Georgia's Historic Southern Plantations : Butler Island Rice Plantation
Slaves, Rice, and Arrogance
What images come to your mind when you think of Georgia’s pre-Civil War cotton and rice plantations? Do you picture beautiful mansions such as Tara or Twelve Oaks from the classic movie Gone With the Wind? Yes, there were such large plantations in the deep south, but these were the exceptions rather than the rule.
Many of these rice and cotton producing complexes were small affairs with only a few slaves doing the hard labor of working in the fields while living out their lives doing their masters bidding.
Margaret Mitchell’s famous novel romanticized and corrupted the real life experiences shared by both slaves and owners involved in this shameful period of Georgia’s pre-Civil War plantation period. But this era does have its share of interesting, if not tragic, historical tales which gives an essence of reality to life on these Georgia plantations.
The earliest Georgia plantations were established along the coastal regions of the state, specifically the barrier islands known as Georgia’s Golden Isles. Sea Island cotton and rice were the favored crops on these isolated isles and slaves were the primary labor force used to extract cash from the marshes and high ground found on the isles and along the mainland coast. The Pierce Butler plantation on Butler Island was one such example of a working rice plantation.
From Irish Nobleman To American Patriot
Pierce Butler was born in Ireland in 1744. His father was a Baronet as well as a member of the Irish parliament. His father purchased a commission in the British army for young Pierce. Eventually, Pierce and his company were sent to America in 1758 during the French and Indian war.
His loyalties to his former country of birth seemed to change when money became an important factor to do so. After he married into a wealthy family, he attained vast land holdings and increased his personal power. It was to his financial benefit to take on the role of an American patriot and turn against his former country.
The plantation featured in this article is just one of several he established in Georgia and South Carolina. Hampton Plantation, located on St. Simons Island, is another nearby plantation Butler used to increase his wealth and influence in Georgia. He lived a life of utter wealth and influence, using the labor of slaves to provide him with luxury and power.
Some consider Pierce Butler as a Founding Father, while others view him as an opportunist of the worst kind. Whatever you may think of Pierce Butler, there is no doubt he played an important, if not shameful role in the founding of early Georgia plantations.
The Butler Island Plantation Today
The Grandson Makes His Mark
This particular Pierce Butler plantation was established for the production of rice and did so even after the end of the Civil war. One of the most fascinating parts of its history concerns its ownership and control by the grandson of Pierce Butler, who also took his name as Pierce Butler Mease and added further shame to it by his actions concerning the slaves he inherited along with the plantation.
A very controversial person, the grandson enjoyed being a man of means and travel, eventually marrying the famous British stage actress Frances “Fanny” Kemble and bringing her back to America with him. She was apparently ignorant of the means used to handle slaves on the southern plantations until the couple traveled to, and resided on, both Butler and St. Simons Island for an unforgettable year.
During the time spent there, Fanny was shocked to discover the way the slaves lived and were treated on the island. This caused strife between Fanny and Pierce eventually causing the destruction of their marriage, which ended in divorce in 1849. She soon returned to England and subsequently published a book titled Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation which influenced British antipathy against the south during the Civil War.
Frances "Fanny" Kemble and Slavery
Actresses and Authors
During the time spent there Fanny was shocked to discover the way the slaves lived and were treated on the island. This created strife between Fanny and Pierce and eventually caused the destruction of the marriage which ended in divorce in 1849.
She soon returned to England and the stage, subsequently publishing a book titled Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation. Her description of slavery on southern plantations was said to have influenced British antipathy towards the confederacy during the Civil War.
One of the two daughters of the couple, Francis Butler Leigh, remained with her father and later wrote a book which attempted to cast a better light on her father’s part in running the plantation.
Her book Ten Years on a Georgia Plantation Since the War was a rebuttal to her mother’s book, while their other daughter, Sarah Butler Lister, was the mother of Owen Wister, the author of the popular western novel The Virginian.
But perhaps the most telling of events which gained Pierce Butler the most notoriety , was being known as arranging the largest one time auction of slaves in our country’s history. Having spent himself into a financial hole, Pierce was forced to sell over 400 of his slaves in order to keep living in the style he was accustomed.
Over 400 souls were bargained away for the debts incurred by this man. One wonders how he felt when the tears were falling on the dirt of the auction site at a horse racing venue near Savannah, Georgia. He seemed a selfish man. There were many such men in his trade
Beautiful Wilderness, Harsh Environment
Books By The Butler Island Authors
The book inspired by Butler Island Rice Plantation
The Butler Plantation Site Today
The Virginian author, Owen Wister, was the last Butler heir to own the Butler Island plantation. Today, the plantation is only a shadow of its former self as the house and a few brick chimneys are all that’s left of its former glory.
The dikes and levies used to control the water for flooding the rice fields can still be seen in the field adjacent to the plantation house. Remnants of the old docks where rice and other supplies were shipped by boat can still be seen.
Because of the harsh climate and the type of labor needed to convert these fields into profitable rice production areas, it is hard to imagine the intense toil and suffering the Butler slaves endured on this isolated spot on Georgia’s coast. This historical site is a reminder of how cruel some founders of our great country were and what sacrifices were made by those forced to endure them. There is no pride in this facet of Georgia’s colonial beginnings, only wonder and shame at man’s inhumanity to man.
This plantation is located about 1 mile south of Darien, Georgia on highway U.S. 17 with a 75 foot brick chimney marking the spot. This chimney was part of a steam powered rice mill operated in the 1850’s.
The house still stands proudly nearby and seems lonely and isolated. Brass plaques tell the story of the plantation and of its wealthy inhabitants, but not the sorrow and drama associated with those who were enslaved there and spent their meager lives serving the owners.