Episode 85 The Kingdom of the Happy Land

A group of emancipated slaves made the long journey from the Deep South to the Carolinas after the Civil War. There, they established a new life and a kingdom.

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The Kingdom of the Happy Land has faded with time. Residents have moved away. Old cabins and buildings that were on the land in the late 19th century have long since been torn down or overtaken by nature and time. We know the kingdom was established near the present day town of Tuxedo, North Carolina in Henderson County. 

The Green River community that this group called home extended from the state line of South Carolina on up to Flat Rock (an area just south of Asheville, North Carolina). As historical society researches in Henderson county note, the region’s mountain peaks, fertile valleys, mountain streams and waterfalls drew many wandering soul to the land.

Around 1867, a group of emancipated slaves would near the end of a long journey from the deep south. Passing through the Winding Stairs near where Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina intersect…in search of their promised land.

The men who became leaders of this group were brothers, Robert and William Montgomery. We know more about Robert because he would become the longest ruling king of the kingdom of the happy land.

Robert Montgomery was born in the deep south, most likely Mississippi, and he was the son of a white plantation owner and an enslaved woman who was freed before Robert was born. He was able to pass as white which afforded him opportunities and ease of movement that enslaved and free Black men rarely had during this era.

Robert and William were close to their mother who told them stories of what life was like in their motherland before she and her family were taken from their home in Africa. Following emancipation, the brothers were inspired to turn the dream of a kingdom in America into reality. 

We don’t know the exact route they travelled, but it’s estimated the group began with about 50 people and travelled from Mississippi through Alabama, Georgia and into the Carolinas. As they travelled, people began joining the group. They worked odd jobs along the way as they waited for a sign and a feeling of where they should end the journey and settle down. 

They travelled light. All they owned were the clothes on their back and what little food they were able to find along the way. Which meant they depended on the kindness of strangers. 

That kindness and an unexpected opportunity would be found as the group travelled through the Winding Stairs trail, up into the mountains and arrived in the Green River Community. Here, they came across old slave cabins and met Serepta Merritt Davis, the widow of a plantation owner.

Serepta Merritt Davis, as pictured in The Kingdom of the Happy Land by Sadie Smathers Patton

Serepta Merritt was born in Greenville, South Carolina. In 1823, she met Colonel John Davis, a Virginian who had served under General Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812. Following the Battle of New Orleans, Davis moved to frontier country in the foothills of South Carolina where he established a trading post.

By the end of 1823, Davis had married Serepta and relocated to Flat Rock. A few years later, Colonel Davis sold his land and he and his wife moved down the mountain to the Green River community. Davis purchased 900 acres of land and built a large home just north of the North Carolina state line.

Serepta and John Davis would raise ten children in the home they called Oakland, to honor the large oaks surrounding the property.

Colonel John Davis became an influential figure in Green River and surrounding communities. He had been a master sergeant when he served in the War of 1812, but his new neighbors took to calling him Colonel and the nickname sort of stuck…for the rest of his life.

John and Serepta opened an inn and stagecoach stop at Oakland which would become a vital rest stop for weary travellers. The Davises were always willing to offer food and shelter to neighbors and strangers…anyone in need would find help at Oakland.

The Davises would also be unintentional hosts of a significant event in the history of the Carolinas.

Oakland as featured in vintage postcard. Terry Ruscin Collection

Despite duels being outlawed in North Carolina in 1802, Oakland was the site of the Vance Carlson Duel of 1827. On November 5th, Robert Vance and Samuel Carson faced each other to duel on the grounds of Oakland. 

Robert Vance was a doctor turned politician. The congressman was the brother of North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance.  Samuel Carson was a farmer who felt called to politics. 

In 1825, Carson and Vance competed for a seat in the 19th Congress. Carson defeated Vance who vowed to himself he would one day return to Congress. In 1827, Robert Vance and Samuel Carson would once again compete for the same congressional seat.

The campaign was fierce and dirty. Robert Vance made some rather crude remarks about Carson and his family, calling them cowards when he made a speech in their hometown of Marion. Samuel Carson won reelection and sought an apology from Vance for the attack on his family honor. Vance refused and Carson challenged him to a duel that was accepted. 

When Vance and Carson met on the grounds of Oakland, the duel was right on the North and South Carolina border to honor the outlawing of duels in North Carolina. One of the witnesses was frontiersman, Davy Crockett.

Robert Vance never fired his gun but Samuel Carson did, hitting Vance in the hip. A fatally wounded Robert Vance was carried to Oakland where he died the next day. 

Along with the controversial duel and its association with Oakland, Colonel John Davis and his wife Serepta were operating a plantation inn which meant the Davises owned slaves. There were slave cabins on the grounds which leads one to believe the primary upkeep of the plantation fell on the backs of the men, women and children who were forced to work the land. 

When Colonel John Davis died in 1859, Serepta Davis inherited Oakland and along with her son Tom, the widow was responsible for the house and 200 acres of  land. The responsibility for that inheritance would become a difficult undertaking as the Civil War began in 1861. 

As years passed and the war continued, some Oakland slaves were said to have left and by the end of the war, all of the Oakland slaves were gone. Oakland was idle and most of the Davis’s possessions had been stolen and their livestock taken by Union and Confederate troops.

An aging Serepta Davis was struggling to survive. She and her son earned what little money they could by opening up rooms in the home for travelers willing to pay to stay in a run down Oakland.

You can imagine her surprise when a group of emancipated slaves appeared on her property and the men who were entrusted to speak for the group, brothers Robert and William Montgomery, knocked on her door. 

The men explained where they had come from, how they had heard of a road that would take them to a beautiful area that could be their promised land.

Serepta Davis was kind and she and her son welcomed the Montgomerys and their fellow travelers. She extended the hospitality she had always been known for.

It was clear to the Montgomery brothers that Serepta Davis was financially struggling. They were smart men and they quickly offered to make a deal with Serepta. 

There were old slave cabins on the Oakland plantation. Cabins that were empty and could offer shelter and a new start for this group. The house and land needed work. 

So William and Robert asked the widow and her son if their group could help them with odd jobs around the property in exchange for shelter. 

Serepta Davis agreed and the group moved into the Oakland cabins.

We don’t know exactly how many people were a part of the group that put down roots at Oakland. We do know that little by little, as word spread about Montgomery’s deal with Serepta, more people were drawn to what was being called Happy Land.

The Montgomerys and the new settlers set about repairing Oakland and returning it to its status as a respected inn. The repairs helped and more people began staying at Oakland during the summer and fall months. 

The agreement the Montgomery’s made with Serepta was ideal for the group because it allowed them to find work in the surrounding communities as they rotated labor at Oakland. Each new job meant they were able to make and save a little money and that money helped them fulfill their dream for a kingdom.

Within a few years, the group pooled their money and purchased an estimated 180 acres from Serepta for $1 an acre. 

The land they worked for and purchased became the foundation for their new community where they built cabins and set about establishing The Kingdom of the Happy Land . 

Kingdom of the Happy Land map, from Sadie Smathers-Patton’s 1957 booklet about Happy Land

Here, freed slaves made a community. It was a socialistic society where every crop and every dollar earned was equally distributed among its inhabitants who were governed by a king and a queen. 

The first to rule Happy Land was King William Montgomery and his wife Queen Louella. Together they recreated an African tribal village with customs and rituals in the Green River. William and Luella had adjoining cabins and in each cabin…you would find their throne.

Their “royal cabins” were built on the state line. William’s cabin was in North Carolina and Luella’s in South Carolina. The cabins were said to be intentionally constructed in different states as a sort of fail safe…to preserve the kingdom. If any threat to their livelihood arose in one state they could easily move to the other. 

Those who were a part of establishing the kingdom with William and Luella knew their survival depended on everyone agreeing to the  “all for one and one for all” model. When someone made money, they would hand it over to King William to deposit into the community treasury. He made the call on how to distribute that money. From funding construction of barns to buying more land to ensure they had room to grow. 

William Montgomery passed away in the early 1870s, and Robert Montgomery succeeded him as king alongside his sister in law, Queen Luella. 

They’re credited with leading the movement that enabled the Kingdom of the Happy Land to survive for decades. 

Kingdom of the Happy Land painting by Gary Carden

The kingdom was always a simple place. Everyone worked hard to build cabins and clear the land that would be worked for generations. They grew corn, potatoes and grains and built much needed corncribs for storing and protecting their harvest from mold and the elements. 

Their community was self sustaining. Their crops and livestock ensured they had food on the table and their clothing was made from materials they wove and dyed. 

Residents also worked together to produce a Happy Land Liniment, from wild and cultivated herbs. The liniment was sold as a pain reliever for those suffering from rheumatism. The liniment sold well but the majority of the income in the kingdom came from the thriving service industries associated with agriculture in 19th century Green River. 

The men worked as teamsters which in the 1870s meant they drove teams of horses to transport produce up and down the old “State Road” that linked South Carolina and the Western North Carolina Mountains with coastal ports. 

At home, Queen Louella organized a school for the children and King William’s leadership helped the the Kingdom of the happy land prosper 

It’s estimated that by 1872, the kingdom of the happy land had grown from what’s believed to be around 50 people who travelled from Mississippi to the promised land in the Carolinas, into a population that exceeded 400 people. 

How did this thriving self sustaining community of emancipated slaves go from a kingdom of hope and promise that was welcoming new residents each year…to an area in Green river that’s long since been overtaken by time? 

The beginning of the end for the kingdom of the happy land was the railroad. The region that had relied on teamsters such as the Happy Land’s wagons, found there was a faster and more efficient way to transport goods.

After 1878, it would become harder and harder for members of the kingdom to find work. By the 1880s, King Robert Montgomery had passed away and Queen Luella did everything in her power to help the kingdom survive. Slowly, as years passed, people had to relocate to Flat Rock or Hendersonville to find work. With fewer Happy Land residents, it became harder to pay the taxes on the land. By 1900, most of the folks who had been a part of the kingdom of the happy land, had moved away. 

The land was idle until 1910 when a farmer bought the property and within a decade, most of the happy land buildings had fallen apart or been dismantled. 


If you were to walk the area that was once the happy land, you’d see no visible signs of the history of this place. 

But the story of the Kingdom of the Happy Land has been preserved by historians who interviewed descendants of those who lived and worked the land. A few deeds confirm the ownership of the land following the Civil War. Which affirms the unexpected connection of a group of freedmen and a white woman on a plantation that was falling apart in the years following the war.  

A reminder of the complicated years after the war that divided this country and the question everyone was asking…how do we move forward? 

The Montgomery brothers and Serepta Davis figured out a way to do that together with an agreement that proved beneficial to both parties. 

The Kingdom of the Happy Land was a sort of Canaan for these men and women who had endured the brutality and horror of slavery. 

In 1855, Frederick Douglass wrote about Canaan and singing spirituals during his years of bondage.

“A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of ‘O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,’ something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan.”

Frederick Douglass

The Kingdom of the Happy Land may not have been the north Frederick Douglass was referring to but the Green River region beckoned these freed men and that area, near the north and south Carolina line in 1867, was far enough north for their new beginning.

And perhaps for a little while…their little piece of heaven on earth.

Sources

History and Heritage. Henderson Heritage. Researcher, Jennie Jones Giles

Vance – Carson Duel of 1827. North Carolina History Project

Trek to Kingdom of Happy Land. Asheville Citizen-Times. July 11, 1957

Former slaves founded Kingdom of Happy Land. Blue Ridge Now. February 16, 2004

Beyond the Banks: Promised land, Henderson County’s storied kingdom. Blue Ridge Now. February 10, 2019

Ruscin, T., Staton, H. (2014). Glimpses of Henderson County, North Carolina. United States: History Press.

The Kingdom of the Happy Land. Mountain XPress Asheville. February 7, 2007

The Kingdom of the Happy Land by Sadie Smathers Patton

Kingdom of the Happy Land. Flat Rock Together. February 6, 2021

Serepta Merritt Davis. Find a GraveCol John Davis. Find a Grave

Music

Theme Song “Dark & Troubled” by Pantherburn. Special thanks to Phillip St Ours for permission for use.

Alone by Lee Rosevere  Licensed under Creative Commons.

Relaxing Piano, Journey Home and Slow Hammers by Kevin MacLeod. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. Source: http://incompetech.com/

There’s Probably No Time by Chris Zabriskie Licensed under Creative Commons.



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