Major Pierce Butler (1744-1822) purchased Hampton Point near the northern end of St. Simons Island in 1774. Butler served South Carolina in the American Revolution, was a member of the Continental Congress, a Signer of the Constitution, and the first United States senator elected from South Carolina. Since he divided most of hist time between Charleston and Philadelphia, he hired Roswell King to manage his plantations in Georgia. After the death of Butler’s wife in 1790, his South Carolina plantations were sold and his primary focus shifted to Hampton Point and other Georgia Sea Island plantations. Hampton Point was his largest cotton operation with the largest slave population.
n 1805, Major Butler retired from politics and spent most of his time in Philadelphia. Upon his death his namesake grandson inherited Butler’s vast holdings in Coastal Georgia. The younger Butler did not prove as good a businessman as his grandfather and to remain financially solvent sold off his slaves in 1859. Approximately 436 human beings were auctioned near Savannah in what has come to be known as The Weeping Time, for its separation of numerous families. It is believed to be the largest single sale of human beings in history. The plantation burned in 1871, leaving only traces of the tabby structures built by those enslaved on the property.
Ruins of Slave Dwellings at Hampton Point Plantation
The ruins of four slave dwellings are visible today. While only two retain significant architectural features, all are important to the story of the enslaved people of St. Simons Island. I have no way to date them as I only had brief access and have not located documentation regarding dates of construction. If I were to venture a guess I’d estimate 1800-1830. They appear to have nearly identical floor plans to the slave dwellings at Hamilton Plantation.
The ruins are located on private property and I visited with a resident. Though I photographed all four visible dwelling sites, I’m only sharing the two which retain the most significant architectural features. For identification purposes, I’m calling one North Dwelling and the other South Dwelling.
The North Dwelling retains a small section of its northeastern wall and the scattered remnants of its hearth.
The South Dwelling is the most intact of the four sites, retaining sections of all four walls, a defined window, doorway, and hearth.
Modified for residential use in the 20th century and restored in the late 2000s, the three extant tabbies on Ossabaw Island represent the most significant surviving cluster of slave dwellings on the Georgia coast. They were part of the Morel family’s North End Plantation, which was among the most successful such operations in early Georgia. Though exact construction dates for the tabby row can’t be determined, extensive archaeological research has determined they were built between circa 1820-1840s. Various Ossabaw employees lived in these structures into the early 1990s and they were modified to accommodate modern needs. Nearly all traces of those modifications have been removed and restoration work has been done.
Tabby Slave Cabin No. 1 -Like the other two cabins, this was originally a saddlebag though the central chimney has been removed.
Tabby Slave Cabin No. 2 – This cabin retains its central chimney.
Tabby Slave Cabin No. 3- This cabin has been stabilized and will eventually be restored. Past modifications are still visible.
National Register of Historic Places
I was recently contacted by some friends in McIntosh County about the opportunity to photograph a slave cabin on their property. Of course, this immediately piqued my interest and when I learned it was of wooden construction, I was even more intrigued. Most slave dwellings on the coast are of tabby construction and nearly all are documented, so to have the opportunity to see an undocumented wooden example was extraordinary. The owners have shared its history, which I will update soon. The property is not publicly accessible.
The structure has been preserved by a couple of families for at least 150 years and likely housed black domestics well into the late-19th/early-20th centuries. It’s presently in vulnerable condition, but the owners have expressed an interest in having it properly restored to historical specifications.
Since stories of slave cabins are nearly as abundant as those relating “Sherman’s troops slept in Granddaddy’s barn” and “George Washington slept here”, it’s important to “read” the structure to validate its age and history. There were myriad variations as to style in slave dwellings, so that alone can’t be used to confirm such a structure’s use. Most were very simple single- or double-pen cabins. Some were saddlebags, with a chimney in the middle, while others had the chimney located on one side (as in this example). Nails are a good way to make general assumptions as to age, and this one features Type B cut nails, which were in common use between the 1810s and 1900. The lack of glass windows is also a good indicator, though not definitive. It’s also worth noting that an architectural historian has made sight inspections of the structure and preliminarily believes it to be a slave dwelling.