August 23, 2019
Quash's House: Preservation Efforts at a Significant Site
Posted by: Scott Coleman
header photo: map showing an estimation of the route Fanny made on her Little St. Simons Island expedition.
Little St. Simons Island recently undertook efforts to carefully protect the only physical remains from the antebellum period found on the island today. Part of a brick chimney and tabby foundation are all that is left of Quash’s House, an enslaved boatman’s dwelling on the northwestern corner of the island. Though we do not have much information on Quash, he was probably stationed at Little St. Simons Island to tend the numerous varieties of livestock that were kept on the island for the Butler plantations. The ruins of Quash’s House provide an important opportunity and platform for Little St. Simons Island staff to begin to interpret the story and plight of enslaved African Americans on Georgia’s coast. The ruins also provide a backdrop to tell the story of famous British actress and abolitionist Fanny Kemble.
above: Fanny Kemble in what is said to have been her favorite portrait of herself.
Ironically, Fanny married one of the largest slave owners in the country, Pierce Mease Butler, owner of Little St. Simons Island, Hampton Point, a sea island cotton plantation on the north end of St. Simons Island, and Butler Island, a rice plantation just south of Darien, Georgia. Though they resided in Philadelphia, Fanny, Pierce, and their daughters visited the family’s Georgia plantations in 1838 and 1839. It was during this visit that Fanny’s eyes were opened to the atrocities of slavery and she kept a meticulous journal of her experiences. During her time at Hampton Point Plantation, Fanny expressed a desire to see Little St. Simons Island located just across the Hampton River. She and her daughters were eventually rowed over to the island by 6 enslaved men, on the Butlers’ boat, the Lily. They landed at Quash’s House.
Standing today under the large live oaks and cedars adjacent to the ruins of Quash’s House and reading or listening to Fanny’s descriptions of that place and of the island, one does not have to use much imagination to envision what she is describing. “…our navigation was a very intricate one, all through the sea swamps and marshes, mudbanks and sandbanks…” “We landed on this forest in the sea by Quash’s house, the only human residence on the island.” “Thence we set off, by my desire, in the wagon through the woods to the beach;” “Road there was none, save the clearing that the men cut with their axes before us as we went slowly on. Presently, we came to a deep dry ditch. I walked half a mile while the wagon was dragged up and down the gulley… I continued to walk till we came to a ditch in a tract of salt marsh.” “At length we reached the skirt of that tremendous wood, to my unspeakable relief, and came upon the white sand hillocks of the beach.” These descriptions will be amazingly familiar to our guests that have experienced the same landscapes and features 180 years later. Fanny goes on later in her journal to accurately predict the future of Little St. Simons Island and many of the other barrier islands in Georgia – “…the plantations will be gradually restored to the wild treasury of nature, and the land enjoy its Sabbaths as a wilderness, peopled with snakes.”
After her tour of coastal Georgia and her firsthand experiences with the treatment of the Butler family’s slaves, Fanny went on to divorce her husband, an unusual and unpopular practice at that time. The couples’ differences were largely focused on their opposing views on slavery. Fanny held on to her journal from her trip to Georgia and near the height of the Civil War she published it in her native England. It was well received and many have suggested that the popularity of her published journal played a role in preventing Great Britain from joining the confederates in the war, an alliance that could have changed the course of the war and the history of emancipation in the United States.
Although coastal historic sites and relics from slavery like the ruins at Quash’s House are bitter reminders of a dark stain on our region’s history, they also allow us to reflect on our society’s past sins and mistakes, as well as the dogged heroism of people who were brave enough to act to change the course of history.
Part 2 of this story, told in the next edition of the Skimmer, will provide information on what was uncovered through past and recent archaeology at the site of Quash’s House, and the story of our recent efforts to protect the site for generations to come.