Heading south out of Darien on US 17, you’ll begin to notice what appear to be large ditches to your left, especially in the winter months. These are the historic canals and dikes engineered for the cultivation of rice on the plantation of Major Pierce Butler and though the industry died with the end of the Civil War, its physical evidence remains.
The Butler family of South Carolina and Philadelphia owned extensive cotton and rice plantations on the Georgia coast. Pierce Butler (1744-1822) was the son of a minor Irish aristocrat and after service as a major in His Majesty’s Twenty-ninth Regiment came to the colonies in 1767 and married Mary Middleton, the daughter of a prominent South Carolina planter. He sided with the colonies during the Revolution and sold his army commission to purchase Hampton Point Plantation on St. Simons Island. In 1787 he was app0inted a South Carolina delegate to the constitutional convention and was integral to securing the protection of slavery as an institution in our nation’s founding document. By 1793 he owned over 500 slaves, who made him a fortune in cotton and rice. He spent most of his time in Philadelphia. He owned this land from at least 1790 until his death in 1822, and after interim management by Roswell King (namesake of Roswell, Georgia), it passed to his grandson, Pierce Mease Butler, in 1838.
Pierce Mease Butler (1806-1867), born Butler Mease, changed his surname to honor his grandfather as the will required and around this time married the famed English actress Fanny Kemble. Kemble was opposed to slavery but upon being told that conditions were “good” at the plantation, coerced her husband into taking her to see it for herself, in 1838-1839. She immediately noted that the conditions were far from good and kept a journal of her time there. Two daughters and a contentious divorce would follow, with Pierce Mease Butler gaining custody of the children.
Years of poor money management and lavish spending left Pierce Mease Butler financially insolvent and his only option was selling off his slaves. At an old racetrack in Savannah between 2-3 March 1859, the largest sale of human beings in the history of the United States saw the liquidation of 429 slaves. Among slaves it came to be known as “The Weeping Time” for its displacement of families, many of whom never saw each other again. A few years later, at the height of the Civil War, Fanny Kemble published her controversial Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839, first in her native England where it was a huge bestseller and then in America, where it was widely popular in the North and nearly as popular, if reviled, in the South. Its firsthand accounts of the horrors of slavery are said to have influenced England to side against the confederacy.
After the war, the plantation failed without the benefit of free labor, and Pierce Mease Butler died of malaria in 1867. His daughter, Frances Kemble Butler Leigh, inherited the lands and tried to keep them profitable but gave up after ten years. She wrote of her experiences in Ten Years on a Georgia Plantation Since the War (1883). The property eventually passed to her nephew Owen Wister (famed author of The Virginian) who sold off the last of the property in 1923.
The area is now publicly accessible and is a popular spot for birding and hiking. Always bring insect repellent, though, even in winter.