TOWARD THE close of the year 1839, a vigorous man in his late thirties left his plantation on Saint Simons Island, Georgia, to attend the meeting of Congress in Washington. In appearance, Thomas Butler King was accounted handsome, with his pale complexion, cleanly modeled face, and piercing gray eyes. His chin was firm and his lips met in a stern line, but his manners were affable. In activities, as well as appearance, he fitted the stereotype, already firmly fixed, of the aristocratic Southern planter. Although trained for the bar, he did not practice his profession; instead, he devoted his energies to his planting operations, to his varied business interests, and to public affairs. During the past eight years he had enjoyed repeated successes in state politics, and the voters of Georgia had now elected him to represent them in Congress.
Representative though he might be of his state and class, Thomas Butler King was not a native Georgian. He was born August 27, 1800, in Palmer, Massachusetts, the son of Daniel and Hannah Lord King.1 Both his parents came of old New England stock, but his mother’s forebears were the earlier settlers and the more eminent. Hannah Lord was one of the fourth generation of descendants of William Lord of Saybrook, Connecticut. As merchants, soldiers, and landholders, members of the Lord family played respectable roles in the affairs of their colony from 1635 until the Revolution. By the middle of the eighteenth century they had settled near Old Lyme, Connecticut, and were known as the “River Lords” because of their valley landholdings.2
Daniel King’s family were comparative newcomers to New England. John King, an Englishman, in 1716 settled in the frontier district of Massachusetts known as the Elbow Tract. He and his children, with other settlers, soon formed a small community known variously as King’s Row, Kingsfield, or Kingstown. Because of disputes over land titles the area remained unorganized as a district until 1752, when it received the official designation of the township of Palmer. Before the land titles were settled the patriarch of the community died. His son Thomas became a leader in the community and in turn reared a family that included a son named Daniel. Corporal Daniel King was among the Palmer minutemen who answered the Lexington alarm of April 19, 1775.3
To the union of Daniel King and Hannah Lord were born six sons, and of these Thomas Butler King was the fourth. By the time Thomas Butler was fifteen, both his parents had died, and he was making his home with relatives in the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania. His brother Henry, some ten years his senior, had established himself as a lawyer in Allentown, Pennsylvania, while other relatives, the Butler family, also lived in the Wyoming Valley. King’s aunt, Anne Lord, had married General Zebulon Butler, the leader of the Connecticut pioneers who settled in the isolated Wyoming section of northern Pennsylvania, and whose Pennamite Wars so disturbed the public peace during and after the American Revolution.4
Of King’s youth and schooling little can be stated with certainty. He attended the Westfield Academy in Westfield, Massachusetts, one of the many secondary schools that sprang up in New England around the turn of the century.5 Westfield differed from many of the academies of the day in that it was a public, not a private institution. Furthermore, the authorities embraced some novel educational ideas, for the school was coeducational and corporal punishment was prohibited.6 After attending the academy King continued his education in Pennsylvania. He studied law under Judge Garrick Mallery, a prominent lawyer and jurist in Wilkes-Barre, and with his brother Henry in Allentown.7
The facts available relating to the first twenty years of King’s life afford few clues to the influences that formed his character. Of his parents, nothing is known save that his father was a soldier in the Revolution, while his mother is reported to have been a woman of strong personality. His Pennsylvania background is equally obscure, but it might be conjectured that General Butler’s record of leadership assured his family of a firm position in the community. King’s schooling at Westfield Academy gave him an opportunity to study at an institution of more than local reputation. From Mallery, his preceptor in the law, he might be expected to have imbibed some of the conservative principles of the Litchfield Law School, of which Garrick Mallery was a graduate. What facts there are suggest that King’s background was characterized by stability, that in both Massachusetts and Pennsylvania his family occupied positions of responsibility and leadership, and that during his youth he did not lack for opportunities to develop his mind and talents.
The times in which King passed his minority were anything but stable. In Europe the Napoleonic Wars had ended and the map was redrawn at Paris and Vienna. On the western side of the Atlantic the post-revolutionary generation grew up and fought a war of its own with England. King was about to enter his teens when the War of 1812 broke out. He was still in his teens when the Second Bank of the United States was chartered and Calhoun’s Bonus Bill was vetoed. He studied law during the period when John Marshall’s decisions were molding the Supreme Court into a powerful arm of the government. Before King’s majority the nation had acquired the Louisiana Purchase and the Floridas. The population and political power of the country were moving to the west and south: Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana, Mississippi, Illinois, Alabama, Maine, and Missouri were added to the Union. The admission of Missouri brought before Congress the question of slavery in the territories, but a compromise quieted temporarily that “firebell in the night.” Cotton production doubled and redoubled in the two decades. Old states as well as new increased in settled area and population.
During this era of expansion New England exported population, for in an agricultural economy the Northeast could not compete with the more fertile states of the West and South.8 The dispersal of the King family illustrated this significant movement. Of the six brothers, only the eldest remained in Massachusetts. The others followed their brother Henry to Pennsylvania and from there moved to Georgia. The first to venture south was Stephen Clay King, who in 1820 married Miss Mary Fort, daughter of a wealthy cotton planter of Wayne County, Georgia. Through his own efforts and his marriage he became a large-scale planter. Within three years David and Thomas Butler joined their brother in Georgia, where David became a planter and Thomas Butler began the practice of law. Later their younger brother Andrew also made the southward move, and eventually all six King brothers held land or resided in Georgia.9 Stephen and Thomas Butler were destined to become leading members of the coastal planter society of Glynn County.
Glynn is next to the southernmost of the counties that form the seacoast of Georgia. Topographically, it occupies the lowest of a series of terraces that ascend from the coast to the central uplands of the state. A number of rivers break the coast into segments with their deltas; the largest river is the Altamaha, which bounds Glynn County on the north. One of the principal geographic features of the seaboard is the chain of islands that raise a low barrier between the Atlantic and the mainland. This natural breakwater forms a protected sea lane from Florida to South Carolina. Since the mainland seldom rises more than a few feet above sea level, the demarcation between land, sea, and islands is indistinct. It is a country of pine barrens and swamps, interspersed with alluvial river lands, difficult of access except by boat.10 Sidney Lanier saw in the area a peculiar beauty compounded of gloomy woods, sandy beaches, marsh land, and sea. The dominant feature he celebrated in one of his best-known poems, “The Marshes of Glynn”:
How ample, the marsh and the sea and the sky!
A league and a league of marsh-grass, waist high, broad in the blade,
Green, and all of a height, and unflecked with a light or a shade,
Stretch leisurely off, in a pleasant plain,
To the terminal blue of the main.
On the coastal islands of Georgia and the nearby mainland a society based on plantation slavery flourished in the early part of the nineteenth century. This was the country of Pierce Butler, husband of the renowned Fanny Kemble, and of Thomas Spalding of Sapelo.11 They, and planters like them, took advantage of the climate and geography to develop their large plantations devoted to the cultivation of rice and Sea Island cotton. The rivers, tidal creeks, and inland waterway furnished convenient highways for the transportation of the plantation crops. However, the shallow coastal waters forced the use of light draft vessels; south of Charleston the only harbor deep enough for large seagoing vessels was at Brunswick, the county seat of Glynn County.12 Geographically and economically the relatively narrow tidewater area constituted a distinct region of the state, recognized as the province of the aristocratic large planters.13
On December 2, 1824, Thomas Butler King married Anna Matilda Page of Retreat Plantation, Saint Simons Island, Georgia. The bride was the only daughter of William Page, a South Carolinian who in 1804 had bought Retreat Plantation at the southern end of the island. To this original holding Page added several adjoining areas, including Newfield Plantation. By these purchases and others he became one of the large landholders of Glynn County, and he quickly assumed a station commensurate with his land ownership. He acted as treasurer of the island planters who subscribed for the building of a church, Commissioner of the Town and Commons of Frederica, Treasurer of the Glynn County Academy Commissioners, Justice of the Inferior Court, and Major of the Seventh Battalion of Georgia militia. In addition, he served as trustee for two estates and carried on other fiduciary business.14 Anna Page was born to wealth and trained to responsibility. During her father’s absences from home she took over the management of his affairs, even to the extent of ordering lumber and supervising building on the plantation.15 Upon her marriage, her husband automatically was enrolled among the foremost planters of the area.
Within two years after the marriage of their daughter, both of Anna King’s parents died, leaving an estate valued at nearly $125,000. About one third of this sum represented an investment in 140 slaves; another third was the estimated value of real property. The remaining third consisted of personal property and included $21,000 of stock in the Bank of the United States, the Planters’ Bank of Savannah, and the Bank of Darien. By will, all real and personal property on Saint Simons and fifty slaves were left in trust for Anna Matilda Page King and her children. There were three minor bequests, and the residue of the estate went to the legal heirs. As either heir or husband, therefore, King now had power over a large property, exclusive of his own holdings.
Anna and Thomas Butler King made their home at Retreat, on the southwestern tip of Saint Simons Island. The plantation house faced the beach, looking across the sound toward Jekyl Island. It was a simple, frame building, to which the Kings added a two-story wing to house their growing family. Nearby were the detached kitchen and outbuildings, with the gardens—formal, flower, and kitchen—and groves of orange and olive trees surrounding the area on three sides. Behind these stood the slave hospital, the barn and farm buildings, and the overseer’s house some two hundred yards from the main dwelling. A hundred yards farther east a row of frame slave quarters faced the beach. Shell walks and roads gave access to the buildings, gardens, and the boat landing. The principal road ran north past the slave quarters at Newfield and continued toward the town of Frederica. Most of the buildings were of frame construction, but the greenhouse, hospital, and barn were built of tabby, a mixture of lime, shells, sand, and gravel often used for permanent construction in that locality. Although the plantation house was plain, Retreat had a certain grandeur that proceeded from the site, the extensive grounds, the rich furnishings, and the numerous slaves.17
Like other low-country planting families the Kings also owned a residence in the sandhills. Some twenty-five miles southwest of Brunswick lay the summer resort of Waynesville, to which the planters of Glynn, Wayne, and Camden counties repaired to escape the miasma. Here in 1831 Thomas Butler King purchased 150 acres and built a rather elaborate cottage which he called “Monticello.” The houses at the resort were scattered along sandy lanes that meandered through the pine forest near a medicinal spring. The summer colonists maintained a clubhouse for social gatherings and an open-air meeting ground for religious services. A summer at Waynesville not only took the families away from the malarial airs of the coast, but also replaced the isolation of the plantation with community living. For the planters, the nearness of Waynesville enabled them to maintain close communication with their overseers, a convenience denied them if they took their families to the more fashionable springs of Virginia or to Saratoga.18
Year by year the King family grew. First came William Page and Hannah Page, named for Anna’s parents; then Thomas Butler, Junior, and Henry, known to the family by his middle name, Lord. Three other boys and three more girls rounded out the family board: Floyd and Mallery and Cuyler, Georgia, Florence, and Virginia. As King’s family increased by almost yearly additions, so too did his landholdings. Besides enlarging and improving his wife’s property, he extended his operations to the rice-growing area of the mainland in 1830 when he bought for $12,000 part of the Middleton Barony, comprising some 4,700 acres on the Satilla River. Six years later he offered to purchase the rest of the Middleton Barony for $7,000. His planting ventures were so successful that he planned to finance this purchase and a similar one of 800 adjoining acres out of two-years’ profits. On this mainland plantation, King began building a third dwelling house, Waverly.19
In the first thirty-five years the pattern of Thomas Butler King’s life was one of change and success. Born in a small inland Massachusetts village, he exchanged his New England background for the wider horizons of the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania. As a young lawyer he migrated to Georgia and contracted a fortunate marriage. By his thirty-fifth birthday he was the father of a large and growing family, the master of 355 slaves, and a planter with extensive landholdings. Large as they were, King’s planting interests did not occupy his attention exclusively. During the 1830’s he became increasingly involved in public affairs. In politics he won repeated victories at the polls, and in the field of economic development he became a figure of more than local importance.