Archive for the ‘Plantation Life’ Category

Slave Descendant Walks in Ancestors’ Footsteps on Wessyngton Plantation

Monday, November 2nd, 2009
Archaeological Dig at Wessyngton Slave Cabin Site

Archaeological Dig at Wessyngton Slave Cabin Site

In 1991, I had an opportunity that few historians or genealogists ever have; to literally walk in your ancestors’ footsteps.  In 1989 I was approached by the president of the Bloomington-Normal black history Project and director of the Midwestern archaeological research Center, about the potential investigations of the salve cabin area on Wessyngton Plantation to get an interpretation of slave life there.  Similar digs have been conducted at the Hermitage, Mt. Vernon, and Monticello. 

The actual digging at Wessyngton did not start until 1991.  The thought of actually walking in my ancestors’ footsteps and holding objects they used in their everyday lives one hundred years earlier was surreal to me.  Three sections of the slave cabin area were selected for exploration.  One site was where the cabin of my great-great-grandparents Emanuel and Henny Washington once stood.

The dig yielded fragments of pottery and dishes used by my ancestors as well as coins and arrowheads made by Native Americans. 

The photograph above shows the site of the archaeological dig on Wessyngton Plantation where my ancestors once lived.

Slave Owner’s Family Bible Documents Slave Births During the 1700s

Monday, October 26th, 2009
Blow Family Bible

Blow Family Bible

Slave owners kept detailed records of their slaves’ births, and deaths, and purchases; although many of them have not survived.  They often recorded these events in their family bibles along with information on their own families.

The 1715 Blow family bible records the births of slaves owned by the Blows of Sussex, and Southampton counties in Virginia.  Nineteen births of four mothers are recorded from 1737 to 1763 spanning three generations.  This is a goldmine of information for African American research.  Descendants of these slaves can be found searching other records in the Blow Family Papers in the Swem Library in Virginia.

Divorce Case of Former Slaves Reveals Family History

Friday, October 23rd, 2009
Arry Fort Pitt 1836-1918

Arry Fort Pitt 1836-1918

Today divorce is very common, but in 1800s and early 1900s it was rarely heard of, especially among African Americans.  In my research I found this extraordinary divorce case of two former slaves in Robertson County, Tennessee which detailed the history of their family.

Alford Pitt 1830-1900 and his wife Arry Fort Pitt 1836-1918 were married during slavery and had eleven children.   Alford was a carpenter and later accumulated more than 500 acres of land.  He had African American and white sharecroppers working his land.

In 1900, Arry filed for divorce from Alford stating that he had an affair with two black women and one white one.  She stated that she had worked hard to help him amass everything they owned and she was entitled to half.  Alford claimed that she had not helped him accumulate his wealth and felt since they married during slavery and never married after they were emancipated that she was not legally his wife and therefore not entitled to any of his property.

The divorce case put a great strain on the Pitt family, their friends and neighbors.  Arry had more than fifty witnesses to prove her claims and Alford had nearly as many to support his.  Half the children sided with their mother and the others their father.

Arry was represented in court by a family member of her former owners.  In 1866, a law was passed in Tennessee which made all former slave marriages legal if the couple continued to live as man and wife.

The courts ordered Alford to give Arry 100 acres of land, $1,000, a horse and buggy and other livestock.  Shortly after the verdict Alford died from complications of a cold that he caught from walking to court in bad weather. 

Some of the Pitt property is still owned by their direct descendants.  A street that runs through the property bears the family name.

Sources of African American Names During Slavery

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009
Names Among Wessyngton Slaves

Names Among Wessyngton Slaves

African Americans got their given or first names from various sources during the slavery.  Some of them used African “day names” such as Cudjo, Mingo, and Cuffee, denoting the day of the week on which they were born.  Others used names from the Bible, classical names, place names, names of plantation owner’s families, famous individuals like the presidents and their own family members.

The document above lists various sources of names of individuals enslaved on Wessyngton Plantation from 1796 to 1865.

Oral History Key to Tracing African American Roots

Sunday, October 18th, 2009
Joseph Washington 1895-2002

Joseph Washington 1895-2002

In more than thirty years of researching my ancestry and the lives of African Americans enslaved on Wessyngton Plantation, I have had the honor of interviewing more than twenty individuals whose parents or grandparents lived on the plantation.  These individuals ranged in age from eighty to 107 years old.

Although I found hundreds of documents about my ancestors from plantation records written by the owners of Wessyngton, I learned many personal things about my ancestors from conducting interviews with elder family members. 

In 1994, I visited my cousin Joseph Washington 1895-2002 (pictured above) at his home in Mansfield, Ohio on his one hundred second birthday.  As a child Joseph lived next door to my great-great-grandparents Emanuel and Henny Washington who were born at Wessyngton in the early 1800s.  He related many stories about them to me including ghost stories that my great-great-grandfather used to tell all the children on the plantation and songs he used to sing.  Joseph told me what life was like on the plantation when he grew up there and how many people on the plantation were related to one another.

Oral history is a vital key to tracing African American genealogy and  provides many details about our ancestors that can’t be found in records.

Slave Life On Southern Plantations

Saturday, October 17th, 2009
Slaves' Tobacco on Wessyngton Plantation 1846

Slaves' Tobacco on Wessyngton Plantation 1846

Enslaved African Americans on Wessyngton Plantation worked under a task system.  The plantation owner assigned a task to each individual.  Once the task was completed the slave was free to work on his own crops of tobacco if he chose to do so.  The owner usually assigned tasks that would take the entire day to complete.  However, some of the fastest workers were able to complete the assigned tasks and work for themselves.  The slaves were not required to work on Sunday and were off half days on Saturdays.  Many of the slaves used this time to cultivate their own crops.  The task system required less supervision by overseers than gang labor and gave slaves more control of their time.

 The owner kept a list of how much tobacco each person raised and paid them after the crops were sold in New Orleans.  The slaves used the money from the sale of the crops to purchase various items not provided by the plantation owner.  The document above lists the names of men on Wessyngton Plantation in 1846 who raised their own crops and the items they purchased for their families.

Runaway Slaves During the Civil War

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009
Runaway Slaves from Wessyngton Plantation 1862-1863

Runaway Slaves from Wessyngton Plantation 1862-1863

 

President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued September 22, 1862, declared freedom to slaves in the confederate states that did not return to the control of the Union by January 1, 1863.  It did not free slaves from the border  states Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and Tennessee.  Many slaves from these states, however, were already free by this time due to self-emancipation─running away or being abandoned by their owners.

George A. Washington realized that his slaves would soon be tempted to leave his plantation Wessyngton.  At the same time the Union Army was recruiting black soldiers, George made an offer to hire some of his slaves for a rate of $10 per month.  From February through May 1863, twenty-four men agreed to stay on the plantation and work for the offered $10 per month.  Of those twenty-four, however; eighteen left within a few months.  The men had worked on the plantation all their lives and no doubt wanted to see what the outside world had to offer and to taste freedom.  The men must have seen the offered salary as an attempt to keep them on the plantation.  The above document lists the eighteen individuals who ran away from Wessyngton Plantation from 1862-1863.

Wessyngton Plantation Named in Honor of Washingtons’ Ancestral Home

Sunday, October 11th, 2009
Washington Family Crest

Washington Family Crest

The Washingtons trace their ancestry back to William de Hertburn in twelfth-century England where their family owned a manor estate called Wessyngton─the Norman spelling of Washington.  William de Hertburn changed his name to William de Wessyngton.  The first Washington to come to America in Joseph Washington’s line was John Washington, who immigrated to Surry County, Virginia, in 1658.  One of John’s cousins also named John immigrated to Westmoreland County, Virginia, in 1656.  This John Washington was the great-grandfather of President George Washington.  Joseph Washington came to Robertson County, Tennessee in 1796 and established Wessyngton Plantation, which he named in honor of his ancestral home.

Slave Women on Southern Plantations

Friday, October 9th, 2009
Slave Women Processing Pork on Wessyngton Plantation

Slave Women Processing Pork on Wessyngton Plantation

Enslaved African American women performed various task on southern plantations and farms.  Women on Wessyngton Plantation were not required to do any hard labor in the fields as the men did; however, they were an important part of other operations on the plantation.  Women did light work in the gardens, they knitted and sewed for the slave community and their owners, worked the looms, and did the spinning and weaving.  They were responsible for cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, making cheese, preserves, and soap. No mother with a young baby was expected to do any outside work until her baby was two years old.  There was a nursery on the plantation were children were cared for by elderly women too old to work.  Women were a vital part of the pork processing industry on the plantation as seen in the photo above.  Each week the women on the plantation would assemble at the plantation smokehouse (building in background of photo) and would be allotted bacon, meal, flour, sugar, and coffee based on the number of individuals in their families.  Hundreds of hogs were killed at each year at Wessyngton to feed the enslaved population and the Washington family.  Wessyngton had a reputation for producing  its famous Washington Hams which could be found on the menus of the finest restaurants as far south as New Orleans and as far north as Philadelphia. 

Slave Housing on Southern Plantations

Monday, October 5th, 2009
Wessyngton Slave Cabins

Wessyngton Slave Cabins

Housing for slaves varied from plantation to plantation depending on the owners.  Most slave quarters were generally arranged in avenues or streets and located behind the mansion or ‘Big House.’  They were strategically placed to give the owner or overseer a clear view of the slaves, so their activities could be easily monitored.

The slave settlement at Wessyngton Plantation, however, did not fit this pattern.  The lack of a clustered settlement pattern at Wessyngton was somewhat unusual during antebellum times.  This was primarily due to the hilly topography of the plantation.  The scattered pattern gave the slaves at Wessyngton more freedom and made it far more difficult to keep them under constant surveillance.

Typically, slave housing at Wessyngton consisted of hand-hewn one-room log cabins measuring 20 by 20 square feet with brick end chimneys.  Some cabins were 18 by 36 square feet.  Each cabin had log flooring and a loft, where children  slept. 

Each cabin housed an average of six individuals.  Family sizes varied depending on the number births, deaths and marriages.