by Zack O’Neill
Brookgreen Gardens is situated on the Waccamaw River, a slow-moving blackwater river passable only in shallow-draft watercraft. The river gets its name from a little-known Native American tribe that still exists today, albeit in very small numbers (at present, about 400 Waccamaw live in South Carolina). Despite their ties to the land and continuous presence on it, the Waccamaw have, for the most part, been forgotten. One website claims “Nothing is known of their language, and very little else concerning them, as they were never prominent in history.”
When European settlers first came to North America, diseases and brute force had their way with the Waccamaw. Many were enslaved and put to work on the newly established plantations or shipped to plantations in Spain, where it was harder for them to reestablish tribal bonds. In North America the tribe often fought back against this aggression, and once even went to war with the South Carolina colony (a rebellion that was quickly put down by local militia).
In the 18th century, King George II, weary of reports of constant Indian uprisings, ordered all Indian slaves to be freed from colonial plantations. In response to this order, South Carolina’s plantation owners began calling the Waccamaw “African” and kept them in bondage.
As little of their heritage and none of their language has been preserved, today, the meaning of Waccamaw is unknown even to members of the tribe. But Waccamaw nevertheless is the name of a river that runs past Brookgreen Gardens. In the spring and fall migrating snowbirds can be seen up and down its banks. Black bears and sunfish are not an uncommon sight at any time of year. Flowing through pine forests that feature an occasional White Cedar, the river is lined by sandy banks and old plantation homes, and has a legacy as a navigation channel that “was once of particular importance to various indigenous cultures.”
II. Joshua John Ward
At the top of Brookgreen Gardens’ promotional brochure is a quote (attributed to no one) that claims as you walk the Brookgreen property “You Realize You Are Not Just Touring A Garden…You Are Reliving History.” At the bottom of the brochure a quote from the Charlotte Observer, printed in large font, states that Brookgreen Gardens is “One Of The Seven Wonders Of The Carolinas.” In between these two quotes is a block text that describes various features of the property and the property’s history. The text makes one reference to slavery, which occurs in a section titled “The Lowcountry Trail”:
“Interpretive panels provide insights of the lives of the plantation owner, the overseer, and the enslaved Africans.”
What is not in the brochure is the fact that one of Brookgreen Plantation’s most prominent figures was Joshua John Ward, a man once known as “King of the Rice Planters.” Ward was born on Brookgreen Plantation in 1800, and by the early 1850s held over one thousand slaves (while serving as Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina). Eventually Ward became owner of the plantation, and he would live there his entire life.
Today most of the property’s maintenance is carried out by volunteer laborers, many of whom are retirees. The land Ward once ruled over is now less economically viable but better groomed, made opulent by aesthetically-pleasing foliage such as False Indigo, Bloodroots, Spider Lilies, and Swamp Sunflowers.
Gold rush merchant and railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington is referred to on the Brookgreen Gardens website as “a forceful man, sometimes known as a ‘Robber Baron,’ but exemplifying the nation’s leadership in this period of rapid growth and expansion.” He first experienced success selling supplies to miners in Northern California during the gold rush. Later on he would help build America’s first transcontinental railroad. Known as one of the “Big Four” railroad magnates, Collis’ investments in the enterprise of railroad construction would make him rich.
Toward the end of his life Collis spent much of his fortune on art and was thought to have one of the greatest collections in the country. When he died, his widow, a woman named Arabella, would become known for a time as the richest woman in America and accumulated her own vast collection of art. Arabella had a son from a previous marriage named Archer Milton. Arabella fostered in Archer her love of art; years later, Archer himself would gain a reputation as one of America’s foremost patrons of the arts.
In 1923 Archer, at the age of 53, married a woman named Anna Hyatt, who at the time was one of the most prominent sculptors in America. She continues to be regarded as such: at present her sculptures adorn not only the grounds of Brookgreen Gardens but museums, university campuses and public squares from New York City to Gloucester, Massachusetts to Clois, France to Washington D.C. to San Diego to Madrid. Anna excelled in large sculptures of historical figures; some of her most famous works are portraits of Joan of Arc, Andrew Jackson, a young Abraham Lincoln, and Don Quixote.
In the late 1920s, Anna became infected with tuberculosis and sought to establish a winter residence in a warmer climate. This illness, plus her success as a sculptor, Archer’s wealth, and a mutual appreciation of the arts would collectively transform the dilapidated Brookgreen Plantation (which had fallen into disrepair after the Civil War) into Brookgreen Gardens. Under their direction the estate was refurbished and converted into a winter retreat, as well as a vast outdoor portfolio for Anna’s work.
Archer and Anna would live at Brookgreen Gardens off and on from the 1930s until their deaths. Today Anna’s statues – and thousands of others – are set up throughout the estate, available for public viewing year-round.
Brookgreen Gardens is built on four former rice plantations (one of which, of course, is Brookgreen Plantation). It is known at present as a statuary, the former home of Archer and Anna, America’s first public sculpture garden, a wildlife preserve, an aviary, a state park, a historical landmark, a botanical garden, a popular tourist attraction subsidized by philanthropy, tax dollars, admission fees, weddings, tours (both walking and boat), gift shops, and restaurants. Most of Brookgreen Gardens lies entirely on Brookgreen Plantation. As for the other three plantations, one, The Oaks, is the burial place of Governor James Alston; another, Laurel Hill, features a nonoperational rice mill that serves as the only surviving structure from the early days, and the fourth, Springfield, is home to endangered species, protected trees, sometimes migrating waterfowls. Not much information is available on Springfield Plantation, but its website does refer to the property as the product of “people from various cultures and time periods” who “sought ways to optimize the economic use of land, while preserving its natural beauty.”
Brookgreen Gardens is populated with many natural, transplanted, and man-made things, like swamps, beachfronts, Longleaf Pines, Live Oaks, American Beautyberries, Star Magnolias, Flowering Apricots, Winter Jasmine, Ginger Lilies, Virginia Sweetspires, a refuge for wild turkeys and red foxes, and another for barred owls and bald eagles that sits on the estate’s eastern end, as does a butterfly house that is open to visitors for most of the year. This past year, one refuge adopted a sick sea otter.
V. South Carolina
The plantation system has been called a microcosm of the South, an assemblage of productive agrarian institutions, the economic backbone of a region that rebelled against government aggression, a critique of industrial capitalism, productive entities submissive to an industrialized master (essentially, a system populated entirely by slaves from top to bottom). These debates, and the issue of slavery, from the evolution of the plantation system to a war that existed at least in part to preserve it, to modern day tributes to that war, will never cease to boil the blood of many for many different reasons, and all the while, Brookgreen Gardens benefits from a legacy of transnational subsidy, American art, a marriage built on companionship more so than romance, Flowering Dogwoods, Northwind Switchgrass, turtles, swans, and contorted metal, all of which is housed as a dual tribute to pastoral history and bucolic servitude – though bucolic might be too ugly a word to use.
During the Civil War, Brookgreen’s inhabitants set up barricades to deter invading soldiers, primarily on the beachfronts. Later, the place would be more welcoming to Northerners.
Hall, Joseph. “The Great Indian Slave Caper” review of The Indian Slave Trade: The
Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670-1717 by Alan Gallay. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.
Lerch, Patricia. Waccamaw Legacy: Contemporary Indians Fight for Survival. 2004,
University of Alabama Press.
Pargas, Damian Alan. “Boundaries and Opportunities: Comparing Slave Family
Formation in the Antebellum South.” Journal of Family History. 33. 2008. 316-345.