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The Legacy of Butler Island: Guide

Illustration of a slave auction

Source: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division


Butler Island

From the late 1700s until the mid-1800s, Butler Island in McIntosh County, Georgia, was the site of a large rice plantation owned by the Butler family of South Carolina and Philadelphia. The family patriarch was Major Pierce Butler, who was the absentee “master” of the Butler Island plantation as well as a cotton plantation on nearby St. Simons Island.

Major Pierce Butler was a Founding Father of the United States who fought in the Revolutionary War and helped draft and was a signer of the U.S. Constitution. One of Butler's heirs, Pierce Mease Butler, was married to actor and abolitionist, Frances Anne "Fanny" Kemble of England. She opposed slavery and kept a journal of the horrendous living conditions of the people the Butler enslaved during her one visit to the Butler Island plantation. Their opposing views about slavery played a major role in their divorce.

In 1859, Pierce Mease Butler went from being one of the richest people in the United States to falling deeply in debt. To pay back the money he owed, 436 enslaved men, women, and children, from the Butler family plantations were sold on the auction block in Savannah over two days. The tragic event was one of the largest* known single auctions of human beings in U.S. history, and it became known as “The Weeping Time” for the grief and sorrow of the families that were torn apart.

Fanny Kemble published Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1863. 

* Other large auctions:

  • Charleston, SC -- 600 enslaved people were auctioned by the estate of John Ball Jr., in February 1835, in Charleston, according to a notice on page 3 of The Charleston Mercury. The people were described in the notice as "a very valuable gang of Negroes, accustomed to the culture of rice, consisting of 600, among them are drivers, carpenters, coopers, and boatmen."
  • Albany, GA -- 536 enslaved people were auctioned by the estate of the late Joseph Bond on January 3, 1860, in Albany. Thirty more people were sold later, according to an article published on page 3 of the Macon newspaper, The Weekly Telegraph, on January 17, 1860. 

Selected Books

Selected Articles


Some articles in this list are only accessible through GALILEO, Georgia's virtual library, while others are available online. College of Coastal Georgia students, faculty, and staff may access GALILEO on campus, or off-campus through D2L or by logging in with your Coastal login credentials. Georgia public library patrons also may have access to some of these resources. If an article is not available in GALILEO or online, request it through Interlibrary Loan.

Selected Books for Children & Young Adults

Selected Websites


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Michele Nicole Johnson
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College of Coastal Georgia