While the relationship between England and her American colonies was turning sour, a Scotch-Irish settler named William Bratton migrated to northwestern South Carolina, where he became a local officeholder, a slaveowner, and a colonel in the militia. His sons were substantial men in their own right; one of them, a doctor, built his own house a stone’s throw from the one where his father had lived, and later descendants continued to build on and farm the land near William’s original farm. This collection of homes, plantations, stores, and taverns acquired the name “Brattonsville” from the family that prospered there for several generations.
Today Historic Brattonsville is an outdoor museum and living history site, one of a chain of York County’s Culture and Heritage Museums, which range in subject matter from local history to the environment. By preserving the homes and stories of successive generations of the Bratton family, the site allows visitors to explore the history of upper South Carolina from its settlement in the pre-Revolutionary years through the late nineteenth century. I’d always missed it on my trips through that part of South Carolina, so this time I made it a priority, and I’m glad I did. It’s worth seeing.
The Revolutionary backcountry is only part of the story told at Brattonsville, but it’s probably the one most familiar to many of the history enthusiasts who visit. In fact, the property includes the site of a small but significant Revolutionary War battle in which William Bratton participated. In the summer of 1780, as partisan militia rallied to harass the British who occupied South Carolina, a detachment under the command of the despised Captain Christian Huck of the British Legion came to the Brattonsville area looking to arrest Whig leaders. One Loyalist threatened William Bratton’s wife with a reaping hook, an incident re-told in many accounts of the backcountry war. On July 11 Huck and his men camped at James Williamson’s plantation, just a short distance from Bratton’s house. Bratton himself was one of the militiamen who surprised them there the next morning. It was a short fight, lasting only ten or fifteen minutes, and there were only a few hundred men involved, but it cost Huck his life and was one of the first Whig victories following the fall of Charleston. It’s the kind of thing that would have made a rollicking sequence in The Patriot, and indeed some scenes from that movie were filmed at Brattonsville. (Let me add a plug here for the thoroughly-researched book on Huck’s Defeat by historian Michael Scoggins, who works for Culture and Heritage Museums.)
There are about thirty historic or recreated structures to see at Historic Brattonsville, many of them original to the Bratton plantation but others moved from the surrounding region to illustrate life in upper South Carolina from the 1760’s to the late 1800’s. They include William Bratton’s Revolutionary-era house, the large two-story “Homestead” built by his son, a couple of later homes inhabited by other Bratton descendants, some representative examples of backcountry cabins, various plantation outbuildings and barns, and a few slave dwellings. The staff raise animals here, most of them breeds that were once common on American farms but are now quite scarce. Adjacent to the buildings are several trails that wind among lovely woods and ponds and past the Huck’s Defeat battleground.
It’s largely a self-guided tour. At the visitor center you pick up a walking map with information about the buildings, and a small exhibit area and orientation film help to provide some context for what you’ll be seeing. A couple of costumed guides escorted me through the Homestead house, but you’re mostly on your own, and you can therefore wander around the grounds and through the open structures at your own pace. The map and some signage provide the basics on names, dates, and uses, but you don’t always get the rich depth that a guided tour provides, although I enjoyed the freedom to explore. The orientation room in the visitor center has some background information and a few display cases, including props from The Patriot. I’d advise you to visit Brattonsville’s website, which has more detailed background material on the larger buildings and the Bratton family, so that you can get the most out of a visit.
That’s not to say that there aren’t many interpreters onsite. Brattonsville has an active and exemplary living history program. On the day I visited the focus was on antebellum slavery, and there were both lectures, demonstrations, and scripted reenactment scenarios, all of them very well-done. The personnel were knowledgeable and enthusiastic; they fielded questions with ease, and the visitors were interested and having a good time. The interpretations weaved the stories of the Brattons and their enslaved laborers together very deftly.
There is plenty to take in, but most of it’s within a fairly compact area. To check out the buildings and hit the Huck’s Defeat battleground took me a little over two hours. If you decide to hike the longer nature trails, expect to spend quite a bit longer, because they’re quite extensive. The visitor center has a small shop, stocked mostly with gift and decorative items, but there are a few southern history books on sale, too. It’s an extremely pleasant setting, in a rural part of York County; visiting would be an enjoyable experience even for people who aren’t particularly interested in history.
What I find compelling about this site is the fact that it encompasses such a panorama of South Carolina history—the frontier backcountry, the furious partisan fighting of the Revolution, the antebellum years, the Civil War, and the troubled era that followed. Because the Brattons lived there during all these events, their story is essentially the story of the Carolina backcountry, from its settlement to the late 1800’s. Historic Brattonsville is a fine example of preservation and interpretation, combining an intimate portrait of one family with the grand sweep of more than a century’s worth of history in one of the most fascinating regions in America. Put this site on your itinerary when you travel to western South Carolina.