The Southern Plantation – Part 1

I don’t consider myself particularly “woke” in the modern vernacular, but I did find myself uncomfortable admitting in my books that I drove a mule wagon on a southern “plantation”. The term seems widely accepted in the south, but my books are read in other parts of the world. That is why I self-consciously referred to my employer as a hunting “lodge”. In an era when the master bedroom is now called the primary or main bedroom, how is it that we have large tracts of southern property that we still call plantations?

To be fair, the plantation that employed me on Gillionville Road outside Albany, Georgia was established long after slavery was abolished. From the time it was purchased in the late 1800s until it ceased operation and was sold a few years ago, Gillionville Plantation had been devoted to hunting—especially bobwhite quail.

Plantation comes from the Latin word plantare, meaning “to plant”. Oxford Reference broadens it to “an estate on which crops such as coffee, sugar, and tobacco are grown, especially in former colonies and once worked by slaves”. A plantation, then, is actually just a place where crops are grown. But it is that last bit that makes it such a highly charged term.

So, I did a little research and have come to believe that perhaps I am being oversensitive. Modern plantations certainly weren’t built on the backs of slaves, and they aren’t preserved like monuments to Civil War generals. Many modern plantations are historic sites that educate visitors about the horrors of slavery. Others have been turned into wildlife habitat and forestry preserves, harkening back to their original meaning as estates on which crops are grown.

Plantations have been around since the ancient Romans developed large farms called latifundia, which used slave or paid labor to grow crops and livestock for sale. New world plantations began in the mid-1600s when slave traders brought workers for the sugar and coffee plantations of the West Indies. During the American colonial period, plantations existed as far north as the Hudson River valley of New York, but this type of agriculture eventually became synonymous with the South. During the early seventeenth century, English colonists in the southern part of North America began looking for ways to produce goods or raise crops that could be sold for a profit in England or Europe. Colonists experimented with raising mulberry trees to support silkworms for making silk. They also tried growing grapes for wine production and harvesting trees for timber. But it was the indigenous American tobacco plant that emerged as the crop that offered the greatest potential for profitability. Tobacco, however, required hundreds of acres of land, it quickly drained the soil of nutrients, and it needed a large labor force to tend the fields and to harvest and prepare the crop for market.

At first, colonists used indentured servants, who worked up to seven years without pay in exchange for their passage to the English colonies. But by the eighteenth century, owners of large plantations found it more profitable to purchase African slaves, who they could own and who would provide free labor for their lifetime. As Europeans began settling in the Carolinas and Georgia in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, they began experimenting with raising rice, indigo (used in making dye), and cotton for the market, all of which also required extensive acreage and free labor. Thus, the first two centuries of European settlement in the southern part of North American firmly established a new definition of a plantation: a very large farm that used slave labor to produce a commodity for export.

The plantation model was so widely accepted that early Presidents were slave-owning plantation owners. George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello are the best-known examples. But consider Ambrose Madison, a planter and slaveholder in Virginia, who arrived in 1732 to a plantation he called, ironically for the slaves who built it, Mount Pleasant. One of Ambrose’s grandchildren, James, spent his early childhood at Mount Pleasant while construction began on a brick Georgian house that would later become the center of President James Madison’s Montpelier. And there was Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage Plantation near Nashville, Tennessee. It was a self-sustaining property that relied on slave labor to produce cotton. When he first bought The Hermitage in 1804, Jackson owned nine African American slaves. At the time of his death forty years later, about 150 slaves lived and worked on the property.

Plantations were common in all of the states of the upper south from Virginia to Louisiana and North Florida to Kentucky. Virginia’s Shirley Plantation is the oldest active plantation in Virginia and claims to be the oldest family-owned business in North America, with operations dating back to 1614. The Magnolia Plantation along the Ashley River in South Carolina was established in 1676 by Thomas Drayton and his wife Ann. The couple were the first in a line of Magnolia family ownership that has lasted for more than 300 years.

The oldest of Georgia’s tidewater estates, Wormsloe Plantation in Savanna, was developed by Noble Jones who came to Georgia with James Oglethorpe in 1733. In fact, many of Georgia’s earliest plantations began around Savanna in the 1700s. Mulberry Grove Plantation in Chatham County twelve miles north-west of Savannah, for example, was an active plantation from 1736 until the end of the civil war when the great plantation house was destroyed by General Sherman during his march to the sea. The significance of Mulberry Grove included support for Georgia’s silk industry with its large mulberry nursery. When the silk industry failed, it turned its low marsh acreage to rice and became one of the leading rice plantations along the Savannah River. And Mulberry Grove is also famous as the place where the cotton gin was developed by Eli Whitney in 1793.

Owing to the size of the State and its being the southernmost of the original colonies, Georgia has an impressive list of nearly three dozen early plantations that still exist. Many of them are operated as historic sites that include reenactors and historic tours. The Jarrell Plantation State Historic Site, for example, is a state park on a former cotton plantation in Juliette, Georgia. Located in the red clay hills of the Georgia piedmont north of Macon, the site stands as one of the best-preserved examples of a “middle class” Southern plantation.

According to the Library of Congress, the importation of captives for enslavement was provided for in the U.S. Constitution and continued to take place on a large scale even after it was made illegal in 1808. The slave system was one of the principal engines of the new nation’s financial independence, and it grew steadily until it was abolished by war. In 1790 there were fewer than 700,000 enslaved people in the United States. By 1830, there were more than two million and on the eve of the Civil War, nearly four million were enslaved—with nearly a half-million of them living in Georgia.

When slavery ended in 1865, another form of labor replaced it. Many freed African Americans had no choice but to return to the plantations to work as sharecroppers or as tenant farmers who rented land from white owners. Both tenant farmers and sharecroppers raised cotton, livestock, and other agricultural products that primarily benefitted the white plantation owners. But with the end of free slave labor, the old profitability model of the plantation became unsustainable. By the late 1800s, plantations were failing and falling into disrepair. That is when wealthy Northerners began buying up property at bargain-basement prices and resurrecting those plantations using a very different model.

Dozens of properties that call themselves plantations still dot the landscape in Southwest Georgia between Albany and Thomasville. Gillionville Plantation, where I drove the mule-wagon, is one of them. It may have once been a cotton plantation, but it has been transformed into acreage that is befitting the original meaning of the word plantation.

Gillionville Plantation

The story goes that Walter S. Gordon of Atlanta, the governor’s brother, bought the Gillionville property in 1880. Mr. Gordon’s daughter, Loulie Gordon Thomson passed it on to her sons who turned it into one of the original quail hunting plantations in southwest Georgia. By the time I climbed on the wagon in 2016, South Georgia had become world-famous as a quail hunting destination. Plantations were synonymous with quail hunting and were actively developing and preserving thousands of acres of the signature, natural ecosystem of the American Southeast—the longleaf pine savanna. But how these properties went from cotton fields to quail habitat is another story.

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