The African American Experience At Stratford: 1782

The African American Experience At Stratford: 1782


Jeanne A. Calhoun Director of Research and Education Robert E. Lee Memorial Association, Inc.

Stories about The African American Experience At Stratford: 1782

At Stratford

    At Stratford and other plantations throughout the South, the Great House dominates both the physical and mental landscape. The lives of the owners have become part of the history of the region. Forgotten are the African-Americans who built and maintained the settings within which such families as the Lees lived.

    The lives of these enslaved African-Americans have been lost among the shadows of the past. Generally the only written records were left by the owner and his peers; estate accounts, an occasional letter, and court cases are the usual sources upon which we must rely. Historical archaeology, a relatively new discipline, is making a significant contribution to an understanding of slave culture. Archaeologists are hampered, however, by the nature of most slave dwellings, wooden and flimsy, and the scarcity of their possessions. It is also impossible archaeologically to separate the remains left by an African-American from those deposited by any other individual from an approximately equal economic level; for instance, a poor white artisan or tenant farmer would have left a similar assemblage of artifacts. This makes it vital to understand the historical context of any archaeological site which might be associated with African-Americans. The recent excavations at Monticello are a good example. Although the archaeologists believe they have discovered evidence of cast-offs from the Jefferson family, the historical record suggests that those sites in question may have been occupied by white artisans or laborers.

    At Stratford, we have two inventories (1758; 1776) and three estate lists (1782; 1786; 1789) which include information on the African-American population on the plantation. The most valuable of these is the 1782 documentation of the division of Philip Ludwell Lee's estate. To ensure an equitable division, the 137 slaves belonging to the estate and living on Stratford, the Clifts, and Hallow's Marsh are recorded by name; included are their age, value, and, in some instances, occupation. Mrs. Elizabeth Fendall, the widow of Philip Ludwell Lee, was allotted 41 slaves - twelve girls, eight boys, eight women, and thirteen men. The remaining 96 slaves - 27 girls, 20 boys, 21 women, and 28 men - were the joint property of Matilda and Flora Lee. Four years later, in 1786, the then 98 slaves belonging to the estate were divided between Matilda and Flora Lee. Presumably those belonging to Flora left Stratford to work on her property.

    A Note About Methods and Sources

    In this essay, I have relied heavily on the 1782 slave list. There was great diversity among plantations and each one must be considered separately. Due to the fragmentary nature of the historical record of slavery at Stratford, however, I have drawn extensively from both primary and secondary sources to create a context within which the life of an enslaved African-American on the plantation can be better understood. In my attempt to bring forth these slaves as individuals, a certain amount of speculation has been unavoidable. I have, however, been careful to qualify when necessary, and hope that the delineation between the objective and the subjective is clear.

    There are a few points I would like to make about the 1782 slave list itself. The manuscript does have limitations; no occupations are recorded for women and the absence of such craftsmen as coopers indicates that not all of those practiced by the men were recorded. It also does not define family groups. This document is, however, the most complete record of the slave population at Stratford which has yet been discovered and may remain our most valuable source of information about these elusive individuals.

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