Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #24: Haunted Plantations

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Buxton, Geordi. Haunted Plantations: Ghosts of Slavery and Legends of the Cotton Kingdoms. Arcadia Publishing, 2007.

This one is not, strictly speaking, set in North Carolina. It’s stories about ghosts (mostly) of slaves from the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia. But as we’ve learned from other such collections, state borders don’t limit folklore that neatly. Enslaved African Americans in North Carolina labored and suffered under similar conditions.

The author’s premise is to explore the experience of African American slaves and of slavery through Antebellum ghost stories. Some of these go all the way back to the 17th century (and earlier for the Native American tales). This mostly works, though there are some silly flubs, like the dated theory that slave labor built the Pyramids.

After a slow start and some objectifying in the manner of what Tiya Miles complains about in Tales from the Haunted South, Buxton gets into the lives (and afterlives) of slaves in South Carolina and Georgia. This includes some asides about coastal Gullah culture (and some extended detail about the origins and meaning of haint blue paint on houses) and West African religion like the Mami Wata.

There are some odd detours. For example, early on, we get the tale of Monsieur Dutarque. A (white) French teacher, M. Dutarque has to leave town in a hurry after tying a young white plantation owner’s daughter to a tombstone all night and causing permanent paralysis in her face. He then ingratiates himself into another community, only to disappear at the end of the school year. The boys he was teaching discover only their papers on his desk, corrected and marked with failing grades in his blood.

Until some months later, anyway, when one of them decides to pull the bucket up from the old schoolhouse well.

We then get into some of the better known ghost stories about the Lowcountry, such as the mass suicide by drowning of a group of Igbo slaves, newly arrived in South Carolina from Africa, in 1803. Buxton explains how their beliefs would motivate them to do so as a way to return to the old country in spirit, if not in body, and the subsequent hauntings of the water there. These include singing and the sound of clanking chains from beneath the river water.

Another story from Savannah Harbor tells of a place where something unseen tries to capsize passing ships. Could it be the mass ghost of a French pirate slave ship from the Civil War that was capsized by escaping slaves?

He also devotes two chapters (from both sides of the conflict) to slave revolts, such as the Stono River Slave Rebellion (1739), which resulted in the passing of laws forbidding the education of slaves that restricted the rights of both slaves and slaveowners. Another slave revolt may (or may not) have been headed off in 1822 by the hanging of freedmen Denmark Vesey and Gullah Jack in Charleston. Who may, or may not, have been completely innocent of the crime of insurrection.

Another Charleston hanging (the last public one) leads to the unsettling tale of the arrest and summary hanging without trial for murder of teenager Daniel Duncan in 1911. The reason why it was the last public hanging is because three days later, while his body still hanged on display, a major hurricane slammed into Charleston. Residents took it as divine punishment for hanging what was probably an innocent child. It later became known as “Duncan’s Storm.”

More mysterious are the spectral riders who appeared at dusk to some firefighters near the beginning of the 21st century on James Island in South Carolina. These Lightwood Cowboys, originally slaves who herded cattle on the island’s plantations during Antebellum times, were apparently America’s first cowboys.

Equally mysterious, but more uncanny, is the specter of a woman who also appears at dusk. Also probably the ghost of a slave, she is seen beside Boone Hall Brickyard near Wampancheone Creek, still apparently making bricks. The saddest ghosts are the ones who cannot seem to break free from the sufferings of their lives in the afterlife.

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