Darien – Last Sunday I wandered around the Butler Island Plantation near Darien in McIntosh County, GA. It is owned by the Nature Conservancy and is open to the public for recreational purposes. Once a large rice plantation, the remnants now stand out along the west side of US 17 just south of Darien; as you travel along US 17 you can’t miss the tall chimney near the roadway. Behind the plantation house set back off of the highway is the system of dikes and canals that were used to grow rice and surrounding the property is the Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area, so you not only get to see a part of Coastal Georgia’s history when you visit Butler Island, you get to see part of the area’s natural beauty and wildlife. In addition to walking the trails and dike system at the plantation, there is also a fishing bridge, public dock, and kayak launch on the property. A lot of people are familiar with and use the fishing bridge and the dock, but not so many I think know about the trails, dikes, and canals that can be explored and the history behind the site.
The Butler Island Plantation was created by Major Pierce Butler, an Irish officer in the British Army. Among the properties he acquired (he spent most of his time in Charleston and Philadelphia, he was a Constitutional Convention representative for South Carolina) is the island which he named for himself – Butler Island. The plantation he established on the island grew rice as the tides, distance from the Atlantic Ocean, and soil were conducive to rice cultivation. Butler was the friend of a number of the United States’ found fathers and because the ready availability of slaves made the plantation economically viable, an advocate of slavery despite harboring personal misgivings on the institution. During the Revolutionary War, he helped reorganize South Carolina’s armed forces and served as the state’s Adjutant General. He escaped capture when Charleston was captured by the British and subsequently helped organize resistance throughout the Carolinas and Georgia. He was a key figure in the creation of the Fugitive Slave Law which helped provide constitutional protection of slavery. He also agreed to the Three Fifths Compromise despite his desire that slaves be counted among states’ population for purposes of Congressional representation (all this to show that while he may have been against the international slave trade, he obviously supported the institution for what he would have seen as practical and economic reasons).
Later, the plantation was inherited by Pierce Mease Butler (Pierce Butler II) who continued to operate the plantation (mostly as an absentee like his grandfather) until the Civil War. After the civil war he was unsuccessful at transforming the plantation into a sharecropping endeavor. It was this period that made the Butler Island Plantation notorious. Mease Butler was married to prominent English actress Fanny Kemble, whose experiences on her husband’s plantation led her to write Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839. Kemble was disgusted by her experience with slavery at Bulter Island Plantation and it contributed to her divorce from Butler. Once her children were grown (age 21, which happened to fall in 1863 during the Civil War), she published Journal publicly although it already had been privately circulated among abolitionists. Prior to the Civil War, Mease Butler found himself in a dire financial situation and was forced to (famously at the time) auction 436 of his slaves in order to save the plantation. During the Civil War, the plantation was abandoned but afterwards Mease Butler returned in an attempt to operate through sharecropping by former slaves but it was not a success.
Signs of the rice plantation still exist on Butler Island. As mentioned above, the most prominent is the tall brick chimney which stands out as you drive by on US 17. This brick chimney is what is left of a steam powered rice mill. Between the chimney and US17 and not as easily visible from the road is what is left of a tidal powered rice mill. Behind the plantation house (it is of a later era, more about it later) is a system of dikes and canals which were designed by Dutch engineers for growing rice.
In 1926, the Butler Island Plantation was bought by Tillinghast L’Hommedieu (T.L.) Huston. Prior to his purchase of the plantation, Huston had been a part owner of the New York Yankees baseball team. Colonel Huston (from service during the Spanish American War and WW I) initially attempted to use the property as a dairy with which to raise friesian cows. This enterprise didn’t turn out to be a success but he eventually used the plantation successfully as a truck farm growing iceberg lettuce. The house on the property was built by Colonel Huston in 1927 and was visited by famous baseball players including Babe Ruth. It is currently used by the Nature Conservancy.
The Bulter Island Plantation is not only of interest for history buffs, it is also of interest for those interested in nature and wildlife, particularly birdwatchers. I had a wonderful time wandering the trails and roads atop the dikes that separate the canals behind the Huston house. During my walk around the plantation site, I saw several Ospreys overhead, Anhingas and of course American Coots and Common Gallinules and plenty of other birds.
Just south of the Butler Island Plantation is the Huston Dairy Barn wildlife viewing tower which just back from US17 behind a dairy barn that was part of Col. Huston’s efforts. The viewing tower overlooks the marsh to the east of US17. Just south of this is another wildlife viewing tower that is farther out in the marsh but you need a Georgia Outdoor Recreation Pass to use it and wander about the rest of the Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area. (I’ll update this post as soon as possible with a photo of the dairy barn itself, which is a good landmark for finding the parking area for the viewing tower.)
- City of Darien Visitors Guide: Butler Island Plantation
- Sherpa Guides – Altamaha River Bioreserve
- Wikipedia – Pierce Butler
- Wikipedia – Fugitive Slave Clause
- Georgia Pioneers – Pierce Mease Butler Plantations
- The Civil War in Georgia – Butler Island Plantation
- Wikipedia – Fanny Kemble
- Find A Grave – Tillinghast L’Hommedieu
- Vanishing South Georgia – Huston House, 1927