Carolina Plantations is the title, but the subject is antebellum plantations in Virginia and in North and South Carolina. When in Georgia, we will probably tour a few more plantations and we have already toured several southern plantations scattered around the south. Of course, you probably already know this by following our journey.
The story of the plantations along the east coast seems to be nearly always identical. In the Carolinas, plantations are everywhere. Sometimes all traces of the plantations are gone, hidden under neighborhood housing tracts. The Union Army destroyed many of the plantations during the fighting of the Civil War. Many of the plantations were burned to the ground during the fighting. Many plantations were left abandoned when they couldn’t afford the expenses.
Antebellum means ante (before) bellum (war). Widespread use for the word antebellum is to describe conditions and places that existed before the Civil War but the word could apply to any war. Most of the big plantations we visited dated from before the Civil War — but not all. Sometimes the plantation manor house was built after the Civil War, but it doesn’t mean that the plantation didn’t date prior to the war.
Typically the plantations date well before the war; some that we have toured date to prior to the American Revolution. One of the plantations we toured dates back to the establishment of the Jamestown Settlement. I mentioned this one in our coverage of Jamestown in this post. Roanoke and Jamestown
The Jamestown colony created the Chippokes Plantation. Chippokes is the oldest English plantation in the new world. It was first established in 1619 twelve years after the English established the Jamestown colony. We stayed at the state park campground at Chippokes Plantation when we visited Jamestown. Chippokes was across the James River from Jamestown. From the plantation, you can see the Jamestown settlement site.
For the English settlers, here in the New World, slavery started at Jamestown. Chippokes plantation was the first slave plantation. Unfortunately for everyone involved, especially for the enslaved, slavery existed in the New World before the Jamestown settlement. The Spanish in Florida and many tribes of the indigenous people (Indians) also practiced slavery in one form or another. In Europe, Africa, and Asia, slavery dated back well before the written record. None of this long history makes slavery a justifiable practice. It is always hideously evil.
The first documented sale of slaves to the English settlers in Jamestown was in 1619. This marked the turning point for slavery in the English colonies in the Americas. The number one city currently inside the United States which had the largest slave market for African slaves was New Orleans. In New Orleans, the slave markets date to the French. At Saint Augustine, the Spanish ran the slave markets. In the Virginias and Carolina, it was the English. Plantation owners purchased slaves and these plantations became very wealthy. Calculating wealth was largely based on how many slaves the plantation owned. The wealth was all based on free labor.
North Carolina Plantations
We started visiting North Carolina Plantations when we first exited the Smoky Mountains back in May. In October we visited more Carolina Plantations. In North Carolina, we planned our stay next door to Somerset Place Plantation at Pettigrew State Park (also another one of the North Carolina plantations).
It is not that we set out to visit and stay at plantations, but rather, it is the way it worked out. After the Civil War, most of the plantations that survived the war fell apart. Without the free labor, they fell into disrepair. They fell apart despite the previous nearly unlimited wealth. After the war, the plantation owners used every trick in the book to continue the free labor system. Sharecropping was the new label, but the result was free or nearly free labor.
After the free labor was no longer available and the plantations failed, the states stepped in and gradually turned the plantations into state parks. The reason we stayed at previous plantations is that many of them are now state parks.
The other eventual outcome is that the plantations were in disrepair. Cities, counties, and even private groups acquired the properties and now operate them as non-profit museums. Stratford Hall (the Lee Plantation) is operated by a private non-profit group that operates the previous plantation as a living history museum.
At both Mount Vernon and Stratford Hall, the presentations clearly identified that slaves did all the labor associated with building everything and operating the plantation. Somerset Place was a North Carolina Plantation and is now a North Carolina State Park. At Somerset Place, we first heard stories about the start of the Plantation. The owners purchased slaves to operate the plantation. The story of the enslaved people became even more prominent. The stories about the slave owners became less prominent.
The photo at the top of this post is the servant’s entrance at Somerset Place.
Somerset Place was built about seventy-five years before the Civil War by local businessmen. The plantation site, when first established in 1785, was a tree-covered swamp. To establish the plantation, the first step was to drain the swamp and sell all the timber. After draining the swamp and selling the timber they started farming. The newly drained land was very fertile.
Slaves performed all the labor. This included draining the swamp, harvesting the trees, and farming the land. The plantation had an overseer who ran the plantation and made it profitable. The owners lived off-site about twenty miles north in town.
It is not that the owners didn’t visit or build a nice manor house, but rather that the overseer ran the plantation. The overseer conducted day-to-day operations It was at Somerset Place where the brutal nature of slavery really started becoming real for us. Fear produced this massive amount of labor.
McLeod Plantation is one of South Carolina’s Plantations. It is located on James Island in Charleston. McLeod established the plantation only a few years prior to the Civil War.
At the McLeod Plantation, there were no overseers. The presentation made it clear that slaves did all the work and the owners directed the work personally. After the Civil War, the owners attempted to use every trick available to continue the free labor.
As sharecroppers, the previous slaves remained on the same land. Often they were still subject to even worse conditions than they were when they were slaves. Freedom from slavery, for these people, only meant that they might be able to leave with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
Fear for the sharecroppers was still a major motivator. Even if they could leave, where would they go? What if the landowner, who was already proven to be brutal, banished them from the land. Or what if the landowner banished one family member from the land, where would they go? Splitting families was a major fear that did not end with the Civil War.
One good story was about how one of the slaves was able to get away and join the Union Navy during the Civil War. After the war, he came back to Charleston as a free man. The good part of his story was about how he then purchased part of the old plantation. Then he went back to cotton farming just as he did as a slave, but now on his own land. He was such a good cotton farmer he double the crop yield compared to what was produced when the farm was operated under slavery.
Gone with the wind
In the 1930s local leaders decided to rewrite history. They started constructing a more gentle facade associated with the plantations. The new owners (states, cities, and foundations) envisioned the need to make things seem nicer. If they were able to put a facelift on the mansion house and if they could eliminate or hide some of the more gritty parts of the plantations, they might be able to hide the brutal nature of the plantations.
One of the ways to recreate the false, more gentle plantation was to remodel the mansion so that it would match what the visitors expected to see. This was all done to match a perception similar to Hollywood movies. The houses were falling apart and needed a facelift. They added Georgian columns and expansive porches. The remodelers planted tree-lined driveways on the approach to the house. Everything was an attempt to recreate the labor intensive farm to make everything seem more gentle.
At the McLeod Plantation, the back of the house was chosen for the remodel. It got a new porch with the Georgian columns at the end of the tree-lined driveway. When McLeod Plantation was a slave plantation, the back porch was plain. The “driveway” was cultivated land. It was not for approaching carriages with wealthy neighbors coming over for afternoon tea.