Hopsewee Plantation’s New Museum Shares History of Enslaved Africans

5 Jan

Hopsewee Plantation’s New Museum Shares History of Enslaved Africans

A tiny thimble once used by a young, enslaved girl greets visitors in the new Hopsewee Historical Museum.

This small artifact, among hundreds of others, seems to encapsulate the reasons that Frank and Raejean Beattie decided to open this museum at Hopsewee Plantation, located south of Georgetown on South Carolina’s Hammock Coast®.

This tiny thimble greets visitors of the museum. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

Raejean Beattie said the museum adds another element to a Hopsewee Plantation visit.

“There is so much to do here now,” she said. “We have a wonderful house tour, the slave cabins are being revitalized so they will last for a while longer, the tea room, the Gullah presentations, and now the museum. You can really come here and spend the day.”

Since purchasing Hopsewee Plantation in 2001, the Beatties have made it their mission to share the history of this historic rice plantation, formerly owned by Thomas Lynch Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence. And they especially want to make sure people know as much as possible about the enslaved people who lived and worked at Hopsewee.

“When it comes to the enslaved individuals who lived at Hopsewee, we know little of their lifestyle, belongings, dress and homes,” Raejean said. “What we have learned is presented here (in the museum) so that all may have a better understanding of what life was like for those who were forcefully brought here, who were born here, who lived, loved, labored and died here, and even, perhaps, sometimes laughed here.”

The exhibit that displays the thimble shares a profile of a hypothetical 6-year-old girl who once used it. She represents those who were born on the plantation and would remain enslaved on the plantation their whole life.

“She was a smart little girl and could already take care of her younger brother and sister,” the exhibit reads. “She knew how to do laundry and helped with the food preparation and ironing. She fed and watered the chickens in the yard, and now was learning to repair clothes and sew buttons.”

It goes on to state that while free children were learning to play and read and write, the young enslaved girl was learning to work.

This artwork shows names of enslaved Africans living and working at Hopsewee Plantation. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

“She would have married and probably had four or five children and worked her whole life in the rice fields here,” it reads. “Most likely she would have died at Hopsewee and been buried in an unmarked grave on the plantation. Today there is no one who knows her name or who she was.”

But next to the thimble display is a large list of some of the many people enslaved at Hopsewee. The inventory lists the property, including slaves, of Thomas Lynch Sr., who died in 1748, leaving everything to his son, Thomas Lynch Jr. Beside each name (only first names) the inventory gives the age the person was at the time and either their position (field, house, etc.) or their condition (blind, crippled, etc.).

“We want to honor their memories, especially since there are not gravesites,” Reajean said. “We know where the burial place was, but Highway 17 now covers the gravesites.”

Museum Curator Lance Comfort leads a group called the History Hunters, which has performed archaeological digs at Hopsewee and found the artifacts displayed in the museum, as well as many more not yet displayed. He personally found the thimble on Hopsewee property and he said he felt like the owner of the thimble shared her message with him.

“That story came to me the day I uncovered the thimble, and as then, it still brings a tear to my eyes,” Comfort said.

Raejean Beattie, right, talks with Joan and Peter Warren from Ontario, Canada, inside the new museum at Hopsewee Plantation. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

Peter and Joan Warren from Ontario, Canada, recently visited the Hopsewee Historical Museum and said that they were really affected by the thimble exhibit.

“That is a wonderful story,” Joan said. “It sets the tone for the entire museum.”

Other exhibits in the museum include pottery made by enslaved Africans and used daily for cooking and eating, miniature toy cannons that actually shot a small cannon ball presumably owned by Thomas Lynch Jr. when he was a boy, and several dioramas that present a snapshot of time showing what duties the people who ran the plantation performed. Frank Beattie’s artwork, which depicts scenes from life on the plantation, can be viewed in the museum and in the tearoom on the property, as well.

“When you go to most plantations, you will see the beautiful big house, with fantastic gardens and grounds and maybe there are some outbuildings or in some cases a remaining slave cabin or two,” Comfort said. “What you will not see or learn about is the actual life of the enslaved people, who built and maintained the plantation.”

The History Hunters found the artifacts that are displayed in the Hopsewee Historical Museum. (Photo provided by Lance Comfort)

He said at Hopsewee, the staff wants to make sure that this most important factor is a major part of the plantation.

“The big house will tell you the story of the wealthy plantation owners and the part they had to do with the history of the state and the nation,” Comfort said. “Our museum will tell you about the everyday lives of the enslaved people, and will show you, in our dioramas, what you can no longer see.”

Comfort said the rice export process diorama is probably his favorite one. It shows the process of rice export in 1848, complete with a ship that has arrived from England docked for loading and unloading.

“I like this one the best since when I built it, we knew the names and positions of the enslaved people who were living on the plantation at that time,” he said. “I put each individual in there and knew who they were and that they were doing the tasks that they would be doing on a regular basis. This helps to bring the enslaved people to life.”

In this diorama, Comfort explains that a ship has arrived from England bringing linens, dinnerware and other valuable items from Europe which have just been unloaded onto the dock for disbursement around the plantation. Mules are ready for the boxes of imports to be loaded onto a wagon, and is ready for taking on the rice barrels back to England. And there’s more to the story in the diorama and others around the museum, each carefully created to give an in-depth look into life long ago on Hopsewee.

Frank and Raejean Beattie
This diorama shows how the ship from England was loaded with barrels of rice from the plantation. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

Joan Warren said the dioramas are very helpful in understanding the daily lives of enslaved people on the plantation.

“You can see what it was like here back then,” she said. “You see models of the people doing different jobs and you can examine it. So, it is very visual and you can absorb it at whatever level or how much you understand.”

Comfort said the archaeological digs have been an interesting adventure.

When we started our investigations and digging at Hopsewee, we had little to go on,” he said. “Based on plates, we knew there were some older slave cabins in the west of the plantation and some later ones parallel to the original road coming into the plantation.” 

Earlier investigation and digs had misidentified the later construction as six slave cabins, he said. 

“Our investigation showed that this area (what we call the Craftsman Village built circa 1795) was in fact four two-family cabins, five workshops/cabins and a blacksmith/coopers shop,” Comfort said. “We have found the locations and actual footings for eight of these structures and will continue to search for the remaining ones.”

This diorama shows the Craftsman Village as it once existed at Hopsewee Plantation. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

The diorama of the Craftsman Village in the museum, he said, shows the exact locations of each of these buildings. 

“The western earlier (1740) cabins are another story,” Comfort said. “Based on one photograph, we believe that there were eight two-family cabins in a row.” 

These were bulldozed and eliminated during lumbering in the 1920s and 30s, he said. 

“The only remains are artifacts and an ash pile where the original chimneys stood,” Comfort said. “To date we have only located one of these cabins which we believe was the southernmost cabin, and we are currently trying to locate the actual ash piles from the remainders.”

In choosing which of the thousands of artifacts to place in the museum, Comfort said he and his team have tried to place the items that were most closely associated with the enslaved people who had lived there. 

“Items that they touched, or used, or made seemed to bring the lives of the individuals more to life,” he said.

Hopsewee Plantation is located at 494 Hopsewee Road, Georgetown, SC 29440. Tickets for the guided tour of the home and grounds are available here for quick, easy and secure booking, as well as by phone at (843) 546-7891. Admission to the museum is free with a paid ticket to the plantation.

House tours are available Tuesday to Saturday on the hour, from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for seniors ages 65 and over, $5 for students ages 12 to 17, and $3 for children ages 6 to 11. Contact Hopsewee for groups of 10 or more.

Dining at Hopsewee’s delightful tearoom is available from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., with Lowcountry favorites served up daily. Special English-style teas with a Southern flair can also be enjoyed.

By Clayton Stairs / tourism manager for the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce and South Carolina’s Hammock Coast®

These everyday artifacts help tell the story of enslaved Africans at Hopsewee Plantation. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

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