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

Sugar in the Dirt: Excavations at Lake Jackson Plantation

ruins of the Lake Jackson Plantation from across the lake
This 1907 photo shows the once thriving Lake Jackson Plantation standing in ghostly ruin, several years after the infamous Galveston hurricane destroyed much of this inland property. When archeologists began excavations at the main plantation house (left), several smaller structures, and the sugar mill nearly 90 years later, most of the buildings had been reduced to crumbling walls and mounds of rubble. Photo courtesy Lake Jackson Historical Association.
painting of Jackson house
The main house was a stately mansion with six galleries and towering pillars. Built of brick covered with stucco, the house had the appearance of solid stone construction. Painting by John R. Lowery, courtesy Lake Jackson Historical Association.

Click images to enlarge  


Massive debt and murderous family rancor ravaged the Jackson business, and the plantation eventually had to be sold.

excavations at the Jackson Plantation
Excavation at the Jackson Plantation sugar mill is helping archeologists understand changes in construction and refinery technology over time, as slave labor was supplanted by convict labor. Photo by Norman Flaigg.
descendants of John Jackson
Descendants of John Jackson, oldest son of Abner and Margaret Jackson, tour the ruins open house held during the Texas Archeological Society of field school. Some 300 strong, the "Black Jacksons," as they refer to themselves, hold a family reunion each year in Brazoria County.

On the lush banks of a tranquil lake on the upper Texas Gulf coast, the crumbled ruins of brick buildings are all that remain of a once thriving plantation. The business of the plantation was making sugar: thousands of pounds of sugar cane grown in the fields were processed in the plantation's mill. First African-American slaves, then convicts from nearby prison farms provided the backbreaking labor to make the industry profitable in the fertile coastal land known as the "sugar bowl of Texas."

Built by Abner Jackson and his wife, Margaret, in 1844, the Lake Jackson Plantation became one of the most profitable sugar refineries in the state. Over time, Jackson expanded his namesake property to almost 3750 acres and acquired two additional plantations, Darrington and Retrieve. But massive debt and murderous family rancor ravaged the Jackson business, and Lake Jackson plantation eventually had to be sold. Subsequent owners struggled with the upheaval in business brought about by the Civil War, a changing economy and a new labor force. In 1900, the infamous hurricane that killed over 6,000 people in Galveston also delivered the final death blow to the plantation, nearly leveling many of the stately buildings and sugar mill complex. Although the land continued to be cultivated for crops and later was used as range land for cattle, the buildings were never reconstructed.

Nearly a century later, archeologists began probing the weed-infested ruins, hoping to learn more about the plantation and the technology of sugar making. Joan Few, professor at the University of Houston at Clear Lake, has directed excavations at the site near Freeport, Texas, since 1992. Now a State Archeological Landmark, the property includes the remains of 12 structures on roughly four acres of land—a mere shadow of the original plantation.

Through the efforts of hundreds of volunteers and students, including members of the Texas Archeological Society (TAS) and the Brazosport and Houston archeological societies, much of the elaborate brick-walled plantation and mill complex has been uncovered, allowing researchers to track changes in construction through time. Significantly, archeologists learned to recognize the finer craftsmanship of the slave-labor era, as distinguished from the poorer quality work produced by convicts.

Today there are no nineteenth-century sugar mills standing in Texas, but archeological research at Lake Jackson has provided a wealth of information on the first industry in Texas, that of refining sugar.

Missing from the archeological record, however, are the stories of the black slaves who provided the sweat and labor to create the Jackson empire. Because the slave quarters were located on the other side of the lake, they were not explored during archeological excavations. For this reason, this exhibit does not delve into the histories of the "Black Jacksons." These families—the descendants of John Jackson, oldest son of Abner and Margaret Jackso—gather at the plantation each June and maintain their family histories. In her recently published book, Sugar, Planters, Slaves, and Convicts, Few devotes several chapters to the history of the Black Jacksons based on both historical records and interviews with family members.

The following sections take a look at the Jackson plantation and the sugar-making process. A special section highlights the summer field schools of the Texas Archeological Society in 1994 and 1995.

sugar cane
Sugar cane growing in a field in south Texas. Photograph courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
visitors tour excavations
Visitors tour the excavations in progress at the plantation. Photo by Norman Flaigg.

Archeological research at sites like Lake Jackson has provided a wealth of information on the first industry in Texas, that of refining sugar.

arial photo of Lake Jackson Plantation
Aerial photo of the Lake Jackson Plantation taken in 1930, showing locations of main house and mill. Image courtesy of Lake Jackson Historical Association.