David D. Plater. The Butlers of Iberville Parish, Louisiana: Dunboyne Plantation in the 1800s. Baton Rouge: Lousiana State University Press, 2015. 336 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-6128-9.
Reviewed by Kerry A. Dahm (Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.)
Published on H-SAWH (May, 2016)
Commissioned by Lisa A. Francavilla
David D. Plater has written a well-researched biography about a nineteenth-century family with an illustrious heritage who sought wealth and prominence as sugar cane planters in Louisiana. Edward George Washington Butler, the son of an American Revolutionary War veteran and later a ward of Andrew Jackson, married Frances Parke Lewis, daughter of Lawrence Lewis (a nephew of George and Martha Washington) and Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis (a granddaughter of George and Martha Washington). In his introduction, Plater presents several themes he hopes to explore through the lives of the Butler family. He discusses Edward’s life as a soldier, from his beginnings as a West Point cadet to his service during the Mexican War.
Themes include the family’s perceived obligations to the country as descendants of Revolutionary War patriots, their lives as slaveholders and their relationship with those they held in bondage, and their experiences as migrants to the “Old Southwest” (pp. 1-2). Plater draws extensively from family correspondence, trade publications, plantation records, and various government documents to provide great detail about the not-so-cordial relationship between Edward and his mother-in-law, the production of sugar at Dunboyne Plantation, the financial complexities of owning and managing a plantation, and Edward’s difficulty in maintaining a labor force after Emancipation. Plater argues that Edward viewed his military career as lacking “status and security,” and by settling in Louisiana, he had the potential “for earning a good living and for proving his worthiness” (p. 49). Plater follows Edward and Frances from their courtship, to their acquirement of land and establishment of Dunboyne Plantation, and through their struggles in the uncertain years of Civil War and Reconstruction. The decline of Dunboyne Plantation led to its eventual sale, and Edward, who in 1885 was recognized as West Point’s “oldest living graduate,” spent his last years living in St. Louis with his son, Lawrence Lewis Butler (p. 218).
One of the strengths of Plater’s work is the significant amount of historical data he provides. He illustrates the tremendous economic and social growth of Louisiana sugar plantations after the War of 1812 by highlighting that planters purchased 460 kettles in 1829 compared to the 115 kettles purchased in 1827. They also purchased about twenty-four thousand slaves between 1827 and 1830. Plater did his research, but there are several moments in which a reader might finish a paragraph with more questions than answers about the Butler family and the historical context in which they lived. A sugar plantation required intensive labor and as Richard Follett argues in his book The Sugar Masters: Planters and Slaves in Louisiana’s Cane World, 1820-1860 (2005), sugar cane plantations operated like industrial factories. Furthermore, historians of the French Antilles and the British West Indies have demonstrated that conditions on such plantations were harsh. While Plater provides data regarding the equipment Edward purchased and the quantity of sugar sold and for what price, there is little interpretation or historical context to facilitate a broader interpretation of Dunboyne Plantation. Plater states that by 1840 the Butlers owned one hundred slaves. It would have been helpful to know how Dunboyne compared to other plantations in the area and if the Butlers were considered large slaveholders within their community. This information could have helped readers understand where the Butlers stood economically in relation to their neighbors and contributed to a better understanding of Louisiana sugar plantations as a whole.
Plater also intended to discuss the Butlers as slaveholders by exploring their coexistence with the enslaved and how both groups “adapted to the vast changes precipitated by the Civil War and Reconstruction” (p. 1). But he spends little time interpreting the experiences of the slaves and leaves the discussion of slavery primarily to the epilogue. There are also troubling instances in which Plater refers to the enslaved as “servants,” an inaccurate description of status that can mislead a general reading audience about the conditions of slavery. While it can be difficult to find sources that reliably reflect an enslaved person’s experiences, Plater misses opportunities for further research in his own work. For example, Dennis Parker was an enslaved man given to the Butlers by Frances’s father. Parker remained a part of the Butlers’ life for fifty years and he and his wife, Susan Anna, were considered the Butlers’ “companions” while Edward was a boarder at Dunboyne in the 1870s. A closer look at Parker’s story could have revealed more about the relationships between freedpeople and their former masters. Parker’s life could also provide some insight into the experiences of freedpeople during the Reconstruction years.
The life of Frances Parke Lewis Butler, Edward’s wife, deserves more careful attention than Plater gives as well. As a plantation mistress, Frances oversaw the operations of Dunboyne Plantation in her husband’s absence, and while her mother expressed worry over her daughter’s move to Louisiana and her growing responsibilities on the plantation, Plater argues that Frances’s experiences seemed to have differed from the norm. He states that, while the “Upper South” viewed the “Old Southwest” as “a violent and unhealthy, lonely and depressing place” and that “women seldom had a choice about their moves,” Frances “arrived in Louisiana with full and eager acquiescence” and “wrote little of misery and loneliness” (p. 70). But while Edward was fighting in the Mexican War, Frances managed the plantation; Plater only vaguely describes her management of Dunboyne in his absence. He notes that she “dealt with her sometimes recalcitrant field laborers and house servants and navigated the endless hazards of the critical fall sugar cane harvest,” and that, besides receiving valuable help from her overseers, Watt, an enslaved slave driver, was “among her most trusted workers” (p. 104). Plater states that Frances wrote Edward at least twice a week while he was away, but he gives little attention to discussing what she wrote. A more in-depth look at Frances’s letters may have given some perspective into her daily experiences, the challenges she faced, and her feelings about her life in Louisiana. Catherine Clinton, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Thavolia Glymph, and many others have researched the lives of plantation mistresses, giving careful attention to their relationships with the enslaved. If few sources about the Butler family were available, perhaps incorporating the findings of these historians could have helped the reader understand more about Frances’s life.
The many interesting themes that Plater intended to interpret through the Butler family contributes to another of the book’s weaknesses. He introduces several different and intriguing topics, but the attention given to fascinating anecdotes about the family at the sacrifice of deeper analysis means that it is sometimes unclear how these episodes relate to the overall themes Plater outlines in his introduction. The Butlers of Iberville Parish is a unique and intimate look at one family’s experiences, rather than a broader study of the economic and social histories of Louisiana sugar cane plantations. Plater shows that the Butlers are historically significant and brings attention to manuscript collections that provide endless opportunities for future research.
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Kerry A. Dahm. Review of Plater, David D., The Butlers of Iberville Parish, Louisiana: Dunboyne Plantation in the 1800s.
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