Coastal Georgia History
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Hampton Plantation


HAMPTON PLANTATION, property of Major Pierce Butler, was one of the most widely known of the old St. Simons estates, because of its association with those two turbulent personalities, Aaron Burr and Fanny Kemble.  Located on Butler's Point, across a narrow creek from Cannon's Point, the plantation was on that part of the island where General Oglethorpe's New Hampton outpost had been stationed.  Here Major Butler acquired two large tracts of land and the neighboring island of Little St. Simons; and with his customary proficiency developed the property into one of the finest cotton plantations on the coast.  We are told that the cotton fields of Hampton and the rice fields of the Butler Island Plantation were worked by as many as a thousand slaves.

A letter written by Major Butler in 1794 says that his settlement at Hampton was still in its infancy, but that he expected to have it completed within a year or two.  The Butler residence, or Big House, was described by a visitor as an imposing mansion luxurious and hospitable;" and the comfortable Hill House nearby was always ready to be placed at the disposal of friends.  Skilled workers were brought from the Butlers' South Carolina estates to construct these and other buildings; old letters mention as many as half-a-dozen dwelling houses as well as summerhouses, workshops, storehouses, farm buildings, and slave quarters.  The grounds were laid out into formal gardens and a sunken garden, and beautified with groves of orange trees and hedges of oleander and boxwood.

The Major, austere and dignified autocrat that he was, differed in every way from his easy-going, unpretentious neighbors; and the strict military regulations and discipline at Butler's Point were in marked contrast to the leisurely atmosphere of the other plantations.  The hospitality of Hampton was dispensed with unwonted formality, and the casual visitor arriving by boat must state his name and business to a warden or vidette at the dock before he ",as escorted to the Butler mansion.  Managed with the regimental efficiency of the Butler Island Plantation, Hampton was a model community which produced everything needed in the dailv life of its inhabitants.

Since he was a prominent figure. in the public life of the nation, Major Butler entertained many distinguished people on his island estate.  He often extended the hospitality of Hampton to business, social, and political friends during the months when he was not in residence, confident that they would be cared for by his retinue of efficient servants in the lavish manner for which the place was famous.  In 1804 the plantation provided sanctuary for Vice-President Aaron Burr, fugitive from public indignation over the duel in which Alexander Hamilton was killed.  Burr spent some weeks at Butler's Point, and in Senator Butler's absence was entertained by residents of St. Simons and of towns upon the mainland.

In a letter to his daughter written while he was at Hampton, Burr said that the plantation "affords plenty of milk, cream, and butter; turkeys, fowls, kids, pigs, geese, and mutton; fish of course in abundance; figs, peaches, melons, oranges, and pomegranates." Further comforts were Madeira wine, brandy, and porter; and his neighbor Mr. Couper had sent an "assortment of French wines, all excellent, and an orange shrub which makes a most delicious punch." This last was no doubt some of Mrs. Couper's famous orange cordial for which the "receipt" still exists.  In delicate faded script, Rebecca Couper directs the reader to "put into three quarts of brandy the chips of 18 Seville oranges and let them steep a fortnight in a stone bottle close stopped.  Boil two quarts of spring water with a pound and a half of the finest sugar near an hour very gently.  Clarif the water and sugar with the white of an egg, then strain it through a jellybag and boil it near half away.  When it is cold strain the brandy into the syrup."

It was in this same year of 1804 that Hampton experienced the terrible hurricane which would have taken the lives of more than a hundred hands but for the quick thinking of Morris, one of the head men of the plantation.  In charge of the workers in the fields on Little St. Simons, Morris saw signs of the approaching storm, and managed to get everv man into the hurricane house before the full force of the tempest struck.  His intelligence and bravery were rewarded with an engraved silver cup still handed down from one generation to the next in Morris' family.

Hampton remained one of the finest and most luxurious places on the island as long as Major Butler used it for a parttime home, but after he settled in Philadelphia and left the estate in charge of overseers there was no longer any reason for it to be operated on the same lavish scale.  The plantation continued to be a profitable enterprise, but as the years went by it gradually ceased to be the model of efficiency of former days.

The young Pierce Butlers came to St. Simons in the spring of 1839, and although Mrs. Butler made little effort to enter into the social life of the community, she found a congenial friend at the neighboring plantation on Cannon's Point, for even so critically discriminating an individual as Fanny Kemble could not resist the spell of John Couper's personality.

Young Mrs. Butler was both entranced and repelled by her life at Hampton.  She wrote enthusiastically of the beauties of the island seen in her daily horseback rides.  To this pampered and fashionable young woman St. Simons must have seemed little more than an elemental wilderness, but that strain of elemental wildness that was a part of Fannv Kemble's nature made her love it in spite of herself.  Upon her saddle horse Miss Kate or the spirited Montreal, Fanny Kemble Butler spent hours each day in the woodlands which she thought even more beautiful than her beloved English parks.

But on the estate of Hampton she was incensed by the waste and decay of the once splendid plantation.  Major Butler had been gone for nearly a quarter of a century, and the Big House, long untenanted, was sadly run down, the gardens overgrown and neglected.  Fanny Kemble believed that the "decaying ruins of the old dilapidated planter's palace" would hardly stand long enough to be carried away bv the erosion that had already claimed the orange grove that had once stood between house and river.  But the great house had been built to endure, and it was still standing nearly twenty years later when young Sally Butler visited Hampton with her father.  The Couper family from Hopeton were spending the summer at Cannon's Point, and Sally had gay times with them and with the young people on the other plantations.

The ruins of the deserted mansion still stood when Frances Butler and her father came to Hampton in the spring of 1866, but all trace of the grandeur of the old plantation had completely disappeared.  The Butlers moved down from the rice plantation in May, bringing their household goods by raft.  The Hampton estate had been in possession of Northern troops during the war, and the only habitable place was a small house entirely stripped of furniture; refurnished and made comfortable, it served for a decade as a part-time home for the owners of the plantation.  Frances Butler described it in her journal as a cottage of "four rooms down and two up, with a hall ten feet wide through the center and a veranda shut in by Venetian shades running around it."

Since an old mule cart was their only conveyance, Pierce Butler bought his daughter a saddle horse, and she had two little pet bears, "the funniest, jolliest little beasts imaginable." With the neglected gardens cleared and trimmed, orange trees and shrubs in bloom, and the woodlands a tangle of blossom, the younger Frances found the beauties of the island as enchanting as had her famous mother.  The Butlers found many of the former slaves still living on the old plantation.  There were Uncle John and Maum Peggy, the old man Carolina who had been Major Butler's body-servant, and preacher John who had lived at Hampton from its beginning and who saw the fifth generation of the family when Sally Butler Wister came to visit with her little boy.  Brain had charge of replanting the fields, and had no trouble with the hands, as eight members of his own family were working under him.  The first year the cotton crop did well, but the next year's crop was totally destroyed by army worms in a single night.  About 1871 the ruins of Major Butler's old mansion burned, but by this time the owners had given up planting cotton at Hampton.

The Hampton Plantation eventually passed by inheritance to Sally Butler's son, Owen Wister, novelist of The Virginian fame.  He visited the old place several times, and it is possible that he did some of his writing here among the romantic surroundings.  Acquired by other owners and no longer occupied, the property gradually returned to the wilderness from which it came, the ruins of its buildings overgrown with moss and vine, the only sign of life the brilliant flash of a bird's wing or the motion of a deer in the undergrowth.  As the ilderness reclaimed Butler's Point, time completed its cycle; during World War II there was a lookout on the lonely northwest tip of St. Simons where Oglethorpe had stationed his New Hampton outpost two centuries before.



  Jim Bruce Collection