Savannah’s Lost River Plantations

 

Kristyn McDavid

Savannah is one of the oldest cities in the nation surviving with a history different than all other similar cities. I grew up outside of the city but have always been locally familiar with its character. Some may question, as I have, where the antebellum plantations are that have decorated our imaginations of the agricultural landscapes that rose up all along the riverbanks of the great south.  I have toured many plantations in the port cities of Charleston and New Orleans and have wondered for a long time why there are none to tour in the sister city that prides itself on historical preservation.  For certain, the whole picture of Savannah wouldn’t be complete without stories told of the Savannah River Plantations. Sources say there were a dozen to be named, all of which shared cultures different than that of our own, but few even held spectacular moments in American history.

Mulberry Grove, which was once 2,200 acres located on a bluff in what is now Port Wentworth, GA existed from 1736 – the founding of Savannah – to 1864, when the colonial plantation was burned to the ground by way of Sherman’s March. Despite the name, that would lead you to believe this was a prominent silk plantation, the site never flourished from Mulberry trees or the production of silk. Mulberry Grove and its neighboring plantations, Drakies and Oak Grove, cultivated cotton in the high-land and rice in the marsh lands, which helped to make Savannah the important international port that it was and still is. This historical landmark not only holds enlightenments to a history of antebellum culture, but is foremost known as the site where Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. If you’ve ever tried to pick the seeds out of a ball of cotton, you’ll recognize the significance that the cotton gin had on shaping our nation in the 1800s, the impact it had on slavery, and how the world had been forever changed by this one invention.

It was Caty Greene, widow of General Nathaniel Greene, who inherited the tract after the Revolutionary War shortly after her husband died. Ms. Greene is mentioned to be a very generous woman, who was hospitable to many planters and generals and notably favored by General George Washington who visited the home on at least two occasions. She is the lady who invited Eli Whitney to make his stay in her home, where she introduced his mechanical skills to the planters and the need for such a machine.

It is said by famous author, Joel Chandler Harris, that Whitney’s invention was stolen, put to use, and re-fabricated worldwide before Whitney, himself, could make a replica of the original and receive the patent for his entirely new and quite distinct invention.  In fact, it wasn’t until 1807, sixteen years later, that he was awarded the name of inventor. After several costly, yet misrepresented trials, a judge finally granted Whitney’s claims of rights and entitlements for his cotton gin. Though he could never be fully reimbursed for what his invention in the state of Georgia did for this country, he received a donation of fifty thousand dollars from the state of South Carolina and kept his future affairs out of the hands of Georgia.

In hopes to preserve this mark of American history, Mulberry Grove Foundation was founded in 1997 after learning of the historical value the site possessed.  The ruins left here on the bluff currently belong to GA Ports Authority and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and one private owner, Savannah Economic and Development Authority.  With their cooperation, it is the initiative of the Mulberry Grove Foundation to preserve the site and to promote an educational experience for current and future generations.

“What happened over on that bluff on the Savannah River changed the entire                                history of the world.  The invention of the cotton gin revolutionized the industrial                         world.  No single item has so changed our history.  Preserving Mulberry Grove                                     will help us celebrate this significant historical event.  This significance is what                                    got me excited about Mulberry Grove and why I could not stand aside and not                               work hard to preserve this special site,” Mulberry Grove Foundation Chairman                                     Wade Waters.

According to an archeological assessment in 1976 by the University of Florida, Mulberry Grove classifies as a distinctive and integral part of the antebellum plantation system.  The site portrays what is left of rice mills, dry beds of canals used to transport rice, unmarked slave graves, slave cabins, history of Georgia’s first indentured servants, and foundations from the plantation house, which could represent an invaluable commodity of information on the material culture of those Georgia planters.

Oak Grove, just north of Mulberry Grove was home to one of those said Georgia planters, Captain Patrick Mackay.  Mackay is associated with the introduction of slavery into the non-slave colony of Georgia.  Because these plantation lands and rice fields provided no benefit to the colony without a number of slaves to work them, Mackay and other colonists first petitioned the Trustees of Savannah to allow slaves.  When denied, he took matters into his own hands.  He purchased a plantation and slaves nearby, across the riverbanks in South Carolina.  By 1738, Mackay had moved his slaves illegally into Georgia at the Oak Grove site by way of a Mr. Whitefield’s Sloop he had purchased as part of the import trade business that also carried rum as prohibited cargo.

Although originally a flourishing rice plantation, Oak Grove later became one of the most profitable farms consisting of crops such as Irish potatoes, cabbage and beets. The latter owner, Mr. Francis Exley, allowed the Charleston and Savannah Railway Company right of way passage through this land.  His son and widower shifted the land away from farming and into the construction of a sawmill and large-scale lumber yard.  A few years after the Exley’s vacated the land; Oak Grove had changed once more into a dairy farm just prior to the seasons that farming became unprofitable.

The Mulberry Grove Foundation has been working hard to gain a transfer of land ownership including these Mulberry Grove, Oak Grove, and Drakies Plantations to an entity who would best interpret and preserve the site.  The plans they have had involve protection from further port developments, protection of wildlife and wetlands, and ensured community engagement through the development of an Eli Whitney Center, land and water trails, interpretive kiosks, and public recreational, educational and literary opportunities. With dock and river access, collaboration of the tourism industry would attract visitors and offer unlimited income and insight into an unknown part of Savannah’s cultural history.

In 1975, the State of Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources nominated 153 acres including Mulberry Grove and Oak Grove plantations for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. This qualifies as the Nation’s official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation, 49 of those resources are residing in Chatham County alone.  Although other portions of the original tract have been developed for the purposes of GA Ports Authority, in 2003 they placed half of the property in protective covenants preventing any future development.  GA Ports Authority also set aside a $10,000 contribution to aid in the development of the Eli Whitney Center.

Other Savannah River plantations to be named can get somewhat confusing through all of the land grants, land sales, British loyalist confiscations, combining tracts, and changes in ownership.  But for the record, these plantations to be mentioned are entirely different than that of the Sea Island plantations. The Richmond Oakgrove tract is the most northern located in Chatham County.  At one time, it consisted of four separate plantations later joined under one owner.  Mulberry Grove is neighboring to the south followed by Drakies plantation.  Nearly all of the following plantations that were valuable agricultural land in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds are now just as valuable industrial, deep river-access, port acreage.  It is nearly impossible to tell that highly productive plantations ever existed here.  Colerain plantation, Whitehall plantation and Rae’s Hall plantation are all owned by the GA Ports Authority.  Brampton plantation, also owned by GA Ports Authority, is the site of the last two duels that occurred in Savannah.  The Hermitage plantation left a significant mark on the city of Savannah to be given in further detail. The plantation of Vale Royal has become mostly subdivisions with its eastern boundary lying on Fahm Street. The plantations that were established south of Savannah are that of the Deptford Tract (Causton’s Bluff and Brewton Hill) and are the last to be mentioned.  The Deptford Tract was purchased and is now the historical site of Fort Jackson.  More industry took its hold in Savannah as The Standard Oil Company built along the riverfront on the Causton’s Bluff area.

The before mentioned Patrick Mackay had many land dealings as a young trouble-making “planter, trader, smuggler, and politician.”  He sold his prospering land and residence of Oakgrove plantation and bought a tract of land downriver known as Exon, which he renamed Hermitage.  The Hermitage was a small 100 acre tract three miles east from Savannah and not quite as suitable for crop land.  Instead, during this time, the land was planted in garden crops and home to a head of livestock.

After some time and some changes, owner Dr. Beecroft most likely introduced the first beauty of gardens and peach orchards to the land, and the first brick-making enterprises.  Another owner, in 1798, by the name of John Montalet was French and a “colorful” addition to Savannah River planters.  He probably followed the brick industry that was laid before him and seeking his fortune in cotton, since by now, Whitney’s cotton gin had brought back the livelihood of this crop.  Montalet shared a romantic wedding at his fashionable home with his young bride and the Hermitage was part of growing social circle until his bride died unexpectedly and the Hermitage changed hands once again.

The most important owner of the Hermitage plantation is Henry McAlpin who took the brick making industry at the Hermitage and made it a huge industrial success.  The high-lands on the river bank were established as a brick yard, rice mill, and saw mill, each with its wharf to facilitate shipping.  McAlpin also built the earliest railway in the United States to connect his two kilns.  The kilns had to be covered and uncovered systematically, and the railway here in 1820 helped this industry grow to large proportions. This is the site of the manufacturing of the famous “Savannah grey brick” that resides in a great many Savannah houses, streets, and commercial buildings.  Fort Pulaski was constructed on the Savannah River entirely of the grey brick fired in the Hermitage kilns.

More is said of McAlpin owning pigs on what is known today as Marsh Island and his association with an English architect known to many as William Jay.  During this acquaintance, an iron foundry was constructed at the Hermitage that became just as profitable as the brick industry, and it seems that both McAlpin and Jay benefited significantly from each other’s pursuits. William Jay has several known architectural buildings around Savannah and the same characteristics in those can be seen in the new residence McAlpin established to replace the old home at Hermitage.

Credit is due to McAlpin for the construction of the Ogeechee Canal that intersects with his land and connects the Ogeechee and Savannah Rivers.  This canal became an outlet to the Savannah River for rice and other low country commodities but also for cotton and timber from the Ogeechee region.  The McAlpin family held onto the residence for many years.  As industry was moving in all around, decisions had to be made to decide the fate of the most productive river plantation in the nation.  Talk of preserving the house as an example of finer antebellum plantation homes was considered when filming companies started showing interest in the Hermitage for their motion pictures depicting the Old South.  In one last request, Secretary of the Interior had written to Mayor of Savannah in 1935:

“As the Hermitage mansion in Savannah is one of the finest sites in existence                                 illustrative of Southern history prior to the Civil War, it would be highly desirable              not only to preserve this fine old building from complete destruction, but to keep                     it on the site it now occupies.”

As you can see today, the Hermitage residence is no longer there.  Rather, it was torn down and can be seen as a reconstruction just outside of Chatham County.  The fine old building resulted as essential building materials in Henry Ford’s residence in Richmond Hill.  In its place is the first pine pulp paper mill owned by Union Bag and Paper Corporation which is now one of the largest in the United States.

 

Now when tourists and locals alike ask about the fate of the river plantations, important stories that shape Savannah’s history will be made aware.  Hope and community support can preserve and promote a more sophisticated experience of Savannah’s lost river plantations.  Any who wish to discover more details about the plantations can refer to the sources I accessed listed below.

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