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Glynn County: History and Lore: Ed Green Book:
St. Simons History
IV. EARLY PLANTATION ERA
Introduction to Plantation Days
The great plantations have taken on a story-book character-picturesque, glamorous, romanticized. Each person has formed in his mind images of these farms, their great houses, and their beautiful social occasions.
St. Simons Island and area had fourteen plantations of note. The stories of them have been well told in many places. In order to make these days as easy to understand as possible and to avoid the confusion of too many details, I am telling the history of the four greatest plantations on St. Simons Island: Hamilton, Retreat,
Hampton, and Cannon's Point. The story of these is divided into two sections: the early plantation days, with the development and growth under the original owners; and the plantations in maturity, decline, and demise, under the second and third generations of the families.
During the latter part of the seventeen hundreds, several South Carolina planters came to coastal Georgia. They had already prospered along the Ashley and the Cooper rivers of South Carolina. Yet in those days when rotation of crops and knowledge of fertilizer were hardly known, fields became impoverished so new lands were sought and cleared. Thus, these successful farmers in the older colony looked to the rich alluvial soil of the Altamaha river delta and the coastal islands to the south. They created great plantations and became some of the wealthiest and most influential men of the South, indeed of the entire nation.
The rich lands of the river deltas were ideal for growing rice, planted far enough from the sea for the water to be fresh, as salt water would have damaged the grain, yet near enough that the ebb and flow of the tide could flood the low lying fields.
On St. Simons Island the fields were purchased and cleared and for the most part planted with cotton. They knew immediate prosperity from this crop, not only because of the rich new soil, but some other factors were just right for success:
1 ) The Spinning Jenny had been invented and introduced in England. With the arrival of the industrial revolution and the building of factories, England was able to make thread and cloth with new and fast machinery.
2) This created an insatiable appetite for cotton to fabricate into cloth to meet a growing demand. So the plantation farmer could market all the cotton he could grow. His agent, called a factor, in a city such as Savannah, shipped directly to the docks in Liverpool.
3) Large production was possible because of the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney, which provided a means of removing the seed before it was put into bales for shipment. So, planters moved here from other areas, bringing their slaves with them, clearing the land, and producing a very profitable crop.
4) Perhaps most important of all to St. Simons Island was the development of a special, fine, long staple cotton, which became known as Sea Island cotton. The planters had experimented with various kinds of cotton. Most of it was of short fibers; some produced good plants, but not much cotton; some produced well, but were not of good color.
In 1786 the seed of a variety of cotton was sent to James Spaulding of Retreat Plantation by a friend, Col. Roger Kelsal, a Loyalist who had refugeed in the Bahamas during the Revolutionary War. This seed had been developed in the West Indies on the island of Anguilla, and for years after its introduction was known as Anguilla cotton. It thrived in Georgia and produced a fine, long staple, much prized in the markets of England. Later it became known as Sea Island cotton and became the staple crop of all the plantations of the coastal area. In good years it brought premium prices. The finest would bring 50¢ a pound in contrast to around 42¢ for that of other kinds. The possible fortunes to be made by the great plantations can be understood by realizing that the fields could have a crop ready for harvest at a value of $100,000 in money of 1820 value!
Of course, we are writing only of these great plantations in their early and most prosperous days. As we will be seeing later, the price over the plantation period probably averaged about 23¢ a pound. Fields, too, weren't always as productive over the entire period, averaging about 137 pounds of lint cotton per acre, net proceeds per laborer averaging about $83 per year. It should also be remembered that the plantations were almost selfsufficient. They grew their food, raised their animals, fabricated almost everything they needed from boats to hardware. About one-half of the plantation land was used for grain crops to support the plantation.