The Lawtons of Summer Oaks

The Lawtons of Summer Oaks
Stacey A. Church
Gerald M. Church

Alexander Benjamin Lawton was born September 23, 1809, in South Carolina. He was the fifth child of Benjamin Themistocles Dion Lawton and Jane Mosse, one of three Mosse sisters who married three Lawton brothers.

When A. B. was one year old his father joined a family migration to Mississippi. When A. B. was three his father returned and started a plantation in the area near Mulberry Grove, the plantation owned by Alexander Benjamin’s grandfather, Joseph Lawton. A. B. grew up in a neighborhood where his grandfather, uncles and other relatives lived on plantations.

Among A. B.’s many first cousins was Elizabeth Mary Brisbane, who was a year older than he. His mother, Jane Mosseand Elizabeth’s mother, Mary Ann Mosse were sisters. Elizabeth’s father was Adam Fowler Brisbane. Another firstcousin growing up in the neighborhood was Narcissa Melissa Lawton. Born March 16, 1817, Narcissa was eight yearsyounger than A. B. Her father, Winborn Asa Lawton was the youngest brother of Alexander Benjamin’s father.

Alexander Benjamin, when he was twenty years old, in a practice not uncommon in the Lawton family, married his first cousin Elizabeth Mary Brisbane, on May 20, 1829.

The United States census taken in the summer of 1830 shows A. B. Lawton as the head of a household at the age of twenty. In the same household it shows one male and one female between the ages of forty and fifty. We wonder if A. B. and Elizabeth married and then moved in with the Brisbanes. Elizabeth’s father died in the summer of 1830 which may have put A. B. and Elizabeth in control of the Brisbane plantation. A. B. and Elizabeth’s first child, Mary Jane, was born on October 12, 1832.

Narcissa’s older brother, Winborn Benjamin became a merchant in Savannah where he served as the businessrepresentative for his father. Through her letters to her brother and her early poetry, Narcissa left us an engaging portrait of a young, southern lady. Her letters in the year 1835 were full of news about family and friends, gossip and life in the community, and her worries and concerns. In several letters Narcissa asked her brother to purchase goods for her. In August of 1835, when she was eighteen years old, Narcissa wrote to her brother telling of a letter her father received from cousin Joseph Lawton who was away at school in New York.

“He gives a horrid account of the Yankeys, although he likes the institution very much. Will you be pleased tosend a bunch of quills and make a few pens for me. If there is money enough to will you send me a paper of pins. If it is not asking too much I would beg you to have this piece of poetry printed for me. I composed it on my mother’s grave.”

Winborn Benjamin probably indulged his younger sister and purchased her pins and had her poetry printed for her.As most big brothers do at one time or another, he also probably teased her about the boys. In a letter written in August of 1836, she seems to be responding to such teasing. Narcissa was nineteen.

“I regret very much to see that you hear that I was engaged to be married to any one but either of the two that you mentioned. I should never think of (it) for one I hold in utter contempt and the other I could never reconsile it to my conscience to marry as he is a first cousin. I wish that you would put a stop to that report for I think too much of myself and my proud family ever to disgrace them by a union with that insignificant little puppy.”

Sometime between mid 1836 and October of 1839, a third daughter was born to A. B. and Elizabeth Mary Brisbane Lawton. They named the daughter Eusebia. On October 29, 1839, tradgedy struck the family of A. B. His wife, Elizabeth died. A. B., thirty years old, was left with three daughters: Mary Jane, seven; Martha, five; and Eusebia, an infant.

Despite her assurances to her brother that she would never marry a first cousin, Narcissa Melissa Lawton became thesecond wife of Alexander Benjamin Lawton. The U. S. census for 1840 shows A. B. and Narcissa living with Mary Jane, Martha, and Eusebia.

In 1841, Narcissa gave birth to a son. He was named Alexander for his father and Cater for Narcissa’s mother; Alexander Cater Lawton. Narcissa would always have a special love for this first-born son. While he was still young, she wrote a poem to him entitled:

“My Eldest Born.”

My son, I am thinking of the time, when you a little boy,
First woke the mother in my heart, with proudest throb of joy.
When in those happy days of yore thy fair young face I’d scan
And marveled if that tiny form, would ever be a man.

And when thy little toddling steps first ventured out alone,
My heart beat fast with happiness for thee my eldest born.
And as successive years rolled on, my hopes for thee would rise,
Each well developed feature mark, each noble trait I’d prize.

My son let not thy mother’s hopes like castles built in air
Prove false illusions of the mind all shaddowy, but fair.
But always have an honest pride to bravely do what’s right
And spurn those vices which allure the youth with smile so bright.

I’d love to see in those dark eyes and on that kindling cheek
An intellectual fire burn, a soaring genious speak.
Thy Father’s councils bear in mind and strict his word obey,
Remember that in life’s decline that thou should’st be his stay.

And early in thy flush of youth true light and wisdom seek
And always yield thee to the sway of pure religion meek.
These are my hopes for thee my son, oh let them not be vain.
Strike in the first fair dawn of youth for some high noble aim.

On February 6, 1843, Narcissa’s second son, Winborn Theodore, was born. Winborn was the last child born while thefamily lived in South Carolina. Clara Isabelle, born May 28, 1845, was the first child born while the family lived in Georgia. Sometime between those two dates the family moved. The family that moved to Georgia included A. B., Narcissa, Mary Jane, Martha, and possibly Eusebia, the three children of Alexander Benjamin by his first wife, and Alexander Cater, who his mother called Alex, and Winborn Theodore, who his mother called Winny, the two children by Narcissa.

Clara was Narcissa’s third child, the first girl, and the first child born in Georgia. Narcissa celebrated thechild’s arrival by writing a poem entitled:

“My little daughter Clara.”

Protect her dearest Lord, thru all the paths of youth.
Help her to shun temptation’s snare, and early seek thy truth.
And oh incline her heart to gentleness and love
And may no stormy passions e’er her tender bosom move.

And as she grows in years, still may her mind unfold
And brightly gleam that inner light, like jems of purest gold.
Oh may this blooming bud, which thou has given me
Mature in loveliness, guided and watched by thee.

Should adverse winds oer cast, the brightness of her day
Bereft of fond parental care, oh! be thou then her stay.
And when at last in death, she calmly sinks to rest
Then may her happy spirit soar to regions of the blessed.

On June 16, 1847, a third son, Robert William, was born. Sometime between August 18, 1848 and August 18, 1849, a son named Benjamin F. was born.

The census of 1850 listed nine Lawton families living in five counties in Georgia. It showed A. B.’s family livingin Baker County. His daughter Eusebia had died earlier; she was not shown in the 1850 census which listed A. B., Narcissa, and the children Mary Jane, Martha, Alex, Winny, Clara, Robert, and Benjamin, who was one year old.

In the year 1851 a fifth son, Thomas J., was born into the family. Also by 1851, A. B. was a businessman as well as a planter. The company in which A. B. was a partner included his brother, William Seabrook Lawton.

The year 1852 was an important one for A. B. and Narcissa. Since they both were raised on plantations, they probably considered plantation living as the best way of life for themselves and their children, and they probably considered plantation ownership to be symbolic of their success. Doubtless, they were very happy people on December 14, 1852, when they made their first purchase of land, 1319 acres, in Thomas County Georgia, and began building Summer Oaks for their family.

Although it may have been an exciting time for the family, a time of growth and plantation building, of moving toa new place, of meeting new people, it also was a time of sadness. In the summer of 1853, A. B. and Narcissa lost one of their children. In twelve years Narcissa gave birth to six children. She was pregnant with the seventh when her son Benjamin died at the age of four. Narcissa, who felt the loss deeply, expressed her grief in a way most natural for her. She commemorated Benjamin in a poem published on September 4, 1853, entitled:

“On the death of little Benny”

The silver chord is losed, by death’s resistless dart
And broken is the golden bowl, that shrined my darling’s heart.
His sparkling eyes are closed, his prattling tongue is still;
Father in heaven let me be submissive to thy will.

My little boy has gone unto that happy land
Where he aspired to go to join that infant band.
And well he loved us all, with feelings pure and warm.
The trees, the birds, the flowers all had for him a charm.

Ah, often did he sing in his sweet childish tone,
Of the bright “Happy Land”, and of his heavenly home.
Once with an earnest look he took me by the hand,
Hear, mama, list the birds, he said, they sing of “Happy Land”

He fancied that the birds, sang praise to God all day,
So dearly did he love to lisp his hymns and pray.

He is an Angel now in the bright world above
And strikes a golden harp, in bliss, and joy, and love.
Farewell my blessed one, this last fond kiss receive,
Be calm my bursting heart, for him I should not grieve.

On November 5, 1853, soon after the death of Benjamin, Emma Lenora was born. This daughter, who was known as Lona,was the only child born at Summer Oaks plantation, and the last child of A. B. and Narcissa. For Lona, Narcissa wrote a poem entitled:

“To my Babe”

Sweet one on my bosom lying, sometimes smiling sometimes sighing,
whilest the daylight hour is dying, Art thou dreaming love of bliss?
Are the angels talking to thee of that brighter land of glory
Are they smiling as they woo thee to live in their happiness?

See her rosy lips are parting, oer her features smiles are darting
imples to her cheeks are starting, where the angels stooped to kiss.
On her cheek the print grows deeper, to the view of that young sleeper
Is unclosed a vision sweeter, than the worldlings dream of bliss.

But her smile of joy is leaving, and her tiny bosom heaving,
Shows her tender spirit grieving, as the future looms in sight.
Dost thou dream of coming sorrow, far into the distant morrow
Is thy young heart filled with terror and entombed they visions bright?

Come lay thy cheek against mine dearest, ope those azure eyes the clearest,
Smooth that snowey brow the fairest where the sunny ringlets curl.
If angels love my little Lona, and kissing leave their impress on her,
She surely is a lovely flower, my darling little girl.

By the year 1856 the family must have been well established in Thomas County, on Summer Oaks plantation which then contained 1,559 acres. They had lived there four years. However, early in that year the family suffered another loss. Mary Jane, who had married David Montague Lafitte in the summer of 1854, gave birth to her first child, a girl who was named Mary Edla Lafitte. On February 6, 1856, this child, the first grandchild of A. B., died and was buried in the cemetery of Lebanon church, a Methodist church located within a half mile of the plantation house, on land surrounded by Summer Oaks plantation. On May 1, Mary Jane Lawton Lafitte died and was buried beside her daughter in Lebanon cemetery. Mary Jane was twenty-three years old.

On February 9, 1861, A. B. made a purchase of land that brought Summer Oaks plantation to the largest size it wouldever attain. He bought five acres, described in the deed as the Methodist Church lot, from Anderson Peeler. Thedeed to the property contained this provision: “…with the reserve of the burying ground to the use of thoseinterested by the relatives now interred therein…” When A. B. bought the Methodist Church lot and burying ground,he may have considered that he was providing a plantation cemetery for Summer Oaks, as it was customary in those days to do. Acquiring the cemetery would have been especially important to him because his daughter and granddaughter were buried there and, perhaps, his son Benjamin was buried there too.

The fall season of 1860 and the spring of 1861 must have been happy times for the Lawtons of Summer Oaks plantation. Summer Oaks was one of the largest plantations in Thomas County, Georgia. Alexander Benjamin and Narcissa had good reason to feel they were successful in the way other members of their family had been successful for a century.

Springtime was planting time on the plantation and A. B. probably tried to ignore his various aches and pains as he went about his daily business of seeing that necessary work got done as it should and seeing that the plantation manager, his son Alex, learned all he should about managing.

We know very little about Alexander Benjamin’s physical condition during his lifetime. In Narcissa’s poetry there is a poem entitled “My Husband”, in which she prays that he might be restored to good health.

“My Husband”

A heart to sympathise, in every way with me,
A judgement clear and good, from prejudices free,
A mind by nature far superior to my own,
and one who will reprove my faults, with kind and gentle tone.

A eye from whose dark depths, beams forth a loving light,
A brow where sits enthroned an intellect that’s bright.
Who has an ear not deaf, to sorrow’s pleading cry,
But has an ever ready hand, the orphan’s tear to dry.

And can I kneel and say, I thank thee gracious heaven,
though all unworthy I may be, still this to me is given.
While still on bended knees, and in my silent room,
Dear father I would humbly crave from thee another boon.

Tis not for honors great and not for glittering wealth,
But oh, be pleased to hear my prayer and grant him once more health.
Now spare him in his prime, let feelings as of yore
Come bounding through his weakened frame, and all his strength restore.

On Thursday, May 16, A. B. felt badly enough to agree that a doctor should come to see him. The family summoned Dr. Oliveros. Oliveros lived about seven miles directly west of the plantation in a community called Glasgow. He advertised in the local paper describing himself as a physician and surgeon. He came to the house on Thursday, treated A. B. and returned home.

On Friday, May 17, Dr. Oliveros came to see A. B. again. After treating him, Oliveros went home. By Saturday, May 18, Oliveros knew that A. B. was seriously ill; when he came to the house on that day, Oliveros came prepared to stay overnight. Through Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, Dr. Oliveros treated A. B. day and night, but nothing could be done to restore the health for which Narcissa had prayed. By Thursday, morning May 23, 1861, Alexander Benjamin Lawton, master of Summer Oaks plantation was dead.

The newspaper Southern Enterprise was published in Thomasville every Wednesday. On Wednesday, May 29, it carried an obituary for A. B.

“Departed this life on the morning of the 23rd of May, Capt. A. B. Lawton in the 53rd year of his age. Captain Lawton was originally from South Carolina, but had resided in this county (Thomas) for eight years, during which time his life was zealously devoted in the advancement and prosperity of her welfare. Well may our county mourn the loss of so good a man. He was a consistent member of the Baptist church and during his last hours of consciousness spoke freely of Jesus. He said “he had no fear to die.” He leaves an affectionate family and numerous friends to mourn their loss. Of him it can be said-“None knew him but to love him, None named him but to praise”. A friend.

According to Narcissa Melissa, A. B. left a will. Writing in her diary, April 16, 1862, she said: “I have just laidaside the last will and testament of my beloved husband, my tears blinded me too much to read any more so I locked it up in my rosewood box. They never carried out the instructions of my husband in the division of the property and I have indeed but little to support me.”

Alexander Benjamin died at the age of fifty-one. Why his instructions were never carried out is one of the mysteries we are not yet able to solve. After the death of A. B. steps were taken rapidly to begin dismantling the plantation. The court of Thomas County appointed a committee of local citizens to take an inventory of all the property of A. B. and to put a value on it. The inventory showed that the value of the plantation consisted of: land, 2084 acres at $9 an acre, $18,756; Chattels, 72 slaves, $50,000; and Goods, $10,402; with a total value of $79,158.

On July 18, 1861, less than sixty days after the death of their father, the two oldest boys, Alex and Winborn left home to join the army of the Confederate States of America. Why both of them decided to leave at this crucial time when they were needed at home is one of the questions we cannot yet answer. Alex was the plantation manager; Winny certainly was old enough to be of significant help. Their departure left Bobby, only fourteen years of age, as the oldest family male at home.

If the wartime cause of the Confederacy had been in danger, we might better understand why Alex and Winny left hometo fight. However, that was not the case; quite the contrary. On the day they left, opening skirmishes took placein the battle of Manassas, Virginia, a notable victory for the South. Two days after they left, July 20, 1861, theCongress of the Confederate States of America first convened in Richmond, Virginia, having moved there from Montgomery, Alabama, to be near the battlefield. According to a description by Jefferson Davis, “The Generals, like myself, were well content with what was done”. At the time Alex and Winny left home, the South was strong and confident, Summer Oaks was weak and leaderless.

Responsibility for managing Summer Oaks now fell upon Narcissa Melissa. Without a husband, without the help of either of her two older sons, she was left to manage a disintegrating plantation. She felt alone, confused, and powerless. In desperation, she reached out for help in the only direction she knew, back home to South Carolina.

“My dear brother no doubt you and dear sister Sarah thought very strangely of my not writing to you before this,but the only excuse that I can render is my deep troubles and perplexities. I have no one now to attend to thisplace but an Overseer, who only attends to the out door business, or plantation matters. You know that brother Joe Lawton is the executor of the estate and he is in Virginia and my two oldest boys Alexander and Winborn, are with him. They are in Tom Cobbs Legion, they have been gone about two months. My oldest son who is at home is only fourteen years of age. He is my only protector, and indeed he is very useful to me, but there are other things that he nor an Overseer can not do. I have written to Davant and Lawton, to advance money on cotton, to pay Confederate taxes and they cannot do it. I have tried several men who used to buy cotton out here, and they say that they are unable to do it now. I have been told that if I do not pay the taxes, that the property would be levied on. I am now going to make a request of you to try and get the money advanced on five bales of cotton, I just want enough money to pay the taxes. You know other men of business besides Davant and Son who may be willing to buy or to advance money on cotton. My dear brother if you will only attend to this for me you will relieve my mind of a great deal of trouble.”

Her brother, Winborn, responded and on October 11, she wrote to thank him.

“My dear brother, I received your letter of the 6th inst. And was glad to hear from you. We are all quite well at this time and hope that you and yours may be the same. You were right in saying I was mistaken about the taxes. A neighbor told me on yester evening, that it was the state taxes, and not the Confederate that I had to pay at this time. I shall thankfully accept of your kind offer of the loan of a hundred dollars, as what I need money for is to pay taxes. I have just received a letter from my boys in Virginia, they are in Yorktown, they wrote me that they had just returned from a scouting expedition, but had not come near enough to the yankees to catch them but they had seen some at a distance. I wish my dear brother that you would come and see me, and if you could only bring your family with you I would be oh so glad to see them. Give my love to Sarah and each of the children, and accept the same from your affectionate sister.”

On December 27, another step was taken to dismantle the plantation. The slaves were divided among the heirs to theestate. There were eight heirs, Narcissa and seven children. The slaves were put into eight groups, approximately equal in dollar value at $6200, each group called a share. Then, according to the record, “the shares were numbered 1, 2, 3, 4 etc. and were assigned to the distributees in the following manner, to wit, the names of the distributees were written on a piece of paper and placed in a hat. The numbers were written on another piece of paper and put in another hat. The hats were both well shaken. A name was drawn from the hat containing the names then a number was drawn from the hat containing the numbers and in that manner continued until all were drawn.”

The next day, on December 28, Summer Oaks suffered the ultimate indignity. An auction was held in which supplies, tools, equipment, livestock and personal property at the plantation were sold. Forty-two neighbors made purchases. Along with others, Narcissa was required to bid for whatever she kept. She bought equipment and livestock. William Stegall bought her piano for eighty dollars.

Our best record for the year 1862 comes from Narcissa’s diary. It tells us much about Narcissa’s view of her situation under steadily worsening wartime conditions and gives us a few details about life at the plantation.

A portion of the plantation land was reserved for the use of Narcissa to provide for her support. It was referredto as her Dower Property and included 689 acres or approximately one third of the land in the plantation. Narcissa lived on her Dower property for several years. However, by 1870 the time had come to sell the last of the plantation land.

As she thought about the approach of November 23, 1870, it must have seemed to Narcissa Melissa as if that day would be one of the saddest of all. She and four of her seven children were to sign a document that would pass from family ownership the last piece of land that was part of their plantation. Formally and finally it would mark the end of Summer Oaks, seventeen years, eleven months, and twenty-three days after it began. Alex, Winnie, and Bobby were represented by their attorney, Walter Gwynn, who was married to their half sister Martha. Martha, Clara, Lona and Tommie were present to sign for themselves.

As they gathered in the office of the attorney in Monticello, Florida, Narcissa probably thought back to the goodyears at Summer Oaks, years when the family of nine was all together, the children growing up, crops were bountiful, the market was dependable, the plantation was prosperous. She and A. B. had left the comfort of South Carolina and gone to the frontier searching for opportunity. They had worked hard for their plantation. Now looking back, she may have wondered why they were not able to complete doing what three generations of Lawtons before them had done over a period of a hundred years.

Perhaps in respect for her position as head of the family, the children asked their mother to sign the document first. She probably paused a moment because she really did not want to do it. But, finally she accepted the pen and signed her name: N (for Narcissa M (for Melissa) Lawton. And Summer Oaks ended.

Narcissa Melissa lived to see the destruction of the plantation based, large family, life style she knew so well. She recorded in poetry the events she experienced and emotions she felt from the time of her early girlhood in South Carolina to the time of her retirement in Florida. In later years her poetry grew reflective as she reviewed her life, remembered the people she had known and loved, and prepared for whatever would come next. “To My Old Album” is a poem which helped her close out her life.

“To My Old Album”

Tis a record long forgotten, with its time worn faded leaves.
Sad I turn the pages over, and a sigh my bosom heaves.
There are names, oh, how familiar once they sounded to my ear,
Strangers now and separated, every friendship once so dear.

Some whose fingers traced these verses with a flair and steady hand,
Long ago have made their exits to the brighter better land.
Sad momentos, how I linger, on each name that meets my view,
And my heart its pulses quicken, at those words of friendship true.

I may not see those forms that bounded once so merrily and free.
I may not hear the tones that sounded with such melody to me.
But before my mental vision when these faded lines I trace
Rises up in quick succession every form, and voice, and face.

Narcissa Melissa Lawton