PALM COAST – When Flagler County purchased an old waterfront fish camp 20-plus years ago, it had big plans for the site. The eyesore property, with its dilapidated trailers, primitive plumbing and electrical wiring, would be cleared out to make way for a picturesque county park with a boat ramp and nature trails.
But while county workers were removing trash, they discovered an unexpected archaeological treasure: the remnants of Mala Compra Plantation, once owned by Florida's first voice in the U.S. Congress and its first Hispanic member.
"The crews, of course, went in with the express purpose of demolishing and removing all the stuff that was there," recalls Al Hadeed, the Flagler County attorney. "One day the road and bridge superintendent called me and said, 'There is something here that you've got to see.' It was an old coquina well. And as we began to clear out stuff, we began to see other outcroppings of cut coquina."
In the early 19th century, the plantation was home to Joseph Hernandez, who served as everything from a brigadier general in the U.S. Army to a committee member who helped select Tallahassee as the state capital. The site is part of Bing's Landing, an eight-acre county park that also includes a boat launch, fishing pier, and picnic and playground facilities.
Flagler County pursued archaeological grants to study the physical evidence of Hernandez' plantation, and then more grants to create a permanent display at the site.
"Normally when archaeologists dig, they take the artifacts and then cover the site back up," says Sisco Deen, the archive curator for the Flagler County Historical Society. "With this one, we got the artifacts, but they left the dig."
Today, visitors can walk on an elevated boardwalk around the perimeter of the plantation remains and read interpretive displays that explain the site's historical and cultural value.
"Typically, with these kind of sites, they bury them to preserve them because it's very expensive to preserve them in the open," Hadeed says.
In 2010, Mala Compra Plantation received two notable awards: One, an international recognition from the Society for Historic Archaeology, singled out the county for promoting historical archaeology. Another, from the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, rewarded the county's "Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Historic Landscape/Archaeology."
Additionally, artifacts from the dig – and others donated by descendants of Hernandez – are on display at sites around Flagler County, such as the Flagler Beach Museum and the county government services building, which houses more-valuable items that require a higher level of security.
Flagler County, of course, didn't know what it was getting when it purchased this small portion of Hernandez' old spread. But officials were surprised and delighted as they pieced together the history.
The son of Spanish immigrants who came to Florida from Minorca, an island off the coast of Spain, Hernandez was born in St. Augustine in 1788, when Florida was controlled by the Spanish. Much of his family moved to Cuba when Florida became part of the United States in 1821, but Hernandez stayed behind and launched a political career in his home state.
In 1822, he was selected to represent the new Florida Territory in Congress, where he served until 1823.
His plantation, which produced cotton and oranges and once consisted of nearly 800 acres, is also notable because Hernandez hosted John James Audubon there during Christmas of 1831, and one of the naturalist's paintings in Birds of America depicts a water bird at Mala Compra.
Seminole Indians burned the plantation in 1836 during the Second Seminole Indian War.
The plantation's name, Mala Compra, translates to "bad bargain," but who gave it that name and who got the short end of whatever bargain is not clear. Today, for those who treasure history, Mala Compra is a great deal.
This story was first published by VISITFLORIDA.com.