This is Boone Hall Plantation in 1940. Two rows of live oak trees shade the long entrance drive, and the main house and slave cabins are visible in the distance. Today Boone Hall stands as a prosperous and lively tourist attraction near Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.

John Boone, Slavery, Nell Painter, Into the Briar Patch, Fraser

Boone Hall Quarters, Library of Congress, photographer C. O. Greene, HABSHAER collection, April 8, 1940

Boone Hall is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and in the African American Historic Places in South Carolina. The website calls it “America’s Most Photographed Plantation.” You may have noticed Boone Hall in TV or film (The Notebook, for example).

Today it is still a working plantation, growing crops for sale and sponsoring annual events like the Lowcountry Strawberry Festival. The plantation’s Black History in America exhibit, open year-round, impressed Joseph McGill last November when he spent two nights in an original slave cabin at Boone Hall during his admirable Slave Dwelling Project . McGill’s full and nuanced account is here.

Boone Hall Plantation seems to be our country’s icon of the Southern plantation ideal. People love to visit it, take the tours, buy photographs, and even get married there.

Last week, I was astonished to discover Boone Hall Plantation in my own family history.

I was working my way up my matrilineal family tree, through Thomas Boone IV to Thomas Boone I (1696-1749), when I came upon Major John Boone (1632?-1711). The Major appears to have been my 7 x great grandfather. He was the founder of Boone Hall. His son Thomas Boone I, my 6 x great grandfather, planted those live oak trees that shade the three-quarter mile entrance drive.

What splendid, gracious beauty shines from Boone Hall. Like luscious berries.

What a vexed and painful history underlies the institution of American slavery, which gave birth to plantations like this one. A history lacerated with thorns.

My research tells me, so far, that Major John Boone may have been a rough customer. He seems to have been neither intimidated by regulations nor alarmed by the inhumane practices of the British slave trade. He was busy making money.

  • One source writes of Boone: “He was an Indian trader, slave dealer and fence for pirates sailing off the coast of South Carolina.  He was commissioned by the Lords Proprietors to settle disputes with the Indians.  John was elected to the Grand Council during the 1680’s but was removed twice because he illegally dealt in Indian slaves, associated with pirates and concealed stolen goods.  He was later reelected by Parliament” (1).
  • A Boone family web page, studded with historical and parish records, claims that John Boone is the son of a butcher and barber in Devonshire. He emigrated initially as “a servant . . . an ambitious man” who “became a successful merchant (if by some unsavory businesses) and married into another monied Carolina family.”
  • Other sources suggest that as a First Fleet settler of South Carolina, arriving perhaps from Devon, Somerset around 1670 (2), John Boone got a series of land grants from the state’s Lords Proprietors. With one of these grants he founded Boone Hall on 470 acres given him by Theophilus Patey (3), who would become his father-in-law.
Fraser, Boone Plantation, Major John Boone

John Boone arrives in South Carolina?

John Boone obviously prospered. He was apparently accepted into the church, the army, and the government by his fellow colonial settlers. He was a Major in the colonial militia. He was chosen as one of seven vestrymen for Christ Church Parish, whose ministers were expected to convert infidels, Indians, and slaves (4). He was elected to the Grand Council, then removed, but reelected by Parliament. It seems that in these times and circumstances (as perhaps in most), rough customers could get ahead, despite illegal acts.

I’ve ordered books and articles from Interlibrary Loan, to continue my initial research about Major John Boone and his father-in-law Theophilus Patey. I want to get the facts straight.

Yet facts aren’t everything. Several recent posts on Twitter have questioned the power of facts (however reliable) to express the lived experience of our ancestors and families—their feelings, ideas, hopes, failures, family relationships, conflicts, dreams.

While I was discovering Major John Boone on the one hand, and on the other hand the surpassing beauty of Boone Hall Plantation, I was also reading (on the third hand, no doubt) “Soul Murder and Slavery: Toward a Fully Loaded Cost Accounting,” a 1995 essay by Nell Irvin Painter, which was given me by a friend.

Slave-dealing, religion, ambition, wealth, government, land, plantations, and families—all so important to Major John Boone—are the stuff of Painter’s essay. She asks penetrating questions about these elements of society.

Among Painter’s central points are these four:

  • Chattel slavery must include violence. “Societies whose economic basis rested on slave production were built on violence.” This violence, as physical beatings or sexual abuse, can inflict “soul murder” on its victims – a kind of degradation and depression and anger potentially fatal to self or others.
  • The violence of slavery can permeate an entire society, for blacks and whites, both within families and without. “The calculus of slavery configured society as a whole.” Slavery makes family life and social institutions less democratic and more tyrannical, for the slave masters as well.
  • In the Lowcountry South, the violence of slavery meshed with patriarchal attitudes in white society.  At risk of abusive violence were black children, white children, black women, black men, and white women—everyone but the powerful white men themselves. Black children were beaten by their masters and their parents. Lawmakers and church leaders in the antebellum South routinely urged (white) female victims of wife abuse or incest to bear the abuse in a spirit of submission.
  • Today’s historians who want to understand slave society should let “the scales . . . fall from their eyes” in order to “look beneath the gorgeous surface that cultured slave owners presented to the world, and pursue the hidden truths of slavery, including soul murder and patriarchy.”

So I think of of Boone Hall and its gorgeous surface. I consider John Boone as plantation owner and ambitious slave trader. I ponder Soul Murder and Slavery. I see both beauty and terror here. I see the menace and lasting damage of a slave society, and I see the serene attraction of the monument that is Boone Hall Plantation.

Neither cancels out the other. Both are very real, and both are pinned to my spiritual bulletin board.  Thorns and berries growing together, cultivated by the nature of human beings.

The Lowcountry Strawberry Festival will probably be on the schedule next year at Boone Hall Plantation.

Meanwhile, the familiar and painful echoes from slavery times are still heard in our national and private conversations.

Notes:

1. Schwab, William T. The Crofts of South Carolina. Mount Pleasant, SC: BookSurge Publishing, 2004. 19-20.

2. Baldwin, Agnes Leland. First Settlers of South Carolina: 1670-1700. Easly, South Carolina: Southern Historical Press, 1985. 30.

3.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boone_Hall. January 6, 2013.

4.  Letters from the Clergy of the Anglican Church in South Carolina c. 1696-1775, ed. by George W. Williams.  http://speccoll.cofc.edu/pdf/SPGSeriesABC.pdf?referrer=webcluster&. January 6, 2013.