There is a happy land, far, far away …
Come to that happy land, come, come away.
“There is a Happy Land,” 1838 hymn by Andrew Young
High above the tiny Henderson County town of Tuxedo, on a knoll where every step is cushioned by a thick growth of turkey-foot fern, Ed Bell stops in his tracks and gestures toward a pile of weathered, mossy flagstones.
“This,” he says, “is where the palace was.”
The stones and a sprawling growth of periwinkle, a cultivated plant brought here more than a century ago to cheer the intrepid settlers of this ridge, are nearly all that remains of a rare thing in American history: an autonomous community founded by freed slaves in the uncertain years after the Civil War.
The residents called it the Kingdom of the Happy Land, and it was indeed governed by a king and a queen, who ruled over this remote corner of rural Appalachia. In this socialistic fiefdom, however, crops and earnings were distributed equally among community members.
Bell is a white man, and his family has owned the land that once constituted the kingdom for almost 100 years. Even as the Happy Land’s history slips away, he’s quick to point out its unique place in African-American history. “Hawaii claims it has the only royal palace on U.S. soil,” he says wistfully, “but really, there was a second one.”
Finding the Happy Land
Although it existed for nearly four decades, the Kingdom of the Happy Land has left few traces. The former “palace” site, which straddles the North Carolina/South Carolina line, offers some of the only physical remains. And beyond a few fragmentary accounts, dusky photographs and recollections recorded generations later, there is little to illuminate this remarkable story.
The most detailed account, an 18-page booklet titled The Kingdom of the Happy Land (Stephens Press, 1957), was penned by the late Sadie Smathers Patton, then president of the Western North Carolina Historical Association. Published by a small Asheville press, the pamphlet is a rare find today.
Although the kingdom’s story ended in the Western North Carolina mountains, it began in a faraway time and place, she noted.
It was the summer of 1865. The Civil War had finally ground to a halt—freeing, at least in theory, the country’s black slaves. In Mississippi, a band of the “freedmen” set out in search of a new home.
They were led, Patton wrote, by “a man of light color—who might have passed as a white man.” The man’s father, the stories went, was “a white plantation master”; his mother, “a young Negro woman.” In Patton’s account, the unnamed man ran a farm and was a slave owner himself.
After the war, though—and for reasons no longer known—the man headed northeast with a small group of followers. As they wended their way through Georgia and into South Carolina, their numbers swelled.
In South Carolina, other former slaves told the group that the state’s white elite spent its summers in WNC—a place, wrote Patton, of “mountains that stretched for miles without habitation, where newly freed slaves might find a small piece of land for a home.”
Following that lead, the caravan crossed the state line into North Carolina. Near present-day Tuxedo, they struck a deal with one Serepta Davis, the widow of Col. John Davis, who had fought in the war of 1812 and had run a plantation called Oakland. The plantation’s slaves were gone, and the widow Davis offered their cabins to the travelers on the condition that they help work the land.
According to Patton, somewhere between 50 and 200 freedmen took Davis up on her offer, working for her, her relatives and neighbors. Some of the black settlers, wrote Patton, were “hired out to white people for as little as 10 cents a day.”
In the early 1870s, the man who’d led the freed slaves to their mountainside settlement died, but a new leader—an ex-slave named Robert Montgomery who, according to one account, had once been owned by the Davises—took the reins of what came to be known as the Kingdom of the Happy Land.
Montgomery was king, and another former slave—his sister-in-law, Louella—was queen. They ruled the kingdom together, eventually buying some 200 acres of land from the Davis family.
Keys to the kingdom
Despite the regal rubric, life in the kingdom was anything but lavish. For shelter, the group built rustic cabins out of poplar and chestnut chinked with mortar. Land had to be cleared and prepared for cultivating corn, potatoes and small grains. And as trees were cut and their roots grubbed out to create fields, “Each man and woman filled every daylight hour with the common task of developing a new world for all,” wrote Patton, calling their creation a “collectivist farm.”
With timbers felled from the mountain forest, residents built corncribs for storing their harvest.
“As far as you can see there were cribs,” Frank Bell, Ed Bell’s uncle, recounted in a 1985 interview conducted by students from the Northwest Middle School in Traveler’s Rest, S.C. “I believe a crib stood right on that hill,” 93-year-old white neighbor Phillip Jones told the students during a tour of the land. “Thirty feet long, 8 feet wide, 4 feet high.”
Residents raised chickens, hogs and cattle, and they wove, dyed and sewed their own clothes. There was also an entrepreneurial streak afoot in the kingdom: Using both wild and cultivated herbs, members compounded a “Happy Land Liniment,” which they sold to neighbors seeking to ease the pain of rheumatism.
But the bulk of the kingdom’s income came from a kind of 19th-century service industry. Working as teamsters, community members helped transport loads of market goods up the old “State Road” that linked the South Carolina piedmont and coastal ports like Charleston with the WNC mountains.
That economic engine—supported by the kingdom’s general self-sufficiency—was what kept the place afloat.
As word about the kingdom spread, its population swelled to as much as 400, according to some estimates. An itinerant preacher named “Rev. Ezel,” wrote Patton, served as a kind of “modern Moses” for the Happy Land, traveling throughout South Carolina and enticing more former slaves and their families to relocate to the mountain enclave.
Queen Louella ran an informal school for the children and organized a choir. “White people living in the surrounding community long remembered the pleasure the Kingdom singers provided, as they went from one home to another,” Patton wrote.
“The thing thrived as long as Robert Montgomery and … Louella lived,” said Frank Bell, who died in the 1990s. But King Robert passed away in the 1880s, and meanwhile another development—the coming of the railroad to the area in 1878—had already spelled the beginning of the end for the kingdom.
“They worked along the road coming up from Greenville to help get some cash money,” Ed Bell notes. “And when that dried up [because of the railroad] there would have been very little work in this area otherwise, because the other people who lived here were themselves subsistence farmers.”
The kingdom’s dissolution “was gradual,” he surmises from accounts passed down through the years. “It began as a slow drift away, and eventually there weren’t enough people up here with cash to meet the taxes” on the land. Some residents moved to nearby Hendersonville, Flat Rock, Spartanburg and Greenville; others ranged farther afield.
By 1900 few, if any, residents remained.
A lost history
In 1910, Ed Bell’s grandfather, Joe Bell, bought what had been the Kingdom of the Happy Land. Some decades later, Ed’s uncle Frank dismantled most of the stone chimneys from the residents’ cabins for use in other structures. Today, only one remains.
“This is it,” says Ed Bell, gesturing toward a pile of dry-laid stones rising about 5 feet from the forest floor, a solitary landmark surrounded by woods. The stones are tinged gold in the hard winter light; through a thin screen of sweet birch and oaks, the views extend to the enfolding mountains all around. “It’s quite a perch,” says Bell.
Patton’s account suggests that the cabin this now-forlorn pile of stones once kept warm was home to George Couch and his family, who came from Union, S.C., to join the kingdom. Later, when the settlement’s fortunes declined, Couch moved his family to Hendersonville, where they took work as day laborers.
The timbers that once framed the Couch home are gone, but Bell points to a depression in the ground within the cabin’s footprint that hints at a root cellar, where the Couches would have put up potatoes, apples and other produce for winter storage. A nearby mountainside pasture may have been part of the original land cleared by kingdom residents, but today the only crop taken off it is hay.
Back in the late 1970s, Theda Perdue, now a professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill, co-authored a study of the kingdom called “Appalachia as the Promised Land.” But despite a thorough search of the historical records, she says, “There just wasn’t much left to find out.” Nonetheless, the kingdom’s story still has the power to inspire, she maintains.
“I think it’s important, even now, to look at the ways African-American people tried to carve out a place for themselves in the Reconstruction period,” says Perdue. “It took an enormous amount of imagination and courage to do that, and it’s something people need to know and understand.”