Edward Middleton emigrated from England to Barbados and from there to South Carolina in 1678, eight years after the founding of Charleston. Receiving large grants of land on Goose Creek, not far from the colonial capital, he settled a plantation he named The Oaks, and served as Lords Proprietors deputy and assistant Justice. Dying in 1685; his estate then passed to his son, Arthur, who also was active in public life and became president of the convention that, in 1719, overthrew the Lords Proprietors. This Arthur Middleton had three sons of whom his middle son, Henry, in 1741 married Mary, daughter and heiress of John Williams, a wealthy landowner, Justice of the Peace and member of the Assembly. Mary Williams’s dowry included the house and lands that became known as Middleton Place, owned successively by four generations of Middletons from 1741 through the Civil War.
Henry Middleton, who built the gardens and added the unattached wings, or flankers, to the existing house at Middleton Place, was an influential political leader. He was Speaker of the Commons, Commissioner for Indian Affairs and a member of the Governor's council until he resigned his seat in 1770 to become a leader of the opposition to British policy. He was chosen to represent South Carolina in the First Continental Congress and on October 20, 1774, was elected its second President.
He was among the wealthiest landowners in South Carolina with more than 50,000 acres and at least 800 slaves. After the death of his wife Mary Williams in 1761, he lived at his birthplace, The Oaks. He remarried twice, but had children only by his first wife. Their eldest son was Arthur, who received Middleton Place in 1763, upon on his coming-of-age and return from school in England.
Arthur Middleton was born at Middleton Place and educated in England, at Westminster and Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He also studied law at the Middle Temple. In 1764 he married Mary Izard and the couple settled at Middleton Place. In 1768 they traveled to England where their first child was born in 1770. Returning to South Carolina, he became keenly interested in politics, becoming a leader in Charleston's Sons of Liberty and one of the boldest members of the Council of Safety and its Secret Committee. In 1776, he was elected to succeed his father in the Continental Congress and subsequently was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
He served in the defense of Charleston during the Revolutionary War. After the city's fall to the British in 1780, he was sent to St. Augustine, Florida, as a prisoner of war until exchanged in July the following year. He died on January 1, 1787 at the age of 45 and was buried in the family tomb in the Gardens at Middleton Place. The plantation then passed to his eldest son, Henry.
Henry Middleton was born in England, but educated in South Carolina. Widely traveled in Europe and his own country, he served in both houses of the State Legislature and as Governor of South Carolina (1810-1812). After serving in Congress (1815-1819) he was appointed America's Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Russia, a post he held from 1820 to 1830.
An avid horticulturalist, Henry Middleton enlarged his grandfather and namesake's gardens. He was a friend of Andre Michaux, the famous French botanist who introduced many exotic plants to America. Michaux visited Middleton Place, bringing with him the first camellias to be planted in an American garden. The Library in the Middleton Place House contains Thomas Walter's Flora Caroliniana (1788) with Middleton's notation, "NB: This was Michaux's copy."
Williams Middleton was in Russia with his father and served as his secretary. Inheriting Middleton Place in 1846, he pursued the family's interest in rice culture, carried out agricultural experiments and further enhanced the Gardens with the introduction of azaleas (Azalea indica).
Although their late father had been a prominent member of the Union Party and a younger brother was a life-long United States Navy officer, in 1860 Williams and an older brother signed South Carolina's Ordinance of Secession that removed the state from the Union, leading to the Civil War. Only days after the fall of Charleston, in 1865 a detachment of the 56th New York Regiment occupied Middleton Place. On February 22nd, the Main House and flanking buildings were ransacked and burned, the ground strewn with books, paintings and other family treasures. At the close of the war, with financial help from his sister, Eliza Middleton Fisher of Philadelphia, and with a small income from phosphate mining, timber and lumber sales, Williams managed to hold on to the family plantation. He was able to repair the South Flanker sufficiently to make it the post-civil war family home.
Williams Middleton and his wife, Susan Pringle Smith, had two children, Elizabeth (Lilly, 1849-1915) and Henry (Hal, 1851-1932). Williams died in 1883. In 1886, an earthquake leveled what remained of the Main House and the North Flanker, while the restored South Flanker survived. Upon the death of her mother in 1900, Lilly inherited Middleton Place and though living in the upper part of the state, spent time at the plantation each year, doing what she could to maintain the property. Lilly died in 1915; her will stipulated that Middleton Place was to go to her young cousin, Charleston lawyer J. J. Pringle Smith, whose father and mother were both Middleton descendants. In 1925, he and his wife Heningham moved into the South Flanker, making it their winter home for succeeding decades.