They huddled inside the white walls of the grand house, women and children, refugees from a war that had enveloped the fields and swamps of the Carolina low country. The house sat through a pine thicket, a ways off the old King’s Highway. Swampy rice fields at its back, the house were silent, waiting for the first sound of thundering hooves, slowly becoming louder. In the distance, the first glimpse of bright red came into view – the British were coming to Hampton.
Across the back lawn, past the kitchen house and gardens, General Francis Marion and his men hid among the reedy marsh of Wambaw Creek, fully aware of the approaching enemy. The year was 1780 and the fight for freedom had come to the very doorstep of Hampton Plantation.
A decade later, a different atmosphere envelopes Hampton – excitement. Rambling up the road towards the house is a carriage and inside is the very first president of a young nation. George Washington, surrounded by his entourage, steps out, slowly rising to his full height of just over six feet. He looks upon a magnificent portico, a new addition to Hampton, added just prior to his arrival.
Two women step onto the porch to welcome Washington to breakfast. Each adorned with a blue sash, embellished with a portrait of the new President. Eliza Lucas Pinckney and her daughter Harriott were among those women and children who huddled inside Hampton’s sheltering walls when the British arrived ten years prior. At that time there was fear and doubt. But now…
Now it was 1791 and promise filled the air.
After a fine breakfast, Washington stops to admire a young oak standing in front of the house. When consulted on whether or not the tree should remain or be removed to clear the view, Washington thinks for a moment and replies that it would be a shame to see such a promising oak cut down. And so it remained.
The sun rose early as field hands made their way to the rice fields. The heat was tangible, as were the mosquitoes. The sound they made as they came in from the swamps would put a ringing in your ear that was hard to forget. The fires were lit in the kitchen house and the smell of fresh bread, along with unknown accompaniments wafted through the air as the day’s work began. The sounds of Negro spirituals, caught by the breeze off the South Santee, would occasionally interrupt the buzz of swamp life, as the day marched on towards evening. It was 1850 and the South stood on the precipice of war once again. Hope was unthinkable for some and fading for others. Things were about to change again at Hampton.
It is now the 1920’s and Sue Alston rests on the boards that serve as steps into her home. A daughter of emancipation, she works on at Hampton, living in a tenant house left from another time. Her husband, Prince, is the son of former Hampton slaves. They are still here because it is home. Likewise with Archibald Rutledge, Poet Laurette of South Carolina and descendant of one of Hampton’s great families. Descendants of master and slave would soon come together to restore Hampton and protect it for generations yet to come.
Thanks to them and others before them, the old house still stands, witness to events we can only imagine while thumbing through the text of a history book. The old oak Washington saved two centuries ago still welcomes visitors today. Windows that once looked out on a busy landscape filled with the hustle and bustle of plantation life, now sit shuttered and dark. Flickering candlelight no longer illuminates the dark corners of a ballroom that also sits, collecting dust.
The rice fields lie dormant under trees still heavy with moss. The heat and humidity still consume during the summer, as do the mosquitoes. But when the sun sets, and the tourists leave, the great plantation called Hampton sits alone in the dusk, with only its memories for company.
Haunting. Otherworldly. It patiently waits for another page in the history of the low country to turn.
All photos by the author.