African American History


Historic Brattonsville is one of the few living history sites with African-American interpretation. In 1838 Dr. John S. Bratton collected a debt of $153.75 owed to him by Thomas Hyde Smith. A wealthy man, Dr. Bratton frequently lent money to his neighbors. Business was business, however, and Dr. Bratton, for whatever reason, called in his debt. But instead of getting cash, Dr. Bratton received an enslaved African American boy named Sampson. Known as Sam, he was a carpenter by trade according to his descendants and he remained in Bratton ownership until the end of the Civil War. With freedom, Sam adopted the surname of Smith probably from his previous owner Thomas Hyde Smith. Since 1838 the stories of Sam Smith and his descendants and that of many of the Brattons have been closely linked. In fact, 160 years later, Sam’s great grandson Leon Smith still frequents his ancestor’s place of enslavement at Historic Brattonsville. Although the landscape has changed a lot since his great grandfather’s time, the memories of family stories bring life to the buildings that still survive at Historic Brattonsville. It’s not hard for Leon to envision images of his enslaved ancestors at the door of the one remaining brick slave cabin near the “Big House.” And it’s not hard for him to imagine enslaved people working mules in the fields, driving a carriage or wagon, nursing the Bratton children, milking cows or picking cotton.

The Bratton family arrived in York County, South Carolina with the wave of Scotch-Irish migration in the 1760s. It is not documented when William Bratton, who settled the land that is now Brattonsville, began enslaving people, but it is clear that he enslaved a few African Americans by the time of the American Revolution. According to family tradition, an African American boy named Watt, who was enslaved on the Bratton Plantation, was sent with a message for Colonel Bratton, telling him the whereabouts of the enemy. The British Loyalists under the command of Captain Christian Huck were soundly defeated and Watt entered local lore as an important messenger. In the Bratton slave cemetery a single stone inscribed by a stone carver from Charleston, marks Watt and his wife Polly’s graves. The stone reads: Sacred to the Memory of WATT Who died Dec. 1837 During the War he served his master Col. W. Bratton Faithfully and his children With the same fidelity Until his death. Also Polly his wife who died July 1838 Who served the same family With equal faithfulness.

A reproduction of this headstone now stands next to the DAR monument commemorating the Battle of Huck’s Defeat. After the American Revolution Colonel Bratton continued to acquire property, wealth, and political power. By 1790 he owned 12 enslaved people. Likely taking advantage of the cotton boom during the late 1790s, Colonel Bratton increased the number of his enslaved workforce even more. Through the hard labor of his enslaved workers, Colonel Bratton progressed from a pioneer farmer to a prosperous backcountry planter. By the time he died in 1815 Col. Bratton owned 23 enslaved people, making him one of the largest slave owners in the county. These enslaved people were bequeathed to his wife Martha with the understanding that they would be divided up between their eight children when she passed away. Martha died a year later and the enslaved work force was indeed divided up amongst the children.

Twenty-seven-year-old John Simpson Bratton, Martha and John’s youngest son, inherited four individuals—Watt, Polly, Jim and Nelson. After his father’s death John Simpson Bratton remained on the family property. John also inherited 860 acres (3.5 km2), all his parents' livestock, some blacksmithing tools, a wagon, “plantation tools” and a “cotton machine” (a cotton gin) among other things. This valuable inheritance, along with his marriage to Harriet Rainey, the daughter of a prosperous planter, and his medical practice helped set the stage for John to amass a great deal of wealth.

Today, Leon Smith carries the history and memories of the plantation where his enslaved ancestors labored. The stories that he keeps shed light on the larger picture of plantation life, making it come alive with stories of real people and places. His family history helps put personalities and events with names found on various family documents. Fortunately, Leon remembers a lot of his family’s stories and his memory is a goldmine of information about the many things that went unrecorded or have been lost. Leon often recounts a poignant story about his great grandmother Nancy. Unfortunately, we know little of her from Bratton family records, only that she first appears in an 1843 listing of enslaved people owned by the deceased Dr. Bratton.

However, from Smith family tradition we learn more. Nancy’s mother came from Virginia and was part African and part Native American. After the Civil War, she became the wife of Hiram Bratton, another African American who was formerly enslaved on the Bratton Plantation. Aside of what we know from Leon’s recollections, little is known regarding the lives of the many other enslaved African Americans on the Bratton plantation. Nor do we know much about who did what specific work on the plantation. No doubt most labored in the Bratton’s vast cotton fields. Others would have worked in the Bratton’s brickyard and tended their cattle, horses and mules. And some would have cooked the Bratton’s food, served the family their meals, washed their clothes, made their beds, cared for their children and drove their wagons and carriages.

One exception to this mystery was an enslaved man named Adam. Like Sam, he was acquired by Dr. Bratton to settle a debt. In 1829, Adam was purchased as a mortgage debt by Dr. Bratton from James M. Rainey of Chester County. As a blacksmith Adam likely made and repaired plows, mule and horseshoes and tools. In 1843 Adam was valued at $1000, the highest of all Dr. Bratton’s enslaved work force. Adam’s wife was a woman named Letta or Letty. She was born in Virginia around 1818. She, and three of her children were purchased by Dr. Bratton in 1842 from the estate of William Erwin. Adam and Letty probably had three children together: Ella or Ellen, Adam and Isabella. Between 1820 and 1840 Dr. Bratton dramatically increased the number of enslaved African Americans he owned. According to the 1820 census he owned 24 enslaved people and an 1827 county tax assessment showed him with 40. In the 1830 census he was listed with 49 enslaved people, and by the time of the 1840 census he owned 112.

Where did all these people come from? Most certainly some were born on the plantation, but most were purchased. As we have seen, Dr. Bratton acquired his enslaved work force from local individuals who were financially unable to keep them, either through short-term debt or estate insolvency. But it is also possible that Dr. Bratton traveled elsewhere to buy enslaved African Americans. He may have purchased them as they were herded in coffels through the county from the old plantation states of Virginia and Maryland to the Deep South where the demand for slave labor was increasing. The fact that both Nancy and Letty were identified as having been born in Virginia helps illustrate this general population movement from Virginia to newer plantation areas. In the spring of 1843 Dr. Bratton died unexpectedly. An inventory and appraisement of his estate taken that summer listed 139 enslaved people on his plantation. After the death of an enslaver, African Americans were frequently sold to pay for their master’s debts. Families and friends could be separated forever by such events. From what is known so far, however, this does not appear to have happened after Dr. Bratton’s death. Dr. Bratton’s estate was financially secure and it appears that most if not all of the 139 enslaved people remained in family ownership on adjacent plantations.

Nevertheless, the division of Dr. Bratton’s enslaved population amongst family members probably caused a great deal of fear, anxiety, and resentment. One who may have experienced a difficult transition was a young man named Lewis. At Dr. Bratton’s death he was valued at $500 making him one of the most valuable individuals on the plantation. From Dr. Bratton’s estate records we also learn that Lewis and another enslaved man named George were paid by the Brattons to make charcoal. Charcoal was primarily used as a fuel for blacksmith’s forges but it had other applications as well. After Dr. Bratton’s death Lewis was transferred to the ownership of John S. Bratton Jr., probably around 1849 when the estate was finally settled. In 1851 Lewis ran away and hid at the home of a man named Able Jonas (or Jones). Eventually Bratton located Lewis and accused Jonas of “Harbouring concealing and entertaining a runaway slave.” Jonas was fined $200 for concealing a runaway and Lewis was returned to the Bratton Plantation. At the outbreak of the Civil War, widow Harriet Bratton and her sons Thomas and Napoleon resided at Brattonsville with 80 enslaved people.

John Simpson Bratton, Jr., lived nearby at Forest Hall, now known as Hightower Hall, with another 38 enslaved people. His brother, Dr. James Rufus Bratton, operated an adjacent plantation with 34 enslaved people. At the close of the war it appears that most of the African Americans formerly enslaved on Harriet’s plantation remained as sharecroppers, at least for a while. In a list of freedmen present in 1865, the names of Sam and Amy Smith appear with their five children. So do Letty and her children Adam apparently having died some time between 1860 and 1865. African American sharecroppers continued to grow cotton for the Brattons. Generally, sharecroppers kept between one-third and one-half of the year’s crops depending on whether the landowner provided the tools, fertilizer, and seed. 

During the turbulent period of Reconstruction after the Civil War, the Brattons and many other Whites sought to maintain the pre-war social and racial status quo. John and his brother Rufus joined the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. According to sworn testimony at the South Carolina Ku Klux Trials, James Rufus led Ku Klux members on a raid on March 7, 1871 that culminated with the murder of Captain James Williams. In 1872, both John and Rufus fled York County to escape prosecution and imprisonment. After several years of exile, both men received pardons, and returned home. Though Capt. James Williams never received justice, his actions and the actions of other brave African Americans planted seeds of resistance that eventually grew into the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Thankfully, some formerly enslaved African Americans managed to struggle through those difficult times and prosper. Sam Smith acquired an old log house from the Brattons and took up farming. His son, John, continued farming and his grandson, Jim, also a farmer, fought in France during World War I. Jim’s son, Leon Smith, although he no longer farms his great grandfather’s fields, still owns the land and lives on it to this day.