A six-week melodramatic television miniseries would be a more fitting forum than a newspaper for sorting out the intrigues of antebellum-era plantation families, their loves and their losses in the Golden Isles.
And y’all can bet the ratings for that miniseries would hang on the improbable marriage of a slave-holding St. Simons Island plantation scion to an abolitionist celebrity actress. A plot of such far-fetched schlock would fly these days only on the Oxygen or Lifetime networks, right?
That, or in the capable hands of Buddy Sullivan. The popular Coastal Georgia historian presented the facts with a touch of fancy Tuesday on the real-life and short-lived marriage of Pierce M. Butler to Fanny Kemble in 1834. In the third installment of his annual six-week lecture series at the St. Simons Lighthouse Museum, Sullivan weaved this story seamlessly into the thick web of Hamiltons and Spaldings and Coupers and Butlers — the families that reigned locally in the plantation days.
But the rich history that unfolded here on the Georgia Coast between the end of the Revolutionary War (1783) and the beginning of the Civil War (1861) could hardly be contained by those rich privileged classes, as evidenced by Sullivan’s lecture. There was the timber boom on Gascoigne Bluff and Cannon’s Point, launched by a shipbuilder’s desire to shore up the fledgling United States Navy in the decades after independence.
The live oaks that had grown untouched for centuries on St. Simons Island were ideal for Joshua Humphries’ designs for sturdy seagoing war ships. The trees’ massive, curling limbs were particularly prized as perfectly suited for the “knees” that formed the stout framework of these ships of war.
This era between 1790 and the early 1800s started a wave of immigration to the area from Boston and parts north — timber cutters and shipbuilders who followed Humphries to St. Simons Island.
“St. Simons really became an important center,” Sullivan told the 100 or so who gathered in the museum’s A.W. Jones Heritage Center. “The Georgia live oak was recognized as highly desirable for ship building. And it thrived in the porous soils and salt air here. Humphries wanted to design ships that would out-class anything in the world.”
Humphries got his wish, most famously with the construction of the USS Constitution, the 44-gun frigate that time and again bested the best the vaunted British Navy sent against it in the War of 1812. So sturdy were the ship’s oaken hulls that the hapless Brits suspected the materials were forged rather than felled.
“The most famous of these ships was the USS Constitution, also known as?” Sullivan said, engaging his audience.
“Old Ironsides,” audience members responded in unison.
“It was so durable that some of the British sailors said the cannonballs bounced off the ship and that’s how it got its nickname,” the Darien native said. “If that actually happened — and I doubt it did — that speaks to the durability of St. Simons live oak.”
Sprawling plantations of the antebellum period also were coming into their own in this time. If cotton was king in the rest of the South, rice reigned in Coastal Georgia. With rivers like the Altamaha and the Ogeechee flowing into sweeping tidal estuar ies, the conditions were prime for cultivating rice.
Sometimes the facts need no embellishment. Sometimes history is just plain ugly without it. Georgia founder James Oglethorpe’s lofty ambitions of establishing a colony free of slavery had long since been forgotten by this time.
With the flooding required for fields, and the flood gates and irrigation channels to accomplish it, rice cultivation was even more demanding on slaves than cotton, Sullivan said.
“The rice was planted by slaves, of course,” Sullivan said. “This was all based on slave labor. Rice plantations required a high degree of labor. They were the most labor intensive of all the plantations in the south. Rice plantations always had the largest slave populations.”
Planter Pierce Butler alone owned 600 slaves to work his 1,500-acre plantation on Butler Island on the McIntosh County side of the Altamaha River. There were four “slave settlements” scattered about the plantation. In 1859, the plantation produced 1.6 million pounds of white rice for the commercial market, Sullivan said. Rice plantations lined both sides of the Altamaha, along Glynn and McIntosh counties. In the era leading up to the Civil War, South Carolina and Georgia produced 96 percent of the world’s marketable rice, Sullivan said.
“Rice was a minor crop overall in the South, but here it was the No. 1 crop,” said Sullivan, author of more than 10 books on Coastal Georgia history.
The fields were flooded four times during the annual planting season. Planters employed a system of wooden flood gates and the natural flow of incoming fresh river water on the outgoing tides. The fields also were drained on the outgoing tides. Saltwater encroachment from incoming tides would destroy the crops.
Like the labor force, this system of rice cultivation the wealthy planters used also was taken from Africa.
“They adopted techniques that had been used by Africans in West Africa,” Sullivan said. “These techniques involved a system of planting rice on the tidal-flow system of agriculture. They used the natural river system. They used the ecosystem to work for them. This was a very technologically-advanced system for the time.”
The chimney of a steam-powered rice mill on Butler’s Island remains visible today for motorists approaching Darien on U.S. Highway 17.
Maj. Pierce Butler also ran Hampton Plantation on St. Simons Island, growing the highly-favored Sea Island Cotton, a strand developed in the West Indies and used in such luxury textiles as lace and fine curtains. James Hamilton established the Hamilton Plantation on Gascoigne Bluff. His friend and fellow Scotsman John Couper established his plantation at Cannon’s Point. James Spaulding established the Orange Hall/Retreat Plantation on the southern end of St. Simons Island.
Couper is the most remarkable of these founding planters, in Sullivan’s opinion. The former apprentice from Savannah and supporter of the Revolution bought the Cannon’s Point property in 1793 and built the plantation up from there. John and wife Rebecca’s dinner parties and gatherings at their elegant estate were known throughout the new nation.
“He was very innovative and very resourceful and used the ecosystem to further his estate,” Sullivan said. “He was one of the most interesting of all the planters. And they loved to entertain and hold parties. It was a social mecca.”
He also provided the land for St. Simons Island’s first lighthouse and recruited James Gould from New England to build it. It was competed in 1811 (and torn down in the Civil War by retreating Confederates). The Gould’s Inlet namesake liked his finished product so much he became its first lighthouse keeper.
The offspring of the original plantation founders spawned many more stories, all which Sullivan captured in detail through his lecture.
And all of these island plantations, of course, depended on the human toil of slave labor. Which brings us back to the matrimony of Pierce M. Butler and Fanny Kemble. Butler was the grandson of Maj. Butler, and also something of a snowbird. He inherited the St. Simons Island and Butler’s Island plantations, but preferred living in his birthplace, Philadelphia, Penn.
That is where he met and fell in love with Fanny Kemble, a beloved Shakespearian British actress who was on tour there in 1832. The affection, apparently, was mutual. Kemble was an intelligent woman, not known for keeping her opinions to herself; Butler had inherited hundreds of slaves.
“She had to have known her husband was a slave holder in Georgia,” Sullivan said. “And she was a very gifted writer and a leading abolitionist.”
After years of back-and-forth between the two, Fanny convinced Butler to let her visit the family plantations in Dec. of 1838. She stayed but four months.
In that time, however, her visits to the slave quarters and her observations of the deprivations resulted in a book, Journal of a Residence of a Georgian Plantation, 1838-1839. One historian described the book as the “most detailed look at a plantation slavery ever recorded by a white northern abolitionist.”
They were divorced in 1839. “Her husband was just livid,” Sullivan said.
In addition to the stark observations of slave conditions, Fanny wrote lovingly about Coastal Georgia’s flora and fauna.
“She detailed the slavery, of course” Sullivan said. “But the beauty of south Georgia was not lost on her.”