Beech Island, S.C (WJBF)- History can be fun and interesting but can be unsettling as well. Many say that history must be remembered, or we are doomed to repeat it.
Hundreds of years ago in the south, “cotton was king” and enslaved people were used to grow it.
In this month’s Hometown History, Kim Vickers takes a look at the story behind a South Carolina plantation, where an important South Carolina family lived for generations.
Walking into the former home is like taking a step back in time.
Redcliffe Plantation was built on 400 acres by former South Carolina politician James Henry Hammond in 1859.
It stayed in the family for 4 generations, before being donated to the state in the 1970’s.
The property has an interesting history, and so do the people that lived and worked there.
“And in that span of time we interpret the history of several generations of families. Black and white families. The Hammond Family, enslaved workers, their descendants and paid staff,” explained Chelsea Stutz, Redcliffe Park Manager.
Redcliffe Plantation’s first owner was James Henry Hammond.
Born in 1807 in Newberry, South Carolina to Elisha and Catherine Hammond, he grew up in a family with a modest income. He attended South Carolina College and studied law.
Stutz believes his later success as a politician and planter was likely thanks to his wife, Catherine Fitzsimmons.
“Despite having all of this wealth eventually in life, owning 4 plantations, over 15,000 acres, he actually didn’t come from wealth. He marries into it,” she said. “He marries Catherine Fitzsimmons, the Fitzsimmons family from Charleston. And because of her wealth and enslaved labor that came with her dowry, that’s how he becomes this wealthy and is able to achieve what he does here.”
Hammond’s marriage to Catherine opens doors for him to be part of the social elite and move forward with his political aspirations.
In 1835 he is elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as part of the Nullifier Party, a pro- slavery and states’ rights party that believed states should be able to nullify federal laws within their borders.
Ashley Rust, Park Interpreter at Redcliffe, said Hammond was only in office for a short time before resigning.
“He was experiencing some ill health at the time. He kind of describes it as an ulcerous stomach. He starts to take a lot of medicine that’s mercury-based medicine, probably worsening his condition. And his doctor essentially prescribes him a trip to Europe to kind of help cure his illness,” Rust said.
Hammond and Catherine spent more than a year in Europe. While there he developed and even harsher take on how society should work.
“When he gets back from Europe, he kind of doubles down on his class-based theories of social systems and where people belong in the social hierarchy of things,” explained Rust
Hammond is elected Governor of South Carolina in 1842 and to the U.S. Senate in 1857.
He gave a famous pro-slavery speech while he was a senator about his mudsill theory he developed while in Europe. In it he says lower classes of people were meant to do “menial tasks and perform the drudgery of life.”
“Hammond makes that phrase ‘Cotton is King’ in one of his speeches while he serves as Senator, really defending the South’s prominence and their reliance on slave labor and in cotton especially and the need for that to continue,” Stutz said.
Hammond became embroiled in scandal in 1843 when his brother-in-law, Wade Hampton II, publicly accused him of sexually assaulting his 4 daughters, Hammond’s own nieces.
The scandal caused him to be shunned by society and to lose his re-election for Governor.
Hammond was also known to have continually raped enslaved women on his properties, at least two are known to have children fathered by him- a mother and daughter, Sally and Louisa.
His wife also left him for a time because of this behavior.
“We know this from Hammond’s own writing. Hammond does father children from enslaved women and children. We don’t consider these relationships to be consensual. If someone is enslaved, they are not allowed to say no to their enslaver,” Stutz said.
Hammond’s diaries revealed his actions and were published in 1989. They also revealed he didn’t believe he had done anything wrong. He even went so far as to blame his nieces for “seducing” and tempting” him.
Hammond’s nieces never married and not much is known about them. A New York Times article suggests their reputations were ruined by the scandal and because of that none of them married. Instead, they pursued philanthropic activities for the rest of their lives.
The historians at the plantations said that although the only primary accounts of the assaults are from Hammond himself, they try to give the victims a voice when talking about it.
“At the end of the day, James Henry Hammond isn’t the one who had to deal with his assaults. He was the person who was largely unaffected by his actions towards people on the plantation,” said Rust. “So, when we talk about James Henry Hammond and his assaults on both enslaved women and his own free, white nieces, we really try to keep the focus on the women.”
The Redcliffe Plantation mansion was built in the style of Greek-Revival. Hammond decorated the home with items he bought while in Europe.
While Redcliffe was a working plantation, its crops were the not typical cash crops of a Southern farm.
“James Henry Hammond really envisioned this site as being self-sufficient on vineyards and orchards. So, when he established the site in 1855, he starts planting vineyards on the south side of the magnolia lane or magnolia alley. And he plants about 9 acres of vineyards there that don’t really work out the way that he had hoped,” Rust said.
Hammond enlisted Louis Berckmans to help design the landscape of the property. You may recognize the name from the family who owned the land on which Augusta National now sits.
“We have letters dating from the 1850’s between James Henry Hammond and Louis Berckmans to design the landscape here. The Magnolia Alley, which is a big feature at the Masters, we see that here, originally at Redcliffe Plantation,” said Stutz.
Hammond died in 1860 at Redcliffe plantation from an illness believed to be mercury poisoning.
The property stayed in the family for more than a century.
The home is still filled with the belongings of 4 generations of the Hammond family, which is rare.
“Very often historic homes will have some original artifacts and pieces, but very often they’re also filled with period pieces,” Stutz explained. “Part of why Redcliffe has so much, intact, original to the family is because the site was owned by family members, 4 generations of the family members before it was turned over to the park service in the 1970’s.”
The Hammond Family was not the only family that lived at Redcliffe Plantation. Hammond had dozens of enslaved people working there.
Families like the Henley’s and the Wigfalls lived and worked there for generations until emancipation, then as paid workers for a time.
Two of the four slaves’ quarters still stand on the property.
“So we see families who have long time, throughout the 1900’s, ties to this site. We see families who are eventually able to move away and start their own businesses. So, there’s kind of a full spectrum of their successes after slavery of families who were formerly enslaved here,” Rust said.
When Hammond died, he left Redcliffe Plantation and its enslaved people to his son Harry, including Sally and Louisa and their children, some of whom Hammond believed were his.
An 1870 census shows them both living at Silverbluff Plantation, another Hammond property.
And in 1871, a Freedman’s Bank Record for Zeke Johnson shows his mother, Sally, living with him and lists Louisa among his siblings.
The park rangers explained that they know as much as they do about who the slaves were and who the Hammond family was because of the sheer number of records maintained by the family.
“Why we’re able to do that kind of interpretation so specifically and distinctly is the records that we have here. So we are rich with historical documents and artifacts that represent the history here that unfortunately just don’t exist at other sites,” Rust said.
Many descendants of both the Hammond family and enslaved still go to the plantation to visit.
“When we are working with descendants, I think that what we see across the board is when people come here, they’re just looking for a connection to their ancestors, to the land and the place that their family has a history,” she continued.
The final owner, John Shaw Billings, was James Henry Hammond’s great-grandson.
He was a World War I veteran who became a journalist after the war. He worked at Time and was the first managing editor of Time-Life Magazine.
He moved to Redcliffe Plantation after he retired in 1955 and renovated the mansion and the old slave quarters, adding electricity to both.
He donated the property to the state of South Carolina in 1973 to become a Park upon his death. It became a part of the National Register that same year.
Today, Redcliffe Plantation is a popular historical site to tour.
School children go on field trips, usually in 3rd grade, to learn about plantation life and slavery.
They talk to the kids in such a way to highlight the stark difference in how plantation owners and the people they enslaved lived.
“We talk about how enslaved children are represented in the plantation manual left behind by James Henry Hammond. We talk about work hours, what clothing people had,” said Rust.
Rust said most often, the way they teach the topic to students really drives home how bad life could be for the enslaved before emancipation.
She went on to say that sometimes the kids draw their own conclusions.
“We have a little diagram of the dimensions of the home here, this large mansion, and also a diagram next to it of the cabins for the enslaved people outside. And we walked into this mansion and a kid looked at that diagram and said ‘That home, that cabin outside for the enslaved people that we were just in, will fit inside the hallway of this mansion.'”
Stutz said they are working on making sure none of the enslaved families from the plantation are ever forgotten.
“But the people who lived and worked here and made this their life, especially whether or not it was against their will this is still their story too. So, because we can put a name there and find out their stories, that’s our goal, is to get the names of everyone who lived and worked here.”
The plantation is open to visitors for guided tours Thursday through Monday every week.
Hey CSRA! That’s just PART of your Hometown History.
Photojournalist: Will Baker.