A Georgia cotton plantation so close to home
I almost stepped foot on a cotton plantation last week.
I was headed to a bookstore in my hometown of Macon, GA, when at the foot of the exit off I-75, I spotted the sign “Jarrell Plantation Historic Site.” I couldn’t figure out how I had missed it a few days before when I had traveled down the same exit headed to the same bookstore. This time, though, I was driving alone and I apparently was much more observant.
My car willed its way along the 13 miles of highway toward the place because, as usual, I was curious. It was a little strange, though, because I never ever had any interest in visiting a plantation as some folks do on vacations. I won’t live in a subdivision or an apartment with the world “plantation” in its name.
So I drove and drove, and I took a right turn and drove some more. It was late afternoon, a few hours before dusk and dark country roads without the streetlights of Philadelphia. But I was determined to find the place, so I kept driving until I came to a turn-off that would take me three more miles before I finally arrived at the Jarrell Plantation in Jones County.
From the parking lot, I could see what was a modest operation: A series of gray wooden buildings on a sloping landscape with rising hills. They fit perfectly with the overcast sky that made the darkness seem even more ominous.
To my left, a large pile of stones was my first close-up introduction to the plantation. According to the sign, they were the ruins of a stone chimney from a slave cabin, one of about a half-dozen that had been scattered on the plantation. A man named Reason Jarrell and his family had used the house, along with Enoch Card and his family after emancipation. It was destroyed in a fire in 1900.
With the ruins so prominent, I was sure that the Jarrell slaves would be featured significantly in the telling of the history of the family.
The lone female worker in the visitor’s center answered my questions, and directed me to view the exhibits and read more about the place from placards on the wall. I saw little about the slaves at Jarrell, but noticed many photos and text about families that had lived on the Jesse Middleton Hunt plantation, also in Jones County, but apparently no longer standing. On the web, I found many photographs of African Americans associated with that plantation.
Since it was getting dark, I decided to take some handouts and return the next day.
The land that became the Jarrell Plantation had belonged to a branch of the Creek Indians long before the state of Georgia opened it up to homesteaders like Blake and Zilpha Jarrell, who arrived in the 1820s, according to the handout. By the 1830s, the Creeks and Cherokees of Georgia were forced like other Native Americans in the Southeast on a brutal 1,000-mile trek by foot to what is now Oklahoma in the infamous Trail of Tears.
The homes of the Native Americans were burned and plundered, or lost to whites in a lottery. Many of the travelers died from disease and starvation – walking with scant clothes and shoes – along the route.
The Jarrells moved to the area with two slaves, and when their son John was an adult, he founded the Jarrell Plantation with 19 slaves. According to the handout, the family never seemed to have more than 50 slaves at a time – but that made them among the upper third of Georgia farmers. Their cotton plantation was no “Gone with the Wind” type, as one source noted.
Many of the buildings are still intact: chicken house, smokehouse, syrup furnace, sawmill and wheat house. Jarrell seemed to be one of the few remaining plantations in the state. Many, like the slave buildings, have been lost to neglect or have been destroyed, according to the 2009 book “Lost Plantations of the South.”
There are some slave ruins still around, and I sometimes seek them out when I’m nearby. Some years ago when my family spent Christmas on St. Simon’s Island, GA, I found some ruins, along with a coastal spot called Ebo (or Ibo) Landing, where legend has it that Africans disembarking from slave ships walked back into the ocean and drowned rather than live as slaves. I’ve also done the Colonial Williamsburg tour.
At Jarrell, I told the worker that I was surprised to learn about the plantation and wondered where there were others in the state. She mentioned Chief Vann House, which I learned was a mansion – much more classy than the houses at Jarrell – in north Georgia that had been owned by a Cherokee Indian leader and wealthy businessman named James Vann. The chief’s son Joseph lost the land to white men (one of whom claimed he got it in a lottery) right after the discovery of gold in the area and the birth of the Georgia Gold Rush, the first in the country before California.
(An aside: A cousin of mine told me a story about a company in Dahlonega, in north Georgia, that’s now making money by selling buckets of sand with gold flakes to folks who want to pan for gold. He paid about 40 bucks for a five-gallon bucket of the cheapest lot and found a few flakes, which he figured would net him some cash. It seemed, though, that the only one getting paid was the company itself.)
As for the Jarrell Plantation, I read the handout and realized that the historic site was all about the Jarrells and not much about the slaves. So, my interest was stilled and I didn’t go back for the tour.
Here’s what little I learned about the slaves :
They were buried in an adjoining lot near the family cemetery.
In 1863, John had 42 slaves valued at $37,800. His 600 acres of land was worth $5,280 (from handout).
Many of the slaves died of typhoid that killed John’s wife and other family members in October 1864 (from handout).
Former slaves took the surnames Jarrell, Clark and Card (from handout).
When I come to places like this, I wonder about my own ancestors. Some years ago, I did some research on one side of my family. I learned that my great-grandfather and great-grandmother on my mother’s side were born in Georgia in the 1850s. That’s what they told a census-taker in 1900. When slavery ended, he was 13, and she was 10.
Like the Jarrell slaves, there’s not a lot of the history of their lives. Like what was New Year’s Day like for them as we celebrate it this year. In her 1861 book “Incidents of a Slave Girl Written by Herself,” Harriett Ann Jacobs described the slave’s new year as she was growing up in Virginia. It was a time of apprehension, she wrote, because Jan. 1 was an annual auction day when families were ripped apart and sold.