Boone HallThorns and berries
While I could marvel at the unique and microcosmic, yet melancholic splendour of Boone Hall, the great tragedy of slavery demands full acknowledgement and understanding.
My journey to the Boone Hall plantation began in the early hours of a balmy October morning. I had just spent two days north of Charleston, wandering the white sand beaches that stretch endlessly up the Atlantic coast, consuming large quantities of fresh seafood, and drinking ice cold beer. The drive from Long Bay to Boone leads over the Santee River, which forms the eastern boundary of the Francis Marion National Forest. This great mass of woodland and swamp has all the presence of Conrad’s Africa; dark and impenetrable, a place of stillness and lurking gloom, where the ripe air catches in the nostrils. On that morning, a thick sea mist hung around the branches of the forest’s towering cypress trees, casting the road in murky shade. As the day wore on, beams of white South Carolina sunlight began to tear through the canopy of fog. By the time I had reached Mount Pleasant where the plantation is situated, the sky was clear and azure blue.
The first records of Boone Hall stretch back to 1681, when a wealthy Yorkshireman by the name of Theophilus Patey bought 470 acres around Wampacheeone Creek as a wedding gift for his daughter Elizabeth, when she married another Englishman, Major John Boone. For the next hundred years, the Boone family resided on the land. They built the original wooden house and surrounding plantation on the backs of the slaves who were incarcerated here. After the Boones sold the property in 1817, it passed through the hands of a number of families, until Thomas Archibald Stone purchased it in 1935. The Colonial Revival renovations he made to the house and grounds still stand today. The same crops that have been grown here for over 320 years are still sold to local markets, making Boone one of the oldest working plantations in the United States.
On arriving at the edge of the estate, I was struck by the singular beauty of the place. The avenue that runs for three quarters of a mile from the perimeter of the plantation to the house is lined with live oak trees that tower over the driveway like ancient monoliths. These were laid out and planted by the Boones in 1743, and it is likely that the enduring lumber of the same species was used to build the ships that brought the family across from England the century before. I passed under their gnarled and curling branches, the bright light filtered through the great swathes of Spanish moss that hung from them, rendering the light on the road iridescent, dusty, and quietly sombre. The ‘Big House’, as Thomas Stone describes it in his journal, sits within a low, red brick enclosure comprising neatly trimmed lawns and intricately cultivated flowerbeds. Against the cloudless sky, the white colonnades festooned across the house’s façade flickered with the searing glare, like snow on a bright morning.
I spent the following hours strolling among the groves and outer buildings of the estate. At the north west corner snakes the Horlbeck Creek wetlands, where I sat quietly by a natural inlet, looking out across a sprawl of umber weeds and shimmering water, to the dense forest on the opposite bank. As I made by way back along the waterside to the house, I noticed a modest wedding service taking place in one of these small enclaves. I found myself both touched, and troubled by the scene of this intimate celebration; in the distance the outlines of the plantation’s nine slave houses were clearly visible.
Until that point, I had allowed myself to be so distracted by the sensory splendours of my surroundings that I hadn’t focussed on the dark history of Boone Hall and the many other plantations that are scattered across the southern States. According to the District Census, Boone Hall held at one point 85 African Americans under enslavement; this was in 1850 when the Horlbeck’s were in the process of expanding their brick making business. Countless slave memoirs and letters tell of the horrendous treatment imparted on them by their masters on plantations such as Boone. In a bid to make the most of the natural clay deposits on the property, it is likely that the owners would have had their slaves working from early morning until deep into the night, undernourished and without water or protection from the scalding sun. (Historian Nell Irvin Painter discusses what she describes as the ‘soul murder’ of the African slaves on the plantations, where subjugation and violence were commonplace.)
In that moment, I battled with my feelings in the face of such sadness, whilst still awed by the ancient grandeur of Boone and its pastures. While I could marvel at the unique and microcosmic, yet melancholic splendour of Boone Hall, the great tragedy of slavery demands full acknowledgement and understanding. Boone’s past and present do not cancel each other out, but rather exist side by side, both entirely apparent. Mariann S. Regan of Fairfield University in Connecticut sums up her visit to the plantation aptly, “I see both beauty and terror here. I see the menace and the last damage of slave society, and I see the serene attraction of the monument that is Boone Hall. Thorns and berries growing together, cultivated by the nature of human beings.”