Documenting the American South Logo
Loading

Ante-Bellum North Carolina: A Social History: Electronic Edition.

Johnson, Guion Griffis, 1900- 1989

CHAPTER XVI THE SLAVE SYSTEM

Table of Contents

Previous: CHAPTER XV THE CHURCH AND SOCIAL CONTROL

Next: CHAPTER XVII THE SLAVE CODE



Page 468

CHAPTER XVI
THE SLAVE SYSTEM

           IN 1703 Ludwig Michel, searching in English America for a suitable tract on which to settle a colony of Swiss, wrote of the planting régime in North Carolina, "One employs slaves, and though they seem to be expensive, they are always considered to be much better than the servants in Europe, being more submissive and more robust for work, and one feeds and clothes them as one finds proper." 1

           At the close of the slave era 157 years later, a foreign traveler in Carolina might have made the same comment with equal truth. If one were a farmer or, what was still better, a planter, with capital or credit at his disposal, he employed slaves to tend his fields. He found them expensive because their initial cost was high and he had to feed and clothe them in the lean years as well as the abundant ones. He had to care for them in sickness and in old age. But he cared for them "as he found proper." If he were an indulgent master, he found his black family a great burden and he might even run into debt to support them. If he were penny-wise, his Negroes were half-starved rag-tags. For the most part, the planter found his slaves "submissive" and "robust for work."

           North Carolina was never one of the chief slaveholding states, although from the first it was committed to the slave régime. In 1860 the State had only 331,059 slaves to Virginia's 490,865, South Carolina's 402,406, and Georgia's 462,198. Of the seven states 2

in which the plantation system was well entrenched at the close of the era, North Carolina ranked next to last in slave population, Louisiana having fewer slaves by about 4,000. By 1830 the slaves in North Carolina had increased to almost a third of the total population, but the slave period closed without any appreciable

Page 469

increase in the proportion of slaves to whites. 3 Of the ten seceding states, North Carolina ranked eighth in 1850 in the ratio of slaves to whites. There were 52 slaves in North Carolina to every 100 whites, 53 in Virginia, 140 in South Carolina, 91 in Georgia, 105 in Mississippi. 4 Likewise there were fewer slaveholding families in North Carolina than in the other South Atlantic States. Only 28,303 families in North Carolina, or 27 per cent, were slaveholders in 1850, while 33 per cent of the families in Virginia held slaves, 48 per cent in South Carolina, and 70 per cent in Georgia. 5 In these four states, however, the average number of slaves per family did not vary appreciably, there being an average of ten to the slaveholding family in North Carolina, nine in Virginia, fifteen in South Carolina, and ten in Georgia.

           While the average number of slaves per slaveholding family in North Carolina seemed high, it must be pointed out that more than half, 67 per cent, of these families held less than ten slaves. 6

The large slaveholders, those few who owned from 50 to 200 slaves, give color to the picture of ante-bellum North Carolina, but the small slaveholders actually shaped the character of slavery in the State because they were in the majority. 7Equally important in determining the attitude of the State toward slavery and in influencing the type of the "North Carolina Negro" were the families, 72 per cent of the total in 1860, who owned no slaves.

           Within the State, slaveholding was concentrated in the coastal plain and in the piedmont. For the most part, the greatest number of slaves to the square mile was in the counties along the Virginia border. In 1860, only five counties, Edgecombe, Granville, Halifax, Warren, and Wake, contained more than 10,000 slaves, and only eleven, all in the extreme west, contained less than 1,000. Of the remaining sixty-nine counties, twenty-one contained from 5,000 to 10,000 slaves; eighteen contained from 3,000 to 5,000 slaves; and thirty from 1,000 to 3,000. Thirty-six of the eighty-five counties in the State contained 71 per cent of the total slave



Page 470

population and 58 per cent of the improved land in cultivation. 8 Sixteen counties 9 in the State had a greater number of slaves than whites, all except three in the area of the coastal plain region, all heavy cotton and tobacco producing counties. In Warren County the slave population was 68 per cent of the total, and in Edgecombe and Halifax counties the slaves outnumbered the whites by more than three thousand.

THE SLAVE TRADE

           During the days of slave importation, North Carolina planters depended largely upon Virginia and South Carolina for their slave supply. Although North Carolina was not entirely isolated from the main routes of coastal and ocean commerce, 10

few slaves entered her ports directly from Africa or from the West Indies. 11 In 1754, for example, only 19 Negroes entered the customhouse at Bath while 3,648 landed in Charleston. Governor Burrington pointed out in 1733 the effect that such a condition had upon the plantation régime in North Carolina: "Great is the loss this country has sustained in not being supplied by vessels from Guinea with Negroes; in part of the Province the People are able to pay for a ships load; but as none come directly from Africa, we are under a necessity to buy the refuse refractory and distemper'd Negroes brought from other Governments." 12

           If North Carolina planters were unable to get raw Africans in large numbers, neither were they under the necessity of "taming" their slaves, a process which might require several years. 13

A seasoned Negro was usually more valuable than a slave fresh from Africa, although Joseph Brevard of Camden, S. C., preferred Africans. His brother Captain Alexander Brevard of Lincoln County, North Carolina, wished to stock his plantation in 1804 and wrote to his brother for information about the Charleston market. "There were numbers of likely negroes there for sale," wrote Joseph upon his return from Charleston, "but I think the

Page 471

prices" high. "I am disposed to think you may purchase northern negroes on better terms at present than Africans; but I believe they are not to be preferred." 14

           Negroes entered North Carolina free of duty until 1787. In January of that year the General Assembly passed an act declaring that the importation of slaves "into this State is productive of evil consequences and highly impolitic" and levied a tax of £5 upon slaves between the ages of seven and twelve, thirty and forty; a tax of £10 on those between the ages of twelve and thirty; and a tax of 50s on those under seven and over forty. The Assembly also imposed a head tax of £5 on all slaves brought directly from the coast of Africa. 15

In 1790 the Assembly repealed this tax, and slaves again entered North Carolina free of duty until May, 1795. The act of 1794 was the first step which the State took actually to prohibit the slave trade. Undoubtedly alarmed by the slave insurrection of 1791 in Santo Domingo, the General Assembly made the importation of slaves "by land or water" liable to a fine of £100. 16 To protect the State still further against slaves entering from the insurrection-infested region, the Assembly made it unlawful in 1795 for any person coming to North Carolina "with the intent to settle or otherwise" from any of the West Indian or Bahama Islands or from South America to bring with him any Negro more than fifteen years old under penalty of £100 for every colored person brought in. 17 In 1798 when a shipload of Santo Domingo Negroes had arrived in Charleston and had been refused admittance, Governor Ashe of North Carolina issued a proclamation in alarm calling upon the people and the officers of the State to prevent a clandestine entry at some North Carolina seaport or inlet where a landing might easily have been affected. 18

           The act of 1794 aimed at the slave trade was defective in that no particular officer was authorized to prosecute suits against persons who violated the act. Despite smuggling and despite the attempt



Page 472

in 1806 to tighten the law, 19 it was not until 1816 that the State even made an effort to enforce the Congressional act of 1807 which closed the African slave trade. The act of 1816 called upon the county sheriffs to seize every slave imported since January 1, 1808, and offer him at public sale, but the State protected those who had bought illegally imported slaves for "a fair and valuable consideration" prior to November 18, 1816. 20

           At various times during the ante-bellum period vague rumors spread abroad that slaves were being smuggled into the State. In 1825 the North Carolina Manumission Society petitioned the General Assembly to take steps to prevent slaves being brought in, declaring that "many human creatures are, by the dexterity of practical free booters smuggled into our coast, landed & sold." 21

           The largest per cent of increase in the slave population in North Carolina after the American Revolution occurred during the period of grace which Congress gave the states before closing the African slave trade. In the decade from 1790 to 1800 North Carolina's slave population increased by almost a third and in the next decade it increased 27 per cent. In the five decades of slavery which followed, the average increase of the slave population was 14 per cent. 22

After 1807 North Carolina planters depended for their slave supply upon the natural increase and upon the domestic slave trade.

           From the time of the emancipation of slavery in the North to the close of the ante-bellum period a steady stream of slaves destined for the market in the Lower South passed through North Carolina. A few inter-state traders found purchasers in North Carolina, but for the most part they paused to pick up new recruits and kept on their way southward. 23

An English visitor in the southern states, G. W. Featherstonhaugh, observed a coffle of slaves on the march in North Carolina in 1844:

Page 473

           Slave traders, or speculators, as they were usually called, were constantly coming and going in every North Carolina community where the slave population was large. They bought slaves for the market in the Lower South or for any planter who might be in need of laborers. "We have a speculator with us now," wrote James Norcum, Jr., from his plantation near Edenton, "but he does not want men at any price but will pay for girls $5[00] to $550 cash." 25

Some traders operated on their own capital, while others organized companies in North Carolina or were agents for companies which had headquarters outside the State. In 1840 the firm of James Williamson and Company was doing business in Granville County. The company had three members, each of whom agreed to advance $5,000 as working capital. They purchased Negroes on credit and also for cash. 26 When J. J. Gurney, the famous Quaker reformer, was in Raleigh, his "heart sickened" at the accounts he heard of the prevalence of the internal slave trade: "I was assured, on the best authority, that two-thirds of the funds of the bank of North Carolina were invested in loans to the slave merchants; and that not less than a million dollars had been expended the year before, in the single county of Caswell

Page 474

for the purchase of Negroes on speculation." 26a The Wilmington Journal of October 14, 1859, published the advertisements of five Negro traders, three in Clinton, one at Warsaw, and one at Six Runs in Sampson County, all claiming to give the highest prices for plantation Negroes.

           When a planter needed a new hand or was forced to sell to raise money, he usually went first to a fellow planter to avoid the uncertainty which dealing with a speculator involved. Only a planter with a refractory Negro 27

on his hands or a man hard pressed for cash went first to the speculator. In the process of building up his estate from sixteen Negroes in 1844 to seventy-five in 1859, Stephen A. Norfleet of Bertie County bought most frequently from relatives and neighbors; one or two hands at a time until 1850 when he purchased fourteen from Mrs. Louisa Urquhart; four more from her in 1855; eleven from Frances E. Norfleet in 1854; nine from T. P. Devereux in 1856; fourteen from the estate of Thomas F. Norfleet. 28

           The better class of planters were usually reluctant to sell slaves, however urgent the necessity. Archibald D. Murphey of Hillsboro, a leader in social and economic reform, wrote, after having been forced to sell slaves to satisfy his creditors: "I have about sixty remaining, a greater number than render me Service or than I can well manage. But Altho' Others treat their Negroes as well and perhaps better than I do, mine are attached to me, and I did not know Until the Time came, what Pain it would give me to sell them." 29

           When forced to sell, a planter preferred not to separate a slave family if possible. In making her will, Annie Boyce of Mecklenburg County ordered that, upon the sale of her Negroes, which would be necessary to divide her estate, "Lucy's family is not to be separated." 30 R. H. Mosby of Halifax County advertised in



Page 475

1848 that he would sell his Negroes in families, saying "I am not disposed to violate the laws of humanity by selling or separating children from their parents." 31 Some planters, if possible, even permitted the slave to choose his own master. Annie Boyce willed that her slaves be valued at one-fifth below the market price and that they be given "the liberty of choosing their masters, and, if the person chosen should not be willing to take them, at valuation, that the negroes have the liberty of choosing until they get one." 32 So important was it that the master have the good-will of his slave, that a planter, if hiring the slave of another for a year or more, frequently asked the Negro if he were willing to live with him. The Farmers' Journal, published at Bath, strongly condemned such a practice. "There are many men who are really afraid to hire a negro at a public sale," wrote the Journal, "for fear he will be persuaded away by . . . rascally fellows before the time of service expires, and he does not feel able to lose the money." 33

           Slaves, however, when sold "on the block" by an administrator in the settlement of an estate or by an auctioneer to satisfy creditors were likely to be treated as mere chattels, as, indeed, they were by law. The Supreme Court held that it was the duty of an administrator to get as much as he could from the sale of slaves even if it required that families be separated. 34

Slaves seized for debt were generally sold at the courthouse door the last Thursday in every month. 35 The legal evidence of a transfer of ownership was the bill of sale witnessed by one or more persons and registered in the county where the owner resided. 36

           The price 37

which a slave brought varied considerably during the ante-bellum period, and reflected to some extent the prices of commodities, such as tobacco, cotton, corn, rice, turpentine, and naval stores. The value of an individual slave depended, of course, upon his age, health, temperament, and skill. A man

Page 476

usually brought more than a woman, and a tradesman, such as a carpenter or blacksmith, more than a field hand. In 1804 young Africans in their prime were bringing an average of $300 38 in Charleston; in 1840 the price of a prime field hand was about $800. 39 During the fifties the price of slaves climbed steadily upward. In Fayetteville in February, 1859, the Negroes, ranging in age from four to fifty, belonging to the estate of Andrew Gordon, sold at an average of more than $1,000. The men, field hands, brought from $1,500 to $1,700, and the women from $1,300 to $1,500. The Negroes were sold on twelve-months' credit with interest from date. About the same time, John P. Brown sold in families twenty Negroes ranging in age from one to forty-five at a private sale for $17,900, one-fourth cash, the remainder in eighteen months with interest from date. In 1859 a blacksmith sold for $2,100 in Fayetteville. 40

SLAVE LABOR

           The slaves who brought the fancy prices in market were the key men on a plantation. Overseers might come and go despite the adage advising against such a policy, but the plantation slaves stayed on. The men who did the actual work, consequently, had to be organized so that the routine might go on regardless of a temporary rupture in plantation management. The "headman" among the slaves was the foreman, or driver. He took his orders directly from the overseer or the plantation owner, and it was he rather than the overseer who usually started the day's work. He staked off each man's task and saw that it was performed before the close of day. On large plantations he sometimes held the keys to the corncrib and assisted the overseer in issuing rations on Saturday afternoon. He was supposed to help the overseer check up at night in the quarters, and he was responsible for seeing that the quarters were kept clean.

           Only slightly inferior in rank to the driver, were the house servants and the mechanics. On the large plantations there might be several house servants, a cook, a maid, a butler who also might serve as coachman and gardener, and a seamstress or two. The mechanics varied in number with the size of the plantation. On a



Page 477

plantation where there were ten or more prime hands, there might be one man who was a jack of all trades, a carpenter, blacksmith, and bricklayer rolled into one, but on larger plantations there were usually two or more slaves who had been bred to a trade. The other slaves were likely to be field hands.

           The old and young were given light tasks. Some were nurses for the black children, and all who could not be otherwise employed were assigned to the trash gang, which was kept at light tasks, such as pulling weeds, sweeping yards, clearing brush, picking cotton, or worming tobacco. Slaveowners ordinarily did not send children to the field as full taskers until they were twelve or fourteen, but they were put to work at light tasks at an early age. Enceinte women did half tasks until confinement, and women with suckling infants usually did not resume full work until the children were six or eight months old.

           The total number of slaves whom a planter owned, therefore, by no means represented his working force. Less than half of a planter's slaves usually could be counted on for a full day's work. A planter, for example, might own fifty slaves between the ages of one and seventy. Of these about twenty-eight usually would be men and women between the ages of fourteen and fifty; twenty would be children under fourteen, and two would be superannuated. The twenty workers might be classified as follows: eleven full hands, four three-quarter hands, three half hands, and two quarter hands. The twenty laborers, therefore, were equivalent to only sixteen full taskers, persons capable of doing a day's work. 41

           "Our slaves," declared the North Carolina Standard in 1850, "are . . . as a general rule, by no means overworked." 42

It was difficult to determine the most profitable number of acres to cultivate to the hand, for each planter was a law unto himself and there was little interchange of experiences until the last two decades of the slave era. Some planters allowed their slave supply to increase beyond the point of efficiency 43 with the result that no hand had really enough to keep him busy and the plantation piled up a deficit year after year. Still others attempted to plant

Page 478

two or three times the amount of land which their hands could cultivate well. The Farmers' Journal was of the opinion that North Carolina farmers were far more likely to understock their plantations than to accumulate a surplus. The Journal attributed the "low state of agriculture" in North Carolina in the last half of the ante-bellum period to the tendency to cultivate too much land, as well as to poor management, the use of inferior tools, the exhaustion of the soil, and the failure of the farm to be a self-sustaining unit. 44

           It was customary to cultivate about twenty acres to the hand. A planter with eight hands would ordinarily have 160 acres in cultivation, 100 in cotton and 60 in corn. 45

But Dr. John F. Tompkins, editor of the Farmers' Journal, was of the opinion that six hands were necessary to cultivate fifty acres thoroughly, four for the crops and two for making compost. 46 John D. Dancy, one of the proprietors of Panola in Edgecombe County, cultivated fourteen and one-fifth acres to the hand.

           As the land in the State gradually grew less fertile under exhaustive methods of agriculture, the work required of each hand correspondingly increased. On the plantation where little fertilizer was used the busiest time of the year began in April and continued until August when the crops were laid by. After that, little remained to be done except gather the crops, and, having housed the crops, the hands enjoyed a four-months period of semi-leisure. With the use of composts, extensively manufactured on some farms in the last two decades of the period, the first four months of the year were the busiest. An Edgecombe County planter, writing under the name of "Vito," described the work done on his plantation under the "new system." "The quantity of work done the first four months of the year, decidedly the busiest portion, is now nearly equal to what was formerly done in the whole year and the crops of corn and cotton doubled, if not trebled, under the present system of manuring, ditching, &c. . . . Most of our improving farmers are raising from eight hundred to one thousand loads of manure to the hand, and putting



Page 479

on from one hundred to one hundred and twenty-five loads to every acre cultivated in cotton." 47

           Ordinarily, plantation slaves reported for work at daybreak, and, during the rush season, when the success of the crop depended upon it, they stayed in the field until dark. But they were always rewarded for overtime work, with a money wage, extra holidays during the slack season, or with delicacies otherwise denied them, such as molasses every day, tobacco, or a barbecue. On plantations where the task system was used, the slave had the rest of the day to spend as he pleased when he finished the task assigned him. This meant that he sometimes had three or four hours of his own before dusk. When slaves worked in gangs at a given job, work usually stopped at "first dark."

           Even during the rush season, unless there was actual danger to the crop, all work on the plantation stopped at noon Saturday, and did not commence again until Monday morning. In 1844 when a North Carolina planter sought to punish a group of slaves for misconduct by having them work on Sunday, he was arrested for violation of the Sabbath. 48

During the summer months some planters gave their hands a two-hour rest period at noon, from twelve until two. "By doing this," said the Farmers' Journal, "each hand can become free from excessive heat, and after eating, if he chooses, can take some sleep." 49 It was customary, also, for slaves to have a Christmas holiday which lasted several days.

           Stephen A. Norfleet of Woodbourne and Indian Woods plantations in Bertie County gave his slaves four days at Christmas and from Wednesday until the following Monday when the crops were laid by in the late summer. At all other times, except, of course, on Saturday afternoon and Sunday, the slaves were busy unless the weather made work impossible.

           In April, 1856, Norfleet outlined a day's work in the planting season on his Woodbourne plantation as follows:

           A typical day's work during the slack season was that of August 18:

           Plant n. 2 Men Sawing. 5 Men belting trees in Second Islands. 1 Man making cotton baskets. Some hands shrubbing in Islands. 3 Double Plows commenced to break land in upper field of 2nd. Islands to Sow in Wheat-ground very hard & dry. Hauling dirt with 6 horse carts from bottom in Pasture into Old Place cotton Lot. 2 Ox carts hauling Straw into Farm Pen in Islands. Pressing off Peach Mobby. Stilling.

           Home. Hauling Mud from Swamp into Old Field. Saunders Mauling. Harry & Guy hewing tember &c.

           When the crops were being gathered Norfleet employed his hands as follows:

           Norfleet seldom worked his hands at night, and then only to stack grain when the weather was threatening or to shuck corn. In 1856 he listed night work on nine different occasions. 51

Occasionally, he put the house servants at the work which the trash gang usually performed. In November, 1856, for instance, the house servants helped the "shufflers" pick peanuts. Norfleet never let a spring or summer rain interfere with plantation work, for no matter how wet the fields, there were always other tasks to be done. He occasionally lightened the work because of the weather, as, for instance on January 5, 1856, when the rain was freezing as it fell. "All out of doors operations except the getting of fire wood, suspended," Norfleet wrote. Two hands "working in the blacksmith shop." During the night there was a heavy snow, but the following day dawned clear. He kept the women in their houses, but he put a few men to work preparing to kill hogs and the "Balance of men and boys chopping and piling brush in Newground." 52

Page 481

Only one work day during the entire year of 1856 was "entirely lost for work," September 1, when there was "a Furious Storm of wind and rain."

TYPICAL PLANTATIONS

           The amount of labor required of a slave depended not only upon whether his master was an "old style" farmer or an "improving" one, but also upon the crop which he grew. The majority of small slaveholders raised cotton, but some also grew tobacco as the main crop. The large slaveholders were cotton, tobacco, corn, or wheat planters, while a few in the East grew rice or distilled turpentine.

           Panola, a plantation in Edgecombe County owned by John S. Dancy and Robert Norfleet, was generally considered the best cotton plantation of the fifties in the State. Some even considered it the best managed cotton plantation in the entire South. 53

Panola contained 908 acres, 600 acres of which were cleared land. All but 10 acres were in cultivation in 1854, as follows: 220 acres in cotton, 225 in corn, 8 in sweet potatoes, 37 in oats, and 100 in broad-cast peas. "Our laboring force on Panola," wrote Dancy in describing his plantation routine, "consists of thirty-four hands, of various sizes, ages, and qualifications, twenty head of mules, and three yoke of oxen." 54 The owners began the preparation for a crop a year in advance. They had two hands with wagons constantly employed in hauling materials for making manure, and used the entire force for this purpose every day when the condition of the growing crop would permit. All hands spent the interval between laying by the crop and the beginning of the fodder pulling and cotton picking season, usually from two to three weeks, making compost and filling up the cattle and hog lots. By the middle of December all crops had generally been housed, and the entire force again set to work composting cotton seed, making a fertilizer of ditch bank, stable manure, and low ground soil, and hauling fresh soil into the cattle and hog lots. Except for stopping occasionally to pack cotton, the hands kept up this work until they commenced plowing with six double teams about the middle of January.



Page 482

           When the plowing season began, the remainder of the hands and teams continued to make compost until the last of February. Then they began the troublesome and laborious work of hauling to the fields the composts which they had collected during the past twelve months. The slaves kept up this work, by far the most arduous of the year, until almost the last of April, when they usually had hauled 110 loads of manure to the acre upon 400 acres of land, a total of 44,000 loads. One hand ordinarily could haul seventy-five loads a day.

           In 1854 the crop yielded 219½ bales of cotton of 400 pounds each, 900 barrels of corn, 2,000 bushels of sweet potatoes, more than 1,000 bushels of clean oats, and 27,000 pounds of hay oats. The hands plowed under the peas to manure the land for the next year's crop.

           Panola slaves used the best agricultural implements which their owners could obtain. Their plows were Maryland or Patuxent plows bought in Baltimore; their carts were sturdy and constantly kept in repair. No hand was forced to "make shift" with a broken hoe. Dancy and Norfleet were among the first planters in the State to try the newly invented cotton seed sower. Thus well equipped, Panola slaves were constantly busy during working hours, and every day was a work day.

           While fifteen counties in the State grew cotton as the main crop, only six raised tobacco, Warren, Granville, Person, Caswell, Rockingham, and Stokes, 55

twenty or more pounds to the acre of improved land, and six adjacent counties raised it to some extent, more than five and less than twenty pounds per acre of improved land. Tobacco did not require heavy work unless the planter used compost extensively, but it was a tedious and long-drawn out crop, the produce of one year not having been put aside until work on another had to be underway. To obtain the best results the tiny tobacco seeds had to be planted in a bed of virgin leaf mould, carefully prepared and carefully watched. The land which was to receive the tiny plants, usually a well-drained sandy

Page 483

loam, had to be more carefully prepared in spring than did cotton land. It required plowing in early spring and subsoiling any portion likely to hold water near the surface. Soon afterward, the land should be harrowed, and, just before the plants were ready to transplant, "scraped" with a small seed plow. Hands followed the plow, making hills about three feet apart in preparation for the young plants. "The first fine rain, thereafter, the plants should be removed from the seed-beds, and one carefully planted in each hill," wrote W. W. W. Bowie, in describing tobacco culture for the American Farmer. "A brisk man can plant 10,000 plants per day. The smaller or weaker hands, with baskets filled with plants, precede the planters and drop the plants on the hill. In drawing the plants from the bed and in carrying them to the ground, great care ought to be taken not to bruise or mash them." 56 Three or four days after planting, hands broke the crust around the plants with a hoe and in a week worked them again with a hoe or a light plow. Cotton was usually chopped once and hoed three times, but tobacco had to be hoed, after this final plowing, once a week for four or five weeks and any grass growing around the plants pulled out by hand.

           As soon as the buds were fairly out, the plants had to be topped by experienced hands. Two weeks later the plants were ready for "cutting." From this stage, the crop was a source of great solicitude. The planter was fearful of storms and frost, and his worst enemy, the worms, now came in crowds. The suckers had to be pulled off, and the ground leaves gathered early in the mornings.

           When the leaves were ripe enough for the barn, they were cut off by experienced hands and left on the ground to "fall" or wilt. Other slaves gathered up the bundles on their shoulders and took them to the tobacco barns where they were prepared for drying by any of three different modes, "pegging," "spearing," or "splitting." The tobacco was then hung in the barn to dry, and after the barn had been filled and the leaves yellowed, some planters put large fires under the tobacco and dried it at once, increasing its brightness and giving it a smoke taste and smell. When well-cured, tobacco leaves are brittle. Consequently, the planter had



Page 484

to wait until damp weather for the final processing: taking down the leaves; laying them in piles; sorting in three or four grades, yellow, bright, dull, and lugs; tying them in bundles; bulking; and prizing.

           Tobacco, even more than cotton, required a rich soil, and this in turn meant, at least after 1840, that the planter had to use plenty of fertilizer. If the planter had his hands prepare compost in addition to tending the crop, they were as busy as those on well-managed Panola. It was common, however, for a planter to clear $400, $500, or as much as $700 to the hand on a tobacco plantation. "But tobacco is a troublesome crop," wrote the Arator of Raleigh in 1857, "and requires close attention not only in handling, but in making and applying manure; our people are averse to such trouble; and but few, therefore, if any, will try it." In Granville and Warren counties, where tobacco had been grown since the first settlement, farmers turned more and more to tobacco in the late ante-bellum period. "I recently heard," wrote the Arator, "one of the most intelligent citizens" of Granville County "remark that with the price of even ten to fifteen dollars a hundred, he wanted to live in no better country. It is true they use guano there extensively, even in some instances, a ton to the hand; but they manage it skillfully, and carefully save also other manures." 57

           In 1857 Captain A. Slade of Caswell County raised 20,000 pounds of tobacco with a force of ten hands, each of whom cultivated 12,000 hills, or three acres. He grew the crop on thin land and manured it mainly from guano, 200 pounds to the acre. He sold the entire crop in Lynchburg, Virginia, at the extraordinary price of $35 a hundred pounds, lugs included, and realized $7,000, or $700 from each laborer. "Can the cotton fields of Louisiana, the sugar plantations of Cuba, the rice fields or the turpentine districts of the Carolinas, boast of larger profits?" asked the Arator.

           A great many North Carolina farmers grew some kind of grain crop along with their "money" crop, and some raised grain exclusively. The grain growers were more common than has frequently been thought. The Farmers' Journal often urged planters to diversify their crops "instead of depending solely on corn or cotton or wheat." Kenneth Rayner, who was himself experimenting



Page 485

with wheat at his farm in Hertford County, declared in 1854 that Indian corn was the great staple of North Carolina. Wheat, which had long been successfully grown in every portion of the State, promised "from the improvements now going on" soon to "make our State one of the finest wheat-growing regions of the Union." Rice also, as he pointed out, was a staple crop in some of the southeastern counties, and "thousands of acres of our Eastern swamps" now await "the hand of industry to convert them from stagnant wastes, into waving fields of rice." 58

           Josiah Collins, Jr., was, perhaps, the most conspicuous planter in the ante-bellum period who raised corn as his main crop. 59

His plantation, Somerset Place, named for his father's native shire in England, was a large tract in the Scuppernong swamp, Phelps Lake. When the canal was dug through the swamp, he placed his three large granaries, his gristmills, and sawmills upon its bank. Barges, bound for Charleston and Savannah, waited at the granary doors to receive the corn mechanically shelled and mechanically loaded for market lifted to the fourth floor and poured through spouts.

           Henry K. Burgwyn and his brother Thomas O. Burgwyn grew wheat extensively on their plantations, Thornburg and Occonachee Wigwam, on the Roanoke in Halifax County. In 1855, Solon Robinson, traveler and writer upon agricultural subjects, pronounced these plantations the best between Canada and Louisiana. 60

That year Henry Burgwyn had 900 acres in wheat which he estimated would yield 20 bushels to the acre, or 18,000 bushels, worth about $50,000, and Thomas had 700 acres in wheat. In addition, Henry Burgwyn had 450 acres in corn and 500 in clover, besides minor crops. When the brothers inherited their land they were living in the North, and cotton was the staple crop grown on the plantation. They set themselves at once to study agriculture, and Henry Burgwyn went to Europe to visit model farms. In August, 1852, the Farmers' Journal wrote of the Burgwyns, "They have done more to show what our state might be in an agricultural

Page 486

point of view, than any other gentlemen with whom we are acquainted. . . . Upon these farms we saw land that this year, even with the dry season, is estimated to average from ten to twelve barrels of corn, and twenty bushels of wheat per acre, which ten years since would not have made that of corn per acre, and scarcely any wheat." 61 Their improvements consisted chiefly in draining, first with Irish labor and later with slaves, the bottom fields, plowing deeply with three-horse plows, sub-soiling, and using lime and clover as fertilizers. In 1854 the two brothers had fifteen reaping machines. One brother threshed his wheat by steam power; the other, by water. 62

           At the close of the ante-bellum period not many planters were engaged in making turpentine, for by this time most of the trees in Eastern Carolina had been used up by the industry or had died of a disease which attacked great numbers of North Carolina pines in the late forties. 63

A turpentine plantation usually lasted from eight to ten years, or, with careful working, from twelve to fourteen. 64 After that the trees were cut and made into tar, a slightly less profitable industry. A plantation, to be profitable, had to be located near a distillery, for turpentine could not bear the cost of being hauled a long distance. If the distillery was on a river, as it most frequently was, the turpentine could be hauled two or three miles and rafted down forty or fifty miles at a cheaper rate than it would cost to haul to the still over six or seven miles. Frequently, planters had to wait for a winter freshet to be able to get their barrels of turpentine down the shallow creeks to Fayetteville or Wilmington. If a person lived on thin pine lands, turpentine was the most profitable staple he could make even though he had to haul it ten or twelve miles. Planters advantageously located frequently cleared $500 to $700 a hand.

           But the land, once having been "burned up" by the turpentine and tar industry, was usually left "lying out" a generation or more until it again grew up in pines. For this reason, an Edgecombe farmer, writing to the Farmers' Journal in 1852, called turpentine "that great curse to our State." "It held out such flattering inducements



Page 487

to the farmer to leave the plow-share in the field, and repair to the woods," he said, "that every one who had land adapted to the cultivation of the stuff, went into it with his whole soul." 65 But it proved only a temporary resource, and the farmer either shook off its "pernicious influence" and went back into agriculture or moved his hands into other turpentine fields farther south.

           In 1855 D. L. Russell of Brunswick County was the largest maker of turpentine in the Cape Fear region except the Green Swamp Company. He owned some 25,000 acres and had a force of 150 hands. He also had a thousand acres in cultivation half of which was in corn, the rest in other food crops, and in cotton, for he attempted to make his plantation self-sustaining. But turpentine was his chief concern and he usually cleared about $25,000 a year. 66

           The routine on a turpentine plantation was regulated by the task system. The task for a prime hand was from 450 to 500 boxes a week, or 75 to 80 a day. Expert hands could work faster than this and were usually encouraged to do so by being paid for extra boxes. A beginner would do well to cut fifty boxes a day, and the judicious planter did not assign him more work than this, for the most important part of the whole process was in having the boxes well and properly cut. 67

           Cutting boxes began about the first of November and continued until the first or the middle of March. A well-cut box was from eight to fifteen inches long with a smooth lower rim, having a slope inward of two or three inches in order to hold about a quart of "drip." As soon as the boxes were cut, each task was marked off by blazing a line of trees. The task was divided further by rows of stakes fifty yards apart, cutting the task into squares of about half an acre so that the hand could proceed without skipping any trees and the driver or overseer could inspect the work accurately. The hands were then set to work cutting corners to the boxes.

           Dipping usually began about the first of April, and the number of dippings in a season varied from four to seven, depending upon the age of the plantation. As the plantation grew older and the chipping of the boxes extended higher up the trees, the number



Page 488

of dippings of "soft" turpentine decreased and the proportion of "hard" or "scrape" increased. A hand ordinarily got over his task in six or eight days, filling five or six barrels a day and dipping from 1,800 to 3,000 boxes a day.

           While the dipping was being done, usually by women and inferior hands, expert hands were busy chipping the boxes. For instance, one hand could dip four tasks while three prime hands did the chipping, going over each box four or five times between each dipping. The scrape, or hard turpentine which collected about the box, usually was not gathered until the second winter, but afterward it was gathered every winter, the bulk of scrape increasing with the age of the plantation. The scrape, like the soft turpentine, was emptied directly into barrels ready for market, but the scrape had to be trodden into the barrel.

           On large establishments, barrels were made on the plantation. Every fifth man in a gang of hands might be a cooper, engaged the year through in collecting his materials and providing the others with barrels. When the planter hired a cooper, by the day or month, the slave's task was five barrels a day, and his wage was 25 cents a barrel when all materials were furnished him.

           Brunswick was the chief rice growing county in the State, having produced almost seven million pounds in 1860. New Hanover, Columbus, Bladen, Robeson, Sampson, Duplin, Pitt, and a few neighboring counties were also raising rice in increasing quantities. The work, primitive and laborious, was accomplished by the task system. Ditches divided the fields into "tasks" of a quarter of an acre. In March, hands prepared the fields with the hoe and dug trenches for the seeds. From that time until the harvest in September, they were busy alternately flooding the growing rice and clearing the fields of grass. In addition, there were ditches to be dug, trunks to be mended, flood gates to be kept in repair, a routine which kept the slaves for long hours in wet fields. The nature of the work and the prevalence of malaria in this region made the rice plantations of the lowlands almost prohibitive for white labor and also caused considerable sickness among the slaves. Indeed, Josiah Collins on Phelps Lake 68

abandoned rice culture for this reason and turned to corn. Hands cut the

Page 489

ripe rice with a sickle, exposed it in the fields for a day, then shocked it, and in colonial times pounded out the grain with a pestle in a deep mortar. By the beginning of the ante-bellum period rice planters began to obtain mills for this purpose. The final processes of winnowing, sifting, and polishing might also be done by mechanical power, but late in the ante-bellum period some of this work was still being done by hand. 69 In 1775 Miss Janet Schaw of Scotland thought the labor required for the cultivation of rice "fit only for slaves, and I think the hardest work I have seen them engaged in." 70 When the American Anti-Slavery Society sought a testimonial against slavery in North Carolina it cited conditions on a rice plantation near Wilmington. 71

           Some slaves were also engaged in the fisheries especially those on Albemarle Sound in March and April; some worked in various mines in the State; some, in cotton factories and in lumber mills. In 1827 slaves had been employed for a number of years at the Donaldson cotton factory in Fayetteville and at the falls of Tar River. The owner reported that he found them, "not only equal to whites in aptness to learn, and skill to execute, but all things considered, he actually preferred them." "With the blacks," said he, "there is no turning out for wages, and no time lost in visiting masters, and other public exhibitions." 72

THE OVERSEER

           Upon the skilful management of the slaves often depended much of the success of a plantation. Surly hands could defy an overseer, break a vast amount of equipment, and otherwise interrupt the plantation routine without seeming to do so.

           Most of the large plantation owners employed overseers to assist in the management of the Negroes and the crops. As early as 1818 a group of planters in Brunswick County urged the State to make it compulsory for owners of as many as ten slaves to "employ some white male person to superintend and oversee" the



Page 490

Negroes. 73 In 1830 the General Assembly did pass such a law, making it applicable, however, only to Brunswick and New Hanover counties. 74

           An excellent overseer, or superintendent, as he was sometimes called, was difficult to find. The work was strenuous, the pay small, and the requisite personal qualities usually above those of the person willing to engage in such a profession. It was customary to furnish an overseer lodging and to pay him in one of three ways: a money wage payable in notes which might be converted into cash at a discount, a smaller money wage supplemented with a specific amount of provisions, or a share in the crop and certain specified provisions. The customary money wage in the last half of the ante-bellum period varied from $125 to $250. 75

           When a planter did find a man capable of managing his hands, he was fortunate. Such an overseer was a certain Woodley employed by Dr. Thomas Warren of Chowan County. He is a "most admirable superintendent," wrote the Farmers' Journal and he has "much fame in that country for his good management." 76

The Journal thought an overseer more likely to be "an inexperienced young man, who was not stimulated to exertion either by his employer or the hands," who might be found "asleep in the corner of the fence, and the negroes idlying away their time." 77 Gray Armstrong, who owned two farms near Rocky Mount, found that the overseer whom he had hired in 1856 was "very often seen at grog-shops and at a bowling alley at the depot, in the working hours of the day." He once found the man playing cards at ten o'clock in the morning, and often found him "excited with spirits, but not drunk." 78

           The relation between Phillips Moore of Mount Tirzah in Person County and his overseer, Nathaniel Smith, during the planting year of 1819-1820 was typical of conditions on many a small plantation. In November, 1819, owner and overseer entered into the following agreement:



Page 491

           Said Smith undertakes to perform the duties of Overseer for said Moore under his particular advise & direction, to take charge of the hands, to work with them diligently, to assist in feeding the stock of every kind, with all care of the same that is requisite in all seasons of the year, to see that there is plenty of fire wood always provided at the door for the house fires, to take care of all the farming utensils of every description, and have them housed except when immediately in use, to repair fences, take care to prevent any damage or loss of any kind whatever, and to make up all loss time whatever, & find himself.

           And said Moore for his part is to pay unto said Smith two hundred Dollars or its value for the term of one Year.

           To this agreement Smith added a proviso of his own, to which the owner agreed:

           And we further agree that if any dispute does arrise which cannot be mutually settled we bind ourselves to leave it to three persons to be chosen by ourselves. . . .

           Accustomed to keeping strict accounts at his country store, Moore also kept strict account of his overseer's activities, charging him at the end of the year with having lost twenty-two and a third days from work. He set down each offense as it occurred so that at the end of the year he had an imposing list with which to confront the overseer: "Nathaniel Smith lost this day, his wife being sick. This day away about your pork. . . . Went away at a time I wanted you to work at tobacco . . . fatening hogs got out, you unconcerned, came & set down by fire. No care taken of tobacco stript the other night. at night a horse verry sick, paid no attention to him. Went to the Court house. . . . Went to muster. . . . Went to Mother in Law's. . . . Went fishing, left the plow & horse, & neglected the hands (corn verry foul .ch.d you $1). . . . Thursday went to the Election . . . went to sale . . . went to General Muster. . . ." Taking out $14 for lost time, about $12 for provisions advanced, chiefly brandy, shoe repairing, and a barrel of flour, Moore discharged his part of the agreement by giving the overseer three notes for $58 each, and set about looking for another manager.

           But the new overseer was little better. He was sick much of the time; he went to town on court days and attended elections; often he neglected to go to the remote fields when the people were



Page 492

at work there; and he finally moved away ten days before the expiration of his contract, leaving "my fences down in several places." 79

           As the overseer was the representative of the owner, he exercised much the same authority over the slaves. It was necessary to give him the power to impose punishments, but some planters preferred themselves to inflict whatever corporal punishment was needed. In the only case which reached the Supreme Court in regard to the relative authority of the overseer and the owner, the Court held, "It cannot for a moment be admitted that an overseer has a right to control the slaves under his charge, against the known wishes, much less the positive commands, of the owner." 80

But in case a slave resisted the authority of an overseer and injured him, the Negro was proceeded against as if he had attacked his master. 81 Slaves were quick to sense the attitude of their owner toward the overseer, and often defied him readily when they knew that he was in disfavor with their master.

           The number of overseers in North Carolina was never large, for the agricultural economy of the State was one of small farms. On the large plantations the slaves worked in the fields from sun to sun, but on a well managed plantation the routine was systematized to obtain the most from the land with a minimum sacrifice of slave health. The prevailing system of slavery in the State was that of close relationship between master and slave, for of the total slaveholders fully 67 per cent worked side by side with their slaves. In the management of slaves the law placed few restrictions upon the authority of the master, and it readily came to his assistance by making certain forms of misconduct punishable in the courts.

Table of Contents

Previous: CHAPTER XV THE CHURCH AND SOCIAL CONTROL

Next: CHAPTER XVII THE SLAVE CODE