In the United States, historic preservation often hinges on the wishes of the landowner. Unless a site has been designated as a historic site by State or Federal authorities, preservation happens at the whim of a property owner. That legal regime means that some historic sites may be lost, especially if they force us to confront uncomfortable truths about our past. Writing in the Houston Chronicle, Lisa Gray walks through the history of the Arcola Plantation, and reports how its preservation may be in doubt due to a nearby master-planned subdivision.
The remains of sugar plantations have special historic significance, notes James Sidbury, a Rice professor who studies the history of race and slavery. “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.” The plantation where Sienna now stands wasn’t called “Sienna Plantation.” It was called Arcola. And it was both one of the most valuable and most brutal plantations in Texas. Its owner, Jonathan Dawson Waters, left Alabama for the Republic of Texas in 1840, and began amassing the land where he’d eventually grow cotton and sugarcane. By 1860, Arcola was one of the largest plantations in Texas, and Waters 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. He could do much as he pleased . . . .Heavy work and inadequate food meant that sugar-plantations slaves were, “compared with other working-age slaves in the United States, far less able to resist the common and life-threatening diseases of dirt and poverty,” he wrote.
Lisa Gray, Hidden in Fort Bend’s Upscale Sienna: A Rare Plantation Building Where Slaves Made Sugar., Houston Chronicle, Oct. 23, 2019, https://www.houstonchronicle.com/life/article/fort-bend-last-sugarhouse-plantation-slavery-14556046.php [https://perma.cc/236R-GH99].