Allston, Robert Francis Withers
- James M. Clifton
Allston, Robert Francis Withers (21 April 1801–07 April 1864), planter and statesman, was born on “Hagley Plantation” in All Saints Parish (Georgetown District), South Carolina, the son of Benjamin Allston, a planter, and Charlotte Anne Allston. Allston entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in December 1817 and graduated tenth in his class on 1 July 1821. Appointed lieutenant in the Third Artillery and assigned to the Coast Survey, he participated in the surveying of the harbors at Plymouth and Provincetown, Massachusetts, and of the entrance to Mobile Bay. He resigned his commission on 1 February 1822 in response to his widowed mother’s plea for help on their plantations and returned to South Carolina, where he remained a rice planter for the rest of his life. As a planter, however, he continued his interest in civil engineering and in 1823 was elected to the first of two terms as surveyor general of South Carolina. In 1832 he married Adele Petigru, sister of Unionist James Louis Petigru. They had eight children.
Allston proved to be one of the most successful rice planters in Georgetown District and in the entire South. Over the next thirty years he accumulated 4,000 acres of improved land and 9,500 acres of pasture, marsh, and timberland on the Pee Dee, Waccamaw, and Black rivers. These were divided into seven plantations, Chicora Wood (his residential plantation), Nightingale Hall, Exchange, Waterford, Guendalos, Pipe Down, and Rose Bank. In 1860 Allston had 637 slaves on his plantations, which produced 1.5 million pounds of rice. He had additional property in Georgetown and summer homes on Pawleys Island and at Plantersville. In 1857 he purchased the elaborate Nathaniel Russell mansion on Meeting Street in Charleston for $38,000. According to the 1860 census, his real and personal properties in the Georgetown District were valued at $150,000 and $303,000 respectively. In 1864, at the time of his death, his owned 590 slaves.
Allston was ever ready to improve his planting skills and techniques, engaging in innovative methods to increase the rice yields on his plantations and converting his mills to steam. Putting his engineering skills to use, he drained tidal swamps and constructed dikes and ditches for his rice fields. He wrote several essays on rice culture, the most important of which were Memoir of the Introduction and Planting of Rice in South-Carolina (1843), which became a standard on tidal cultivation of rice, and Essay on Sea Coast Crops (1854). He spoke frequently to agricultural groups on the subject and was regarded by his contemporaries as a scientific agriculturist of the first order.
Allston’s public service began with his two terms as surveyor general. In 1828 he was elected to represent Prince George Winyah Parish in the South Carolina General Assembly, where he worked with the States’ Rights party in supporting nullification. He was reelected in 1830 as a candidate of that party but was defeated by a Unionist in 1832. The next month Allston was elected to the state senate, where he served until his election as governor in 1856. In the senate he served on a number of committees, including Military; Judiciary; Agriculture; Internal Improvements; Finance; Federal Relations; and South Carolina College, Education, and Religion, and from 1847 to 1856 he was the president of the senate. On 9 December 1856 the legislature elected Allston governor for a two-year term. As governor he displayed considerable organizational talents and advocated such programs as expansion of the railroads, advancement of scientific agricultural methods, and improvements in public education in what proved to be a rather tranquil administration.
Allston’s political career after retiring as governor was anything but tranquil. Early on he was committed to states’ rights, strict construction of the Constitution, and nullification of federal laws. He strongly supported slavery, which he regarded as a benevolent institution with constitutional protection and secession, which he believed should be a joint venture of all the southern states. As political controversies arose between the North and South in the late 1850s, Allston adamantly supported the southern position, including secession. He was a delegate to the Nashville Convention in 1850 and served as a Confederate presidential elector in 1861. He continued to operate his plantations during the war, and his principal contribution to the Confederate effort was the production on his plantations of foodstuffs for the troops. He died at Chicora Wood Plantation near Georgetown in the midst of the war. Frequent property transactions in his last years left him heavily in debt. Emancipation brought the final blow, to the extent that his creditors found an estate worth only $60,000, a far cry from the $.5 million valuation of 1860.
Allston’s papers are in the South Carolina Historical Society in Charleston. Even though many of his papers were destroyed when he died, his rice plantation papers are massive, including some 8,000 pieces with twenty plantation account books, the cream of which have been published in J. Harold Easterby, ed., The South Carolina Rice Plantation as Revealed in the Papers of Robert F. W. Allston (1945). Anthony Q. Devereux, The Life and Times of Robert F. W. Allston (1976), purports to be a political biography and is based on Allston’s political and personal correspondence. A sketch of Allston’s life is in De Bow’s Review 12 (1864): 574–75. For additional information on Allston’s rice planting, see George C. Rogers, The History of Georgetown County, South Carolina (1970), and Chalmers Gaston Davidson, The Last Foray: The South Carolina Planters of 1860, a Sociological Study (1971). See Elizabeth Deas Allston, The Allstons and Alstons of Waccamaw (1936), for detailed information on these families. Elizabeth W. Allston, Chronicles of Chicora Wood (1922), is a nostalgic account by Allston’s daughter. Obituaries are in the Charleston Courier, 12 Apr. 1864, and the Charleston Mercury, 23 Apr. 1864.