Slave Labor on Southern Plantations

October 7th, 2009

Wessyngton Tobacco Field

Wessyngton Tobacco Field

Slaves toiled endlessly, clearing land, plowing fields, raising livestock, erecting buildings, and planting crops to transform frontier landscapes into lavish plantations.

 

The enslaved population on Wessyngton Plantation primarily produced tobacco, which was very labor intensive.  In 1860,  250,000 pounds of tobacco was produced on Wessyngton making it the largest producer of tobacco in the United States and the second largest in the world.

Slave Housing on Southern Plantations

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.

Plantation Records Key Link to African American Past

September 6th, 2009

List of Men and Boys on Wessyngton Plantation 1856

List of Men and Boys on Wessyngton Plantation 1856

Plantation owners used records such as slave bills of sales, birth registers, and many other documents to keep an accurate count of their slaves’ births, deaths, and their production on plantations and farms.  These documents are invaluable in tracing African American genealogy.

 

The document above is a list of enslaved African American men and boys on Wessyngton Plantation in 1856 owned by George A. Washington.  Slave owners had to pay taxes on their slaves from age twelve to fifty, so the list only identifies those in that age range who were a part of the plantation labor force.  Many of the individuals are listed with surnames: Davis, Fairfield, Gardner, Holman, Lewis, Price, Smith, Terry, Vanhook, White and Woodard.  The use of these surnames made it possible to locate them and their previous slave owners.  Many of them were also found on the 1870 U. S. Census living on or near Wessyngton Plantation.  

 

In 1964, the Washington family deposited all their family papers and plantation records in the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville.  Hundreds of these documents shed light on the lives of hundreds of African Americans enslaved there.

Surnames Used by African American Slaves

August 28th, 2009

There has been much debate among scholars, historians and genealogists whether enslaved African Americans used the surnames of their last owners, previous owners, or a surname that had no connection to slavery.

Location the owner of one’s ancestor is crucial for an African American genealogist to trace his family before 1870.

In more than thirty years of researching my ancestors and hundreds of others enslaved on one of America’s largest plantations, slaves owned by mid-sized planters and small farmers, reviewing thousands of documents I have come across various situations that might give others clues on what to look for.

There are many factors to consider in determining what surnames African Americans used.

Although it is not widely known, some African Americans used surnames before they were emancipated. This happened mostly on large plantations where several individuals had the same first names and a surname was used to distinguish them from one another.
African Americans were known by these surnames in the slave community and often recorded by slave owners on plantation documents.

In small communities where census takers and county officials knew African Americans personally and their previous owners, they often recorded the former slaves with the surnames of their last owners. One former slave Bill Scott from Wessyngton reported in his pension application for military service that when he enlisted in the Union Army officials put down his surname as Washington. He stated that he had always been known by his father’s surname Scott, even before he was freed.

Former slaves often made up surnames based on their occupations. A Wessyngton slave named Bill who was the plantation’s blacksmith was known as Billy the Smith during slavery. After emancipation, he became William Smith. Another slave named Bill who attended the sheep became Bill Shepherd.

When slave owners married, they often received slaves as wedding gifts and inheritances from their wife’s family. As a result, many slaves used the surnames of their owner’s wife’s family. When Wessyngton’s owner George A. Washington married Margaret Lewis in 1849 her father gave the couple twenty-nine slaves. The majority of these slaves used the surname Lewis instead of Washington. If searching for a slave owner with the same surname of your ancestor fails, check marriage records for the slave owners. This may reveal your family used the surname of the slave owner’s wife’s family.

African Americans tended to use surnames associated with their own families instead of the last slave owner. In the late 1830s, Nathaniel Terry of Todd County, Kentucky died leaving a plantation of fifty slaves. Five of the slaves were sold to the Washingtons and brought to Wessyngton. Several of the other slaves were sold to various slave owners. After emancipation, they all used the Terry surname because their families had been with the white Terry family for generations.

Former slaves also interchanged surnames on census records. It is not uncommon to see an African American family listed with one surname in 1870 and another in 1880. This is due in part to officials imposing surnames on them based on their last owners. John Lewis was born in 1831; in 1844 he and several family members were given to George A. Washington of Wessyngton. In 1870, he is listed as John Washington. On all subsequent census records, he is listed as John Lewis. This was the case with several others from Wessyngton.

Another myth is once African Americans were sold they never saw their families again. This is true in some cases but not all. In small communities when slaves were sold, they were often bought by someone in the area. Thomas Black Cobbs was owned by a small slave owner Catherine Black. At her death when Thomas was ten, he was sold to Solomon Cobbs who lived nearby. Thomas’ mother, younger brothers and sisters remained with the Black family. After emancipation, he moved back with his mother, brothers and sisters and used the Cobbs surname. It had always been passed down in the family that Thomas has been owned by the Blacks.

In instances where slaves were sold from their families and they did not retain their previous owners’ surnames, they named their children for parents, sisters and brothers to keep a connection with their families. In 1836, William Turbeville died leaving an estate with several slaves who were brothers: Turner, Nelson, Simon, Jordan, and Jacob. They were all sold to different owners: Connell, Rose, Johnson, and Hughes respectively. The brothers were sold when they were very young and remained with their last owners nearly thirty years. In 1870, all of them were listed with the surnames of their last owner; however, each one of them named their sons for one of their brothers.  

Former slaves often used surnames names of historical figures such as Washington, Jefferson or Jackson. Others who wanted no connection to their former owners used surnames like Freeman or Freedman. In these cases, unless the name change had been passed down in the family by oral history, it would be impossible to trace the family back any further. This is another instance of oral history being a key component in tracing African American ancestry.

A Thank You Letter from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth

August 4th, 2009

Letter from Queen Elizabeth

Letter from Queen Elizabeth

Queen Elizabeth acknowledged the receipt of a signed copy of my book. As is the custom, her lady-in-waiting wrote me.  The royal seal indicated that the Queen was at her summer residence, Balmoral Castle in Scotland.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balmoral_Castle– for your info.

Colonial Documents Reveal African Roots

July 24th, 2009
Court Orders, Southampton County, VA, 1749

Court Orders, Southampton County, VA, 1749

Nero a Negro boy slave belonging to Henry Cooker is by the court adjudged to fourteen years of age.

Zingo a Negro boy slave belonging to John Warren by the court adjudged to thirteen years of age.

Douglas a Negro boy slave belonging to Thomas Westbrooks by the court adjudged to ten years of age.

Anarcha a Negro boy slave belonging to Thomas Westbrooks by the court adjudged to nine years of age.

Juba a Negro boy slave belonging to David Edmunds by the court adjudged to ten years of age.

Tilla a Negro girl belonging to Thomas Gillum the court adjudged to fourteen years of age.

Pompey a Negro boy slave belonging to John Barrow the court adjudged to ten years of age.

During the Colonial period, slave owners were required to pay taxes on their slaves from ages twelve to fifty years old. When Africans were brought to the colonies and it was evident that they were adults they were simply added to tax rolls called tithables. When small children and teenagers arrived from Africa and their ages were uncertain, the slave owners would have to take them into court and a judge would assign an age for the slave, which was then recorded in minute or court order books. Most of the slaves were assigned English names, although some retained their true African names. Some of the court orders also list the names of the ships the Africans arrived in and the dates of arrival. Many of these individuals can be traced in later documents such as tax records, wills, and estate settlements. These records can prove to be a genealogical goldmine for African American researchers.

Using Colonial Records to Trace African American Genealogy

July 24th, 2009

 runaway-slave-advertisement-in-virginia-gazette-1772

 

Virginia Gazette, Williamsburg, December 24, 1772

 

Chesterfield, December 15, 1772. Run away from the Subscriber, on Sunday the 22d of November, a new Negro Fellow of small Stature, and pitted with the Smallpox; he calls himself BONNA, and says he came from a Place of that Name in the Ibo Country, in Africa, where he served in the Capacity of a Canoe Man; his Clothing is a new Felt Hat, new Cotton Waistcoat and Breeches, and new Shoes and Stockings; his Stockings were knit, and spotted black and white.  Whoever secures him so that I get him shall have TWENTY SHILLINGS  reward, besides what the Law allows.  

                                                                                                                                         Richard Booker

 

A great source of tracing early African and African American ancestors is the Virginia Gazette.   Slave owners ran ads describing in great detail their runaway slaves, apprentices and indentured servants.  Many of these ads list native Africans, their ethnicities, country of origins, their owners, how long they had been in the colonies, and the ships they came on.  These records are online at http://etext.virginia.edu/subjects/runaways/1740s.html.    

Terry Family to Tour Wessyngton Plantation for Bi-Annual Reunion

July 16th, 2009

On Saturday August 8th the Terry family will tour Wessyngton Plantation as part of their bi-annual family reunion.  The group will tour the Wessyngton slave cemetery, the Washington family cemetery, the grounds around the mansion and a restored slave cabin.  Members of the National Black Arts Festival from Atlanta will also attend the reunion festivities.  Following the tour the group will dine at the Tennessee National Guard Armory.  I will also autograph copies of my new book The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation: Stories of My Family’s Journey to Freedom.   The Terrys descend from Dick Terry 1818-1879 and Aggy Washington Terry born 1824.  Today there are more than 1,000 Terry family members.

Terry Family Tree

Terry Family Tree

Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation Featured on BlackPast.org

July 13th, 2009

Check out my article on BlackPast.org.   It is an excellent resource for African American history and genealogy.

Enslaved African American Families on Wessyngton Plantation in 1860

July 12th, 2009

families-on-wessyngton-1860

families-on-wessyngton-18601

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 1860 Wessyngton Plantation was the largest tobacco plantation in the United States.  The Washington family also held the largest number of enslaved African Americans (274) in the state of Tennessee.   187 of them were held on what was called the “Home Place” near the Wessyngton mansion.  Eighty-seven others were held on a part of the plantation known was the “Dortch Place.”