Botany Bay is a 3,363-acre wildlife preserve located on Edisto Island. Its deed was transferred to the state after former owner John Meyer, who bought the property in 1968, illegally built a pond on the property. In order to avoid repercussions, he offered to give South Carolina the land upon his and his wife’s death. A deal was struck, and in 2008, the Botany Bay Plantation Wildlife Management Area was born.
The early history of Botany Bay can be traced back to two plantations – Bleak Hall Plantation and Sea Cloud Plantation. Bleak Hall Plantation was originally developed by Daniel Townsend, III in 1798, and the main house was built in 1805, though it burned during the Civil War. A second house was built in 1866 and demolished in the 1930s.
In 1842, Daniel’s first son, John, inherited Bleak Hall. By the end of the decade, he had purchased the adjoining Sea Cloud Plantation from the Seabrook family and was producing more cotton than any other planter in South Carolina.
Townsend was renowned for both the quantity and the quality of his sea island cotton, a variety prized for its unusually long and silky fibers. Below are ruins from Sea Cloud, built by Ephraim Mikell Seabrook sometime in the 1800s.
About a year after South Carolina’s secession from the Union, Edisto Island was evacuated and subsequently occupied by the Union army. The Civil War proved devastating to the island and its plantations. Townsend and his descendants worked to rebuild what was left and continued producing the famous sea island cotton until the early 1920s, when the boll weevil all but destroyed the cotton industry in South Carolina.
The plantations remained in the Townsend family until the 1930s, when Dr. James Greenway combined the two properties and renamed the land Botany Bay Plantation. It was acquired by John Meyer in 1968. Before Meyer died in 1977, he deeded the property to the state to be used as a wildlife preserve, but only after the death of his wife, Margaret.
While living there during the remainder of her lifetime, Margaret took great care to protect the land and to foster a diverse array of habitats throughout the property, including maritime forests, salt marshes, tidal creeks, and hammock islands. Today, recreational opportunities at Botany Bay include seasonal hunting, catch and release fishing, birding, and an interpretive driving trail.
Bleak Hall Plantation at Botany Bay
The house at Bleak Hall burned, but three circa-1840 outbuildings remain: an icehouse, a shed, and what was likely a smokehouse. The Gothic Revival icehouse, shown below and again at the bottom of this section, is especially picturesque and often photographed by visitors.
Standing near the icehouse is the tabby shed, pictured below. Tabby is a building material composed of lime from burned oyster shells, the shells themselves, sand, and water. Its use is sometimes disputed but it is thought to have been either a gardeners shed because it stands on the edge of a once expansive Japanese Garden, or it was used as the plantation smokehouse.
The Bleak Hall ruins are listed in the National Register:
Though the main house of Bleak Hall Plantation was destroyed by fire, the three remaining outbuildings, probably constructed in the 1840s by John Townsend, are excellent representatives of the Gothic Revival architecture utilized in the construction of this plantation. Particularly noteworthy is the structure and design of the perfectly preserved icehouse with its mock tracery windows and door and the high gabled roof with triangular dormer. A second outbuilding, a rectangular equipment shed, is of tabby construction with a high wooden gable roof covered with cypress shingles. The third outbuilding, a cubicle of tabby construction, was probably used as a smokehouse.
John Townsend was born at Bleak Hall in 1799. Inheriting the plantation from his father, Townsend became well known as an advanced agriculturist. He was one of the largest planters of sea island cotton in the state and won many prizes for its quality and length. Bleak Hall cotton was highly valued for lace making in Belgium and France. The gardens were also renowned, the remains of which surround the outbuildings. John Townsend employed a Japanese gardener to lay out and care for the elaborate and exotic gardens. Townsend was also a political leader, serving in the South Carolina House of Representatives and Senate, as a delegate to the Secession Convention, and signer of the Ordinance of Secession.
Sea Cloud Plantation at Botany Bay
The ruins below are all that remain of the plantation house foundation that once stood at Sea Cloud, the Townsend family home. In January 1863 Confederate soldiers “had a fine view of the Yankee gunboats at the mouth of Rock Creek and also of the village of Rockville.”
The painting below, depicting a waterfront scene at Sea Cloud, shows one of the many marshy vistas that give the Lowcountry its name.
This beehive well, pictured below, was discovered by John Meyer’s widow, Margaret “Peggy” Pepper. The well was known as Jacob’s Well and has sunken considerably over the years. It was thought to have been built in 1825 and once stood twelve feet tall with a conical top and was primarily used as a water source for the slaves of Sea Cloud Plantation.
This 1910 photo of Jacob’s Well shows the original height and top portion. The smooth surfacing over the exterior was removed exposing the bricks and the original arched top.
Reflections on Botany Bay
Mark VanDyke shares this about his photo of Boneyard Beach: “When I initially arrived at Botany Bay’s Boneyard Beach to find a low tide my feeling was largely of disappointment. I had hoped for dynamic interaction between the Atlantic Ocean and the stranded coastal trees. The absence of the wave action at the trees, however, allowed me to pull back and take a broader landscape that suggests the situation I was envisioning but did not overtly illustrate it. The absence of the wave action itself allowed reflection of the subject into a tidal pool and perhaps even goes as far as to encourage reflection on the situation by the viewer as well. Botany Bay is a really special piece of property and it’s always a bit magical when visit the Boneyard Beach to check in on the stubborn trees that stand along the shoreline.”
Contributor Keith Briley says: “Botany Bay is one of the most serene and beautiful locations in the Lowcountry. It has been photographed by many, while its beautiful subject matter has led to many award-winning images. On this morning, I wanted to shoot something different. Something that still screamed that this was indeed Botany Bay, but would hopefully provide another intriguing point of view. As always, while I’m at this location, I found myself wondering just how many magical locations around the globe have been undiscovered. Thankfully, this one was! I titled this one, ‘Blush of Dawn.'”
Briley goes on to share his experience of capturing his other photo pictured above: “With my daughter inspiring to become a photographer for marine biology, I thought this would be a beautiful way for the two of us to spend time together on a gorgeous September morning. Much to our surprise as we were leaving the beach, we came across a few scientists who were removing eggs from sea turtle nests. They were relocating them to a safer location. Fortunately, once it was explained that my daughter was preparing for their type of work, they spent some time with us chatting about what they were involved with and encouraged her to pursue her dream!”
Visitor Theresa A. Smith shares, “Botany Bay Plantation is a Heritage Preserve and Wildlife Management area. Located at Edisto Island, SC. This nearly 4,000-acre area is a nature lover’s dream. The Boneyard Beach is a must-see. Be sure and check the tide schedule before you go. Erosion on Botany Bay Beach has left a ‘boneyard’ of dead trees along the sand, creating a unique coastline. This is a photographers paradise! You need to walk the ‘boneyard’ beach to really appreciate it. There are many shells on the beach, but you are not allowed to take them. When you find a real nice shell, hang it on one of the trees. You will see what I mean when you arrive there. There are shells everywhere! We were lucky enough to see loggerhead turtle eggs on the beach! I could ramble on and on but to sum it up…our trip to Botany Bay was awesome!”
Contributor Jean Power says of her photo: “This is the marsh just behind the beach at Botany Bay on Edisto Island. Friends and I were enjoying the boneyard beach, and I turned around to find this view, which reminded me of a Monet painting.”
Aerial Views of Botany Bay
More Pictures of Botany Bay