fifteenth Governor, Francis P. Fleming.

Bird Pearson

Portrait of Col. Bird Pearson, Image courtesy the Florida State Archives

During the Pearson ownership of the Hill, Florida and the local area underwent great transformations. When Col. Pearson arrived in the area, Florida had only been a state for two years, ratified in 1845. Hernando County had been formed two years before that in 1843, but the name was changed to Benton County in 1844 in honor of the Senator that sponsored the Armed Occupation Act; however, when Senator Benton declared himself “against the institution of slavery,” area residents opted to change the county name back to Hernando in 1850. Slavery was a major part of the early Hernando County life, and there was much concern in keeping the institution intact among County residents. In 1846, the Tallahassee Floridian reported that the Benton County grand jury had called for adherence to the patrol law “as we are of the opinion that that important law is much neglected.” The report warned citizens and officials that slaves had “too much privilege in carrying arms, and more particularly violating the Sabbath day.”

Little is known about the original house, although it is believed to have formed the basis for the existing Kitchen Wing of the Manor House. Local history describes the first house as a log cabin. Fires and extensive remodeling over the years has made determining which portion of the Kitchen Wing might remain from the Pearson House difficult without seeing the building framing, although it is likely that it is the area above the existing root cellar. If one-story originally as local lore alleges, a second story was added early on, as was a cross-gable wing, although no documentation has been found so far to verify when this happened.

On Thursday, March 27, 1851, Clement Claiborne Clay, son of the Alabama Governor wrote to his wife, Virginia, from Col. Pearson’s home. “I met with Col. Bird M Pearson…who invited me to accompany him home. Accordingly I left Tampa on the 23rd…rode up here in his buggy, his servant riding my horse. We reached here on the 24th and found the Col’s wife and 4 children and their teacher, (Mrs Marlowe) looking out for us and keeping the dinner table waiting. At a distance of a mile from the dwelling we commenced ascending a hill, which rises like a sugar loaf from the flat lands below and whose summit is crowned with orange, lemon and fig trees, which quite conceal the comfortable log cabins. From the hill I command the finest prospect to be seen in Fla. At the foot of the hill on the northwestern side is Lake Lindsey…”