Only a few more weeks this season to take advantage of this amazing tour, the Silent Cities tour at Brookgreen Gardens only runs January through March. I’ve been on the tour several times, once I even got a custom solo tour as I was the only participant. The tour is geared towards adults, with a deeper dive into the history of the places, and the people who lived there. The Silent Cities being referred to are three of the cemeteries on the property, one European and two enslaved peoples’ cemeteries.
Brookgreen in itself is, as their catch phrase states, “Ever Changing, Simply Amazing”. I am lucky to live close, and am able to visit often. Brookgreen Gardens is nature, sculpture, art, history, and beauty.
The excursion out to the sites is not for the faint-hearted. Travel is on ancient Native American paths, through the woods, on extremely bumpy, unpaved sand and dirt wagon roads. The terrain here in South Carolina changes about as quickly as the weather, so it is always a new experience.
The Trekker is up for the task! Seat belts strongly encouraged.
The tour takes you to areas of several old plantations, including Brookgreen, The Oaks, Laurel Hill, and Springfield. We were able to see how the plantations were marked with berms, a hump of land that in some cases run all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Waccamaw River. The tour guide told us these berms were all done by manual labor by enslaved people, and it reminded me of something Captain Remmy said on the Tour de Sandy Island – that his ancestors shouldn’t be labeled as “enslaved people”, they should be remembered as the builders, the architects, the artisan craftspeople of the Waccamaw Neck. Sandy Island ties in with Brookgreen as it was part of the plantation, rice was grown there, and descendants of the workers still occupy the island.
The first cemetery we visited was the Alston Family Cemetery, walled in a European style. This is part of The Oaks plantation. When Archer and Anna Huntington purchased the property in the 1930, it had been previously used as hunting grounds. The cemetery was in ruinous shape, forgotten and isolated. Yet again the Huntingtons saved the day, preserving and restoring the cemetery. It’s a beautiful place, on high ground out in the woods, The Oaks plantation house burned long ago, but the house site was close to this location.
Side by side view of the cemetery gate in 1930, and in 2023. The gate was made by an enslaved craftsman, and his stamp can be found located on the upper right inside of the gate.
Joseph, Theodosia, and Aaron – Tales of Tragedy
The tombstone shown below remembers Joseph Alston, his wife, Theodosia and son, Aaron Burr Alston. The inscription reads:
“the loss of this Citizen was no common one to the State. To its service he devoted himself from his early years. On the floor for its legislature, he was distinguished for his extensive information and correct decisions: And everywhere, he was distinguished for his zealous attachments to republican principles. In the capacity of Chief Magistrate of the State, when both the honor and the responsibility of the trust were heightened by the difficulties of the War of 1812, he by his indomitable activity and his salutary measures earned new titles to the respect and the Gratitude of his fellow citizens”.
Joseph Alston was an early Governor of South Carolina. He married Theodosia, daughter of Aaron Burr. This is indeed the same Aaron Burr that became Vice President of the United States – and also the Aaron Burr who shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Theodosia’s role in how that duel came about is whole ‘nother story, a tale for another time.
The War of 1812 prevented Joseph and his family from leaving the malaria-bearing summer mosquitoes and malaria. Joseph and Theodsia’s son, 10 year old Aaron Burr Alston, was exposed to the disease and died in June of 1812. His parents were heartbroken.
Theodosia was inconsolable, and wanted to see her father, who was in New York. Still at war, and as Governor, Joseph was still not allowed to travel, and reluctantly agreed to send Theodsia north. On December 31, 1812, Theodsia embarked on the sea voyage north, on the ship Patriot, from the port of Georgetown, SC. The Patriot was lost at sea, never to be found, and Theodosia was lost as well. Joseph Alston lost his only child and beloved wife in a matter of six months.
Sickly, unwell, and grievously sad, (possibly also suffering from Malaria, definitely suffering a broken heart) Joseph died four years later. Joseph and Aaron are buried here together, stacked, as was custom at the time. Although Theodosia was never found, she is also on the stone here, and I like to think that the family is finally back together for eternity.
This historical plaque below, commemorating Theodosia, is in the main parking area at Brookgreen. Wild tales ’round these parts include pirates, but more than likely the ship went down in a storm off North Carolina.
John Waties / Andrew Johnston
John Waties was an Alston relation by marriage, and is separated off, almost shunned, in a lonely section of the cemetery.
Andrew Johnson is also here by marriage, and separated off, and is another example of a stacked gravesite. One can only imagine the heartbreak of his widow – in addition to her husband, aged only 47- her five baby sons, who all died as infants, are buried here.
Enslaved Peoples Cemeteries
The two “cemeteries” of the people who were enslaved on these plantations is very different from the Alston Cemetery. There are no wall, no boundaries. Nature is the focus here, wild and free.
This cemetery is still active. Descendants of enslaved people that can be traced to the property have been granted the right to be interred here. Although some of the more contemporary graves are marked with a stone monument or tombstone, most are unmarked, or marked with whatever materials could be scrounged. There were shells, bottles, broken china, solidified sacks of cement, and simply depressions in the ground indicating a gravesite.
The stucco-looking stones above were probably made from tabby. Tabby concrete is made by burning oyster shells, and then using the resulting lime mixed with water, sand, ashes, and broken shells.
Little Laura Major was born on September 16, 1949, and died March 23, 1955. Her memorial has a little stone lamb on top, and is surrounded by things she must have loved in life – a dollhouse bed, toys, a silver ball. Unlike the traditions of the Alston Family Cemetery, it is customary to leave these monuments undisturbed, and as nature intends. It is very bad mojo to clean up or move anything. You have to tread softly here.
Saunders and Frank
These memorials are extremely rare, and tell many stories with very few words. These stones were erected for servants – by their masters.
Here Lies the body of SAUNDERS Who for 30 years served Mr. Plowdon C. J. Weston With the utmost ZEAL FIDELITY and AFFECTION deceased Nov 9th 1848 E. 39
To the memory of FRANK the faithful servant of Mr. Francis M. Weston who was killed by lightning the 31st of May 1848 Aged 45
Per the illustration, Frank was indeed struck by lightning, while asleep in his bed.
Francis M. Weston ran a rice mill at Laurel Hill plantation. He is buried at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pawley’s Island. Laurel Hill Plantation was owned successively by Francis Marion Weston and then Plowden Charles Jennet Weston.
To the Memory of Rose. A faithful servant of Mr. F. M. Weston Aged 13 Years She died in April 1852. THIS Stone is placed to her Memory by her MASTER For her Fidelity And Good Conduct.
The monument below is simply a large, old glass jar. The story shared with us had to do with this jar surviving hurricanes, wild storms, branches and other debris falling…but the jar remains intact.
For more information and online tickets: Silent Cities Tour Website
Interesting article with more details on the homesteads that were located at these plantations: