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Georgia's Historic Southern Plantations : Butler Island Rice Plantation

Updated on February 7, 2013
Randy Godwin profile image

Randy has done extensive research about some of the remaining Old South plantations and their histories.

The Pierce Butler plantation house on Butler Island.
The Pierce Butler plantation house on Butler Island. | Source
Old chimneys are all that remain of the rice processing buildings at Butler rice plantaion near Darien, Georgia.
Old chimneys are all that remain of the rice processing buildings at Butler rice plantaion near Darien, Georgia. | Source

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.

Pierce Butler

Pierce Butler-British army soldier and eventual American patriot
Pierce Butler-British army soldier and eventual American patriot
Cotton was king and rice was cash
Cotton was king and rice was cash

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 Pierce Butler Plantation house
The Pierce Butler Plantation house
The old steam powered rice mill chimney
The old steam powered rice mill chimney
Remains of the old dock where boats once were moored
Remains of the old dock where boats once were moored

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

A Writer's Isle It Seems!
A Writer's Isle It Seems!
Famous British actress Fanny Kemble
Famous British actress Fanny Kemble
Owen Wister-Author of "The Virginian" Grandson of Fanny and Pierce.
Owen Wister-Author of "The Virginian" Grandson of Fanny and Pierce.

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 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.

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    • Randy Godwin profile imageAUTHOR

      Randy Godwin 

      3 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Thanks Aimee, I found out after I published this hub about the house not being the original and i knew the butlers never lived there full time. I'm planning to edit this article to update it and expand on it soon. Thanks for the info and for reading. :)

    • profile image

      Aimee 

      3 years ago

      Hello, just wanted to point out a correction. The house on Butler Island is not the Pierce Butler Plantation House, but rather the Col. Huston House built in 1927. The Butlers never lived full-time on the island. Col. Huston was part owner of the NY Yankees and established a fruit and dairy farm on the island. Thanks!

    • profile image

      M. Subandi 

      3 years ago from Sumedang, West Java, Indonesia

      Are you still on, your plantation, is different from mine. We call plantation for tea, rubber, coffea, palm oil and the like crops, we call the crops as Estate Crops..

    • Randy Godwin profile imageAUTHOR

      Randy Godwin 

      3 years ago from Southern Georgia

      We no longer grow rice on the east coast of America. Most of ours is now grown on the gulf coast I think.

    • profile image

      M. Subandi 

      3 years ago from Sumedang, West Java, Indonesia

      -I see, rice plant needs much solar radiation. I remember in late1960s, America gave aid to our country with american rice. delicious rice and slightly glutinous. thanks

    • Randy Godwin profile imageAUTHOR

      Randy Godwin 

      3 years ago from Southern Georgia

      @niveaboy--I believe the rice at this plantation was only harvested once a year in this climate. Thanks for your time and input. :)

    • profile image

      M. Subandi 

      3 years ago from Sumedang, West Java, Indonesia

      Your good information, historical, I'd ask..,how many times Amarican rice harvest each year ? We in tropical, twice sometimes thrice, but we always import to meet the needs...

    • Randy Godwin profile imageAUTHOR

      Randy Godwin 

      5 years ago from Southern Georgia

      I understand your feelings on slavery during this time period, Patricia. Fanny Kemble had the same abhorrence of the institution while visiting this island plantation and witnessed the treatment of the slaves by the overseers.

      Thanks as always for your input on my hubs! :)

      --RG

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      5 years ago from sunny Florida

      Just the word slavery makes me shudder. How any one could ever think it was OKAY to enslave another human being escapes me?? The house still standing 'looking lonely and isolated' is as it should be. Standing in shame for the sorrow inflected on others.

      Voted up ++++

      Sending Angels your way :) ps

    • Randy Godwin profile imageAUTHOR

      Randy Godwin 

      6 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Thanks for referring this article, Summerberrie! There are great opportunities for birdwatching in this area, especially since the return of the Osprey to this area and other places along the eastern seaboard.

      I managed to get some good photos of these beautiful raptors not long ago. Thanks again!

      Randy SSSSS

    • profile image

      summerberrie 

      6 years ago

      Randy, just stopping by for a second read and to get this link to your hub for a hub I'm writing. I thought I'd send my bird watchers over to your hub about the history of Butler Island. Thanks for providing such a nice resource.

    • Randy Godwin profile imageAUTHOR

      Randy Godwin 

      6 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Small world, Summerberrie! Yes, a fascinating place, no doubt. There are some great historical places in this area and I'm heading back next weekend to Jekyll Island to do some more research for another hub.

      Thanks for reading and for your comments too!

      Randy SSSSS

    • profile image

      summerberrie 

      6 years ago

      Enjoyed the detailed information on the Butler Plantation. We have a place off hwy 99 and family in Brunswick. I've been at or near Butler Island many times birding with my family. I will pass your article on to them to read....thanks.

    • Randy Godwin profile imageAUTHOR

      Randy Godwin 

      6 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Thanks, Klara! Truth often hurts when examined closely, but it is what it is. Yes, Georgia's history is filled with both bad and good remembrances of things past. I appreciate your time and comments on this sad part of my state's sad colonial days.

      SSSSS

    • profile image

      klarawieck 

      6 years ago

      I really liked this hub, Randy. I need to go visit Georgia... so much history!

    • Randy Godwin profile imageAUTHOR

      Randy Godwin 

      7 years ago from Southern Georgia

      I love history too, WRITTENBYSHAWN! I really enjoy researching and writing these type of articles. It gives me an excuse to visit these interesting historical places! Thank you for your kind remarks!

      Randy

    • WRITTENBYSHAWN profile image

      WRITTENBYSHAWN 

      7 years ago from Port William, Ohio

      I love history, this is an excellent hub! Thank you for sharing your knowledge....

    • Randy Godwin profile imageAUTHOR

      Randy Godwin 

      7 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Thanks Holle! It is located just south of Darien on 17 with the tall brick chimney hard to miss as you drive by.

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 

      7 years ago from Georgia

      Interesting read, RD. I'll have to check this place out next time I visit Vanne. I enjoyed the pics, too!

    • Randy Godwin profile imageAUTHOR

      Randy Godwin 

      7 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, HT! There is a lesson for us all in our country's, often harsh, history!

    • Healing Touch profile image

      Laura Arne 

      7 years ago from Minnetonka, MN

      This was very interesting. Thanks for the lesson.

      Healing touch

    • Randy Godwin profile imageAUTHOR

      Randy Godwin 

      7 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Thanks for stopping by, KKG! This area is ripe with history, both colonial and pre-civil war eras. The degree in which families, such as the Butlers, Kings and other prominent plantation owners, affected the southern culture is in much evidence along the Golden Isles of Georgia.

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Hazelton 

      7 years ago from Sunny Florida

      The Butlers were certainly a fascinating family, especially Fanny. I agree she did a lot to help change the opinion of slavery. I hope to visit the Butler Plantation someday. Wonderful hub, information and pictures. Thanks you.

    • Randy Godwin profile imageAUTHOR

      Randy Godwin 

      7 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Correct, Dallas! Whether one was wielding or yielding to the whip made all of the difference in their life experiences. Thanks for the input!

    • dallas93444 profile image

      Dallas W Thompson 

      7 years ago from Bakersfield, CA

      Now I know more than I did. Thanks for sharing. Depending what your "station" in life was "back-in-the-good-old-days," life could have been "grand..." Or, terrible.

    • Randy Godwin profile imageAUTHOR

      Randy Godwin 

      8 years ago from Southern Georgia

      And thanks to you Kaie! I had a strange feeling while visiting and photographing the plantation. It was almost as if a faint misery lay over the place because of the many slaves who once toiled there. Probably just my imagination!

    • Kaie Arwen profile image

      Kaie Arwen 

      8 years ago

      Thanks for the education; I enjoyed this! Kaie

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