University of Texas at Austin wordmarkCollege of Liberal Arts wordmark
Texas Beyond History
TBH Home

History of Lake Jackson Plantation

Lack Jackson Plantation main house
Lake Jackson Plantation, home of Abner and Margaret Jackson and headquarters of a thriving sugar refinery. First slaves, then convicts provided the backbreaking labor necessary to grow and process the cane. This photograph, taken prior to 1900, preserves the mansion's final days before a hurricane destroyed many of the buildings on the plantation. Image courtesy Brazoria County Historical Museum.
Lake Jackson
Lake Jackson is an oxbow lake formed from a cut-off meander of the Brazos River. Plantation owner Abner Jackson built an artificial island in the lake on which to entertain his guests. Photo by Norman Flaigg.

Click images to enlarge  

sugar cane
A golden clump of sugar cane, ready for harvesting. Sugar cane was a source of great wealth to nineteenth-century growers such as Abner Jackson, although production fluctuated according to weather. Photo courtesy of the Cooperative Extension Service, Texas A&M University.
artifacts
Post-Civil War artifacts found near the front porch of house, shown drying on a screen after being washed. The items, including a jawbone of a horse, bottle glass, and a variety of buttons, were apparently tossed off the front porch as trash by the occupants of the house.

In December, 1867, George W. Jackson killed his brother John C. during a confrontation at the Lake Jackson plantation.

pocket watch
Engraved pocket watch, found during excavations.
convict and horse
After the emancipation of slaves in Texas in 1865, sugar growers leased prisoners from the state prison system to continue operations in the fields and mills. Photo courtesy of the Brazoria County Historical Museum.
brick floor after excavation
Brick floor of a three-roomed structure near the main house. Although artifacts and features indicate domestic use, oral history also suggests it may have been used at one time as a jail. Photo by Norman Flaigg.

Around 1840, wealthy Virginia planter Abner Jackson brought his wife, Margaret, and their 5 children and slaves to Brazoria County, Texas, to begin work on their first plantation, Retrieve. Soon after, they began buying the land for their second plantation and palatial home, to be nestled in the bend of a picturesque oxbow lake between the Brazos River and Oyster Creek. First called the Lake Place, it later came to be known as the Lake Jackson Plantation.

By all accounts, the Lake Jackson Plantation was an elegant complex with a columned, colonial style main house, brick outbuildings, ornamental gardens, and a state-of-the-art sugar mill. Jackson's eye for detail and quality was described in a 1926 chronicle by Abner Jackson Strobel, the grandson of Margaret Strobel Jackson and step-grandson of Abner Jackson:

Major Jackson …opened up the Lake Jackson Plantation during the period 1842 to 1845. His first home was made of logs from the nearby forest, mostly elm and ash. He soon, however, converted every building, cabins, sugar house and residence into brick made on the plantation, and stuccoed with cement fully an inch thick, which made all the buildings look like they were made from solid rock.

The residence was a twelve room two-story house in the shape of an "I," with six galleries, and immense brick pillars the entire length of the galleries. [T]he residence cost, exclusive of slave labor, over twenty-five thousand dollars completed.

…The sugar house was built of brick, and the best of machinery for the making of sugar was obtained. There was an artificial island made in the lake, said to have cost $10,000 . Fine orchards and gardens were on the plantations…. Brick walks were laid in the orchard and garden. The slaves had use of both orchards and gardens.

By 1850, the Lake Jackson plantation had grown to 3,744 acres. The land was ideal for sugar growing—fertile, well-watered, and easily cleared. In 1852, Jackson produced 295 hogsheads of sugar with horse-drawn machinery at the Lake Plantation. Jackons and his partner, James Hamilton, produced an additional 450 hogsheads at Retrieve. (A hogshead is a barrel containing roughly 1000 pounds of crystallized sugar.)

In 1857, Margaret Jackson died. Jackson asked his children and stepson not to claim their share of their mother's estate because he wanted to continue expansion. The same year, Jackson purchased the Darrington Plantation for $116,200. A year later, the sugar mill at the Lake Jackson plantation was upgraded with the addition of a steam engine in 1858.

Prosperity and abundance ruled for a brief period. In 1860, census takers listed Jackson as owning 285 slaves, making him the second largest slaveowner in the state. His other holdings were valued at $172,775.

But death and the Civil War brought an end to the Jackson family's fortune. Abner Jackson died in 1861 deeply in debt. Probate records indicate that during the Civil War, John C. Jackson (the eldest son) tried to hold the estate together and pay off debts when funds were available. When the war ended, George W. Jackson (Abner's third son, four years John's junior) returned home. John C. was in control of the estate and would not turn over any part of it to George.

In September, 1867, a court order enabled George W. Jackson to gain control of the Lake Jackson plantation, but conflict remained between the two brothers. In December, 1867, George W. killed his brother John C. during a confrontation at the Lake Jackson plantation. George W. was never prosecuted for the murder and he died of tuberculosis on November 7, 1871, in Galveston.

Wm. J. W. Masterson became executor of the estate of Abner and Margaret Jackson. An attempt to hold the estate together was made, but documents indicate that debtors were demanding payment. Subsequently, the estate was sold piece by piece.

In 1873, William W. Phelps of New York bought the Jackson Plantation from the estate of George W. Jackson and his sister, Asenath Jackson Groce, for $20,800. Phelps sold the property to A.J. Ward and E. D. Dewey for $36,000 that same year.

After the Civil War, Texas adopted a system of leasing state convicts to private companies and individuals. Although the system was an effective means of replacing slave labor, it often resulted in deplorable treatment for the prisoners, including some at Lake Jackson. In 1871, the state leased the Huntsville State Prison and all of its prisoners to Ward, Dewey & Co. of Galveston for a 15-year-period. They in turn leased convicts to the Lake Jackson Plantation.

An 1874 inspection of the Lake Jackson Plantation and its prisoners found many of them to be ill and without medical attention. The inspector found that three convicts had been severely beaten on their backs; that prisoners were not being fed well; that a guard had pledged his own credit to procure meat for the convicts; that convicts had not changed their clothing for 10 weeks and that some could not cover their extremities; and that some prisoners slept on bare mattresses without cover.

In 1875, Edward H. Cunningham and Littleberry A. Ellis formed a partnership. They contracted with the state of Texas to lease the entire convict population. Those convicts they did not use were subleased to other plantations. Their partnership and use of convict labor was the beginning of the Imperial Sugar Company of Sugar Land, Texas.

When state prison inspector J.T. Gaines made his rounds in December, 1876, he reported that three convicts had died at the Lake Jackson Plantation: one while being punished in the stocks, one in an escape attempt, and one from natural causes. Prison records for 1882 list the Darrington Plantation with 28 convicts and the Lake Jackson Plantation with 36. The last listing for convicts at Lake Jackson was on November, 1884, with a total of 33.

In 1900, the Lake Jackson Sugar Company took over the four acres containing the "sugar house, including the cane mill sheds, gin, saw mill, blacksmith shop." The Lake Jackson Sugar Company operated only a short time. The house and mill were badly damaged during the 1900 hurricane and mill operations ceased.


Abner jackson
Abner Jackson, owner of three plantations in Brazoria County. Photograph courtesy of Lake Jackson Historical Association.

The residence was a twelve-room, two-story house in the shape of an "I," with six galleries, and immense brick pillars the entire length of the galleries. Abner Jackson Strobel, 1926.

brick used to build the plantation house
French maker's marks on early brick from the site. Although both slaves and convicts made bricks used in construction at the plantation, some materials apparently were imported.
front porch after excavation
Front porch of the main house after excavation. Note the rounded bricks of the steps and curved bricks set into walkway in foreground. High quality bricks and fine masonry techniques such as these distinguished slave craftsmanship from later work done by convicts. Strings with pink flags mark the grid of excavation units. Photo by Norman Flaigg.

Death and the Civil War brought an end to the Jackson family's good fortune. Abner Jackson died in 1861 deeply in debt.

brick-lined cistern
A brick-lined cistern near the main house. Photo by Sue Turner.
excavated west gallery
West gallery of the plantation house following excavation. Strings mark gridlines of excavation units. Photo by Norman Flaigg.
hoe and trowel
Tools of the laborers. A rusted trowel and hoe stand out among some of the thousands of excavated artifacts, poignant reminders of field and construction labors of the past. (Click to see full image).

When state prison inspector J.T. Gaines made his rounds in December, 1876, he reported that three convicts had died at the Lake Jackson Plantation: one while being punished in the stocks, one in an escape attempt, and one from natural causes.