Published on November 16, 2021
By Jan Edwards
Driving through Jones Creek, I again noticed the historic marker for Ellersly (Ellerslie) Plantation. There are a lot of historic markers along this section of Highway 36. But this Plantation was really special in its day, and I thought you might like to know a bit about it.
Nothing remains of it today, so all that is left are old pictures and its ghost.
Without a doubt, the main house on the Ellersly Plantation was the finest house in Texas before the Civil War. This house was grander than anything even Galveston had to offer in its day. It was located adjacent to the Justin Hearst State Wildlife Refuge. The land grant (garnered from Stephen F. Austin’s original contract), was where the house was located and was owned by John Greenville McNeel with his brother, George W. McNeel.
It included one-half league on the Brazos River and one-half league on the San Bernard River. The actual plantation house was in a grove of live oak trees between two roads, somewhere between present-day Clemons Prison Farm and Jones Creek.
The father, John McNeel, owned China Grove. His son, John Greenville McNeel, was owner of the Ellersly Plantation house. His other sons, Leander McNeel, Sterling McNeel and Pleasant McNeel, hailed from Kentucky and were all members of Stephen F. Austin’s “Old 300.”
They had large farming interests centering around a community that came to be known as McNeel, Texas, on the Gulf Prairie. From my research, McNeel, Texas, was in existence in the 1820s, and it was still shown on highway maps into the 1960s with several rural farms and other buildings on the San Bernard River. Right here, under our noses, another ghost of an era is vanishing in the sea fog.
Picture this in your mind’s eye: the Ellersly main house, a two-story structure with 21 rooms constructed of slave-made bricks. Galleries and pillars extended the full length of the house on the western and southern sides. The ceilings of the house were plastered and decorated with detailed medallions; the floors were covered with rugs.
The fireplaces and mantels were made of marble, and the furnishings were made of heavy walnut or mahogany. A laboratory fitted with a telescope sat on the very top of the house.
The plantation made its fortune in sugar. For instance, in 1852 it produced 408 hogsheads (about 149,000 pounds) of sugar. The huge sugar mill, I understand, looked like a turreted castle and enclosed a double set of kettles.
Ellersly also had outbuildings – a cotton gin, a hospital, a blacksmith’s shop and a brick overseer’s house. The brick slaves’ quarters lined a street, which led off the main road. Each unit consisted of two rooms with a double fireplace that accommodated two families.
In 1860, the census appraised J. G (John Greenville) McNeel’s real property at $100,000 and his personal property at $216,000. He owned 176 slaves. By the 1870 census, Reconstruction had stripped him of all of this.
When times were good, old Greenville lived it up. He and his family often entertained – hunting, dancing, fishing and riding. Greenville was known to have owned a stallion worth $6,000 in the 1800s.
I find it quite interesting that the entrance gates of the plantation were flanked by hand-hewn oak posts topped with carved replicas of a spade, a diamond, a club and a heart.
Kind of a dead giveaway what he was doing with that expensive stallion, don’t you think? Tara (plantation) from “Gone with The Wind” had nothing on Ellersly.
Now, I don’t know what you were taught in Texas history, but I am a native Texan, and until I moved to Brazoria County and started doing some research on it, I never read or heard anything about plantations in Texas.
As it turns out, most of these plantations were located right here, and most of them were in Austin’s contract.
Since the Texas history I took in school glossed over the Civil War times, it’s clearer to me now why Texas seceded during the Civil War. I guess we were closer to the “old South” in Brazoria County than the rest of Texas.
But it is hard for me to envision all the trappings of plantation life in Texas, weaving its way through pirates, the Texas Revolution, and the Civil War – all the elements good romance novels are made from.
The McNeel family from Kentucky forged a living community across the prairie between two rivers. If you listen carefully to the north winds that blow across that prairie, you can almost still hear sounds of that bygone era and feel the spirit of the crumbled places.
(Write Jan in care of The Bulletin. Email: email@example.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)