Oakland Plantation: One of Mount Pleasant’s treasures

  • Friday, February 22, 2013

Oakland Plantation, normally not open to the public, will be hosting a 5k run and oyster roast, with master oyster-cooker Jamie Westendorff doing the honors, on its grounds to benefit the Mount Pleasant Land Conservancy Sunday, Feb. 24, starting at 12:30 p.m. For information and times, go to www.raceandroast.com or contact John Girault at 843-224-1849. PHOTO PROVIDED

(This column is of particular interest since Oakland Plantation, normally not open to the public, will be hosting a 5k run and oyster roast, with master oyster-cooker Jamie Westendorff doing the honors, on its grounds to benefit the Mount Pleasant Land Conservancy Sunday, Feb. 24, starting at 12:30 p.m. For information and times, go to www.raceandroast.com or contact John Girault at 843-224-1849).

I had the pleasure of visiting with Shay Gregorie at Oakland Plantation recently. With us was John Girault, director of the Mount Pleasant Land Conservancy. The Gregorie family has owned Oakland for more than a century and a portion of the plantation lands are now protected through the conservancy. This is good news. Oakland is one of the most historic spots in the Lowcountry. The plantation house, which some believe may date to the 1730s, is thought to be the oldest in Mount Pleasant.

Looking at Oakland’s history is a look back into Mount Pleasant’s earliest beginnings. Actually, the history goes even deeper. Long before European settlement, the Sewee Indians were here and the late and great historian, Anne King Gregorie, who grew up at Oakland, was one of the first to write about the Sewee and the artifacts she collected along Bowatt Creek on the plantation’s eastern perimeter. Originally spelled Boowatt, in the Siouan language of the Sewee the word “boo” designates a watercourse.

This name shows in early transactions tracing Oakland’s early ownership. In 1696 the lands were granted to George Dearsley, who then sold “1,300 acres on Boowatt Creek” to Thomas Hamlin. In 1702 Captain William Capers had a warrant for “400 acres on Boowatt” on lands located “north of John Hamlin on Copahee [Sound],” another Sewee Indian word that perhaps mean “creek.” All these lands comprised what originally was Oakland Plantation.

In 1704, 982 acres of Dearsley’s original grant were sold to William Perrie, governor of the island of Antigua. Perrie never came to Carolina but negotiated the purchase through his Carolina agent, John Abraham Motte, and the plantation was given the name Youghall (pronounced Yuffall) after Perrie’s birthplace of Youghall, Ireland. The name was changed to Oakland in the early 1800s, likely for the spectacular avenue of oaks that leads to the plantation house.

Oakland’s ownership is rather easy to trace. After the Perrie family it was purchased in 1740 by Captain George Benison who, in 1755 sold it to Charles Barksdale, whose descendants would live at Oakland for more than a century. In the mid-1800s it was purchased by Philip E. Porcher, an ancestor of the Gregorie family.The Porchers and Gregories have now been at Oakland for more than a century.

Like other Christ Church Parish plantations, Oakland’s crops changed according to demand. Along with subsistence crops, early on its first crops were indigo and rice. Then came cotton and eventually truck farming, growing vegetables for the Charleston market.

Oakland just missed being burned to the ground at the end of the Civil War. According to historian Anne King Gregorie, during the federal occupation of Charleston in 1865, Colonel James Beecher of the Union army (and sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe) arrived at Oakland with his wife, determined to set the house afire. They had just done that very thing to the house at Laurel Hill plantation where it is said that Mrs. Beecher set the fire with her own hands. When they arrived at Oakland, the only residents were the former slaves, who begged the Beechers to leave the house intact. Had it not been for their pleas, like so many other plantation houses in the Lowcountry Oakland would have been put to the torch.

Perhaps what intrigues me most about Oakland is its early history. All the original landowners made an indelible mark on the development of Mount Pleasant. George Dearsley, the original owner, had come to Carolina with his father, Richard, from Barbados and was one of the colony’s earliest shipbuilders. He not only owned the lands which are now Hobcaw Point, but had a shipyard on Shem Creek, at the time known as Dearsley’s Creek.

Rather wonderfully, much of Thomas Hamlin’s original purchase in 1696 is still owned (and farmed) by his descendants today, three centuries later and counting. The Hamlin family is perhaps one of the special few in America who still work the same lands of their forefathers.

We know William Capers’ name primarily today for Capers Island, two islands north of Isle of Palms. Capers, who died in 1719, was one of the first vestrymen of Christ Church and of his five children, one was married to Thomas Boone of Boone Hall and another to George Benison, the owner of Oakland in the 1730s.

John Perrie has a particularly distinctive story. By the time he purchased his land in South Carolina he was a wealthy and politically influential man. However, he had very different beginnings. He’d begun his life in Antigua as a tavern keeper and at one point narrowly escaped being tried for the not-quite-above-board trade he conducted with pirates. He slipped through the legal loopholes, however, and in 1699 a member of the British government described Perrie as being, “most infamous, yet made Provost Marshall, Commissioner of Prizes, Deputy Auditor of the King’s accounts of the Islands, whereby he has got great riches. He drew ale [but] a few years ago.”

Perrie’s Carolina agent, John Abraham Motte, would leave perhaps the most lasting legacy on Mount Pleasant history. His is a Huguenot story a wee bit different than most.

Motte was the second son of the Marquis de la Motte, a wealthy, titled Huguenot who had fled to Holland following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. His son, following in his illustrious father’s footsteps, was eventually made consul to Ireland. In Dublin, he Anglicized his name to John Abraham Motte before coming to Carolina around 1704. It was his son, Jacob Motte, who became one of the largest merchant-bankers in the colonies, who was South Carolina’s treasurer, and who built a country residence on a bluff overlooking the Cooper River, a plantation which he named Mount Pleasant. It was from Jacob Motte’s Mount Pleasant Plantation that our town received its name.

The Barksdale family, likewise, was one of the earliest to settle East of the Cooper. Until 1727 John Barksdale owned much of the lands that now encompass Mount Pleasant’s old village and early on, the easternmost point of Mount Pleasant (going toward the old bridge) was known as Barksdale’s Point. Barksdale’s daughter, Elizabeth, married Andrew Hibben, and their son, Senator James Hibben, is the one who purchased Mount Pleasant Plantation from Jacob Motte in 1803.

As for the Porcher and Gregorie families, an entire book could be written about these two exceptional families. Their contributions to East Cooper history are far too numerous to mention here, but the family’s legacy of patriots and statesmen is far reaching. Most notably, Ferdinand Gregorie (1819-1880) was twice the indentant (mayor) of Mount Pleasant.

Indeed, Oakland Plantation has a great history, one that is integrated into almost every aspect of East Cooper’s past. It is on the National Register of Historic Places, a well-deserved honor. Oakland is one of East Cooper’s historic treasures. Kudos to the Gregorie family for keeping it so.

(Suzannah Smith Miles is a writer and Lowcountry and Civil War historian.)

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