August 2007

Historical Perspective: Lawton Plantation

Author: Alice Sink

In 1863, the United States government confiscated Lawton Plantation’s 1800 acres for non-payment of taxes and paid the purchase price of $3,000. The problem: Who would be responsible for the welfare of thousands of freed slaves? The solution: The Port Royal Experiment, which provided a system whereby freedmen would learn to care for themselves, their families and their crops.

Fast-forward four years to January, 1867, when Eliza Ann Summers and Julia Benedict, both teachers in their early twenties, left New York for the South Carolina Sea Islands. When these two young women reached Hilton Head Island, an agent of the American Missionary Association met their boat and transported them to Lawton Plantation, where for the next six months they lived and conducted day school, evening school, sewing school, and Sunday school.

Lawton Plantation, surrounded on the southeast by the Atlantic Ocean and on the northwest by Calibogue Sound, consisted of a main house and fifty cabins or “quarters” where the natives lived. Initially, Eliza and Julia found the plantation house—built on posts—roomy and comfortable; they had four sparsely-furnished rooms on the lower level and two rooms upstairs which opened to a verandah. A cistern outside provided cool, clear and refreshing water. Their servant Susie, whom they hired for eight dollars a month, cleaned, cooked, and washed and ironed their clothes. Mr. Elmore, a freedman, became the young women’s protector, helper and friend. He assured their safety, provided dressed robins for their breakfast and made a wooden stool for their sitting room.

Then the rats invaded the house. At night, they came from their holes, bounding unabashedly across the wood floors with potatoes in their mouths. Eliza and Julia started taking their shoes to bed with them so they would have something to throw at the thieves. In a letter to her sister, Eliza complained that a rat even carried off her silk watch cord. Other problems arose. The women encountered rattlesnakes, experienced severe thunderstorms, suffered from mosquito and flea bites and went long periods of time without a grain of flour in the house.

Eliza and Julia, who viewed these hazards as mere inconveniences, focused on their work to help the freedmen and their families gain the various skills they needed to lead productive and independent lives. The plantation “Praise House,” or church, doubled as a makeshift schoolhouse. During the day, the island children learned fundamentals, beginning with the alphabet; at evening, adults gathered after a day of field work to learn to write and also to receive garden seeds from New York and instructions for planting. Ultimately, the natives grew their own crops—new potatoes, turnips, radishes, and green peas—to supplement the crabs, prawns (island shrimp), and oysters they gathered from the Broad River, the plentiful soups and steaks from island turtles, and plums and blackberries growing wild in the brambles.

Occasional outings to visit nearby teachers associated with the American Missionary Association gave Eliza and Julia a respite from their daily routine at Lawton Plantation. A sailing excursion to Bay Point and a visit to the lighthouse there provided a chance to socialize and enjoy a picnic lunch of sandwiches, doughnuts, boiled eggs, sardines, cakes, pickles, olives, cider, and cold coffee, followed by a shell-hunting excursion on the beach. The teachers especially enjoyed their trip to “Daw Fuskie” Island where they picked roses as large as tea saucers, and they found their horseback riding afternoons at Braddock’s Point invigorating. After a trip to Bluffton, they marveled at the beauty of the village, but were saddened to learn that the hundred and fifty children there had never had a school.

One of the highlights of social life at Lawton Plantation occurred when the servant, Susie, announced her engagement. Eliza and Julia offered their sitting room for her June wedding, helped her make her dress, and put themselves in charge of baking and decorating her wedding cake. Susie’s generous intended, Mr.Graham, presented his bride-to-be gifts of “a nice pair of stays, a hair net, pair of stockings, muslin for a sacque, a ring, four tumblers, and a goblet.”

Although the two young women accomplished a great deal at Lawton Plantation, letters reveal their displeasure with the dictates issued by Mr. Judkins, superintendent of the American Missionary Association, who decreed that the teachers must retire at 9 p.m. and arise for breakfast at 6 a.m. He also limited visits from young men and set specific hours for calling. He lectured Eliza and Julia on economy and chastised them for spending twenty-eight dollars in one month. The action that most aggravated the young women came when Mr. Judkins insisted they each prove their reading skills by reading aloud a long printed speech.

Both Eliza and Julia chose to go back to their Connecticut homes on June 20, 1867, at the end of their six-month contract, but they left behind natives who could now read, write, sew, and farm.

Seven years after Eliza’s and Julia’s departures, Martha S. and Joseph A. Lawton redeemed their land, paying $600.47. The last known record concerning Lawton Plantation comes from a 1962 description, referring to a “weed-covered open space and what was left of a large brick fireplace and chimney foundation and the magnificent oaks still standing at the end of the road which leads toward the marsh from Six Oaks Cemetery.”

Today, the old plantation’s main house, all the freedmen quarters, and even the Praise House have fallen into total decay. Not even the fireplace and chimney remnants remain. The cemetery still lies beneath the beautiful old oaks, which stand strong and tall. If they could talk, they would tell of two young women who made a difference on the island a hundred and forty years ago. And if you listened very carefully and the wind blew just right, you might hear faint echoes of children singing spirituals just before sunset.

Note from Alice Sink: Information for this piece comes from the handwritten diaries of Eliza Ann Summers, published in a book entitled “Dear Sister,” edited by Josephine W. Martin. I am grateful to Richard C. Pattisall, Jr., who talked with island natives to ascertain the location of the old Lawton Plantation and who walked beneath the towering oaks beyond the cemetery to glean a sense of time and place.

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