Slave owners, slaves, and life on the plantation

Slave owners, slaves, and life on the plantation

Date: March 2, 2003
Byline: Mike Toner

Digs unearth slave plantations in North

Slaveholding plantations, usually thought of as uniquely Southern institutions, were deeply rooted in the fabric of "free" states of the North as well, new archaeological studies are showing.

The hidden history of Northern plantations and their slaves is emerging — one shovelful of soil at a time — from excavations in and around historic manor houses in Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. From bits of china, kitchen utensils, tools, buttons and personal items, archaeologists are getting glimpses of a chapter of America’s past that written histories have either ignored or forgotten.

Most Northern states abolished slavery before the Civil War. But recent excavations show that during the late 1700s and early 1800s, many of what later came to be called manors and landed estates were full-fledged plantations that held African-American slaves under conditions similar to those in the South.

"Historians are stunned by some of the evidence," said Cheryl LaRoche, a historical archaeologist at the University of Maryland.

"The popular notion is that slavery in the North consisted of two or three household servants, but there is growing evidence that there were slaveholding plantations," she said. "It’s hard to believe that such a significant and pervasive part of the past could be so completely erased from our history."

Near Salem, Mass., archaeologists have excavated the ruins of a 13,000-acre plantation that produced grain, horses, barrel staves and dried meat. The owner, Samuel Browne, traded those goods for molasses and rum from the Caribbean. The graveyard shows at least 100 African-Americans were enslaved there from 1718 to 1780.

At Shelter Island on New York’s Long Island, archaeologists have spent several years peeling open the grounds of present-day Sylvester Manor to reveal the traces of an 8,000-acre plantation that provisioned two sugar plantations in Barbados and made heavy use of African slave labor. During the late 1600s, at least 20 slaves there served as carpenters, blacksmiths, domestics and field hands.

"America was a slaveholding country — North and South," said LaRoche. "Over the years, that reality has been lost, stolen or just strayed from the history books."

Fleshing out history

The United States banned the importation of new slaves in 1808, but that did not free the millions already in the country, or their descendants. Some states did take action, enacting bans one by one, so that by 1863 the practice was illegal in most of the North.

Because the written record of slavery from the slaves’ point of view is so meager, archaeology — with its emphasis on the physical landscape and material aspects of culture — is emerging as an important means of filling in omissions and distortions.

"Artifacts can tell us how people washed their clothes, fed themselves, churned their butter and hitched their horses," said Orloff Miller of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. "That’s why archaeology can tell what it was like to live as a slave."

Some of the new evidence of Northern slaveholding plantations comes from excavations on the well-manicured grounds of historic estate homes, like the elegant Van Cortlandt Manor on the banks of New York’s Croton River, where slaves worked in the fields and orchards.

Other discoveries are turning up in more humble, more endangered locations. In Morris County, N.J., plans for a park-and-ride transit station for New York commuters recently prompted the state to order archaeological investigations of the site, thought to have been home to the 18th century Beverwyck estate.

Before archaeologists finished, they had found the remains of more than 20 plantation buildings, including a dairy, blacksmith shop, distillery and quarters for at least 20 slaves that were part of a 2,000-acre provisioning operation for the owners’ properties in the Caribbean.

Beneath the floor of the slave quarters, archaeologists found a set of iron shackles; small caches of pins, needles and beads; and ritualistic arrangements of cooking utensils that reflect the occupants’ African origins.

"For a time, Beverwyck was one of the region’s finest plantations, but it could only have reached that high state of cultivation through the forced labor of enslaved workers," said archaeologist Wade Catts of John Milner Associates, a New Jersey archaeology firm engaged in the project.

"For most of history, Beverwyck has been known primarily as one of the places that George Washington slept," he said. "Now the tangible evidence we’ve uncovered allows us to see it in a whole new light."

Catts said there was little doubt that other plantations in New Jersey also had significant slave populations.

As a science, archaeology is more than a century old. But only in the last few decades have researchers devoted much attention to the African-American component of sites, both in the North and the South.

"For a long time, archaeologists who studied plantations were mostly interested in the people who lived in the big house," said Syracuse University anthropologist Theresa Singleton, author of "The Archaeology of Slavery and Plantation Life." "That didn’t tell us much more about slaves than we learned from the histories by the people who enslaved them. Archaeology allows us to see history through a different lens."

Digging up a past that many would rather forget has had interesting results on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.

‘Amnesia’ recovery

Slave quarters have been reconstructed at Bulloch Hall, the Greek Revival mansion just off the town square in Roswell. Until archaeological excavations in the late 1990s helped identify the location of the structure, the only hint of the slaves who helped build the mansion in 1839 had been a simple sign pointing in the general direction of "the quarters."

In rural Mason County, Ky., archaeologists recently identified an old wooden barn as the country’s only extant slave pen, one of the prisonlike compounds where slaves were kept overnight during transport from the East to the cotton fields of Mississippi and Louisiana in the mid-1800s.

The busloads of curiosity seekers who descended on the farm for a closer look prompted an ultimatum from the owner. Archaeologists could either remove the structure or he would tear it down. The building, disassembled one timber at a time, will soon be reconstructed at Cincinnati’s Underground Railroad center.

In Philadelphia, when the new $9 million Liberty Bell Center opens this year, the grounds of the most famous icon of American independence — and later the symbol of the abolitionist movement — will now acknowledge an aspect of African-American history that almost got left out.

During excavations or the new center, archaeologists recovered thousands of artifacts from the red brick mansion where Washington stayed in Philadelphia. But it took public protests for the National Park Service to decide that the story of Washington’s slaves deserved space in the pavilion, too.

"Most Philadelphians would be shocked to know that Washington had slaves with him in the city," said University of California, Los Angeles, history professor Gary Nash, who helped spur the Park Service decision.

The slave quarters, and any artifacts they hold, lie just outside the entrance to the new center. They were undisturbed by construction, and the Park Service plans to leave them in place, to be studied and interpreted at some future date.

"Written history is always subject to a kind of cultural amnesia. Some of it is deliberately forgotten and some of it is inadvertently lost," said Nash. "That’s why artifacts and their context are so important. They can speak to us for the people who left no written record."

6 thoughts on “Slave owners, slaves, and life on the plantation

  1.                 I have been to MT Vernon in the seventies!! i saw actual slave "homes"? then went back in the late 90′s and they no longer were the real "holes in the ground", now they were cabins??? You cannot change history with a "new and improve vision" history is real and I will never forget the way I felt when I saw the histories of slaves in the North!! The history needs to be what it was!!!!

  2. is there such a place called simpsonville plantation? i think georgia? or is it the name of a town only? if its a plantation, was it destroyed ? what is the history of simpsonville? if present times, is anyone renting property?

  3. Nothing is more detrimental to understanding the past or the present – and the future – than judging the people of the past by the standards of today. The whole debate about slavery (which isn’t really a debate at all because no one is DEFENDING slavery per se) has more to do with the hysteria rising from our current views regarding race than it has to do with any real understanding of the mind of people in the 18th and 19th – and, yes, even the early 20th centuries. Slavery was a way of life and it was NOT limited to blacks. Whites, Indians and Asians were also slaves and nowhere was black slavery more common or desired than in Africa itself. Slavery was the economic system of Africa and many is the tribal chief or king who was literally covered in gold and jewels as the result of his nation’s slave trade with both the Muslim Middle East and the European West.

    The present view of history that somehow limits all moral and legal blame referable to slavery to the people of the American South is so lacking in reality or common sense that one has to wonder how anyone can seriously believe that the War of Secession (it wasn’t a “civil war”) was fought on one side by eevilll and traitorous slavers from the south and on the other by noble, tolerant and egalitarian patriots from the North. The Wizard of Oz has more historical truth in it than such “historical orthodoxy.” The issue of slavery in the United States is deep, complex and not subject to the placing of blame on any single group whether in this country or abroad. As has been said about many other subjects in the past, in the matter of slavery there is blame enough to go around.

    1. Ok dude, obviously your corrupt. First off, look up the definition of a Civil War. Just cause they seceded from the Union, they were still part of the USA. Second, you can’t seriously say that since there were slaves in Africa, slaves in America is ‘A’ OK. Really? First off, there were WAY, i mean WAY, more black slaves than any race. Most of the other cases were indentured servants, look up the definition of that too. 4 million black slaves by the mid 1800′s. What is that comparison to the Wizard of Oz? What the hell is that? It’s sad is what it is. You may see slavery as politcally correct or whatever, but what contributed to the tensions and lead to the breaking point of the Civil War was “uncle tom’s cabin”, a book which showed the north how the slavery system was horribly wrong and cruel, and how masters may have treated slaves worse than they would treat a DOG. Hell, maybe even less than a dog. Sure, theres enough blame to go around, but history only tells us so much, and whether it blames one person or a million people, it’s all we got.

    2. In reply to some of the things you said, I must respectfully disagree. Many whites – as a way to excuse slavery, bring up slavery in Africa. Once and for all, slavery in African Kingdoms came about from war. They were considered prisoners of war, therefore they became slaves. But, unlike the slave system in the US and abroad, the slaves in African Kingdoms, were freed after 7 years, they were usually adopted by the King and married the King’s daughters. They were given animals, land, food, and money to start their lives. You CAN NOT compare slavery in Africa with the US and any other county. You just can’t. The slave system in the US and in other countries as Britain, Spain, France, Portugal, etc; were WRONG, EVIL, DISGUSTING. They intentionally sailed to Africa’s coastal cities, and KIDNAPPED people from their lands, homes, wives, husbands, children, religion, identity. They incorporated these peoples and MADE them submit to their ways of life with threats of death, maiming, beatings, etc. Even though yes, Indians, Asians, some Whites, were slaves (indentured servants),the slave history is more brutal, longer and deadlier for the Black Race. NO WHERE in the world has there been a form of slavery, segregation, mass murder for any other race than Black. Look at South Africa (apartheid), the surrounding Islands of the US, the Sudan (Arab against African), and the Black race itself, (Rwanda, Darfur, Congo). For some BIZARRE reason, the dislike and hatred for the Black race (within oneself and without) is universal and timeless. I do not think the hate for MY race will ever leave this world. And I do not think, we will EVER get a CLEAR and INTELLIGENT reasonable understanding for the hatred and dislike of this ONE particular race. The world must DIE for it to start again fresh with a true reality of equality. Anywhoo, the Civil War was NOT started because of the slave system. Lincoln himself just as his vice-president Johnson, DID NOT BELIEVE in the equality of the races. Our founding fathers, owned slaves. The NORTH AS WELL AS THE SOUTH, OWNED SLAVES. This was a way of life, a national law and legal system, the way of the world. The issue of abolishing slavery came into the Civil War as a PUNISHMENT AGAINST THE STATES (mostly Southern) FOR SECEDING. If you cut off the head, the chicken will die. The civil war was about NOT EXPANDING SLAVERY INTO NEW STATES. It was about states making their own decisions apart from the federal government. Some states, did not like the government interfering with their individual state laws (just like today, jut like the revolutionary war). Mostly slave and southern states warned that if Lincoln was elected, they would secede. He was elected, they seceded. It was not about the moral wrongs, conditions, of slavery. That became an afterthought. In the end, there was never any true freedom of slaves. The cruel and unusual punishment continued openly until the 1960′s ie; public lynchings, rapes, murders, burnings of schools, homes and neighborhoods, jim crow, segregation throughout the South AND in parts of the North. And though it may not be as in your face as slavery was, the imbalance still continues today,; prison system sentences, schools, employment, red lining (homes) etc. What WE ALL should remember is the hatred and cruelty inflicted on a race of people BY people who profess to love GOD is WRONG. Noone has the right to inflict harmful acts, ways, and/or laws on another human because of their race, sex, creed, etc. When you do, you stop being human and become inhuman and EVIL. What WE ALL need to remember is: EVERYONES’ BLOOD RUNS RED AND EVERYONE WILL ONE DAY DIE. There is no one better than the other. Until ANYONE ON EARTH can come up with a way to live forever, sorry, but in reality we are ALL EQUAL IN THE SIGHT OF THE LIVING GOD. What happened in this country as well as the world in matters of slavery, servitude, etc., SHOULD NEVER BE FORGOTTEN, but we must make a way to heal, move forward, and live. WE ALL have only ONE LIFE TO LIVE, SO LIVE IT!!!! May the Living God Bless You and Yours! :)

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