Butler Island Plantation

The Butler Island Plantation historical marker was dedicated in 1957. View the Butler Island Plantation historical marker listing.

Historical Background

Created by SCAD student Emily Anne Duke as part of her SCAD art history department coursework, with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2016.

One mile outside of Darien, Georgia sitting just off what is currently Highway 17, lies the Butler Island Plantation which operated during the 19th century cultivating rice. [i] Major Pierce Butler, one of the founding fathers of the United States and a supporter of American slavery, took ownership of the property in 1790. Pierce Butler was in charge of the plantation up until his death in 1822, then, Roswell King Jr. who acted as manager of the premises continued his duties until the two chosen grandsons of Butler’s eldest daughter were of age to inherit the plantation themselves in 1838. Pierce Mease Butler took ownership of the Butler Plantation after the death of his grandfather, and he also acquired the hundreds of slaves who lived, worked, loved and raised families there.

During the winter of 1838-1839 Pierce (Mease) Butler brought, against his initial wishes, his wife and two young daughters along with him to the rice plantation. His wife Frances Anne “Franny” Kemble was opposed to slavery and wanted to see how the slaves lived on the plantation grounds. Butler, however, hoped the visit would “rid her of her abolitionist ways,” and “Kemble had been told that the slaves were well-treated, that they were never sold, and that they were content.”[ii] Fanny very quickly realized that this was not the reality. During her time spent on the plantation, Kemble kept a diary that documented the horrific treatment and condition of the slaves working there. Her experience only assured her further of her contempt for slavery. Eventually Kemble published her writing, which is thought by some to have persuaded the British against the Confederacy during the Civil War. [iii]

Many of the slaves on the Butler Plantation originated from West Africa, specifically from Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast.) [iv] Their Ghanian names can be found written within Malcolm Bell’s text Major Butler’s Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family.[v] The community of slaves living on the plantation consisted of families, lovers, daughters, and sons just as you would find in any community of people. Conditions on the plantation were unbearable, and health rates were atrocious. Women were frequently pregnant, and infant mortality rates were incredibly high. “Over half of all slave children born at Butler Island perished before their sixth birthday; sixty percent died before age sixteen.”[vi] Kemble remarks on a mother and her apparent neglect of a child “Upon addressing some remonstrances to one of these, who, besides having a sick child, was ill herself, about the horribly dirty condition of her baby, she assured me that it was impossible for them to keep their children clean; that they went out to work at daybreak, and did not get their tasks done till evening, and that then they were too tired and worn out to do any thing but throw themselves down and sleep.”[vii] Kemble goes on to discuss her observations about the large families within the enslaved communities..” She noted that pregnant women might be given a lighter workload which decreased further throughout her pregnancy. The family expecting was also given extra clothing and weekly ration. Once the mother had recovered from childbirth, however, she would be taken back to work leaving the other children to care for the newborn. Kemble observes, “squatting round the cold hearth, would be four or five little children from four to ten years old, the latter all with babies in their arms, the care of the infants being taken from the mothers, and devolved upon these poor little nurses, as they are called, whose business it is to watch the infant, and carry it to its mother whenever it may require nourishment.” [viii]

Kemble described the living quarters of the enslaved as filthy and unmanageable; there were four settlements on the island each consisting of ten to twenty housing units. One house was about twelve by fifteen feet, with small rooms coming off of a main room where the slaves would sleep on their beds made of moss. Typically two families would stay in one of these cabins.

By 1859 Pierce Mease Butler had not only been divorced by his wife Franny Kemble, but had fallen into serious debt as well. To bring in more revenue, on March 2nd and 3rd of that year Butler auctioned off 436 of his slaves at the Ten Broeck Race Course, creating the largest slave sale in US history. The slaves were brought to Ten Broeck by “steamer and rail,” and were held in sheds that were used for the storage of horses and carriages. [ix] After four days of intrusive inspection by possible buyers and two days of agonizing auction, families and loved ones were separated from one another for the first time in their lives. Hence the title which was given to this horrific event, The Weeping Time. [x]

Today the Butler Island Plantation is owned by the Department of Natural Resources. The grounds are open every day to the public for recreational activities such as fishing, hiking, and picnicking. [xi]

[i] “Darien, Georgia: Butler Island Plantation.” City of Darien GA. Accessed May 10, 2016. Darien, Georgia: Butler Island Plantation.

[ii] Kwesi DeGraft-Hanson, “Unearthing the Weeping Time: Savannah’s Ten Broeck Race Course and 1859 Slave Sale.” Southern Spaces. February 18, 2010. http://southernspaces.org/2010/unearthing-weeping-time-savannahs-ten-broeck-race-course-and-1859-slave-sale.

[iii] Catherine Clinton, “Fanny Kemble.” Georgia Encyclopedia. January 22, 2003.http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/fanny-kemble-1809-1893.

[iv] DeGraft-Hanson.

[v] Malcolm Bell, Major Butler’s Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.

[vi] Fanny Kemble and John Anthony Scott, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839. New York: Knopf, 1961. https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=w34FAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&output=reader&hl=en&pg=GBS.PA55.

[vii] Ibid, 36.

[viii] Ibid., 32.

[ix] DeGraft-Hanson.

[x] Kristopher Monroe, “The Weeping Time.” The Atlantic. July 10, 2014. Accessed May 30, 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/07/the-weeping-time/374159/.

[xi] “Darien, Georgia: Butler Island Plantation”

1. Butler Island Plantation marker, 2013. Image courtesy of La Salle University Connelly Library Digital Commons.

2. Famous Butler Authors marker. Image courtesy of David Seibert and Galelio, Georgia’s Virtual Library.

3. Highway view of the Butler Island Plantation, 2016. Image courtesy of Emily Anne Duke.

4. Rear view of the Butler Island Plantation home, 2016. Image courtesy of Emily Anne Duke.

5. Miniature of Major Pierce Butler. Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, creator unknown.

6. Portrait of Pierce Mease Butler. Image courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries.

7. Frances Anne “Franny” Kemble. Image courtesy of Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women of Europe and America Artist: Alonso Chappal 1824-1887 Publisher Johnson, Wilson and Co. NY.

8. Farm where Pierce Mease Butler and Fanny Kemble resided, known as ‘Butler Place”, which no longer stands today. Image courtesy of La Salle’s Connelly Library, who owns a number of original photographs of “Butler Place.”

9. Cover of What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation? 2016. Courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

10. Inside cover of What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation? 2016. Courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society.

11. Map of Butler Island Plantation. Courtesy of Ancestry.com.

Further Reading

Malcolm Bell, Major Butler’s Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.

Stephen W. Berry, “Butler Family,” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 03 September 2014.

“Butler Island,” PBS. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2920.html.

Catherine Clinton, “Fanny Kemble,” Georgia Encyclopedia. January 22, 2003. http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/fanny-kemble-1809-1893.

“Darien, Georgia: Butler Island Plantation,” City of Darien GA. Darien, Georgia: Butler Island Plantation.

Kwesi DeGraft-Hanson, “Unearthing the Weeping Time: Savannah’s Ten Broeck Race Course and 1859 Slave Sale,” Southern Spaces. February 18, 2010. http://southernspaces.org/2010/unearthing-weeping-time-savannahs-ten-broeck-race-course-and-1859-slave-sale.

Fanny Kremble, “What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation? Great Auction Sale of Slaves, at Savannah, Georgia.”

Chuck Mobley, “Chatham County Transactions Included Slave Auction Sales,” The Savannah Morning News, February 18, 2011.

Kristopher Monroe, “The Weeping Time,” The Atlantic. July 10, 2014. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/07/the-weeping-time/374159/.

Brittini Ray, “Community Remembers ‘The Weeping Time,'” The Savannah Morning News, February 21, 2016.

“Great Sale of Negros.” Savannah Daily Morning News, March 4, 1859.