Hidden In A Huge Texas Subdivision, A Rare Plantation Building Where Slaves Made Sugar

Written by Ann Brown
Slavery may have started out relatively small in Texas but it grew to be big business in what is now the Lone Star state. Sugar workers on a Jamaican plantation. This photograph was taken in the mid-19th century, after emancipation, but conditions in the fields had barely changed since the days of the Antiguan slave rebellion. About half the work force in the fields was typically female. (Wikimedia Commons)

Slavery may have started out relatively small in Texas but it grew to be big business in what is now the Lone Star state. 

“The Mexican government was opposed to slavery, but even so, there were 5000 slaves in Texas by the time of the Texas Revolution in 1836. By the time of annexation a decade later, there were 30,000; by 1860, the census found 182,566 slaves — over 30 percent of the total population of the state,” according to the Texas State Library.

Now, a rare plantation building where slaves made sugar has been discovered hidden in a huge Texas subdivision. It is an antebellum sugar purgery.

Joanne Ryan is an archaeologist who specializes in excavating plantation sites where slaves cooked sugar. And she wants to check out the finding — but isn’t allowed.

“Experts had thought that no such building still existed in the U.S. It’s a thing of national historic significance, a remnant of slavery’s most brutal crop — and a building that Ryan desperately wants to examine and document,” the Houston Chronicle reported.

The site’s owner — Sienna, the master-planned subdivision (aka Sienna Plantation) — would not permit Ryan and a team to visit the site.

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Because of this history buffs and archaeologists are concerned that this last-of-its-kind building could be wrecked before they get to examine it. 

“With this exposure,” Ryan and two members of the Fort Bend County Historical Commission wrote in their proposal, “the risk of damage or destruction through neglect, vandalism and fire is high.”

Alvin San Miguel, the vice president and general manager of Sienna by Johnson Development Corp., said in an email to the Houston Chronicle, “It is the intent of the owners to maintain the items in their current conditions, until such time that another entity would take responsibility for those items.”

According to James Sidbury, a Rice professor who studies the history of race and slavery, the remnants of sugar plantations have special historic significance.   

“There just weren’t as many of those,” Sidbury said. “So blocking the ability to look at those things is a bigger blow to what we know about slavery in the U.S. than if it were a cotton plantation or a tobacco plantation.”

Prior to being known as Sienna, the plantation was called Arcola. “And it was both one of the most valuable and most brutal plantations in Texas,” the Hoxton Chronicle reported.

The plantation was owned by Jonathan Dawson Waters, who left Alabama to move to the Republic of Texas in 1840. He continued to amass land to grow cotton and sugarcane and by1860 he owned one of the largest plantations in Texa. He was the richest person in Fort Bend County. “According to the 1860 Census, he owned 216 slaves, which made him the third-largest slaveowner in Texas,” the Houston Chronicle reported.   

Slave on sugar plantations, say experts, hard it harder than others. According to Historian Michael Tadman, slaves on sugar plantations had a lower life expectancy than slaves on other kinds of plantations “compared with other working-age slaves in the United States, [sugar plantation slaves] far less able to resist the common and life-threatening diseases of dirt and poverty,” he wrote.

And, Waters was known as a harsh slavemaster. According to the Texas State Historical Association, he “had a reputation for overworking his slaves and of feeding them nothing but cornmeal mush.”

What remains of the plantation is the “purgery,” which looks like a large barn. It was the planation’s slaves that made its bricks.

“Ryan discovered the Arcola site via photos labeled ‘brick barn of Arcola’ on LifeOnTheBrazosRiver.com, a history website run by John Walker. Walker and other history buffs used to maintain the site as volunteers, when previous subdivision owners allowed them access. They’re the ones who put the current metal roof on the building, and who discovered the giant bowls, once used to boil sugar, that are now displayed at Sienna History Park,” the Houston Chronicle reported.

But bottom line, the land’s new owner doesn’t need to let anyone examine the land.

“If it’s entirely a private concern — if it’s not on federal or state land, or using federal funds, or something like that — it’s up to the landowner,” explained Texas state archaeologist Pat Mercado-Allinger. “It’s not the jurisdiction of the Texas Historical Commission to impose anything on a private landowner unless a site is designated as a state antiquities landmark.”