Hamilton Plantation Slave Cabins
Adjacent to Epworth-by-the-Sea and the Methodist Conference Center, two of four original slave cabins built before 1833 on the Hamilton Plantation survive due to their sturdy material. Enslaved workers built the cabins from a mixture of lime, water, sand, and crushed oyster shells called tabby. Because they also had wooden doors and glass windows, it is believed that slaves who worked in the main house of the plantation lived in them, with two families per cabin, separated by a central fireplace. The plantation itself was not only the site of the state’s first naval base, but was also in an important location making it easily accessible by ships, leading to a large export of cotton from the area. Business also boomed with the timber industry on the plantation, passing through multiple owners before the property was ultimately deeded to the Cassina Garden Club in 1950, which now maintains the cabins.
Backstory and Context
Named after James Hamilton, a Scotland native, the Hamilton Plantation is located near Fort Frederica on St. Simons Island. The plantation sits on the Gascoigne Bluff, which was named after the commander of the British sloop vessel called the "Hawk,” James Gascoigne. The British defeated the Spanish at the Battle of Bloody Marsh, thereby cementing their hold on the newly created colony, which was established in 1733. The British stored supplies and ship repair facilities on the bluff, essentially making it the state's first naval base. Later on, the deep water surrounding the area made it the perfect location for ships to land to export long-staple cotton off the plantation that, by that time, would be a booming industry.
One of four major plantations on St. Simons, Hamilton Plantation produced long-staple Sea Island cotton as well as oak and pine timbers. The plantation was around 2,000 acres, and because of its amount of production, likely enslaved at least 125 people. However, James Hamilton was not the first nor last of the owners. Originally, Alexander Bisset acquired the land after the Revolutionary War, and was the first one to plant the coveted cotton. After his death, a man named Richard Leake took over the business. James Hamilton had arrived from Scotland with his partner John Couper around the time of the Revolutionary War, but by 1793, had established himself with the planter class on the bluff, and bought the plantation in 1800. Couper began his own Hopeton Plantation.
The long fibers of the Sea Island cotton sold at a high price, soon making Hamilton extremely wealthy. He was even referred to as “one of the richest men in America” by R. Edward Greene in St. Simons Island: A Summary of its History. Nevertheless, Hamilton made the decision to move to Philadelphia. Couper’s 4,500 acre plantation was not doing well, despite its 659 enslaved men, so his son, James Hamilton Couper, offered to pay off his dues in return for half his interests. Due to this, when Hamilton moved, James Couper became manager of the property, eventually gaining ownership of the Hamilton Plantation.
After the Civil War, when cotton was no longer a viable option, there was a timber boom in the area. Around 1870, the lumber company Dart and Dodge-Meigs purchased the property and operated sawmills, employing newly-freed black men and white men who were struggling due to the loss of cotton. The two-story plantation house on the river became a boarding home for company workers and the barn operated as the company store. However, it burned down in 1885. By the 1900s, there was hardly any timber left to harvest, and a Georgia farmer attempted to revive the cotton fields, but in the 1920s, an insect called the boll weevil had infested most cotton-growing areas in the United States, ultimately destroying what was left of Hamilton Plantation.
In 1927, Eugene W. Lewis bought the plantation, eventually selling it years later. Then, in 1932, the Cassina Garden Club began having meetings in the remaining slave cabins. There were originally four cabins on the property built before 1833, which each had two rooms for two families separated by a central fireplace and were part of a planned community of slave quarters. They were built of tabby, a mixture of lime, sand, water, and crushed oyster shells, which was poured into frames and left to harden. Because the cabins had glass windows and wooden doors, there is speculation that enslaved people “high in the hierarchy” of the plantation, meaning they worked in the main house, likely lived there. In 1950, the Cassina Garden Club was deeded the property, and restored and now preserves the two remaining cabins, displaying artifacts and graphical histories. In 1988, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of Interior. In 2008, a historical marker for the plantation was erected by the Georgia Historical Society, Coastal Georgia Historical Society, Friends of Coastal Georgia History, and the Sea Island Society.
- History of the Cassina Site. Cassina Garden Club. Accessed May 29, 2017. http://www.cassinagardenclub.org/cabins_history.htm.
- Hamilton Plantation Slave Cabins, 1830s, St. Simons Island, Vanishing Coastal Georgia. August 8th 2012. Accessed December 17th 2019. https://vanishingcoastalgeorgia.com/2012/08/08/hamilton-plantation-slave-cabins-st-simons-island/.
- Cassina Garden Club Slave Cabins, Golden Isles . Accessed December 17th 2019. https://www.goldenisles.com/listing/cassina-garden-club-slave-cabins/144/.
- Hamilton Plantation, National Park Service. Accessed December 17th 2019. https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/geo-flor/12.htm.
- History of the Cassina Site, Cassina Garden Club. Accessed December 17th 2019. http://www.cassinagardenclub.org/cabinhistory.html.
- Hobbs, Larry. The story of Hamilton Plantation, The Brunswick News. November 10th 2018. Accessed September 22nd 2020. https://thebrunswicknews.com/news/local_news/the-story-of-hamilton-plantation/article_fa42da92-97e3-53cb-a96a-589b616582dd.html.
- Hamilton Plantation, Georgia Historical Society. March 13th 2015. Accessed September 22nd 2020. https://georgiahistory.com/ghmi_marker_updated/hamilton-plantation/.
- Clifton, James M.. Couper, James Hamilton, American National Biography. Accessed September 22nd 2020. https://www.anb.org/view/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.001.0001/anb-9780198606697-e-1000343.
- Hamilton Plantation, Historical Marker Database. Accessed September 22nd 2020. https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=19084.
By Mike Stroud, September 20, 2008, Historical Marker Database