The “Sams Empire” Founded on Datha Island
William Sams (1741-1798) was the third generation owner of land on Wadmalaw Island (Charleston County) and a very successful planter of indigo. To escape political
tension following the American Revolution, William and his family chose to relocate to Beaufort, SC, a town that was founded by his maternal grandfather, Col. John “Tuscarora Jack” Barnwell. Determined to go back into planting, he purchased Datha Island (present day Dataw Island) in 1783 from his cousin Sarah (Reeve) Gibbes and her husband Robert. England was conforming to post-war sentiments and refusing to buy indigo from America, so William moved on with other Lowcountry planters to the production of Sea Island Cotton. This new crop was finer than today’s Egyptian cotton, and the best could not be grown on the mainland- it thrived in the sandy soil of our coastal islands. Datha was once again a prime piece of real estate and the launching pad for the Sams family fortune by the close of the century.
The “Golden Age” of Datha Island
Berners Barnwell “B.B.” Sams (1787-1855), the sixth son of William Sams and Elizabeth Hext, inherited his share of Datha Island in 1808. He took up residence in the original plantation house on the southern half of the island while older brother Lewis Reeve Sams occupied the northern half. The brothers lived during a time of peace in American history and prosperity in the Lowcountry. After having just missed the trials of the American Revolution, they came to maturity when Cotton was King. According to the Dataw Historic Foundation (DHF) News, “By 1850, Lewis and Berners Sams were two of the more successful planters in St. Helena Parish. They owned nearly 350 slaves and had amassed a fortune of greater than $400,000 ($11,136,000.00 today).” The death of B.B. Sams in 1855 was just six years before Union troops occupied the town, and he was spared from witnessing the confiscation of his property during the Civil War.
“Life on the Farm”
B. B. Sams married Elizabeth Hann Fripp (1795-1831), and they had the first of eleven children in 1814. Curiously, each child’s first
name and middle name started with the same letter: Berners Bainbridge (1814), Melvin Melius (1815), William Washington (1817), Ariana Adeline (1818), Donald Decatur (1820), Elvelina Edings (1822), Franklin Fripp (1824), James Julius (1826), Robert Randolph (1827), Horace Hann (1829) and Elizabeth Exima (1831). William and Ariana died before the age of one and were both buried in the Sams family cemetery on the island. Though two children died young, the Sams family fared better than most because B.B. Sams was a physician. By about 1819, two additions were made on the original plantation house to make room for the growing family.
B.B. Sams can be remembered as a master builder, particularly in tabby construction which he preferred. Tabby is a mixture of sand, lime, oyster shells and water that was
poured into wooden molds (cradles) and compressed. The binding agent, lime, was produced from burned oyster shells. After the mixture hardened, the wooden molds were removed, revealing the first section of tabby wall. The “Middle” was the title for the original house, and it was flanked by the “East” and “West” sections which were the same size and had the
same uniform interior. James Julius Sams, the eighth child, wrote in his memoirs: “It was not a common house. It was uncommon. It was not one house but three, three distinct houses.” Each section of the house had two main rooms separated by a narrow hallway, with two attic rooms and two cellars. One could avoid entering the middle house by crossing behind it on the outdoor passageway. The west house consisted of B.B. Sams’s bedroom and sitting room. The porch in the back looked out over a corn field where today you see a golf course. The middle house was composed of the “girls’ room” where domestic activities took place, and the second room was the “big bed-room.” The drawing room in the east house was used as a bedroom or a school room. No space was needed for preparing meals because this task was done in a separate building. All that you can see of the kitchen today is a lone tabby brick chimney outlined by the foundation of the walls a few yards away from the ruins of the main house.
James Julius Sams also left detailed descriptions of beloved outdoor activities that were enjoyed by the boys on the plantation: trapping birds, oyster picking at low tide, camping out while feasting on half-raw potatoes and hunting for squirrels, marsh hens, minks, eagles and wild ducks. Weather in the Lowcountry can be unpredictable, however. While fishing one day, the boys passed the protection of Land’s End and were assaulted by a storm: “A tremendous gust of wind struck the boat and buried her head in the waves.” They were able to get the boat under control, but made it back to shore only with the help of their father, B.B. Sams, when he came after them. Another boating incident occurred when James was a small child: “I think I was a little frightened, but would keep up my courage by watching my Father to see if he was frightened. After we got to the shore I heard him tell someone he saw me watching him.” B. B. Sams was revered as a hero by his children.
James also took pride in the luxuries that his father provided: “Every cent spent towards beautifying home and making
home-life attractive is well spent, economically, wisely and lovingly spent.” Behind the house was a cold room for storing dairy products. Ice was brought south from ponds in Boston. After cash crops were unloaded for the northern textile mills, the ships were loaded with ice to serve as ballast for the return trip. At Datha, the blocks of ice were packed with sawdust and further insulated by the tabby walls of the cold room. Today, the Dataw Historic Foundation (DHF) is able to boast that this cold room is the only building with a pitched tabby roof still intact.
At a time when citrus fruit was a rarity in New England, the Sams family had an orange orchard, possibly 35 acres in size. The DHF notes that “Sams Family written records recall a family belief that Dataw oranges were the first commercially produced oranges in the United States (FL was a Spanish possession until 1821).” Other fruit grown on the island included pears, plums, figs and apples. James insisted that his father was an advocate of sugar as well: “My father believed in sugar cane both for his children and the animals. We always had free access to it. It never hurt the teeth or the digestion, never took away the appetite.” Europeans had to import sugar, but B.B. Sams fed it to his hogs for a month at a time. Americans today are constantly warned to avoid it, but B.B. Sams did promote the regular consumption of sugar.
Preservation of the Sams Family Complex
ALCOA bought the island from the Rowland family in 1983 to develop a private and luxurious residential community which now includes golf, tennis, boating, swimming,
gardening and elegant dining. ALCOA is credited with providing assistance and funding to the research of Colin Brooker, Heritage Planner and Historic Preservation Consultant. By this time, the Sams family complex was in ruins. Burned in 1876, the house and the outbuildings were abandoned, and even the cemetery was overgrown. Though tabby itself is resistant to fire, the wooden framework that distributed and balanced the weight of the structures was not. Burned wooden floor joists and window lintels and frames all contributed to the decomposition of the buildings, so it was necessary to replace the framework to preserve what was left of the plantation house and the dairy/blade house. Cables were connected to the walls (some two stories high) to counteract the weight that would eventually cause them to
collapse. Lime plaster was applied to the jagged tops of the walls to prevent further deterioration from the elements. Original preservation of the plantation house and outbuildings was a 25 year project, but maintaining the historic site is an ongoing process- now the mission of the Dataw Historic Foundation. The “Sams Plantation Complex Tabby Ruins” was added to the National Register of Historic Places on March 4, 2011.
Almost half of the residents on Dataw Island are members of the Dataw Historic Foundation (begun in 1995). This dedicated group of preservationists has documented artifacts, compiled written history, organized fundraising events, designed the history display at the welcome center and overseen the addition of informational markers at the sites. The group manages the island’s historical archives which are kept in the Dataw History Center. Non-residents that would like to tour the plantation ruins on Dataw Island are welcome to contact the DHF to arrange a group tour.
Click here to read about the Sams family town houses which still exist in Beaufort.