AMID THE CHANGE and movement of his life in the 1850’s, Thomas Butler King could count on one constant element, his home. To his dependents on Saint Simons Island he remained the head of the family, rather than the promoter of a railroad. On his trips between New York and the Southwest he frequently managed to spend interludes, long or short, with his wife and children, and it was at Retreat that he found the most appreciative audience for a recital of his triumphs or a place to rebuild his strength for the battles of the business world. What these visits meant in terms of the love and affection of his family can only be guessed at, but some of the relationships that existed can be traced in broad outline. In addition to being his home, Retreat was the basic resource on which the family relied for their existence. Although King’s salaries or his speculations might hold promise of great wealth, the plantation furnished a relatively stable income, sufficient to maintain from year to year the family and the slaves who worked the land. With this economic base, King was able to devote his energies to the various business schemes that engrossed his attention. At the same time he could not neglect entirely the business of cotton growing, and his visits and long-range advice by letter kept him a planter. Absentee though he was, his judgments were regarded as decisive in plantation affairs.
In the early Fifties, while her husband was in California, Anna King managed the plantation with the assistance of their longtime overseer, George Dunham, and their son-in-law, William A. Couper.1 Before King could once more take over direction of planting operations, he had to make his journey to England to complete his gold land speculation, and during his absence young Butler took the reins. Subject to his father’s instructions he exercised control from 1853 to 1858, with occasional assistance from his brother Mallery. Within a year after he took control, Butler came into conflict with George Dunham. The overseer first requested a salary increase and then gave notice of his intention to leave the Kings’ service by January 1, 1855. An argument between Butler and Dunham in the summer of 1854 culminated in Dunham’s leaving before the crop was fully harvested. King’s role as final arbiter in plantation affairs was illustrated by his managing, on a brief visit home, to smooth over Dunham’s departure and restore peace between the two men. Thereafter, Butler devoted himself to the care of the plantation, “out except at meals from morning until dark.”2 After the crop of 1856 was laid by, he hired a young overseer to take charge of the harvest while he joined his father in New York to attend to some business affairs. When his mother found Butler fully capable of running the plantation, she left the decisions of management to him, confining her talents to the many other duties that confronted the mistress of a plantation.
Only by careful management were the Kings able to extract sufficient income from Retreat to sustain their generous scale of living. Parts of the land had been under intensive cultivation for more than fifty years, and this “old” plantation had to compete with the new lands of the Southwest. The special Sea Island type of cotton which was the staple on Saint Simons still commanded a premium in the market, but improvements in manufacturing technique had now relegated the long-staple cotton to the position of a specialty product, rather than the preferred kind for quantity production. The struggles of the Kings during the years from 1853 to 1858 therefore mirror the larger problems of all old plantations in the East with their western competitors.
Customarily, between one hundred and one hundred fifty acres at Retreat were planted to Sea Island cotton, and the resulting crop brought in the cash income of the plantation. The rest of the arable land was devoted to making provisions in the form of corn, peas, and turnips. The total labor force remained more or less constant at about 125 slaves of all ages and both sexes.3 The financial returns depended on the vagaries of the weather and the market and on the productivity of the soil. The 1850’s were a prosperous period for many cotton farmers in Georgia, but not for the Kings. They knew only one profitable year between 1853 and 1858. The poor crops were attributed to various causes, the chief of which was a succession of unpropitious growing seasons. In 1854 the promising crop was injured by rainstorms and further reduced by the overseer’s defection. The poor returns from this year forced Mrs. King to borrow $4,000 from her factor. The crop of 1855 was slow in maturing and brought such a low price that the debt was carried over into the next year. In 1856 unfavorable weather again reduced the yield from an expected bag of cotton per acre to about half that amount. If the entire crop sold at the price of early shipments, it brought in something over $9,000. The year 1857 was almost disastrous. Both the cotton and corn crops were killed by a late cold spell and had to be replanted. Consequently, the crop was both late and small, and the Kings could only congratulate themselves that even so they were more fortunate than most of their neighbors. The $3,700 that this crop sold for was not sufficient to defray the expenses for the year.
Faced with a mounting debt, the Kings redoubled their efforts to secure good yields from the land. By Thomas Butler King’s direction, and under the supervision of young Butler, the cotton was planted in flat beds, instead of the former high beds. Neighboring planters, who had looked upon the innovation with suspicion, soon adopted this successful method. The selection of good seed, especially for the turnip crop, became a matter of great concern. The most efficient aid to better crops seemed to be heavier fertilizing of the land. Different types of manure were tried, and the amount of manure increased by one-third. Young Butler also set up experimental plots where he tested phosphate and guano as fertilizers. Other improvements were made on the plantation equipment. Young Cuyler King undertook to renovate the old gins, and new gins were purchased in an attempt to improve the quality of the product for marketing. To handle transportation problems, a large flatboat, “fully worth $500,”4 was built by local labor. In spite of all these efforts to improve production, Retreat remained economically unprofitable in the years from 1853 to 1858. Although the unseasonable weather received most of the blame, it was apparent to the Kings that their lands were becoming worn out.
The obvious solution was to bring new lands into cultivation. When a nearby plantation was put up for sale, King and his eldest son tried to purchase it, for the control of the entire area would permit the reclamation of an intervening marsh for cultivation, but their negotiations were not successful. After two years of dickering, Butler secured a neighboring tract of over one hundred acres to add to the Retreat holdings, although only a third of it could be used for cotton. Before the year was out he had also begun to prepare nearly a hundred acres for cotton at Oatlands, another adjacent holding. Nevertheless, he considered these moves merely temporary expedients; the only real solution lay in a removal to richer lands.
But for the love of the Lord [Butler urged his father], get a place in Texas—this year—so that I or some of us can take some of the hands out there this Autumn, even 1000—acres to begin on—will be better than starving here, for almost all the resources for manuring these two places have been exhausted—… I am disgusted with these poor lands—it keepes [sic] them killed in order to pasture the cattle necessary to be used in order to make any thing off them—5
The events of 1857 reemphasized the need to find a better location. A long drought in June was succeeded by heavy rains in July. In August sickness among the slaves kept as many as twelve or fifteen absent from the fields every day. A storm in the middle of September ruined a fourth of the crop; the returns paid most of the year’s expenses, but did nothing to reduce the old debt which the factor had been carrying for three years. The Kings were caught in a dilemma: they needed to move to new lands in order to make a success of planting, but they could not acquire by planting the capital to make the move.
This bald summary of plantation affairs at Retreat helps to explain King’s exertions in the business world, particularly the railroad speculations that occupied him during the same period. Although the Pacific railroad gave scope to his talents as a lobbyist and promoter and appealed to his broad view of economic development, it also offered a quick road to wealth which would free him from reliance on a declining plantation and enable him to provide for the future of his children. Such, at least, were the grounds on which his wife justified his long absences from home on railroad business. She knew that King expected to retrieve his fortunes by a sudden financial coup. “I would not discourage you,” she wrote, “believing you to be more happy in trying to better your fortune by this kind of excitement than you would be at home looking back on the past [.]”6 She hoped that he might realize enough money to purchase a neighboring plantation, “a much surer investment than any other you can make.”7 She also appreciated the earnings that enabled King to carry some of the losses incurred by “three short crops in succession.”8 The Panic of 1857 and the failure of his immediate hopes she accepted as the decrees of an unkind fate. Her greatest regret was that with success “we could have gone some where—where we could have had all of our dear children settled around us—.”9 But Anna’s feeling of regret was tempered by the knowledge that even though her husband had failed financially he would no longer be subjected to the dangers of constant travel, and could now enjoy the comforts of a prolonged stay at home. They would make the best of what remained to them.
So long as her husband or son resided at Retreat, Mrs. King had little to do with the main business of the plantation. When young Butler took over in 1853 and proved his reliability, she greatly appreciated being relieved of the responsibility. “I am so glad,” she wrote her husband, “to shift the burden off my shoulders on to his young ones.…”10 Nevertheless, she constantly surveyed the state of the crops and livestock, watched the weather and prospects closely, and kept an anxious eye on the cotton market. The kitchen garden and the orchards were under her immediate care, and the products of the latter were “prized by all—family and neighbors.”11 The flock of fowls also belonged to her jurisdiction.12 Her flower garden, to which her husband contributed new plants from time to time, was a source of special pleasure and relaxation to the busy mistress of the plantation. Relieved of the cares of planning farm operations, she still carried many responsibilities. She frequently complained of the burdens imposed by the duty of extending hospitality to guests, but her husband took her protests with a grain of salt. “The fact is,” he pointed out, “you all have a manner entirely too cordial to every body! I like to treat people with civility but not with indiscriminate cordiality.”13
The more King’s travels kept him away from the plantation, the greater were the cares borne by Mrs. King as the mistress of more than a hundred slaves. It was in regard to the slaves that she felt the greatest need of his presence. The misfortunes of a neighboring planter, for instance, led him to offer for sale the wife of Smart, one of the King slaves. She came to Mrs. King with a request that she and her six children be purchased by the Kings. Mrs. King, also laboring under financial difficulties, was unable to find the $4,100 price. Another marriage outside the plantation caused trouble for Peter, Lord King’s personal servant. “Contrary to my expressed orders—he would take a wife at the Wylly’s. he [sic] was brought home a few hours ago severely injured by one of the Wylly negro men.”14 A neighbor had fallen into evil ways and was encouraging drinking and carousing among the King Negroes. Mrs. King offered her son-in-law’s suggestion that her husband use his political influence to have the young man replaced in his job of lighthouse keeper. She found the problem he presented quite beyond her capabilities.
Mrs. King seldom wrote her husband without reporting on the sick list at the plantation hospital. In a typical summary she recorded two confinements, one unspecified injury, “2 others I cant find out exactly what ails them & 2 children with fever-nothing that appears alarming.”15 For most illnesses she herself prescribed the treatment, sending for a doctor only in emergencies. Even so, medical care was a considerable expense. “My doctors bill for sick negros last year was $90—& I did not perceive the patients were any the better for their attendance.…”16 In her accounts for 1857 she listed a drug bill of $351.97.17 When sickness was widespread the mistress of the plantation had no leisure. “I was taken up pretty much all Sunday in weighing off Physic for sick negroes,” she once wrote her son who was attending the University of Virginia.18 The medical care she gave her slaves amounted to more than mere dosing and hospitalization, as another letter to her son revealed:
We lost poor Annie last night.… We (Cousin & I) sat up with her all Sunday night—was with her nearly all Monday & left her at 9 that night apparently doing well. I left Pussy directions to call me if Anna seemed at all worse.19
Doubtless Annie received special attention because she was the only child of Mrs. King’s personal maid, Rhina, but in at least one other letter Anna King wrote of having kept another nightlong vigil. As part of her medical duties she kept a watchful eye on the health of the whole neighborhood, in order to be prepared for epidemics. Standing water was recognized as a health hazard and was drained off by a system of ditches. Public health officer, nurse, and physician—all these roles were included in the cares of the mistress of a plantation.
King’s absences from home threw upon his wife a heavy parental load. Their nine children ranged in age from the schoolboy Cuyler to Hannah Couper, now ten years married. Even the eldest children remained within the family circle, and Hannah, settled at nearby Hamilton, made constant demands upon her mothers time. Mrs. King attended her in her confinements and exercised a grandmother’s care when the Couper children fell ill. With such a brood of children and grandchildren, Anna King could count on steady employment whenever mumps, measles, whooping cough, or other childhood diseases made the rounds of the neighborhood. She had to take over in other nursing crises, such as caring for Cuyler when his mechanical aptitude led him into danger. He and a young friend, after building a steam-driven toy sawmill, wired down the cork that served as a safety valve. The resulting explosion burned both boys seriously. Kings share in such parental concerns was confined mainly to reading about them in his wife’s letters.
On the subject of schooling for their children the two parents consulted often and at length by letter. For the boys there was a succession of preparatory schools and colleges. Butler never returned to the University of Georgia, but Lord finished at Exeter and Yale and went on to Harvard Law School. They, with their next brother, Mallery, had received instructions from tutors, but Mrs. King insisted that the two younger boys have the benefits of regular preparatory schooling. After the departure of their governess in 1854, the younger girls pursued their studies mainly under their mother’s direction. From her, too, they received training in the domestic arts and social graces. Her many family cares prompted Anna King to express to her husband the wish that “Our dear children were all as they were years ago when I used to count them before going to bed every night.…”20
King’s remoteness from domestic concerns was nowhere more apparent than in his relationship with his daughters, Georgia, Florence, and Virginia.21 As children they had seen him only in the intervals when his public duties in Washington or San Francisco permitted him to spend some time on Saint Simons. While they grew to womanhood in the 1850’s they saw less of him. It was mainly through correspondence with them and their mother that King followed the progress of his daughters to maturity. At home the girls shared the household duties of their mother. From time to time they took over the superintendence of domestic affairs, particularly when some entertainment was in prospect. Occasionally one would embark on a program of improving her knowledge of some domestic art, such as cooking or the canning of fruits. As they grew older they began to show some interest in cultivating the flower plots that their mother allotted them in her gardens. Saint Simons offered little in the way of community life, but on Sundays they drove to the north end of the island to church, where Georgia sometimes sang and played the melodeon for the services. For special occasions, such as Christmas or a visit by the bishop, the girls might help with the refurbishing of the church. Such was the homely round of daily existence which King’s daughters knew while he travelled about on the business of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company.
Although the social opportunities open to young ladies on Saint Simons were limited, there was a small circle of neighbors with whom the three King girls exchanged afternoon calls and tea. The coming of a visitor or the return of one of the men of the family was made into an occasion for formal dinner parties and evening entertainments, with theatricals, charades, dancing, and music. Since an evening of dancing sometimes did not break up until two in the morning, or even dawn, Mrs. King occasionally found herself provoked by her daughters’ entertaining. “When my patience is nearly exhausted by their love of company,” she wrote her husband, “I have to think of my young days & can now appreciate the annoyance I must have given to my sainted Mother.”22 The wedding of an acquaintance could set off a whole round of parties which might encompass the neighboring islands and require the services of whatever brothers were at home as sailing masters.
Formal entertainments were the exception, not the rule. For everyday society the King girls turned to a smaller circle of families that included the Hugh Fraser Grants and the Stephen Clay Kings on the mainland. With these friends and relatives, among whom were companions of the same age, visits were exchanged frequently and informally. One such visit began with the unexpected debarkation of a party of young Grants on the beach in front of Retreat, giving the Kings barely time enough to dress properly. After a hastily improvised dinner party and a carriage drive along the beach at low tide, Georgia, Florence, and Virginia returned to the mainland in the boat with the Grants. Within this circle of intimates, visits were often measured in days or weeks, rather than hours.
Pleasant as the society of the neighborhood might be, it afforded only a small field for the activities of three marriageable young ladies. In order to widen the social opportunities of her daughters, Mrs. King in the winter of 1855 arranged a visit of several weeks to Savannah. There, under the tutelage of their mother, the girls paid and received formal calls and attended the theater. Sundays brought them the chance to attend the services at the Independent Presbyterian Church or to hear Bishop William Elliott preach at Christ Church. Town life provided other activities, occasionally exciting, that were lacking on the island; Florence and Virginia had some dental work done, and Georgia narrowly escaped stepping into the line of fire while a street brawl was in progress. The next year, the King girls enjoyed another season in town, when their married sister, Hannah, played hostess to them in her new home.
Although he seldom saw his daughters, Thomas Butler King was not unmindful of their welfare. On a brief visit to Retreat in 1856 he promised them a trip to the Virginia springs that summer. When this excursion failed to materialize, he consoled them with the gift of a pair of ponies to be used in their drives along the beach. But he did not forget the promise of a trip, and although they did not have a chance to pass the season at the spas, the two elder daughters enjoyed a visit to Washington and Philadelphia during the winter. Virginia, whose mother referred to her as “our bookworm.” elected to pursue her education further at Madame Dupres’ school in Charleston. Along with two of Hugh Fraser Grant’s daughters, she enrolled at Madame Dupres’, but they found the place not up to their expectations and left after only five days. When the fortunes of the Southern Pacific Railroad looked brightest in the summer of 1857, young Butler took his sisters to Virginia for three weeks of the gay season at the White Sulphur and Sweet Springs. From the resort area the girls went on to New York, where their father was struggling with railroad problems on the eve of the great financial panic. In New York Georgia received and rejected a proposal of marriage, thus matching the record of her sister Florence, who had previously refused the suit of a neighbor at Retreat.
For Georgia, Florence, and Virginia, the visit to the North in 1857 long remained their greatest venture into the society of the outside world. They returned to their familiar tranquil round of daily life at Retreat. In the mornings the ladies of the family would gather in one room to sew, while Georgia or visiting Aunt Louisa read some elevating work, such as Anne Manning’s The Household of Sir Thomas More, or perhaps Thomas Butler King’s latest railroad report. There were always absent members of the family to write to. Afternoons were generally devoted to long walks, rides, or drives along the beach when the tide permitted. Often there were young nieces and nephews to be entertained, perhaps with an excursion to the wharf to catch crabs or to the beach to hunt for turtle eggs. In the evenings the family gathered in the parlor, where the girls sang duets with their brothers, or played at charades and tableaux, or simply passed a quiet evening reading. For a while they took up the fad of table-tipping, but they soon became skeptical.
Thomas Butler King had a closer relationship with his five sons than with his daughters. Masculine pursuits and interests led more easily to companionship, particularly with the two elder boys, Butler and Lord, who entered business and professional life during the 1850’s. In addition, social conventions of the times permitted Kings sons, but not his daughters, to travel alone to New York or Washington to meet their father when he visited those cities. King accepted certain responsibilities as a father to his sons, and even in the midst of his financial adventures he tried to give each of them the benefit of his companionship as the young men finished their schooling. Thus, Butler became his assistant in San Francisco, while both Lord and Mallery traveled with him on his business journeys for the Southern Pacific company.
All the boys except Butler attended school or college during the 1850’s. A chronicle of the lives of the younger boys would recount little out of the ordinary. They usually spent their vacations at Retreat, where they assumed some of the duties of overseeing the plantation. Mallery, for instance, not only helped supervise the field work, but also put his engineering studies to work at improvements of the buildings and grounds. Cuyler excelled at running and repairing the gins. Aside from these duties, all the boys took advantage of the hunting and fishing that the island offered, coupling the pleasure of sport with the providing of wildfowl, fish, and venison for the larder. Similarly, alligator hunting supplied exciting moments and carried the utilitarian justification that it reduced the inroads on the plantation swine. Boating was both a commonplace necessity and a time-consuming sport for island dwellers. Besides these diversions, the King boys joined, sometimes reluctantly, in the social activities of their sisters.
Among them, the King boys attended a large number of educational institutions. In 1853 Floyd King went north to a preparatory school; the following year he enrolled in the Georgia Military Institute. A succession of illnesses kept him at home during the winter and spring of 1855, but with the coming of summer he entered Francis R. Goulding’s school at Kingston, Georgia. Although he showed interest in a military career, Floyd was disappointed in his hopes that he might secure an appointment to West Point. Not until he reached the University of Virginia did Floyd begin to justify his parents’ hopes that he would apply himself to his studies and pick a profession. In a long letter of advice about professional training, King assured Floyd that he had confidence in his ability to make up for wasted years of preparatory schooling, and that the funds would be available for further professional preparation. If Floyd aspired to a political career, King continued, he advised law rather than engineering as a background. He cautioned Floyd that politics had many drawbacks as a profession, among them the need of a full purse. “A man who enters the political field should either possess a fortune or remain a bachelor.”23
The school career of Cuyler, the youngest son, paralleled that of his brother Floyd. Cuyler attended a succession of schools in Savannah, Roswell, and Marietta, Georgia, and the Bloomfield Academy near Charlottesville, Virginia. Nearly always he was located near one of his elder brothers, to whom he could look for guidance and companionship. Like Floyd he failed to apply himself to his studies as his parents felt he should. Some of the educational deficiencies of these younger boys might be attributed to the fact that they grew up during the years when their father was often absent from home. King felt it necessary to try to exonerate himself of any guilt as a negligent father. In a letter to his son Mallery he insisted that he had given all his children an opportunity to acquire a good education and that the two youngest could still make up for lost time if they would put forth “one half the mental and physical exertion applied to the construction and sailing of useless canou [sic] boats…,”24
Mallery King, the third son, gave his parents more cause for satisfaction. He stood high scholastically, both at the northern preparatory school that he attended and at the Georgia Military Institute. He showed a sense of responsibility by submitting careful accounts of his school expenditures and by keeping an eye on his two younger brothers at a nearby school. Ambitious to become an engineer, Mallery looked forward to working for a railroad company upon the completion of his studies at the Georgia Military Institute and the Poughkeepsie Collegiate School. King was quick to appreciate his son’s ambition and in the winter and spring of 1857 took him on a field survey of the line of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Father and son consulted with the engineers and directors and hunted with parties of gentlemen along the route. This Texas trip was to be Mallery’s closest approach to professional engineering. He returned to Retreat to help Butler manage the plantation, and more by default than by intention became master in residence when Butler was called north to look after his father during an illness. Not until war brought changes to Retreat did Mallery escape from Saint Simons, although brother Lord deplored his giving up his profession and sister Georgia feared that he would be “sacrificed to that poor old plantation.”25
The most promising of the King boys, and at the same time the most trying, was Lord, the second son. Educated at Exeter, Yale, and Harvard Law School, he spent his vacations in Pennsylvania with the childless uncle for whom he was named. He was inclined to be extravagant, if the reproofs of his parents were justified. Even to a mother’s eye he showed a tendency to laziness. When he finished his law studies in 1855, he returned to Retreat and spent his time exercising, hunting, reading, and helping his sisters entertain their guests. Mrs. King looked forward to the end of the social season on the island, when company would no longer distract Lord from his preparations for the Georgia bar. Exasperated, she wrote her husband: “He wants energy and a determination to face the foe.”26 Eventually, Lord made arrangements to read law in the office of a Savannah attorney, and by the end of the year had earned a letter of praise from his father. King encouraged him to persevere in his work and studies: “What I desire and hope to see is my sons stepping forth into the World, high toned, prudent, temperate, industrious gentlemen!”27 King approved of his son’s decision to begin his practice by following the circuit court in the spring of 1856, and he supplied the names of old friends who would receive his son kindly.
When the prospects of the Southern Pacific seemed brightest in 1857, General Superintendent King appointed his son Lord as his private secretary, and for six months they travelled together on company business. In Austin, Lord watched his father push measures through the Texas legislature. The inner mysteries of lobbying elicited from him some youthful philosophy: “… with a woman you may understand “yes” for “no” and return to the charge, but with Legislation, if you let it floor you, you have to stay down.”28 Lord’s secretarial position disappeared with the reorganization of the company in the following spring, but he continued his close association with his father during the strenuous political campaign that King waged in Georgia in 1859.
King was closer to his eldest son, Butler, than to any of the other children. Together they had faced the problems of the collector’s office in San Francisco; they had lived together and invested money in various California speculations, and they both held stock in the Pacific railroad venture. When King went abroad in 1853 he entrusted the management of all his affairs to Butler, and at Retreat the son became his father’s chief deputy. Life on the island suited him to perfection, and while he was on the Pacific Coast he often wrote of his wish to return, declaring that “if I ever get money enough to buy a plantation and Negros St. Simons is the very spot I would live at.”29 When he had finished his California adventure, he began looking about for an establishment on the island where he might set himself up as a planter. Both his parents encouraged him in his ambition, and his mother in particular was anxious to have him settled on his own plantation nearby. For three years Butler’s hopes of buying a place of his own centered on the neighboring estate of Hamilton. With the promise of financial aid from his parents he was several times on the point of reaching a purchase agreement with the agent in charge, but final terms could never be agreed on. Another islander offered a better price, and Butler had to turn his thoughts in other directions. Meanwhile, he had become engaged to Miss Lettie Shepard, and a separate establishment became the more desirable for the prospective bridegroom. A trip north in 1858 gave Butler an opportunity to buy an undeveloped tract on the mainland. After an examination of the land and consultations between Butler, his father, and the owner, a tentative agreement to buy was reached. Butler returned to Georgia to complete the arrangements for the transfer of the plantation.
In January 1859 the family was rejoicing in the return of King from his latest travels and in the prospect that was opening up for Butler. Their joy was turned to grief by the sudden illness and death of the eldest son. Mrs. King was prostrated, and King abandoned the business affairs that would have taken him from her side. The winter and spring became a period of mourning during which the Kings nursed their sorrow. The family, fortunate indeed to have remained so long unbroken, was drawn closer together by the death of Butler. With the coming of spring, however, the head of the family left the seclusion of Retreat to resume once more an active business and political life.