Discover Four Generations of History at Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site in South Carolina

From a slave owner to the first editor of Life Magazine, four generations of Hammonds called Redcliffe Plantation their home.

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Written by Jason Barnette
Published on May 21, 2020
Posted in

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South Carolina Ultimate Outsider

This blog post is part of my South Carolina Ultimate Outsider series. The series chronicles my adventures in South Carolina state parks as I endeavor to become the Ultimate Outsider, a title given to someone who has visited all 47 parks in the state.

James Henry Hammond was a despicable human being. That’s the story I learned while taking a guided tour at Redcliffe Plantation. But between the covered front porch of the gorgeous plantation house and the preserved historic slave quarters, I learned several wonderful stories about other people who once called the state historic site home.

The back of the historic house at Redcliffe Plantation.

Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site

The drive from Augusta, Georgia was pleasant. Shortly after crossing the Savannah River, the two-lane road passed through Beech Island, South Carolina. As far as I could tell, it wasn’t actually an island.

Moments later, I turned onto a road covered in red clay dirt. I wasn’t entirely sure my GPS knew where it was taking me this time (it has been known to take me on some crazy national forest roads). But then I saw a white fence guarding the entrance to Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site.

The 369-acre historic site’s main attraction is the plantation house, but the biggest draw is the pair of 1857 slave quarters. It’s one of the few remaining intact structures in the state where slaves once lived. A new visitor center was tucked into the woods across the parking lot from the plantation house, including restrooms and a small gift shop.

The Ultimate Outsider stamp was located at a kiosk between the parking lot and plantation house. There was also a stamp located inside the visitor center during regular business hours.

181 Redcliffe Road, Beech Island, SC | 803-827-1473 | southcarolinaparks.com/redcliffe

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James Henry Hammond

James Henry Hammond was a despicable human being. While giving a speech to the U.S. Senate in 1858, Hammond stated, “In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life.” The class he was referring to was African American slaves. Later in that same speech, he repeated his most famous phrase, “Cotton is king.” With those words, Hammond forever etched himself into the history books.

Hammond was born in 1807 to unwealthy parents and took a traditional route of graduating college and practicing law in Columbia. But in 1831, Hammond married South Carolina heiress Catherine Fitzsimmons, and with her rather large dowry, he rose in the social ranks. Hammond moved quickly, purchasing nearly a dozen plantations, three hundred slaves, and almost twenty square miles of land.

At the same time, Hammond grew in popularity for his support of nullification and belief that African Americas were an inferior race. From 1842-1844 he served as the 60th governor of South Carolina, and then from 1857-1860, he served as a United States Senator.

I couldn’t help but hang onto every word the park ranger spoke during the guided tour of the plantation house. The ranger told stories of the four generations of Hammonds to call Redcliffe home and the four generations of Henleys who began as slaves and wound up paid servants. It was a classic American tale with a happy ending to offset the drudgery at the beginning.

READ MORE: Touring Hampton Plantation State Historic Site in South Carolina

Rocking chairs on the covered front porch were a good start to the guided tour. The tour included a library frequently used by John Shaw Billings, editor of Life Magazine.

Redcliffe Plantation

From 1857-1859, the three-story Greek Revival style plantation house was built for the Hammond family. Named Redcliffe after the hill where it was built, the plantation was meant to be the ultimate experiment for the meticulous minded Hammond.

Guided tours of the plantation house are offered throughout the week. The tour began in the slave quarters before moving to the wide, covered front porch of the house. Each room of the gargantuan house had an intriguing story.

The guided tour passed through a nice library, comfortable bedroom, and through an interesting bathroom bigger than the apartment I had in Pittsburgh in my twenties. Story after story filled the air, making it difficult for me to step away to capture a photo because I didn’t want to miss a single detail.

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John Shaw Billings

In 1891, John Shaw Billings, the great-grandson of James Henry Hammond, was born at Redcliffe Plantation. Billings worked as a journalist at several publications, and then in 1936, he became the first editor of Life magazine.

That same year, Henry Hammond sold Redcliffe Plantation to his nephew, Billings. Billings restored the house and grounds, maintaining the former slave quarters. The house remained in the Billings family until 1973 when it was donated to South Carolina to be used as a state historic site.

The original slave quarters, which quickly became quarters for the paid servants at the plantation.

Slave Quarters

Redcliffe Plantation wasn’t established until 1859, just a few years before the beginning of the Civil War. Only about 50 slaves lived and worked on this plantation, although James Henry Hammond owned over 300 across all his plantations.

Shortly after the abolition of slavery in the United States, several of the former enslaved at Redcliffe Plantation were kept on as paid servants and laborers. Anthony and Lucy Henley, along with their five children, remained at the plantation. Four generations of the Henleys worked with three different owners of the plantation until it was donated to the state in 1973.

The guided tour at Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site starts in the slave quarters. It’s a simple building, but the fact it still stands is remarkable. The Henley Family Tree is laminated and displayed on a wall along with dozens of artifacts detailing the history of slavery and servitude on the plantation.

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