Berries and Thorns. Plantations and Slavery.

This is Boone Hall Plantation in 1940. Two rows of live oak trees shade the long entrance drive, and the main house and slave cabins are visible in the distance. Today Boone Hall stands as a prosperous and lively tourist attraction near Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.

John Boone, Slavery, Nell Painter, Into the Briar Patch, Fraser

Boone Hall Quarters, Library of Congress, photographer C. O. Greene, HABSHAER collection, April 8, 1940

Boone Hall is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and in the African American Historic Places in South Carolina. The website calls it “America’s Most Photographed Plantation.” You may have noticed Boone Hall in TV or film (The Notebook, for example).

Today it is still a working plantation, growing crops for sale and sponsoring annual events like the Lowcountry Strawberry Festival. The plantation’s Black History in America exhibit, open year-round, impressed Joseph McGill last November when he spent two nights in an original slave cabin at Boone Hall during his admirable Slave Dwelling Project . McGill’s full and nuanced account is here.

Boone Hall Plantation seems to be our country’s icon of the Southern plantation ideal. People love to visit it, take the tours, buy photographs, and even get married there.

Last week, I was astonished to discover Boone Hall Plantation in my own family history.

I was working my way up my matrilineal family tree, through Thomas Boone IV to Thomas Boone I (1696-1749), when I came upon Major John Boone (1632?-1711). The Major appears to have been my 7 x great grandfather. He was the founder of Boone Hall. His son Thomas Boone I, my 6 x great grandfather, planted those live oak trees that shade the three-quarter mile entrance drive.

What splendid, gracious beauty shines from Boone Hall. Like luscious berries.

What a vexed and painful history underlies the institution of American slavery, which gave birth to plantations like this one. A history lacerated with thorns.

My research tells me, so far, that Major John Boone may have been a rough customer. He seems to have been neither intimidated by regulations nor alarmed by the inhumane practices of the British slave trade. He was busy making money.

  • One source writes of Boone: “He was an Indian trader, slave dealer and fence for pirates sailing off the coast of South Carolina.  He was commissioned by the Lords Proprietors to settle disputes with the Indians.  John was elected to the Grand Council during the 1680’s but was removed twice because he illegally dealt in Indian slaves, associated with pirates and concealed stolen goods.  He was later reelected by Parliament” (1).
  • A Boone family web page, studded with historical and parish records, claims that John Boone is the son of a butcher and barber in Devonshire. He emigrated initially as “a servant . . . an ambitious man” who “became a successful merchant (if by some unsavory businesses) and married into another monied Carolina family.”
  • Other sources suggest that as a First Fleet settler of South Carolina, arriving perhaps from Devon, Somerset around 1670 (2), John Boone got a series of land grants from the state’s Lords Proprietors. With one of these grants he founded Boone Hall on 470 acres given him by Theophilus Patey (3), who would become his father-in-law.
Fraser, Boone Plantation, Major John Boone

John Boone arrives in South Carolina?

John Boone obviously prospered. He was apparently accepted into the church, the army, and the government by his fellow colonial settlers. He was a Major in the colonial militia. He was chosen as one of seven vestrymen for Christ Church Parish, whose ministers were expected to convert infidels, Indians, and slaves (4). He was elected to the Grand Council, then removed, but reelected by Parliament. It seems that in these times and circumstances (as perhaps in most), rough customers could get ahead, despite illegal acts.

I’ve ordered books and articles from Interlibrary Loan, to continue my initial research about Major John Boone and his father-in-law Theophilus Patey. I want to get the facts straight.

Yet facts aren’t everything. Several recent posts on Twitter have questioned the power of facts (however reliable) to express the lived experience of our ancestors and families—their feelings, ideas, hopes, failures, family relationships, conflicts, dreams.

While I was discovering Major John Boone on the one hand, and on the other hand the surpassing beauty of Boone Hall Plantation, I was also reading (on the third hand, no doubt) “Soul Murder and Slavery: Toward a Fully Loaded Cost Accounting,” a 1995 essay by Nell Irvin Painter, which was given me by a friend.

Slave-dealing, religion, ambition, wealth, government, land, plantations, and families—all so important to Major John Boone—are the stuff of Painter’s essay. She asks penetrating questions about these elements of society.

Among Painter’s central points are these four:

  • Chattel slavery must include violence. “Societies whose economic basis rested on slave production were built on violence.” This violence, as physical beatings or sexual abuse, can inflict “soul murder” on its victims – a kind of degradation and depression and anger potentially fatal to self or others.
  • The violence of slavery can permeate an entire society, for blacks and whites, both within families and without. “The calculus of slavery configured society as a whole.” Slavery makes family life and social institutions less democratic and more tyrannical, for the slave masters as well.
  • In the Lowcountry South, the violence of slavery meshed with patriarchal attitudes in white society.  At risk of abusive violence were black children, white children, black women, black men, and white women—everyone but the powerful white men themselves. Black children were beaten by their masters and their parents. Lawmakers and church leaders in the antebellum South routinely urged (white) female victims of wife abuse or incest to bear the abuse in a spirit of submission.
  • Today’s historians who want to understand slave society should let “the scales . . . fall from their eyes” in order to “look beneath the gorgeous surface that cultured slave owners presented to the world, and pursue the hidden truths of slavery, including soul murder and patriarchy.”

So I think of of Boone Hall and its gorgeous surface. I consider John Boone as plantation owner and ambitious slave trader. I ponder Soul Murder and Slavery. I see both beauty and terror here. I see the menace and lasting damage of a slave society, and I see the serene attraction of the monument that is Boone Hall Plantation.

Neither cancels out the other. Both are very real, and both are pinned to my spiritual bulletin board.  Thorns and berries growing together, cultivated by the nature of human beings.

The Lowcountry Strawberry Festival will probably be on the schedule next year at Boone Hall Plantation.

Meanwhile, the familiar and painful echoes from slavery times are still heard in our national and private conversations.


1. Schwab, William T. The Crofts of South Carolina. Mount Pleasant, SC: BookSurge Publishing, 2004. 19-20.

2. Baldwin, Agnes Leland. First Settlers of South Carolina: 1670-1700. Easly, South Carolina: Southern Historical Press, 1985. 30.

3. January 6, 2013.

4.  Letters from the Clergy of the Anglican Church in South Carolina c. 1696-1775, ed. by George W. Williams. January 6, 2013.





19 thoughts on “Berries and Thorns. Plantations and Slavery.

  1. This is a wonderful, thought-provoking post, Mariann. I’ve been to Boone Hall, and you’ve captured its beauty well. I didn’t know much about Major John Boone, though. Such a complicated, conflicted history, much like the place and time itself. I’m sure it’s fascinating to read and learn about. Good for you for trying to get the facts straight and understand the issues and the people. This is what makes history so interesting!

  2. Mariann, what a remarkable connection you have to that place. I’ve never been there; my travels ‘south of the Mason-Dixon’ have been limited. But I can certainly appreciate your analogy of the berries and thorns, as clearly historical evidence has uncovered.

    I’d go so far to say that the vast majority of people want to think of history, and their ancestors specifically, in ‘golden light’. Who wants to believe that someone who’s DNA they share was a liar, thief or slave owner? And yet, they are part of our history and part of the reason we exist today. Berries and thorns.

    I’ll look forward to hearing more as you dig deeper into your connection to Boone Hall and what transpired there. As always, you made me think. Thank you.

    • Laura, thank you for your wise and heartfelt comments. I’m glad you mention the “golden light” phenomenon. I have noticed that wish is pervasive among family historians, and I can sympathize. People say that “learned behavior” and “acquired traits” aren’t passed down, but I can see that people WANT the good traits to be passed down, the ones they like. But the others? Especially on Gates’s “Finding Your Roots” show, the guests were all very nervous that they might find slaveholders in their family trees. Of course, several did. Perhaps we’re still working as a nation to accept and process that history. Also: You have been very brave to make it through your last few weeks. I hope that smoother sailing is ahead for you.

  3. What a thoughtful post and certainly a synopsis of life itself with intense beauty and striking negative aspects. Bravo for pursuing your family story and sharing whatever you find. I have learned much from you. Thanks Mariann.

  4. Mariann, the first expression that popped in my mind after reading your post this evening was . . . WOW!

    I can only imagine how you felt when you realized your connection to this oldest working and living plantation in America and . . . Major John Boone! I’m sure your emotions ran the gamut when you started learning more about him. Then to mix what this man meant to society and a way of life in South Carolina back then with the thought-provoking ideals of Ms. Painter must have been something for sure! I’ve never heard anyone make a link between “soul murder” and slavery before but I can certainly see why she does. WOW! This sounds like a book I need to add to my reading list this year.

    I thank you for this journey today to Boone Hall!!

    • Thank you, Live, your comments always hold so much understanding! I also was blown away by Painter’s concepts and instantly recognized them as true. She emphasizes that historians do not generally discuss the psychological harms that African-Americans could sustain during slavery and its aftermath. So true! Yet we know the (usually white) victims of pedophile priests can be traumatized for life, and slavery was that bad and worse. Painter also includes factors that helped many of those in the slave community survive psychologically and become whole. That was helpful to read!

  5. “Soul murder, ” and “spiritual bulletin board” – Such emotive phrases and very apt too. What we find in our family histories is not always good, but it’s so important to have the courage to look for it, find it, try to comprehend it, and then share it, if possible.

    I admire your courage.

    And all that we discover is, indeed, very real.

    Thank you for sharing your journey so eloquently. :)


    • Your comments are extremely kind, Caroline. Thank you for noticing the phrases — the first one is to Nell Painter’s credit, and I think the phrase is no exaggeration. Thank you also for recognizing that it’s hard, sometimes, to accept what one finds. I remember your recent posts about a wayward husband in your tree, and your responses to that story. Not always an easy slog! I hope your sore throat is better.

  6. Mariann, what a fascinating find and thought provoking post. I’m glad you plan to continue researching Major John Boone and his father-in-law, Theophilus Patey. Who knows what you will learn about them. I find it difficult to wrap my arms around the fact that I too descended from slave owners. Regards, Terri

    • Thank you, Terri. I remember you had asked me about Daniel Boone, and I believe there is probably no connection — although I did skim past a website title with that question. I agree with your “who knows” comment. These were Episcopalian (Anglican) God-fearing and churchgoing settlers from England, I believe, yet they were also fierce and ambitious. Feeling superior was in their interests, is one way to put it. Quite paradoxical. Thank you for your comments!

  7. Beautifully written post Mariann,

    The ‘golden light’ phenomena is especially vexing for those of us taking clients. I try to explain it is my professional obligation to find what is actually there. While family stories inform my search, I may not seek only to confirm them.

    But to the heart of things.
    In this field/hobby we must strive to recognize – and not minimize – the fact most of Western Civilization was built by ambitious men doing things today we find abhorrent. We do not have to condone it. But we must try to understand concepts such as colonialism, slavery, manifest destiny, nationalism and communism as our ancestors did in their own time.

    Slavery, defunct in the US for nearly 150 years now, still colors our everyday experience in society, culture and politics. Yet if we let today’s perceptions pervade our work, we can never get at the context of our ancestors lives *as they lived it*.

    Once that historical/contextual perspective is achieved, we should most assuredly reflect on how far we have come and how far we yet must go. I do not fear the skeletons in my family closet. I seek to bring them into the light: uncover their secrets, understand their reason, and learn from them.

    • These are wise words, Rorey, and I agree with you. I’m a fan of the historical literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt, who has written a number of books about how complex and difficult it is to see through the eyes of those who inhabited the past. This whole subject is one of the toughest debates in literary study! I take some consolation in supposing that just as we are conflicted about our own cultures in the 21st century, so our ancestors may have been conflicted–from a little to a lot–about the cultures of their times. So when we aim to know their concepts, maybe we have a broad target instead of a narrow one. Also, I sympathize with what you say about your clients and their needs–my family also wanted the “golden light” of a castle in Scotland for us, but we turned out to be descended from a “cadet” line. Oh, well. Thank you so much for your thoughtful and very clearly expressed comments, which I admire and which make me think.

    • Thank you so much, Kassie! I appreciate your kind words. I admire how you can juggle being a mom with working on genealogy and tweeting, too. I don’t think I could ever have done that. My kids are grown now, but when they were small I remember all-consuming tasks, staying up all night when they had the croup and then encouraging them when they received disappointments and knocks at school. You are wonderful to be able to do it all.