Re-writing history

It’s hard to believe that a landowner/businessman would design and oversee the construction of this mansion based on pattern books, but John Drayton did exactly that.

This year as we were planning a beach trip to South Carolina, I also wanted to re-visit Drayton Hall Plantation. Although we had visited years ago, before social media and blogging, I have been following them on Instagram for some time. And in my mind, the folks behind Drayton Hall have been doing a fabulous job of teaching history.

Briefly, Drayton Hall is an 18th-century plantation on the Ashley River about 15 miles from Charleston, and its history and architecture are notable. Historically, Drayton Hall is the only plantation to survive the Revolutionary and Civil Wars intact. Additionally, it is a remarkable example of Palladian Architecture in the United States, built by John Drayton Sr. and designed without the benefit of professional architects. Instead, like many other other wealthy and well-educated planters of his time, Drayton relied on British “pattern books” that detailed classical architecture.

The first time I visited Drayton Hall I was sorely disappointed. As someone who loves historic homes and had visited the likes of Mount Vernon and Williamsburg more than once, I loved seeing these buildings restored and renovated as necessary and filled with the appropriate furnishings. In fact, for me that was a big part of their allure.

This reflects how the building was found when it was acquired from the Drayton family, on the 1970’s. The workmanship on the paneling and molding is remarkable.

Not so at Drayton Hall.

Drayton Hall is a preservation, not a restoration. So, it’s empty. What you see are the architectural details of a building that was inhabited by Draytons from the 1740’s until it was turned over to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the 1970’s. It has never had electricity or indoor plumbing. The preservation philosophy at Drayton Hall was to stabilize the house and maintain it as it was when acquired from the family. This was radical at the time, but it has resulted in considerable technical and scientific research into the original building and the people who lived there. And the lessons learned  have given me a whole new appreciation for the role of historic preservation.

For example, historians originally believed construction was begun on Drayton Hall in 1738 after John Drayton Sr. acquired the property. However In 2014, scholars examined the wood cores of the attic timbers and determined that they were cut from trees felled in the winter of 1747–48. Because the attic would have been framed well before the remainder of the house, scholars now believe Drayton Hall was not occupied by the family until the early 1750s. This is just one example of the kinds of data the building continues to reveal.

Expanding on plantation history

Today the plantation includes an Interpretive Center and Museum. The Interpretive 
Center traces the history of the property, the Drayton’s, and South Carolina. This history includes that of the enslaved people who built the house, planted the crops, tended the fields and served the family, all of which made plantation life possible. This reality is nothing like Gone With the Wind.

Drayton Hall is constructed from bricks made on-site. Often enslaved children worked on brick-making. Look closely at the red brick on the right in the third row. A child’s handprint is visible.

One of the things Drayton Hall has done very well is to reveal more about the enslaved people who lived there. Plantations like Drayton Hall and its counterparts throughout the South would not have been possible without the labor provided by the enslaved community. It’s important we understand the economic impact of slavery on the South, the North and even Europe.

During our visit we attended a presentation, Port to Plantation: Slavery and the Making of the Early Lowcountry Economy. The presentation takes visitors back 400 years to the beginning of the Triangular Trade Route (from Europe to West Africa, to the Americas, and back to Europe), paying special attention to the middle passage which carried slaves from West Africa to the Americas. Slaves were traded in South America, the Caribbean and North America, but their role in the American South is now under increasing scrutiny thanks to additional historic research like that at Drayton Hall.

Portugal, Great Britain, France, Spain and the Netherlands all participated in the slave trade, sending ships to West Africa, where they loaded slaves for the Americas, then after selling the slaves, reloaded their ships with valuable cotton and rice to return to Europe. The passage itself was gruesome, with hundreds of Africans packed onto ships. Many did not survive the journey, and those who did were often crudely “warehoused” at their destination until they regained their strength for the auction block. This was, after all, business, and the factors or agents responsible for the slave sales depended on top-dollar transactions,

Drayton Hall is not alone in re-thinking how it presents slavery. The McLeod Plantation on nearby James Island, and the Aiken-Rhett House and Nathaniel Russell House, both overseen by the Charleston Historic Foundation in Charleston have also re-cast and expanded their interpretation of slavery. They have traded the term “slaves” for “enslaved people” to more clearly recognize them as people rather than property. To read more about this, including the controversy it has generated, see the recent feature in the Post & Courier by Robert Behre.

Not everyone is a fan of this revised history. Guides at these and other sites report visitors who complain that this history is “depressing” at the least. Some are more outspoken than others. (A sign of these outspoken times, perhaps?) But as hard as some of this is to see or hear or read (I find myself speechless over the child’s handprint in the brick), I think we are very fortunate to continue to learn more about this chapter in our history. This historic site visit pushed me to consider how little I know and how much more there is to learn.

It’s also a reminder that one of life’s great gifts is the opportunity to re-think, re-write, re-imagine, and grow. What if we gave similar license to other life experiences?

Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon!

 

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