Anna: The Letters of a St. Simons Island Plantation Mistress, 1817-1859

Anna: The Letters of a St. Simons Island Plantation Mistress, 1817-1859

Anna: The Letters of a St. Simons Island Plantation Mistress, 1817-1859

Anna: The Letters of a St. Simons Island Plantation Mistress, 1817-1859

Synopsis

As the wife of a frequently absent slaveholder and public figure, Anna Matilda Page King (1798-1859) was the de facto head of their Sea Island plantation. This volume collects more than 150 letters to her husband, children, parents, and others. Conveying the substance of everyday life as they chronicle King's ongoing struggles to put food on the table, nurse her "family black and white," and keep faith with a disappointing husband, the letters offer an absorbing firsthand account of antebellum coastal Georgia life.

Anna Matilda Page was reared with the expectation that she would marry a planter, have children, and tend to her family's domestic affairs. Untypically, she was also schooled by her father in all aspects of plantation management, from seed cultivation to building construction. That grounding would serve her well. By 1842 her husband's properties were seized, owing to debts amassed from crop failures, economic downturns, and extensive investments in land, enslaved workers, and the development of the nearby port town of Brunswick. Anna and her family were sustained, however, by Retreat, the St. Simons Island property left to her in trust by her father. With the labor of fifty bondpeople and "their increase" she was to strive, with little aid from her husband, to keep the plantation solvent.

A valuable record of King's many roles, from accountant to mother, from doctor to horticulturist, the letters also reveal much about her relationship with, and attitudes toward, her enslaved workers. Historians have yet to fully understand the lives of plantation mistresses left on their own by husbands pursuing political and other professional careers. Anna Matilda Page King's letters give us insight into one such woman who reluctantly entered, but nonetheless excelled in, the male domains of business and agriculture.

Excerpt

Written in the heyday of King Cotton, the letters of Anna Matilda Page King of St. Simons Island, Georgia, contain much of what makes a good novel. Money, politics, love, pain, power, death, honor, and longing are ongoing themes in more than one thousand letters Anna wrote to her parents, husband, and children between 1817 and 1859. As in any good story, the supporting characters —husband, children, grandchildren, and servants—play important roles in the development of the plot, but it is the life of this elite woman in the antebellum South that is presented at center stage.

The Georgia Sea Islands provide a dramatic setting for Anna King. Treelined roads, sea breezes, and the fragrance of roses fill the pages of these letters, as do mosquitoes, perilous heat, and persistent fevers. Anna’s world was inhabited not only by her family and neighbors, but by the enslaved people of her plantation and others on the island as well. On an almost daily basis, illnesses, births, and deaths within the slave quarters and beyond occupied her thoughts and, therefore, her letters. Messages were regularly passed between black and white members of the King household, if no more than a brief “the servants all beg to be remembered.” in a few cases, Anna’s pen kept members of enslaved families in touch with each other. However, while they enter and cross the stage, the bondpeople of Retreat remain, in Anna’s writing, peripheral to her story.

The Old South, with its myths and realities, has fascinated natives and nonnatives alike for more than one hundred years. Through fiction and nonfiction, films and plays, southern antebellum life, as it was or as it is imagined, has gained a worldwide audience. Moreover, the stereotype of the southern belle has captured the imagination of women and men alike. Through the writings of women of the Old South we can more fully explore these powerful stereotypes. Certainly they need exploration. Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes in the foreword to Catherine Clinton’s Tara Revisited: Women, War, and the Plantation Legend, “Of the various communities of agents that created nineteenth-century American life, it is the inner lives of women, along with those of people of color, which remain largely terra incognita even to late twentieth-century readers. and of the various communities of nineteenth-century women, none is more complex or enigmatic than that of women in the South.”

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