African-American history in Henderson County, Part One
The Kingdom of the Happy Land
Several years ago I mentioned to my dear friend, John “Chip” Laurens of Charleston and Flat Rock, that I was writing a book on the summer camps of the Green River Valley. He immediately responded to my comment with “Miss, you’ve got to include the first camp that ever existed in the Green River area — the Kingdom of the Happy Land.” Having no knowledge of the kingdom, I was intrigued. The mystery of it all instantly appealed to the history detective in me, and I was eager to investigate this anonymity.
Immediately I discovered that very few resources or records existed for the Happy Land. Sadie Smathers Patton’s 1957 monograph, The Kingdom of the Happy Land, is the first known written account of the kingdom. By talking to the descendants of those who had staked a claim at the Happy Land, Patton, a Henderson County writer and historian, recounted their history in her 18-page pamphlet including a map and photographs. Another excellent resource is A Brief History of the Black Presence in Henderson County, published in 1996 by the county’s Black Resource Committee with Gary Franklin Greene. Henderson County writers Terry Ruscin and Frank FitzSimons touch on the Happy Land in their books, and a variety of articles and research projects all contribute to the chronicles of this legendary enclave and major facet of African-American history of Henderson County.
Image from The Kingdom of the Happy Land by Sadie Smathers Patton
Patton’s hand-drawn map of the Green River Valley shows where the Happy Land was situated. The location was on familiar stomping grounds, and curiosity got the best of me. I enlisted my husband as my driver, and we set out to find the Happy Land. Right off we headed up Bell Mountain Road near Lake Summit and the Greenville Watershed. Friends of ours live up there, so I contacted them for clues in our search. Although we were not able to set foot on the private land, I discovered several families on the mountain with a generational history covering more than 100 years. Ninety-three-year-old Helen Ingle, who works for the Henderson County Genealogical and Historical Society and lives next door to the Happy Land, is a walking encyclopedia. Within minutes of our conversation, I realized this story was more than one column. This first part will cover the history from around 1865 through the early 1900s.
The gate outside of the former kingdom property.
The Promised Land
The Kingdom of the Happy Land was not a summer camp but a roving band of freed slaves from Mississippi who earnestly set out to establish a cooperative kingdom based on the philosophy of “one for all, and all for one,” a theme often found in summer camp settings. According to A Brief History of the Black Presence in Henderson County, “It is a story, not unlike the biblical one of Moses and a band of wandering people who left the intolerably harsh conditions of slavery to begin a new life. Their dream was rooted in an ancestral tribal memory and sustained by the hope for a Promised Land.”
The story begins at the end of the War Between the States when the South was in shambles and the Emancipation Proclamation had freed slaves. According to historical accounts, a slave named William lived on a plantation in Mississippi. His father was a white man and provided his son with many advantages, including an education. With a quick mind and profound intellect, William became a leader at a young age. When freedom came, he adopted his father’s family name, Montgomery, and gathered his freed brethren to take part in his dream of a communal village in a land to the east. It was located in a mountain wilderness encircled by a river. William Montgomery told his people that their promised land lay in those mountains.
As the original group of about 50 former slaves traveled northward through Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, news of their crusade spread, and their numbers grew to about 200 people. Upon reaching S.C., the entourage met with freed slaves who spoke of families from the “Lowcountry” who made annual pilgrimages to the high country where miles of uninhabited mountain wilderness existed. Led by a dream, the caravan of former slaves set out on the Buncombe Turnpike for North Carolina — the possible end to their questing pilgrimage.
Oakland and the Davis family
John Davis (1780-1859) was born in Virginia to parents who had emigrated from Wales to America. He served in the U.S. Army in the War of 1812 under General Andrew Jackson. Following the war, Davis, known by his friends as “Colonel,” established a trading post in the village of Merrittsville, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Greenville, S.C. Here he met his wife, Serepta Merritt Davis, (1802-1889) whose lineage the village of Merrittsville took as its name. Soon after marrying Serepta, Davis brought his wife up the mountain and bought a boundary of land in Flat Rock where he built an inn, gristmill, and lumberyard along the Buncombe Turnpike, the main road into the mountains. Before long, it became a well-known stopping place for stagecoaches operating between North and South Carolina. By 1830 many families from the Lowcountry of S.C. began to build summerhouses in Flat Rock, and Col. Davis sold his land to Charlestonian Judge Mitchel King for his family home, Argyle.
Image from The Kingdom of the Happy Land by Sadie Smathers Patton
Davis then went a few miles south of Flat Rock and bought more than 1,000 acres along the Buncombe Turnpike in North and South Carolina and by the Green River. He and his wife built a large plantation inn, Oakland, in a grove of oak trees a short way off the public road and above the “winding stairs,” a steep and sinuous slope on the S.C./N.C. line. The family opened the inn to the traveling public, and it served as a stagecoach stop. But John Davis died in 1859 just prior to the War Between the States, and the slaves left after emancipation. Oakland fell into a neglected state with thousands of acres of farmland idle and unplowed. The aging Miss Serepta, now virtually penniless, was struggling to survive.
Sometime close to 1867, the entourage of former slaves arrived on the Davis property, Oakland, just inside the N.C. state line. It proved to be a heaven-sent opportunity for them with an offer of housing and land from Mrs. Davis in exchange for labor. To this weary group of freedmen, this must have seemed the Promised Land.
The Kingdom of the Happy Land
Eventually, the new residents purchased 180 acres of land from the Davis family for a dollar an acre, and the Kingdom of the Happy Land was born. Each family was allotted land to build their own home and a garden plot. The mountainside yielded timber for log houses and plenty of granite for a chimney. In A Brief History of the Black Presence in Henderson County, the late Rev. William Judson King remembers what had been told to him by his great-grandparents, residents of the kingdom. “It was an attempt to revive the African culture, to build a new tribe, and through it, preserve our race’s inheritance.” The entire endeavor was based on this tradition including a king and queen like the tribes from their African memory.
William and Louella Montgomery, the group leaders, served as the first king and queen of Happy Land. When William died, his brother, Robert, took over as king, and Louella remained as queen. In Patton’s account, it is said that when William died and a new leader was raised up, the wail that echoed through the mountains — “The king is dead” — was soon drowned out in the surging shout, “Long live the king.” Robert and Louella served as king and queen for the longest period of time, and their names appear on a deed dated March 14, 1882, for the purchase of 210 acres from John H. Goodwin and his wife, Sarah, the daughter of John and Serepta Davis.
Of the 180 acres, 70 of them were on the S.C. side of the mountain. The king and queen had separate log-structured residences built within a few feet of each other and straddling the South and North Carolina borders. According to Patton’s booklet, “The house of the king was situated almost on the state line in North Carolina. The house occupied by Louella was located in South Carolina, the two being separated by only a few feet. An old granite stepping stone marks the site of a building which either adjoined or was very close to these two structures that served as a chapel and school.”
Both William and Louella were taught to read and write and served as teachers and priests for the kingdom. In addition to teaching the children their school lessons, Louella trained them in hymns, spirituals and other songs. Oral tradition recalls the “Kingdom Singers” organized by Queen Luella performing musical programs each summer in surrounding communities. One story tells of an elderly lady sitting on her porch snapping beans as a group from the kingdom came up the road singing gospel songs. Long before she could see them, she thought the angels were announcing the Rapture!
Commerce in the kingdom was built on communal effort with the guiding principle of “all for one, and one for all.” This type of management was established in the first days of the kingdom and remained this way until the group disbanded shortly before 1900. In this self- sustaining enterprise, the king was responsible for depositing all money in a common treasury and dispensing it as needed.
Both Oakland and the kingdom prospered. By 1870, the commune had grown to nearly 400 people with communal gardens, a network of barns and the purchase of more land. An outstanding natural curative, Happy Land Liniment, along with cash crops and a variety of crafts provided a steady means of income. Men and women worked within and outside the community as carpenters, stonemasons, ironworkers, domestics, cooks and seamstresses. Timber was harvested for building the railroad, and newly developed zircon mines in the Green River Valley offered work for many. The Oakland Inn was brought back to life, and Happy Land wagons, the bloodline of the community, hauled products for neighboring farmers and innkeepers along the Buncombe Turnpike. Legend has it that residents of the Happy Land even “squeezed some corn” and sold moonshine illegally. If trouble arose, they would step across the line into another jurisdiction.
Only two kingdoms have existed in the United States. The indigenous monarchy of the Pacific Kingdom of Hawaii was the first one, overthrown in a coup led by Americans in 1893 and annexed by the U.S. in 1898. The Kingdom of the Happy Land in the Green River Township, Henderson County, North Carolina, was the second one.
The Kingdom of the Happy Land survived until the turn of the century. The arrival of the railroad changed the commerce of the whole region. Businesses no longer needed Happy Land’s wagons, a significant revenue for the kingdom. It was the beginning of the end for the Happy Land. “The economic situation finally spoiled it,” states the Rev. King. “The people had to go where the work was. Like my grandfather, Perry Williams, who had always worked with horses, and then the cars came.”
Age was another factor. The original members of the Happy Land were getting old, and times were changing. People were dying, and new recruits were scarce. Many residents moved into Flat Rock, Hendersonville and beyond. By 1900, almost all the residents had departed with the exception of one, Jerry Casey. He moved into the cabin of the former king, Robert Montgomery. When Jerry’s health deteriorated, Elmira Montgomery, Robert’s daughter, returned to her family home to care for Jerry until his death at the age of 60 in 1918. Eventually, the property was totally abandoned, and it was confiscated by Henderson County due to lack of tax payments.
There is little physical evidence left of the Kingdom of the Happy Land. Many of the details of the Kingdom’s history and origins were lost and survive only in the stories of their descendants and the few deeds found in county records. One thing is for sure: There was once a kingdom up on Staton Mountain near Tuxedo. Their true legacy — the dream of a place to live their lives in peace and happiness, which brought them to the mountains of the Green River Valley more than 150 years ago — still exists.
“There Is a Happy Land”
1838 hymn by Andrew Young, Scottish schoolmaster
There is a happy land, far, far away,
Where saints in glory stand, bright, bright as day;
Oh, how they sweetly sing, worthy is our Savior King,
Loud let His praises ring, praise, praise for aye.
Come to that happy land, come, come away;
Why will you doubting stand, why still delay?
Oh, we shall happy be, when from sin and sorrow free,
Lord, we shall live with Thee, blest, blest for aye.
Bright, in that happy land, beams every eye;
Kept by a Father’s hand, love cannot die;
Oh, then to glory run; be a crown and kingdom won;
And, bright, above the sun, we reign for aye.
The Kingdom of the Happy Land by Sadie Smathers Patton
A Brief History of the Black Presence in Henderson County, published by the Black History Research Committee of Henderson County with Gary Franklin Greene
From the Banks of the Oklawaha, Volume 1 by Frank L. FitzSimons
Glimpses of Henderson County, North Carolina by Terry Ruscin
“The Kingdom of the Happy Land” by Gary Carden in Smokey Mountain Living, September 1, 2009
“Seeking the Kingdom of Happy Land” by Gary Carden in Random Connections, July 10, 2017
“Settlement Outside Tuxedo” by Beth Beasley in Blue Ridge Now, Times News, February 19, 2012
“Happy Land” by Harrison Metzger in Blue Ridge Now, Times News, February 16, 2004
Missy Craver Izard was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina. She resides in Flat Rock, North Carolina, with her husband, Sandy Schenck, where their family runs a summer camp.