Boone Hall Plantation dates back to at least 1681 when a land grant of 470 acres (1.9 square kilometers) was given by Theophilus Patey as a wedding present to his daughter, Elizabeth, and Major John Boone. The economic success of such a large working plantation (which eventually grew to over 1,000 acres) depended on the widespread use of African slaves for labor — initially cultivating rice, then indigo, cotton, and pecans. Presently, one of America’s oldest still working plantations — continually growing crops for over 320 years — Boone Hall is open to the public with an excellent “museum” of slavery presented in the eight restored slave cabins on the property adjacent to the mansion house. The following discussions of plantation crops and the life of the slaves on the plantation are from materials presented in the slave cabins.
“The successful cultivation of rice in the United States is thought by historians to have occurred in the South Carolina Sea Islands when an enslaved African woman taught her white owner how to grow the crop. The first rice seeds used in rice farming may have been imported directly from the Island of Madagascar in 1685, and historians generally believe that enslaved Africans familiar with growing rice in West Africa supplied the expertise for its production in North America. No matter who first introduced African rice to the Americans, by 1750 some of the largest slave owners in the South cultivated rice in the coastal regions of the Carolinas [on those plantations with access to fresh water, as opposed to those on the coast and nearby with access only to sea (salt) water] in ways similar to how it had been grown by Africans for hundreds of years.”
“Brought to the area by slaves who were transported from West Africa to labor on rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia, the art of sweetgrass basket making has been a part of the Lowcountry for more than 300 years. It is a traditional art form which has been passed on from generation to generation, and today, it is one of the oldest art forms of African origin the United States. Baskets were an agricultural necessity on Lowcountry plantations, and in the 19th century, large, coiled work baskets, traditionally made by men using a marsh grass called ‘bulrush’, were used in the planting and harvesting of crops and in the collection and storage of vegetables, grain, cotton, fish and shellfish. After the Civil War, coiled baskets evolved from their purely agricultural purpose to a more household use. Baskets primarily made by women were used for carrying produce to the market and storing household goods. Instead of using only bulrush, the women also used a softer more pliable grass commonly called ‘sweetgrass’ (Muhlenbergia filipes) because of its more pleasant, hay-like aroma.
“During the decades before the Civil War, slave grown cotton accounted for over half the value of all United States exports, and provided virtually all the cotton used in the northern textile industry and 70 percent of the cotton used in British mills. The South failed to establish commercial, financial or manufacturing companies on the same scale as the North.”
“In the mid 19th century, over 90% of American slaves lived in rural areas and urban slaves made up at least 20% of the populations of most Southern cities. In Charleston, slaves and free blacks outnumbered whites. Many urban slaves worked as domestics, but others worked as blacksmiths, carpenters, shoemakers, bakers, or other tradespeople. Urban slaves had more freedom of movement than plantation slaves and generally had greater opportunities for learning. They also had increased contact with free black people, who often expanded their ways of thinking about slavery.”
“Serena Jefferson Spann (18?? – 1936) was born in Virginia, the youngest of 18 children. She was brought to Boone Hall in 1864 and remained here as the cook until her death in 1936. She lived in the first slave cabin [closest to the mansion house] and was a pillar of the community. Serena, affectionately called Dah Rena by family members, was noted for delicious biscuits, cinnamon rolls, boiled ham, shrimp fired rice topped with eggs and bacon, layer lemon cakes, potato pones, and pig in the bag. There wasn’t anything Dah Rena couldn’t cook.
“Serena still has descendants living in Mt. Pleasant. Her granddaughter, Martha ‘Mattie’ Gaillard, also known as one of the greatest cooks around, was born in cabin one [the slave cabin closest to the Boone Hall Plantation mansion] and is still living today.
“The following was written by Robert Coleman who spent his summers at Boone Hall in the early 1900’s: The food at Boone Hall was the world’s best! Serena Jefferson Spann was head cook and the world’s best. Refrigeration in those days was quite a problem. Ice was the only coolant and the ice house was 10 miles away. Everything possible was put on top of the ice. Our food was mostly prepared on a day to day basis. Serena has muscovy ducks, guineas, turkeys, chickens and squabs. Boone Hall Creek had fish, crabs, shrimp, and oysters. Serena’s kitchen had a great big cast iron wood stove with double doors and a warmer on top. Around the base of the stove on the floor was a narrow frame of wood filled with white sand. This was to keep the drippings from the sweet potatoes that would ooze out the oven door, on the floor.
“On Sunday, I would milk the cow and Serena would make the best Curds you ever tasted. She would put the milk in pans in the safe on the back porch to turn to clabber [milk that has naturally clotted on souring], then place the clabber in a curd press, put the cover on and then flat iron on top of a press all the whey out. When it was ready she would serve it covered with sweet cream and grated nutmeg. Delicious!
“Another thing that was great was her baked ham. Mr. Clute would buy a large Virginia Smithfield Ham. Serena would put it in a ham boiler and boil it. Hot grits, a hunk of butter, ham gravy and several slices of ham was next to going to heaven. Mr. Clute kept several row boats at the dock [see photograph, below] and cast nets on the back porch. Serena would send one of the young men to the creek [see photograph, above] to catch a peck of shrimp. On returning she would boil them, pick them and then grind them in an old fashioned hand cranked meat chopper. What she mixed with I do not know, but she would make them into shrimp patties and then fry. They were served with hot grits and would make your hair curl.”
“The Gullah are African Americans who live in the Low Country region of South Carolina and Georgia, which includes both the coastal plain and the Sea Islands. Historically, the Gullah region once extended north to the Cape Fear area on the coast of North Carolina and south to the vicinity of Jacksonville on the coast of Florida; but today the Gullah area is confined to the South Carolina and Georgia Low Country [including Savannah]. The Gullah people are also called Geechee, especially in Georgia.