Finding Sarah Lamar

Well that’s sort of a backwards story.  I have to believe – and I do – that Sarah Lamar found me. 

It really began with some research I was doing concerning the landing of the last documented slave ship to come ashore on an American beach.  The Wanderer was the brain-child of a man named Charles Augustus Layfayette Lamar, a Savannah “fire-eater” who, in 1858, determined he would reopen the slave trade.  That was a Federal offense (that means hanging) because a half-century before in 1808 the US outlawed the importation of slaves. Here’s the wikipedia information about the Wanderer escapade.

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Long story short: Charlie raised money to buy the fastest racing yacht in existence at the time and retrofitted it so he could kidnap and pack 489 human beings, sardine-style, into the belly of it.  It left the Congo in mid October and landed at Jekyll Island, Georgia in late November.  It was a hellish, inhumane, gruesome trip that lasted six weeks. Eighty people perished from foul air, starvation and, probably, desperation. The 400 who arrived in Georgia were sick and starved. The ordeal defies description and ranks with the likes of the Nazi concentration camps.

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This is a slave vessel crammed with people. Most of the captives who were kidnapped from their homes were children and teenagers. This is who Charles Lamar was. This is what he funded. 

One little line I read that concerned where 170 of those captives were transported after their arrival on Jekyll Island haunted me more than anything else. They had been transported, by steamboat, one-half mile below Horse Creek, on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River, and deposited at a “wood yard” belonging to a cousin of Charlie Lamar. I knew from interviewing a deacon from the Old Storm Branch Church in August, 2010, that Sarah Lamar had donated four acres of land so it could be a wholly black place to worship. Before, and during the Civil War, only white ministers could hold services for slaves. Sarah, I had discovered, was the widow of Colonel Thomas Gresham Lamar who had been wounded at the Battle of Secessionville in 1862 and had died of yellow fever (some say malaria) three months later at the Charleston Hotel.  In 1866, about 16 months after the end of the war, Sarah sold four acres to a freed slave named Aleck Davis for ten dollars.

When I found out that piece of information, I liked Sarah immediately.  I imagined what kind of freedom it must have felt like to give away land that had been in her husband’s family since before the Revolution to a man who had been a slave all his life. Thomas had died to preserve the status quo in the South. And I later discovered, left this world without a will. What must a woman of 32 have felt being in charge of a plantation, six children and no provisions for her? Was she angry? Did she take it in stride? Did she feel herself just a “slave to the system”?

I was working along on the documentary about Horse Creek Valley and I forgot about the Lamars for several months until November 11, 2010.  That’s the day I went to Edgefield to meet a young woman who had a face jar in her possession.  April Hynes was on a mission. She wanted to connect an Edgefield face jug (jar, pot) to the family of the slave who might have originally created it.  Although there are many theories about where and when the first face jugs appeared in Edgefield County, they are most often connected with the arrival of the Wanderer captives. This particular jewel was dug up by April’s grandfather, who was a plumber in Washington Crossing, PA, in 1957.  It was so repugnant to her grandmother, that it sat facing toward the wall so she wouldn’t have to see the white glowing eyes and the pointed teeth.  

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Yet it spoke in some deep way to April throughout the years. After her grandmother passed she couldn’t ignore its calls anymore. She contacted PBS’ History Detectives and was formally introduced to the grinning jug that had some very special plans for her. You can watch the segment here: http://www.thewandererproject.com/TheWandererProject.com/History_Detectives_Episode.html

Dr. Mark Newell, a North Augusta archeologist, was contacted and together they began a journey to find the descendants of the Wanderer captives.

I met April and Mark on November 11, 2010. The same day Sarah began, in earnest, to exert her wish that a story be told.  I didn’t know what that story might be. But I have heard the strange music before and knew I had to pay attention. The official historian of Edgefield, Mr. Bettis Rainsford, told me that the Lamar house was still in existence. He gave me general directions and I left the luncheon thinking I would try to find it.  I drove down the road he described to me but it wasn’t the right one. So after about a half hour of being stopped behind a school bus, I turned my frustration toward my GPS and set it for my home address.  In what I can only describe as one of the craziest things that’s ever happened to me, it seemed like I was being taken down roads that led away from the direction of my house. Finally, irritated at the GPS, I pulled up into a driveway to get my bearings and possibly toss it out the window.  But instead…this is what I saw through my windshield…

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I had literally been guided to Sarah’s house. And as I turned my head to the right, I saw a realtor’s sign that read: “Woodlawn Plantation. Open house Saturday, November 13 – first time to be open to the public in 100 years”.  The day was Thursday. I was the first one to show up on Saturday morning. The house was built in 1854 by Thomas Gresham Lamar for his wife Sarah.

Since that day in November, I’ve gotten to know a lot more about my friend Sarah.  She herself has been a bit shy to say too much about who she was but she introduced me to someone even more compelling. Someone she must have respected as a powerful woman in her life.  Granny (either Venus or Massey – I’m still working on that question), the 90 year-old matriarch of the Lamar Swamp Plantation who had to be as commanding in 1858 as she was in 1864 when she hid an escaped Union soldier named John Ogden in the slave village for four days. He left his impressions of her for me in his diary. That’s another story for another day.  I promise to tell it.

As Barbara, Shelly and I walked each morning in Hitchcock Woods, I would tell them more and more about Sarah and Granny.  I just couldn’t stop. With each new nugget of information I found, I couldn’t stop it from growing in my mind and in my heart. Just about a year ago, both of them began to clear their busy lives out to prepare to work together to bring a story to film about these two women and the implications of their encounter with the captives of the Wanderer slave ship in December of 1858. Now Sarah and Granny had happily expanded their circle to include three 21st Century women who “heard” them. They certainly don’t intend to stop there, I can tell you that most emphatically!

As a matter of fact, Sarah had sent her great, great, great grandson to us years earlier when we all shared a studio in downtown Aiken. Barney Dunbar Lamar IV had been my suite-mate from 2005-2008. 

That Sarah Lamar doesn’t fool around and, apparently, she doesn’t give up. 

Here’s the inside of Woodlawn as it looks today.  And it’s still for sale.

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Here’s a cabin that dates back to antebellum times.  It sits behind the main house.

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Written by Christi.

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How to go for it…

There are three of us.

Three women who love the stories we stumble over as we walk through the woods together most early mornings.

One of us worked as a prosecuting attorney in the South for 20 years. That’s Barbara.

One of us worked every job in film from South Carolina to California for 20 years. That’s Christi.

One of us photographed everything all over the world from race cars to racy undies for 20 years. That’s Shelly.

Now we make movies. And it just makes sense.  Considering our credentials…or our lack of them.

Bellawood is a real place. A studio office overlooking a proud and swaybacked, white mare named Maggie. At least it did until Maggie decided to leave this planet last year. Yes. That’s what she did. She waited until she was ready; took her final breath in a life that spanned more than 35 years; laid down while everyone was out of town and passed on to the afterlife.

Of course there’s more to the story than I can tell in less than 200 words.

That’s why movies matter to us. Because there’s always more to the story.