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Antebellum Slavery


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Fanny Kemble and Pierce Butler

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Their own private civil war would foreshadow the country's. Fanny Kemble was an abolitionist; her husband Pierce Butler was a slaveholder. With such diametrically opposed views, it's no wonder that their initially blissful marriage would end in divorce.

Frances Anne (Fanny) Kemble was born on November 27, 1809 in London, England. From one of England's most prominent family of actors, she took to the stage herself to save her family from financial ruin. Though a brilliant actress, the stage was not the true love of Fanny Kemble -- her first love was for literature and writing. Throughout her life she would be a prolific and accomplished writer of plays, journals, poetry, letters, and memoirs.

Fanny Kemble was a strong and spirited person. She had no formal training as an actress, but held audiences spellbound with the sheer force of her personality. She was described as having "masculine" characteristics: she was independent, physically strong, and highly intelligent. And she did not hide her talents, but lived them out passionately. In addition to acting and writing, Kemble spoke French fluently, read widely, and was an accomplished musician. She loved the natural world and had a passion for vigorous exercise, especially riding.

In 1832, Fanny set out on a two-year theater tour in America, where she was received with great enthusiasm. Audiences were enraptured, and she was soon being introduced to political and cultural dignitaries.

One of her most ardent admirers was a man named Pierce Butler. Born into a wealthy and prominent Philadelphia family in 1806, Pierce was the grandson of Revolutionary War veteran Major Pierce Butler. Major Butler was a U.S. Senator from South Carolina and the author of the Constitution's fugitive slave clause. He owned two plantations in Georgia: one on St. Simon's Island, where sea-island cotton was grown, and one on Butler Island, where rice was grown. He also owned a mansion in Philadelphia and a country home near the city. In 1812, Major Butler owned 638 slaves and was one of the wealthiest men in the United States. Pierce Bulter, the grandson, stood to inherit this fortune (and to become one of the largest slaveholders in the nation) when he met Fanny Kemble in 1832.

Pierce Butler became infatuated with Fanny Kemble after seeing her perform. He followed her devotedly while she toured. He was charming, solicitous. Fanny fell in love with him, and they were married in 1834 in Philadelphia. In marrying Pierce, Fanny escaped the life of the theater and her family's precarious finances and entered a life of wealth. At that time, she would later state, she did not know the source of this wealth.

The marriage was troubled nearly from the start. Fanny believed that Pierce would continue in his devotion, and Pierce believed that Fanny would curb her independent nature and allow herself to be ruled by him. Differences in opinion on slavery also created friction. Pierce thought he could persuade Fanny of the benefits of slavery; Fanny thought she could persuade Pierce to emancipate his slaves. Early in their marriage Fanny even attempted to publish an antislavery treatise that she had written. Pierce forbid her to do so.

In March of 1836, Pierce and his brother John inherited the Georgia plantations. Fanny wanted to see the plantation firsthand, and begged Butler to take her with him. He refused to do so on his first trip, but finally relented. In December of 1838, Pierce, Fanny, their two children Sarah and Frances, and their Irish nurse Margery O'Brien set out for Butler Island. After travelling for nine days by train, stage and steamboat, they arrived at their destination. Nothing in Fanny's life had prepared her for this place.

Kemble spent four months on Butler and St. Simon's Islands. During that time she and Pierce clashed frequently over the issue of slavery. Fanny recorded her experiences in letters which she later compiled and published as her Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation. It is the closest, most-detailed look at plantation slavery ever recorded by a white northern abolitionist.

By the time the Butlers returned to Philadelphia, their marriage was in turmoil. Life for Fanny went from bad to worse as Pierce harassed and ignored her and prevented her from seeing their children. Finally, Fanny gave up her attempts at reconciliation, and left for England. While there, she resumed her life in the theater by performing readings of Shakespeare. She was in the midst of a successful run when she learned that Pierce was suing her for divorce. He contended that she had "willfully, maliciously, and without due cause, deserted him on September 11, 1845." He filed for divorce on April 7, 1848.

Fanny returned to America to defend herself against his charges. After a long and painful court proceeding, the divorce was granted in September of 1849. Fanny would be allowed to spend two months every summer with her children, and Pierce would pay her $1500 a year in alimony.

Fanny continued to support herself in the U.S. and in Europe with her highly acclaimed Shakespearian readings. Pierce, however, fell further and further into economic ruin, as he squandered away his vast fortune in gambling and stock market speculation. In 1856 his situation became so severe that the management of his finances was handed over to three trustees. To satisfy his enormous debt, they began by selling the Philadelphia mansion and liquidating other properties. But this was not enough. The trustees turned their attention to the property in Georgia, which consisted mostly of human beings.

In February 1859, the men travelled to Georgia to appraise Pierce Butler's share of the slaves. Each person was examined and his or her value assessed. This was the preparation for what would be the largest single sale of human beings in United States history. It was an event that would come to be known as "the weeping time."

Pierce's financial situation was saved at the expense of his former slaves. In the meantime, the country hovered on the brink of civil war. In 1861 the war erupted. Again the family was divided: Fanny Kemble and their daughter Sarah were pro-North; Pierce Butler and their daughter Frances were pro-South. In early 1861 Pierce and Frances went to Georgia. Upon their return to Philadelphia in August, Pierce was arrested for treason; in September he was released. He did not return to the South until after the war.

Following the war, Pierce Butler returned to Butler Island with his daughter Frances. He found numbers of former slaves living there, and arranged that they would work for him as share-croppers. Management of the plantation was difficult, and though Frances returned to Philadelphia, Pierce remained on the island despite the dangers of disease. He contracted malaria and died in August 1867.

Photo #1: American artist Thomas Sully painted this portrait of Fanny Kemble one year before the young actress married Pierce Butler. Like Fanny Kemble, Sully came from a theatrical family and even performed onstage with his parents and siblings. His ambition soon after turned to painting -- an ambition that would lead him to become, for a number of years, the leading portrait painter in the U.S.

Sully's subjects included prominent politicians and military heroes, but he became known mainly for his paintings of society women. In 1837 he was sent to England to paint Queen Victoria.

Following Pierce's death, Frances returned to Butler Island to continue organizing the plantation, and Fanny Kemble moved to Philadelphia. Throughout her life, Fanny continued to perform dramatic readings, to travel, and to publish her journals. Fanny Kemble died peacefully in London on January 15, 1893.

Photo #2: By the time this photograph of Pierce Butler was taken, the wealthy plantation owner's 14-year marriage to Fanny Kemble was nearing its end. He had filed for divorce in 1848, contending that she had "willfully, maliciously, and without due cause, deserted him on September 11, 1845." Kemble, who had in fact been driven away by Butler, returned from England to defend herself. The divorce was granted in 1849.

Butler Island
"[It is] the most amphibious piece of creation that I have yet had the happiness of beholding. It would be difficult to define it truly by either the name of land or water, for 'tis neither liquid nor solid but a kind of mud sponge floating on the bosom of the Altamaha."
Fanny Kemble

Butler Island was an inhospitable place -- hot and steamy, a breeding ground for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. No place for a woman in Fanny Kemble's station in life. Her husband, Pierce Butler, had recently inherited the island, and on the island was his plantation, complete with several hundred slaves.

It was no wonder that Pierce wanted to keep Kemble, a staunch abolitionist even before they met, away from the plantation. But she wanted to see firsthand how the slaves lived. At first he refused to let her come, giving the excuse that the house on the island was too small to accomodate her, the children, and the childrens' nurse. Eventually, though, he relented, and in December of 1838, the entire family, including their Irish nurse, set out for the island.

Kemble had been told that the slaves were well-treated, that they were never sold, that they were content. At first this seemed true. This opinion quickly changed, however, after she visited the various settlements on the island. She complained in her journal that the slaves' dwellings "were filthy and wretched in the extreme." The slaves lacked tables and chairs and knives and forks, and ate their meals with crude wooden spoons. She discovered that slaves were sold out to work on distant plantations. The slaves were not exempt from harsh punishment, either. One slave, asked by Kemble why the children were not kept clean, replied that there wasn't enough time. The slave was later whipped by the overseer for her "impudence." Other slaves as well felt the sting of the lash after complaining to Kemble. Even pregnant women were whipped.

News of Kemble's sympathetic nature spread among the slaves, and soon she was listening to more of their stories. Kemble passed on complaints to her husband and otherwise spoke on behalf of the slaves. He claimed they were liars. Kemble continue to speak out for the slaves. In her journal she tells of a heated agument over a lashing, in which she lectured her husband of "the manifest injustice of unpaid and enforced labor," and of "the brutal inhumanity of allowing a man to strip and lash a woman, the mother of ten children." Pierce Butler eventually had enough. He forbade his wife to speak on behalf of any slaves.

Kemble's observations regarding the slaves were not limited to floggings and living conditions. She noticed at their other plantation on St. Simons Island, that there was a larger percentage of mulatto slaves than at Butler Island. Her husband told her the reason was that white men had easier access to the plantation. There was one slave, she remarked, that "was the exact image of Mr. King." Roswell King and his son, Roswell King, Jr., were two whites who had mangaged the Butler plantations for years. Through the years, slaves had bore them a number of children. Roswell King Jr. had even raped the wife of the plantation's most prominent slave -- a black overseer named Frank. Of Frank, Kemble wrote, "I see that man. . . looking, with a countenance of deep thought. . . over the broad river, which is to him as a prison wall. . . . I marvel what the thoughts of such a man may be."

Fanny Kemble could do little to better the lives of the slaves during her short, 15-week stay on Butler and St Simons Islands. More effective in the fight against slavery was the publication of the journal she kept during those weeks, entitled Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation.

Conditions of Antebellum Slavery

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By 1830 slavery was primarily located in the South, where it existed in many different forms. African Americans were enslaved on small farms, large plantations, in cities and towns, inside homes, out in the fields, and in industry and transportation.

Though slavery had such a wide variety of faces, the underlying concepts were always the same. Slaves were considered property, and they were property because they were black. Their status as property was enforced by violence -- actual or threatened. People, black and white, lived together within these parameters, and their lives together took many forms.

Enslaved African Americans could never forget their status as property, no matter how well their owners treated them. But it would be too simplistic to say that all masters and slaves hated each other. Human beings who live and work together are bound to form relationships of some kind, and some masters and slaves genuinely cared for each other. But the caring was tempered and limited by the power imbalance under which it grew. Within the narrow confines of slavery, human relationships ran the gamut from compassionate to contemptuous. But the masters and slaves never approached equality.

The standard image of Southern slavery is that of a large plantation with hundreds of slaves. In fact, such situations were rare. Fully 3/4 of Southern whites did not even own slaves; of those who did, 88% owned twenty or fewer. Whites who did not own slaves were primarily yeoman farmers. Practically speaking, the institution of slavery did not help these people. And yet most non-slaveholding white Southerners identified with and defended the institution of slavery. Though many resented the wealth and power of the large slaveholders, they aspired to own slaves themselves and to join the priviledged ranks. In addition, slavery gave the farmers a group of people to feel superior to. They may have been poor, but they were not slaves, and they were not black. They gained a sense of power simply by being white.

In the lower South the majority of slaves lived and worked on cotton plantations. Most of these plantations had fifty or fewer slaves, although the largest plantations have several hundred. Cotton was by far the leading cash crop, but slaves also raised rice, corn, sugarcane, and tobacco. Many plantations raised several different kinds of crops.

Besides planting and harvesting, there were numerous other types of labor required on plantations and farms. Enslaved people had to clear new land, dig ditches, cut and haul wood, slaughter livestock, and make repairs to buildings and tools. In many instances, they worked as mechanics, blacksmiths, drivers, carpenters, and in other skilled trades. Black women carried the additional burden of caring for their families by cooking and taking care of the children, as well as spinning, weaving, and sewing.

Some slaves worked as domestics, providing services for the master's or overseer's families. These people were designated as "house servants," and though their work appeared to be easier than that of the "field slaves," in some ways it was not. They were constantly under the scrutiny of their masters and mistresses, and could be called on for service at any time. They had far less privacy than those who worked the fields.

Because they lived and worked in such close proximity, house servants and their owners tended to form more complex relationships. Black and white children were especially in a position to form bonds with each other. In most situations, young children of both races played together on farms and plantations. Black children might also become attached to white caretakers, such as the mistress, and white children to their black nannies. Because they were so young, they would have no understanding of the system they were born into. But as they grew older they would learn to adjust to it in whatever ways they could.

The diets of enslaved people were inadequate or barely adequate to meet the demands of their heavy workload. They lived in crude quarters that left them vulnerable to bad weather and disease. Their clothing and bedding were minimal as well. Slaves who worked as domestics sometimes fared better, getting the castoff clothing of their masters or having easier access to food stores.

The heat and humidity of the South created health problems for everyone living there. However, the health of plantation slaves was far worse than that of whites. Unsanitary conditions, inadequate nutrition and unrelenting hard labor made slaves highly susceptible to disease. Illnesses were generally not treated adequately, and slaves were often forced to work even when sick. The rice plantations were the most deadly. Black people had to stand in water for hours at a time in the sweltering sun. Malaria was rampant. Child mortality was extremely high on these plantations, generally around 66% -- on one rice plantation it was as high as 90%.

One of the worst conditions that enslaved people had to live under was the constant threat of sale. Even if their master was "benevolent," slaves knew that a financial loss or another personal crisis could lead them to the auction block. Also, slaves were sometimes sold as a form of punishment. And although popular sentiment (as well as the economic self-interest on the part of the owners) encouraged keeping mothers and children and sometimes fathers together, these norms were not always followed. Immediate families were often separated. If they were kept together, they were almost always sold away from their extended families. Grandparents, sisters, brothers, and cousins could all find themselves forcibly scattered, never to see each other again. Even if they or their loved ones were never sold, slaves had to live with the constant threat that they could be.

African American women had to endure the threat and the practice of sexual exploitation. There were no safeguards to protect them from being sexually stalked, harassed, or raped, or to be used as long-term concubines by masters and overseers. The abuse was widespread, as the men with authority took advantage of their situation. Even if a woman seemed agreeable to the situation, in reality she had no choice. Slave men, for their part, were often powerless to protect the women they loved.

The drivers, overseers, and masters were responsible for plantation discipline. Slaves were punished for not working fast enough, for being late getting to the fields, for defying authority, for running away, and for a number of other reasons. The punishments took many forms, including whippings, torture, mutilation, imprisonment, and being sold away from the plantation. Slaves were even sometimes murdered. Some masters were more "benevolent" than others, and punished less often or severely. But with rare exceptions, the authoritarian relationship remained firm even in those circumstances.

In addition to the authority practiced on individual plantations, slaves throughout the South had to live under a set of laws called the Slave Codes. The codes varied slightly from state to state, but the basic idea was the same: the slaves were considered property, not people, and were treated as such. Slaves could not testify in court against a white, make contracts, leave the plantation without permission, strike a white (even in self-defense), buy and sell goods, own firearms, gather without a white present, possess any anti-slavery literature, or visit the homes of whites or free blacks. The killing of a slave was almost never regarded as murder, and the rape of slave women was treated as a form of trespassing.

Whenever there was a slave insurrection, or even the rumor of one, the laws became even tighter. At all times, patrols were set up to enforce the codes. These patrols were similar to militias and were made up of white men who were obligated to serve for a set period. The patrols apprehended slaves outside of plantations, and they raided homes and any type of gathering, searching for anything that might lead to insurrection. During times of insurrection -- either real or rumored -- enraged whites formed vigilance committees that terrorized, tortured, and killed blacks.

While most slaves were concentrated on the plantations, there were many slaves living in urban areas or working in rural industry. Although over 90% of American slaves lived in rural areas, slaves made up at least 20% of the populations of most Southern cities. In Charleston, South Carolina, slaves and free blacks outnumbered whites. Many slaves living in cities worked as domestics, but others worked as blacksmiths, carpenters, shoemakers, bakers, or other tradespeople. Often, slaves were hired out by their masters, for a day or up to several years. Sometimes slaves were allowed to hire themselves out. Urban slaves had more freedom of movement than plantation slaves and generally had greater opportunities for learning. They also had increased contact with free black people, who often expanded their ways of thinking about slavery.

Slaves resisted their treatment in innumerable ways. They slowed down their work pace, disabled machinery, feigned sickness, destroyed crops. They argued and fought with their masters and overseers. Many stole livestock, other food, or valuables. Some learned to read and write, a practice forbidden by law. Some burned forests and buildings. Others killed their masters outright -- some by using weapons, others by putting poison in their food. Some slaves comitted suicide or mutilated themselves to ruin their property value. Subtly or overtly, enslaved African Americans found ways to sabotage the system in which they lived.

Thousands of slaves ran away. Some left the plantation for days or weeks at a time and lived in hiding. Others formed maroon communities in mountains, forests or swamps. Many escaped to the North. There were also numerous instances of slave revolts throughout the history of the institution. (For one white interpretation of slave resistance, see Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race) Even when slaves acted in a subservient manner, they were often practicing a type of resistance. By fooling the master or overseer with their behavior, they resisted additional ill treatment.

Enslaved African Americans also resisted by forming community within the plantation setting. This was a tremendous undertaking for people whose lives were ruled by domination and forced labor. Slaves married, had children, and worked hard to keep their families together. In their quarters they were able to let down the masks they had to wear for whites. There, black men, women, and children developed an underground culture through which they affirmed their humanity. They gathered in the evenings to tell stories, sing, and make secret plans. House servants would come down from the "big house" and give news of the master and mistress, or keep people laughing with their imitations of the whites.

It was in their quarters that many enslaved people developed and passed down skills which allowed them to supplement their poor diet and inadequate medical care with hunting, fishing, gathering wild food, and herbal medicines. There, the adults taught their children how to hide their feelings to escape punishment and to be skeptical of anything a white person said. Many slave parents told their children that blacks were superior to white people, who were lazy and incapable of running things properly.

Many slaves turned to religion for inspiration and solace. Some practiced African religions, including Islam, others practiced Christianity. Many practiced a brand of Christianity which included strong African elements. Most rejected the Christianity of their masters, which justified slavery. The slaves held their own meetings in secret, where they spoke of the New Testament promises of the day of reckoning and of justice and a better life after death, as well as the Old Testament story of Moses leading his people out of slavery in Egypt. The religion of enslaved African Americans helped them resist the degredation of bondage.

"Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race"

Southern journals of the antebellum era were full of advice for slaveholders. De Bow's Review, for example, offered numerous articles detailing methods for dealing with slave discipline, nutrition, work strategies, and other topics.

In this article, "Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race," Dr. Samuel Cartwright, a highly respected and widely published doctor from the University of Louisiana, discusses two diseases which he claims are unique to African Americans. One is his newly-discovered "Drapetomania," a disease which causes slaves to run away; the other, "Dysaethesia Aethiopica," a disease causing "rascality" in black people free and enslaved.

Dr. Cartwright offers advice for preventing and curing these diseases. He says, "With the advantages of proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many negroes have of running away, can be almost entirely prevented, although the slaves be located on the borders of a free state, within a stone's throw of the abolitionists."

"Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race," by Dr. Cartwright (in DeBow's Review)

It is unknown to our medical authorities, although its diagnostic symptom, the absconding from service, is well known to our planters and overseers...
In noticing a disease not heretofore classed among the long list of maladies that man is subject to, it was necessary to have a new term to express it. The cause in the most of cases, that induces the negro to run away from service, is as much a disease of the mind as any other species of mental alienation, and much more curable, as a general rule. With the advantages of proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many negroes have of running away, can be almost entirely prevented, although the slaves be located on the borders of a free state, within a stone's throw of the abolitionists.

If the white man attempts to oppose the Deity's will, by trying to make the negro anything else than "the submissive knee-bender," (which the Almighty declared he should be,) by trying to raise him to a level with himself, or by putting himself on an equality with the negro; or if he abuses the power which God has given him over his fellow-man, by being cruel to him, or punishing him in anger, or by neglecting to protect him from the wanton abuses of his fellow-servants and all others, or by denying him the usual comforts and necessaries of life, the negro will run away; but if he keeps him in the position that we learn from the Scriptures he was intended to occupy, that is, the position of submission; and if his master or overseer be kind and gracious in his hearing towards him, without condescension, and at the sane time ministers to his physical wants, and protects him from abuses, the negro is spell-bound, and cannot run away.

According to my experience, the "genu flexit"--the awe and reverence, must be exacted from them, or they will despise their masters, become rude and ungovernable, and run away. On Mason and Dixon's line, two classes of persons were apt to lose their negroes: those who made themselves too familiar with them, treating them as equals, and making little or no distinction in regard to color; and, on the other hand, those who treated them cruelly, denied them the common necessaries of life, neglected to protect them against the abuses of others, or frightened them by a blustering manner of approach, when about to punish them for misdemeanors. Before the negroes run away, unless they are frightened or panic-struck, they become sulky and dissatisfied. The cause of this sulkiness and dissatisfaction should be inquired into and removed, or they are apt to run away or fall into the negro consumption. When sulky and dissatisfied without cause, the experience of those on the line and elsewhere, was decidedly in favor of whipping them out of it, as a preventive measure against absconding, or other bad conduct. It was called whipping the devil out of them.

If treated kindly, well fed and clothed, with fuel enough to keep a small fire burning all night--separated into families, each family having its own house--not permitted to run about at night to visit their neighbors, to receive visits or use intoxicating liquors, and not overworked or exposed too much to the weather, they are very easily governed--more so than any other people in the world. When all this is done, if any one of more of them, at any time, are inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or overseer, humanity and their own good require that they should be punished until they fall into that submissive state which it was intended for them to occupy in all after-time, when their progenitor received the name of Canaan or "submissive knee-bender." They have only to be kept in that state and treated like children, with care, kindness, attention and humanity, to prevent and cure them from running away.


Dysaesthesia Aethiopica is a disease peculiar to negroes, affecting both mind and body in a manner as well expressed by dysaesthesia, the name I have given it, as could be by a single term. There is both mind and sensibility, but both seem to be difficult to reach by impressions from without. There is a partial insensibility of the skin, and so great a hebetude of the intellectual faculties, as to be like a person half asleep, that is with difficulty aroused and kept awake. It differs from every other species of mental disease, as it is accompanied with physical signs or lesions of the body discoverable to the medical observer, which are always present and sufficient to account for the symptoms. It is much more prevalent among free negroes living in clusters by themselves, than among slaves on our plantations, and attacks only such slaves as live like free negroes in regard to diet, drinks, exercise, etc. It is not my purpose to treat of the complaint as it prevails among free negroes, nearly all of whom are more or less afflicted with it, that have not got some white person to direct and to take care of them. To narrate its symptoms and effects among them would be to write a history of the ruins and dilapidation of Hayti, and every spot of earth they have ever had uncontrolled possession over for any length of time. I propose only to describe its symptoms among slaves.

From the careless movements of the individuals affected with the complaint, they are apt to do much mischief, which appears as if intentional, but is mostly owing to the stupidness of mind and insensibility of the nerves induced by the disease. Thus, they break, waste and destroy everything they handle,--abuse horses and cattle,--tear, burn or rend their own clothing, and, paying no attention to the rights of property, steal others, to replace what they have destroyed. They wander about at night, and keep in a half nodding sleep during the day. They slight their work,--cut up corn, cane, cotton or tobacco when hoeing it, as if for pure mischief. They raise disturbances with their overseers and fellow-servants without cause or motive, and seem to be insensible to pain when subjected to punishment. The fact of the existence of such a complaint, making man like an automaton or senseless machine, having the above or similar symptoms, can be clearly established by the most direct and positive testimony. That it should have escaped the attention of the medical profession, can only be accounted for because its attention has not been sufficiently directed to the maladies of the negro race. Otherwise a complaint of so common an occurrence on badly-governed plantations, and so universal among free negroes, or those who are not governed at all,--a disease radicated in physical lesions and having its peculiar and well marked symptoms and its curative indications, would not have escaped the notice of the profession. The northern physicians and people have noticed the symptoms, but not the disease from which they spring. They ignorantly attribute the symptoms to the debasing influence of slavery on the mind without considering that those who have never been in slavery, or their fathers before them, are the most afflicted, and the latest from the slave-holding South the least. The disease is the natural offspring of negro liberty--the liberty to be idle, to wallow in filth, and to indulge in improper food and drinks.

De Bow's Review
Southern and Western States

Volume XI, New Orleans, 1851
AMS Press, Inc. New York, 1967

Letter from Henry Tayloe on the domestic slave trade

Following the termination of the international slave trade in 1808, an extensive domestic trade opened between the older slave states such as Virginia and Maryland, and the new territories, such as Mississippi and Alabama. Cotton cultivation was pushing west, into the new southern territories, and plantation owners were desperate for slaves to work the crops.

In this letter from Henry A. Tayloe to "Dear Brother" [B.O. Tayloe], Henry tries to convince his brother to sell some of his slaves. Henry was a slave trader; his brother, a plantation owner living in Virginia. Henry wrote, "The present high price of Negroes can not continue long and if you will make me a partner in the sale on reasonable terms I will bring them out this Fall from VA and sell them for you and release you from all troubles." (This letter was provided by historian William Scarborough.)

Henry A. Tayloe to "Dear Brother" (B.O. Tayloe), January 5, 1835

From Walnut Grove (Marengo County, AL) to Washington City

George and myself only made 30 bales and George about the same. I wish you may visit me early this Spring to make some arrangements about your Negroes. If they continue high I would advise you to sell them in this country on one and two years credit bearing 8 per ct interest. The present high price of Negroes can not continue long and if you will make me a partner in the sale on reasonable terms I will bring them out this Fall from VA and sell them for you and release you from all troubles. On a credit your negroes would bring here about $120 to $130, 000 bearing 8 per ct interest. My object is to make a fortune here as soon as possible by industry and economy, and then return [to VA] to enjoy myself. Therefore I am willing to aid you in any way as far as reason will permit. You had better give your land away if you can get from $6 to $800 round for your Negroes -- and if you will incur the risk with me, and allow me time to pay you, I will give a fair price for one half bring them to this country sell the whole number and divide the proceeds of the sale equally. It is better to sell on time as by so doing good masters may be obtained.... I have rented land for your negroes and Henry Key's, and shall attend to them faithfully. Gowie [?] ran off about the 18th of December and has not been heard of. I hope to hear of him in a few days that I may put him to work. He went off without any provocation. I expect he is a deceitful fellow.

E. S. Abdy Description of a Washington, D.C., Slave Pen

From its beginning -- ever since the nation's capital had been moved from Philadelphia in 1800 -- slavery was legal in Washington, D.C. With its proximity to both the upper and lower South, it would become a major center for the domestic slave trade, passing thousands of slaves through to the plantations of the deep South. Although Congress had the power to outlaw slavery in the District of Columbia, it did not do so until 1862 -- the power of the proslavery forces was too strong. Slavery proponents knew that if they kept the institution visible in the nation's capital, it would act as a vivid symbol of their grasp on the nation. They were right: the presence of slavery was impossible to ignore. Visitors expressed disgust at the sight of slave coffles and holding pens in the capital of the "freest" nation in the world.

In the attached excerpt, traveller E. S. Abdy describes a slave pen in Washington. This selection is taken from his book Journal of a Residence and Tour in the United States of North America, From April, 1833, to October, 1834. Abdy was a fellow of Jesus College, at Cambridge University in England.

E.S. Abdy, Journal of a Residence and Tour...

One day I went to see the "slaves' pen"--a wretched hovel, "right against" the Capitol, from which it is distant about half a mile, with no house intervening. The outside alone is accessible to the eye of a visitor; what passes within being reserved for the exclusive observation of its owner, (a man of the name of Robey,) and his unfortunate victims. It is surrounded by a wooden paling fourteen or fifteen feet in height, with the posts outside to prevent escape and separated from the building by a space too narrow to admit of a free circulation of air. At a small window above, which was unglazed and exposed alike to the heat of summer and the cold of winter, so trying to the constitution, two or three sable faces appeared, looking out wistfully to while away the time and catch a refreshing breeze; the weather being extremely hot. In this wretched hovel, all colors, except white--the only guilty one--both sexes, and all ages, are confined, exposed indiscriminately to all the contamination which may be expected in such society and under such seclusion. The inmates of the gaol, of this class I mean, are even worse treated; some of them, if my informants are to be believed, having been actually frozen to death, during the inclement winters which often prevail in the country. While I was in the city, Robey had got possession of a woman, whose term of slavery was limited to six years. It was expected that she would be sold before the expiration of that period, and sent away to a distance, where the assertion of her claim would subject her to ill-usage. Cases of this kind are very common.

Journal of a Residence and Tour in the United States of North America, from April, 1833, to October, 1834, Volume 2, London, 1835

George Fitzhugh Advocates Slavery

In the antebellum period, pro-slavery forces moved from defending slavery as a necessary evil to expounding it as a positive good. Some insisted that African Americans were child-like people in need of protection, and that slavery provided a civilizing influence. Others argued that black people were biologically inferior to white people and were incapable of assimilating in free society. Still others claimed that slaves were necessary to maintain the progress of white society.

George Fitzhugh was a Virginia lawyer and the author of two books and numerous articles advocating slavery. Says Fitzhugh, "... the negro race is inferior to the white race, and living in their midst, they would be far outstripped or outwitted in the chaos of free competition." This is only one of many arguments which he presents in this piece.

"The Universal Law of Slavery," by George Fitzhugh

He the Negro is but a grown up child, and must be governed as a child, not as a lunatic or criminal. The master occupies toward him the place of parent or guardian. We shall not dwell on this view, for no one will differ with us who thinks as we do of the negro's capacity, and we might argue till dooms-day in vain, with those who have a high opinion of the negro's moral and intellectual capacity.

Secondly. The negro is improvident; will not lay up in summer for the wants of winter; will not accumulate in youth for the exigencies of age. He would become an insufferable burden to society. Society has the right to prevent this, and can only do so by subjecting him to domestic slavery. In the last place, the negro race is inferior to the white race, and living in their midst, they would be far outstripped or outwitted in the chaos of free competition. Gradual but certain extermination would be their fate. We presume the maddest abolitionist does not think the negro's providence of habits and money-making capacity at all to compare to those of the whites. This defect of character would alone justify enslaving him, if he is to remain here. In Africa or the West Indies, he would become idolatrous, savage and cannibal, or be devoured by savages and cannibals. At the North he would freeze or starve.

We would remind those who deprecate and sympathize with negro slavery, that his slavery here relieves him from a far more cruel slavery in Africa, or from idolatry and cannibalism, and every brutal vice and crime that can disgrace humanity; and that it christianizes, protects, supports and civilizes him; that it governs him far better than free laborers at the North are governed. There, wife-murder has become a mere holiday pastime; and where so many wives are murdered, almost all must be brutally treated. Nay, more; men who kill their wives or treat them brutally, must be ready for all kinds of crime, and the calendar of crime at the North proves the inference to be correct. Negroes never kill their wives. If it be objected that legally they have no wives, then we reply, that in an experience of more than forty years, we never yet heard of a negro man killing a negro woman. Our negroes are not only better off as to physical comfort than free laborers, but their moral condition is better.

The negro slaves of the South are the happiest, and, in some sense, the freest people in the world. The children and the aged and infirm work not at all, and yet have all the comforts and necessaries of life provided for them. They enjoy liberty, because they are oppressed neither by care nor labor. The women do little hard work, and are protected from the despotism of their husbands by their masters. The negro men and stout boys work, on the average, in good weather, not more than nine hours a day. The balance of their time is spent in perfect abandon. Besides' they have their Sabbaths and holidays. White men, with so much of license and liberty, would die of ennui; but negroes luxuriate in corporeal and mental repose. With their faces upturned to the sun, they can sleep at any hour; and quiet sleep is the greatest of human enjoyments. "Blessed be the man who invented sleep." 'Tis happiness in itself--and results from contentment with the present, and confident assurance of the future.

A common charge preferred against slavery is, that it induces idleness with the masters. The trouble, care and labor, of providing for wife, children and slaves, and of properly governing and administering the whole affairs of the farm, is usually borne on small estates by the master. On larger ones, he is aided by an overseer or manager. If they do their duty, their time is fully occupied. If they do not, the estate goes to ruin. The mistress, on Southern farms, is usually more busily, usefully and benevolently occupied than any one on the farm. She unites in her person, the offices of wife, mother, mistress, housekeeper, and sister of charity. And she fulfills all these offices admirably well. The rich men, in free society, may, if they please, lounge about town, visit clubs, attend the theatre, and have no other trouble than that of collecting rents, interest and dividends of stock. In a well constituted slave society, there should be no idlers. But we cannot divine how the capitalists in free society are to put to work. The master labors for the slave, they exchange industrial value. But the capitalist, living on his income, gives nothing to his subjects. He lives by mere exploitations.

The Black American
A Documentary History
, Third Edition, by Leslie H. Fishel, Jr. and Benjamin Quarles, Scott, Foresman and Company, Illinois, 1976,1970

A Slave Experience of Being Sold South

Following the termination of the international slave trade in 1808, an extensive domestic trade opened between the older slave states such as Virginia and Maryland, and the new territories, such as Mississippi and Alabama. Cotton cultivation was pushing west, into the new southern territories, and plantation owners were desperate for slaves to work the crops.

This selection is taken from a book entitled My Life in the South, by Jacob Stroyer. Stroyer had been a slave on a large plantation in South Carolina until he was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1864. He then went on to become a minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1879 he published his memories of his life under slavery. In the attached selection, he describes the departure of enslaved people who have been sold South.

Jacob Stroyer, My Life in the South

When the day came for them to leave, some, who seemed to have been willing to go at first, refused, and were handcuffed together and guarded on their way to the cars by white men. The women and children were driven to the depot in crowds, like so many cattle, and the sight of them caused great excitement among master's negroes. Imagine a mass of uneducated people shedding tears and yelling at the tops of their voices in anguish and grief.

The victims were to take the cars from a station called Clarkson turnout, which was about four miles from master's place. The excitement was so great that the overseer and driver could not control the relatives and friends of those that were going away, as a large crowd of both old and young went down to the depot to see them off. Louisiana was considered by the slaves as a place of slaughter, so those who were going did not expect to see their friends again. While passing along, many of the negroes left their masters' fields and joined us as we marched to the cars; some were yelling and wringing their hands, while others were singing little hymns that they were accustomed to for the consolation of those that were going away, such as


"When we all meet in heaven,

There is no parting there;

When we all meet in heaven,

There is parting no more."

We arrived at the depot and had to wait for the cars to bring the others from the Sumterville Jail, but they soon came in sight, and when the noise of the cars died away we heard wailing and shrieks from those in the cars. While some were weeping, others were fiddling, picking banjo, and dancing as they used to do in their cabins on the plantations. Those who were so merry had very bad masters, and even though they stood a chance of being sold to one as bad or even worse, yet they were glad to be rid of the one they knew.

While the cars were at the depot, a large crowd of white people gathered, and were laughing and talking about the prospect of negro traffic; but when the cars began to start and the conductor cried out, "all who are going on this train must get on board without delay," the colored people cried out with one voice as though the heavens and earth were coming together, and it was so pitiful, that those hard hearted white men who had been accustomed to driving slaves all their lives, shed tears like children. As the cars moved away we heard the weeping and wailing from the slaves as far as human voice could be heard; and from that time to the present I have neither seen nor heard from my two sisters, nor any of those who left Clarkson depot on that memorable day.

My Life in the South, by Jacob Stroyer, Salem: Observer Book and Job Print, 1890

Butler Plantation Slave

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According to Celia Davis, a slave on Pierce Butler's Hampton plantation, Fanny Kemble was a "nice white lady, very rosy, [with] clothes always got on so rich."

Still a child at the time, Davis saw Kemble when the mistress visited the plantation in 1839. This photo of Davis was taken in 1915

The Weeping Time

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In March of 1857, the largest sale of human beings in the history in the United States took place at a racetrack in Savannah, Georgia. During the two days of the sale, raindrops fell unceasingly on the racetrack. It was almost as though the heavens were crying. So, too, fell teardrops from many of the 436 men, women, and children who were auctioned off during the two days. The sale would thereafter be known as "the weeping time."

The owner of the slaves, Pierce Butler, had inherited the family's Georgia plantations some twenty years earlier, along with his brother John. But Pierce had squandered away his portion of the inheritance, losing a rumored $700,000; now he was deeply in debt. Management of Pierce Butler's estate was transferred to trustees. The trustees sold off Butler's once-grand, now-neglected Philadelphia mansion for $30,000. Other Butler properties were sold as well. But it was not enough to satisfy creditors, much less to ensure that Butler would continue to live in luxury. So the trustees turned to the Georgia plantations and their "moveable" property -- their slaves.

At the time, the overall holdings of the Butler family included 900 slaves. These would be divided into two groups of 450. Half would go to the estate of John, who had since died. These slaves would remain on the plantations. The fate of the other 450 -- Pierce's half -- was more precarious. About 20 would continue to live on Butler property. The remainder, some 429 men, women, and children, were boarded onto railway cars and steamboats and brought to the Broeck racetrack, where each would be sold to the highest bidder.

There were naturally differing viewpoints regarding the auction, Pierce Butler, and the large fortune he would gain after paying his debts. Philadelphia socialite Sidney George Fisher noted in his diary, "It is highly honorable to [Butler] that he did all he could to prevent the sale, offering to make any personal sacrifice to avoid it." Of the auction, Fisher wrote:

It is a dreadful affair, however, selling these hereditary Negroes. . . . Families will not be separated, that is to say, husbands and wives, parents and young children. But brothers and sisters of mature age, parents and children of mature age, all other relations and the ties of home and long association will be violently severed. It will be a hard thing for Butler to witness and it is a monstrous thing to do. Yet it is done every day in the South. It is one among the many frightful consequences of slavery and contradicts our civilization, our Christianity, or Republicanism. Can such a system endure, is it consistent with humanity, with moral progress? These are difficult questions, and still more difficult is it to say, what can be done? The Negroes of the South must be slaves or the South will be Africanized. Slavery is better for them and for us than such a result.

Mortimer Thomson, a popular newsman of the day known affectionately as "Doesticks," wrote a lengthy, uncomplimentary article about the auction for the New York Tribune entitled "What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation." He reported how the slaves, eager to impress potential masters who they perceived as kind, would sometimes cheerfully respond to buyers "pulling their mouths open to see their teeth, pinching their limbs to find how muscular they were, walking them up and down to detect any signs of lameness, making them stoop and bend in different ways that they might be certain there was no concealed rupture or wound. . . ." And Thomson commiserated with the unfortunate slaves after the sale, stating, "On the faces of all was an expression of heavy grief; some appeared to be resigned to the hard stroke of Fortune that had torn them from their homes, and were sadly trying to make the best of it; some sat brooding moodily over their sorrows, their chins resting on their hands, their eyes staring vacantly, and their bodies rocking to and fro, with a restless motion that was never stilled. . . ."

The two-day sale netted $303,850. The highest price paid for one family -- a mother and her five grown children -- was $6,180. The highest price for one individual was $1,750. The lowest price for any one slave was $250.

Soon after the last slave was sold, the rain stopped. Champagne bottles popped in celebration. And Pierce Butler, once again wealthy, made a trip to southern Europe before returning home to Philadephia.

Letters to R. C. Ballard Regarding Slave Woman Abuse

Enslaved men endured many forms of abuse at the hands of their masters and overseers, including whippings and beatings. Women slaves, too, felt the pain of the lash, as well as other forms of mistreatment. Many women were also sexually abused, whether by being harassed, raped, or forced into concubinage.

The attached letters address two different forms of sexual abuse. They are both addressed to Rice Carter Ballard, a slave trader and planter. Ballard was involved in the interstate slave trade in the 1820's and 1830's, and by the early 1840's he was purchasing and managing plantations in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas. He co-owned some of these with Judge Samuel Boyd.

The first letter, J. M. Duffield to Col. R. C. Ballard, is from a man who tries to convince Ballard to let him buy an enslaved girl named Maria. Maria is being terribly abused by Judge Boyd, and Duffield wants to buy her so he can free her. "All these cruelties have been inflicted upon the feeble frame of that girl -- and are frequently inflicted -- she must die under them." It is possible that Duffield has fathered a child with Maria, for at the beginning of the letter he talks of the arrangements he has made for the little girl.

The second letter, from Virginia Boyd to R. C. Ballard, is from a pregnant slave who has been Judge Boyd's concubine. Virginia writes to Ballard from a slave trading post in Texas, where she has apparently been sent by Boyd. She asks Ballard to intervene and keep her from being sold. "Do you think after all that has transpired between me & the old Man, (I don't call names) that its treating me well to send me off a mong strangers in my situation [pregnant?] to be sold...." Apparently Ballard did not help Virginia; he received a letter on August 8 from slave trader C. M. Rutherford, stating that Virginia and one of her children had been sold.


J.M. Duffield to Col. R.C. Ballard, May 29, 1848

From Jackson ("Private and in Confidence")

I desired, in the first place, to apprise you, that I had made arrangements to send the child northward, there to be brought up, and educated, and there forever to reside. I have made all my arrangements for her, and she will start on the 6th July. I shall be in Natchez, when she goes....

The next was, to endeavor to do something for Maria. Her health seems to be sinking and she has been a sufferer of great agony mentally and bodily. You will recollect the cruelties which you described to me once in confidence that had been perpetrated, by a certain person in whose power Maria is [Judge Boyd], and I recollect the horror you expressed of it. All these cruelties have been inflicted upon the feeble frame of that girl -- and are frequently inflicted -- she must die under them. Long ago would I have freed her from them, if I had been able to do so....

Will you not, Colonel, let me have her. She is sickly, suffering, and will die soon if she remains where she is. I buy her only to free her. Lashed as she is like an ox, until the blood gushes from her, I know, your kind, humane heart must revolt at the barbarities she is constantly enduring. I would do anything on earth to relieve her from her present position....

Only listen to the dictates of your own kindly nature, and you will grant the request, which I make as a matter of favor to me, and goodness to her, and as another memorial of your generosity.

Virginia Boyd to R.C. Ballard, May 6, 1853 - Houston, TX

To [Warrenton]

I am at present in the city [sic] of Houston in a Negro traders yard, for sale, by your orders. I was present at the Post Office when Doctor Ewing took your letter out through mistake and red it a loud, not knowing I was the person the letter alluded to. I hope that if I have ever done or said any thing that has offended you that you will for give me, for I have suffered enough Cince in mind to repay all that I have ever done, to anyone, you wrote for them to sell me in thrity days, do you think after all that has transpired between me & the old man, (I don't call names) that its treating me well to send me off among strangers in my situation to be sold without even my having an opportunity of choosing for my self; its hard indeed and what is still harder for the father of my children to sell his own offspring Yes his own flesh & blood. My God is it possible that any free born American would brand his character with such a stigma as that, but I hope before this he will relent & see his error for I still beleave that he is possest of more honer than that. I no too that you have influence and can assist me in some measure from out of this dilemma and if you will God will be sure to reward you, you have a family of children & no how to sympathize with others in distress....

Is it possible that such a change could ever come over the spirit of any living man as to sell his child that is his image. I dont wish to return to harras or protest his peace of mind & shall never try [to] get back if I am dealt with fairly....

I have written to the Old Man in such a way that the letter cant fail to fall in his hands and none others I use every precaution to prevent others from knowing or suspecting any thing I have my letters written & folded put into envelope & get it directed by those that dont know the Contents of it for I shall not seek ever to let any thing be exposed, unless I am forced from bad treatment &c

Virginia Boyd
selected material from the Rice C. Ballard Papers and the Hayes Collection
Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


H. E. Hayward and Slave Nurse Louisa

Under the institution of slavery, African Americans and the white people who owned them lived in close proximity and developed relationships with each other. These were defined by the power imbalance between the people involved. They could be relationships of mutual compassion or mutual hatred, but they were an inherent part of daily life.

One of the most complex relationships was the one that existed between white children and their African American caretakers. White children were often in the unnatural position of standing to inherit the people who raised them, and enslaved nannies were in the similarly unnatural position of caring for the children who would grow up to be their masters. This picture, of slave nurse Louisa and her charge, H. E. Hayward, suggests the inherent tension of these relationships.

"On the Management of the Butler Estate"

In 1828, Roswell King, Jr. was asked to contribute knowledge of "Southern Agriculture and plantation economy" to The Southern Agriculturist.

Roswell King Jr, who along with his father had managed Georgia's Butler plantations for many years, naturally didn't mention raping slaves in his article, a practice Fanny Kemble reported in her journal. He did, ironically, claim that he suppressed "brutality and licentiousness" on the plantation and controlled slaves with an "equitable distribution of rewards and punishments."






ART. I -- On the Management of the BUTLER Estate, and the Cultivation of the Sugar Cane; by R. King, jr. addresed to William Washington, Esq.
         Hampton, (near Darien,) 13th Sept. 1828.

Dear Sir. -- Your letter of the 29th August came to hand on the 8th inst. Nothing would afford me more satisfaction than to impart the little knowledge I possess of Southern Agriculture and plantation economy, if such would benefit others.
We are dependent on each other, and each should contribute his mite. Therefore, I shall comply with your request as minutely as possible.
The reputed good condition of the Butler Estate, has been the work of time, and a diligent attention to the interest of said estate, and the comfort and happiness of the slaves on it.
To Mr. R. King, sen'r. more is due than to myself. In 1802, he assumed the management. The gang was a fine one, but was very disorderly, which invariably is the case when there is a frequent change of managers. Rules and regulations were established, (I may say laws,) a few forcible examples made, after a regular trial, in which every degree of justice was exhibited, was the first step. But the grand point was to supress the brutality and licentiousness practiced by the principal men on it; (say the drivers and tradesmen.) More punishment is inflicted on every plantation by the men in power, from private pique, than from a neglect of duty. This I assert as a fact; I have detected it often. No person of my age, knows more the nature of these persons than myself; since childhood I have been on this place, and from the age of eighteen to this time, have had the active management; therefore I speak with confidence. They have a perfect knowledge of right and wrong. When an equitable distribution of rewards and punishments is observed, in a short time they will conform to almost every rule that is laid down.
The owner or overseer knows, that with a given number of hands, such a portion of work is to be done. The driver, to screen favorites, or apply their time to his own purposes, imposes a heavy task on some. Should they murmur, and opportunity is taken,, months after, to punish those unfortunate fellows for not doing their own and others tasks. Should they not come at the immediate offenders, it will descend on the nearest kindred. As an evidence of the various opportunities that a burial driver has to gratify his revenge, (the predominant principle of the human race,) let any planter go into his field, and in any Negro's task, he can find apparently just grounds for punishment. To prevent this abuse, no driver in the field is allowed to inflict punishment, until after a regular trial. When I pass sentence myself, various modes of punishment are adopted; the lash, least of all -- Digging stumps, or clearing away trash about the settlements, in their own time; but the most severe is, confinement at home six months to twelve months, or longer. No intercourse is allowed with other plantations. A certain number are allowed to go to town on Sundays, to dispose of eggs, poultry, coopers' ware, canoes, &c. but must be home by 12 o'clock, unless by special permit. Any one returning intoxicated, (a rare instance) goes into stocks, and not allowed to leave home for twelve months.
An order from a driver is to be as implicitly obeyed as if it came from myself, nor do I counteract the execution, (unless directly injurious,) but direct his immediate attention to it. It would be endless for me to superintend the drivers and field hands too, and would of course make them useless. The lash is, unfortunately, too much used; every mode of punishment should be divised in preference to that, and when used, never to lacerate -- all young persons will offend. A Negro at twenty-five years old, who finds he has the marks of a rogue inflicted when a boy, (even if disposed to be orderly) has very little or no inducement to be otherwise. Every means are used to encourage them, and impress on their minds the advantage of holding property, and the disgrace attached to idleness. Surely, if industrious for themselves, they will be so for their masters, and no Negro, with a well stocked poultry house, a small crop advancing, a canoe partly finished, or a few tubs unsold, all of which he calculates soon to enjoy, will ever run away. In ten years I have lost, by absconding, forty-seven days, out of nearly six hundred Negroes. Any Negro leaving the plantation, field, to complain to me, is registered and treated as such. Many may think that they lose time, when Negroes can work for themselves; it is the reverse on all plantations under good regulations -- time is absolutely gained to the master. An indolent Negro is most always sick, and unless he is well enough to work for his master, he cannot work for himself, and when the master's task is done, he is in mischief, unless occupied for himself. And another evidence arising from the encouragement of industry, I make on this estate as good crops as most of my neighbors; plant as much to the hand, do as much plantation work, and very often get clear of a crop earlier than many where these encouragements are not held out. I have no before-day work, only as punishments; every hand must be at work by daylight. The tasks given are calculated to require so much labour. It is as easy to cut three tasks of Rice, as it is to bind two, or to bring two home. It is easier to ditch eight hundred cubic feet of marsh, than four hundred feet of rooty river swamp. There are many regulations on a plantation that must be left discretionary with the manager. In harvesting a crop of Rice, some acres are heavier, or further off than others, some hands quicker, or more able than others all these, considered, make a wide difference -- by giving a far and a near task to bring in, or putting them in gangs, the burthen is borne equally, and all come home at once. Frequently (always I can say) by Friday night, I have nearly as much Rice in, as if the regular task during the week, had been given....
By this mode I not only gain time, but afford them some also. A man, white or black, that knows such will be the result, will seldom deviate from the right course. All these things are not to be slipped into at once; it has been the work of nearly twenty-seven years, and I find many things yet to correct. With regard to feeding, they have plenty of the best Corn, well ground, by water and animal power, with a portion of Fish, (No. 3, Mackerel,) Beef, Pork, and Molasses, and when much exposed, a little Rum. To each gang there is a cook, who carefully prepares two meals per day. The very grinding and cooking for them affords the time that they apply to their own purposes; if their provisions was given underground, many would trade it off, or be too lazy to cook it. Any one that has spent a night on a plantation where the Negroes grind their own Corn, must recollect the horrible sound of a hand mill, all night. It is this that wears them down. He goes to the mill -- it is occupied -- he must wait until the first has done, and so on; some are at it all night -- their natural rest is destroyed. Many masters think they give provision and clothing in abundance, but unless they use means to have these properly prepared, half the benefit is lost. Another great advantage in grinding and cooking for them is, that the little Negroes are sure to get enough to eat. On this estate, there are two hundred and thrity-eight Negroes from fifteen years down, and every one knows that they do not increase in proportion in a large gang, as in a small one, with the same attention. I cannot exemplify in too strong terms, the great advantage resulting from properly preparing the food for Negroes.-- They will object to it at first, but no people are more easily convinced of any thing tending to their comfort, than they are. In fact, a master does not discharge his duty to himself, unless he will adopt every means to promote his interest and their welfare. Again, many will say it takes too many to wait on the others. An old woman for a cook, who will raise one little Negro extra, which will certainly pay her wages, besides the very great comfort it will afford the others; a machine that will not cost in twenty years, more than $15 per annum; a little boy to drive an old horse two days in the week, and an old man, (or even the overseer on a place of thirty hands,) to act as a commissary in issuing the provisions, I am sure, well regulated, will add 25 per cent. to the owner, including gain in Negroes, comfort to them, and to their master's feelings. During the summer, little Negroes should have an extra mess. I find at Butler's Island, where there are about one hundred and fourteen little Negroes, that it costs less than two cents each per week, in giving them a feed of Ocra soup, with Pork, or a little Molasses or Hommony, or Small Rice. The great advantage is, that there is not a dirt-eater among them -- an incurable propensity produced from a morbid state of the stomach, arising from the want of a proper quantity of wholesome food, and at a proper time.
I have invariably found that women, that had been accustomed to waiting in the houses of white persons, have the largest and finest families of children, even after going into the field. I believe it arises from this circumstance, that they had contracted a habit of cleanliness, and of preparing their food properly. You, on looking round, will find this the case. An hospital should be on each plantation, with proper nurses and apartments for lying-in women, for the men, and for a nursery; when any enter, not to leave the house until discharged. I have found physicians of little service, except in surgical cases. An intelligent woman will in a short time learn the use of medicine. The labour of pregnant women is reduced one half, and they are put to work in dry situations.
It is a great point in having the principal drivers men that can support their dignity; a condescention to familiarity should be prohibited. Young Negroes are put to work early, twelve to fourteen years old; four, five, or six, rated a hand. It keeps them out of mischief, and by giving light tasks, thrity to forty rows, they acquire habits of perseverance and industry....
      I am, dear Sir, your most obed't.

          R. KING, Jr.

Southern Agriculturalist
December, 1828
South Carolina Historical Society

  • 1828

Slave Quarters on St. Georges Island

These dwellings, located on Florida's St Georges Island in the Gulf of Mexico, are typical plantation slave quarters. Although Fanny Kemble never visited this island, one can imagine that she was describing these buildings when she wrote about the slaves' homes on Butler Island. . .

Such of these dwellings as I visited today were filthy and wretched in the extreme, and exhibited that most deplorable consequence of ignorance and an abject condition, the inabiility of the inhabitants to secure and improve even such pitiful comfort as might yet be achieved by them. . . . The moss with which the chinks and crannies of their ill-protecting dwelling might have been stuffed was trailing in dirt and dust about the ground, while the back door of the huts, opening upon a most unsightly ditch, was left wide open for the fowls and ducks, which they are allowed to raise, to travel in and out, increasing the filth of the cabin by what they brought and left in every direction.

"Family Group ('The Hidden Witness')"

This daguerrotype, "Family Group ('The Hidden Witness')" suggests the position black people held in antebellum society. Taken by Charles H. Fontayne and William Southgate Porter, in about 1848 or 1852, it is at first glance a simple portrait of a white family posing in front of their house. Yet upon closer examination, one sees that there is someone else in the picture -- in the background, an African American man leans against a tree, holding a shovel.

Was the man supposed to be in the picture? Does he realize that he is being photographed? Has he inserted himself in the scene purposely, to assert his presence? These questions are unanswerable, but one thing is clear. The man's background position is no accident. He is not considered important enough to join the group in front, but stands in the shadows.

James Henry Hammond Advocates Slavery

James Henry Hammond was a senator and wealthy plantation owner from South Carolina. This excerpt is from a speech he made to the Senate on March 4, 1858, in which he lays out his famous "mudsill theory" and states, "In all societies that must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life." This class, says Hammond, makes it possible for the higher class to move civilization forward.

In the antebellum period, pro-slavery forces moved from defending slavery as a necessary evil to expounding it as a positive good. Some insisted that African Americans were child-like people in need of protection, and that slavery provided a civilizing influence. Others argued that black people were biologically inferior to white people and were incapable of assimilating in free society. Still others claimed that slaves were necessary to maintain the progress of white society.


"The 'Mudsill' Theory," by James Henry Hammond


Speech to the U.S. Senate, March 4, 1858

In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill. Fortunately for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes. We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves. We found them slaves by the common "consent of mankind," which, according to Cicero, "lex naturae est." The highest proof of what is Nature's law. We are old-fashioned at the South yet; slave is a word discarded now by "ears polite;" I will not characterize that class at the North by that term; but you have it; it is there; it is everywhere; it is eternal.

The Senator from New York said yesterday that the whole world had abolished slavery. Aye, the name, but not the thing; all the powers of the earth cannot abolish that. God only can do it when he repeals the fiat, "the poor ye always have with you;" for the man who lives by daily labor, and scarcely lives at that, and who has to put out his labor in the market, and take the best he can get for it; in short, your whole hireling class of manual laborers and "operatives," as you call them, are essentially slaves. The difference between us is, that our slaves are hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our people, and not too much employment either. Yours are hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most painful manner, at any hour in any street in any of your large towns. Why, you meet more beggars in one day, in any single street of the city of New York, than you would meet in a lifetime in the whole South. We do not think that whites should be slaves either by law or necessity. Our slaves are black, of another and inferior race. The status in which we have placed them is an elevation. They are elevated from the condition in which God first created them, by being made our slaves. None of that race on the whole face of the globe can be compared with the slaves of the South. They are happy, content, unaspiring, and utterly incapable, from intellectual weakness, ever to give us any trouble by their aspirations. Yours are white, of your own race; you are brothers of one blood. They are your equals in natural endowment of intellect, and they feel galled by their degradation. Our slaves do not vote. We give them no political power. Yours do vote, and, being the majority, they are the depositories of all your political power. If they knew the tremendous secret, that the ballot-box is stronger than "an army with banners," and could combine, where would you be? Your society would be reconstructed, your government overthrown, your property divided, not as they have mistakenly attempted to initiate such proceedings by meeting in parks, with arms in their hands, but by the quiet process of the ballot-box. You have been making war upon us to our very hearthstones. How would you like for us to send lecturers and agitators North, to teach these people this, to aid in combining, and to lead them?

  • 1858

"What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation"

Shortly after the sale of 429 slaves in Savannah, Georgia -- an event known as "The Weeping Time" -- the first installment of Mortimer Thomson's "expose" was published by the New York Tribune and carried by other papers. Thomson, also known as "Doesticks" by his many fans, had travelled to Savannah and posed as one of the many buyers who had flocked to participate in the auction -- buyers he described as being "a rough breed, slangy, profane and bearish."

The article was not at all well-received by the pro-slavery advocates of the South. The editor of the Savannah Republican wrote, among other criticisms, that Thomson was a "somewhat notorious individual" and a "hiring libeler" and that the report was a "tissue of misrepresentation and falsehood."

Thomson's sympathetic report contained detailed descriptions of the auction, including touching accounts of individual slaves and their stories. It was republished in 1863 as a pamphlet entitled,"What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation" and was billed as a sequel to Fanny Kemble's Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation


Excerpts from the 1863 publication by Mortimer Thomson, What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation. . .

The largest sale of human chattels that has been made in Star-Spangled America for several years, took place on Wednesday nad Thursday of last week, at the Race-course near the City of Savannah, Georgia. The lot consisted of four hundred and thirty-six men, women, children and infants, being that half of the negro stock remaining on the old Major Butler plantations which fell to one of the two heirs to that estate.

The sale had been advertised largely for many weeks, though the name of Mr. Butler was not mentioned; and as the negroes were known to be a choice lot and very desirable property, the attendance of buyers was large. The breaking up of an old family estate is so uncommon an occurrence that the affair was regarded with unusual interest throughout the South. For several days before the sale every hotel in Savannah was crowded with negro speculators from North and South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana, who had been attracted hither by the prospects of making good bargains.

The buyers were generally of a rough breed, slangy, profane and bearish, being for the most part from the back river and swamp plantations, where the elegancies of polite life are not, perhaps, developed to their fullest extent. In fact, the humanities are sadly neglected by the petty tyrants of the rice-fields that border the great Dismal Swamp, their knowledge of the luxuries of our best society comprehending only revolvers and kindred delicacies.

Your correspondent was present at an early date.... Although he kept his business in the back-ground, he made himself a prominent figure in the picture, and, wherever there was anything going on, there was he in the midst. At the sale might have been seen a busy individual, armed with pencil and catalogue, doing his little utmost to keep up all the appearance of a knowing buyer... and otherwise conducting himself like a rich planter, with forty thousand dollars where he could put his finger on it.

None of the Butler slaves have ever been sold before, but have been on these two plantations since they were born. Here have they lived their humble lives, and loved their simple loves; here were they born, and here have many of them had children born unto them; here had their parents lived before them, and are now resting in quiet graves on the old plantations that these unhappy ones are to see no more forever; here they left not only the well-known scenes dear to them from very baby-hood by a thousand fond memories, and homes as much loved by them, perhaps, as brighter homes by men of brighter faces; but all the clinging ties that bound them to living hearts were torn asunder, for but one-half of each of these two happy little communities was sent to the shambles, to be scattered to the four winds, and the other half was left behind. And who can tell how closely intertwined are a band of four hundred persons, living isolated from all the world beside, from birth to middle age? Do they not naturally become one great family, each man a brother unto each?

It is true they were sold "in families"; but let us see: a man and his wife were called a "family," their parents and kindred were not taken into account; the man and wife might be sold to the pine woods of North Carolina, their brothers and sisters be scattered through the cotton fields of Alabama and the rice swamps of Louisiana, while the parents might be left on the old plantation to wear out their weary lives in heavy grief, and lay their heads in far-off graves, over which their children might never weep.

The Negroes were examined with as little consideration as if they had been brutes indeed; the buyers pulling their mouths open to see their teeth, pinching their limbs to find how muscular they were, walking them up and down to detect any signs of lameness, making them stoop and bend in differect ways that they might be certain there was no concealed rupture of wound; and in addition to all this treatment, asking them scores of questions relative to their qualifications and accomplishments. All these humiliations were submitted to without a murmur, and in some instatces with good-natured cheerfulness -- where the slave liked the appearance of the proposed buyer, and fancied that he might prove a kind "Mas'r."

The women never spoke to the white men unless spoken to, and then made the conferece as short as possible. And not one of them all, during the whole time they were thus exposed to the rude questions of vulgar men, spoke the first unwomanly or indelicate word, or cunducted herself in any regard otherwise than as a modest woman should do; their conversation and demeanor were quite as unexceptionable as they would have been had they been the highest ladies in the land, and through all the insults to which they were subjected they conducted themselves with the most perfect decorum nad self-respect.

The expression on the faces of all who stepped on the block was always the same, and told of more anguish than it is in the power of words to express. Blighted homes, curshed hopes and broken hearts, was the sad story to be read in all the anxious faces. Some of them regarded the sale with perfect indifference, never making a motion, save to turn from one side to the other at the word of the dapper Mr. Byran, that all the crowd might have a fair view of their proportions, and then, when the sale was accomplished, stepped down from the block without caring to cast even a look at the buyer, who now held all their happiness in his hands.

As the last family stepped down from the block, the rain ceased, for the first time in four days the clouds broke away, and the soft sunlight fell on the scene. The unhappy slaves had many of them been already removed, and others were now departing with their new masters.

That night, not a steamer left that Southern port, not a train of cars sped away from that cruel city, that did not bear each its own sad burden of those unhappy ones, whose only crime is that they are not strong and wise. Some of them maimed and wounded, some scarred and gashed, by accident, or by the hand of ruthless drivers -- all sad and sorrowful as human hearts can be.

But the stars shone out as brightly as if such things had never been, the blushing fruit-trees poured their fragrance on the evening air, and the scene was as calmly sweet and quiet as if Man had never marred the glorious beauties of Earth by deeds of cruelty and wrong.

What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation?
Great Auction Sale of Slaves at Savannah, Georgia, March 2d & 3d, 1859
A sequel to Mrs. Kemble's Journal, 1863

  • 1863

Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation

"I have sometimes been haunted with the idea that it was an imperative duty, knowing what I know, and having seen what I have seen, to do all that lies in my power to show the dangers and the evils of this frightful institution." This line, written in a letter to a friend one year after leaving the Butler plantations, expresses Fanny Kemble's aversion to slavery. She had been working on her journal -- a revealing look at southern plantations in which she detailed the injustices of slavery -- but another two decades would pass before her journal would be published.

Kemble was still married at the time she wrote the journal, and publishing the "expose" was out of the question with her slave-owning husband. His influence over her actions diminished after their divorce in 1849, though, and with the sale of his slaves in 1859, the plantation she had written about no longer existed. Her decision to publish, though, wasn't triggered until after the start of the Civil War, in response to England's hostility toward the North and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. If only she could convince England of the reasons behind the Proclamation, she reasoned, they would side with the North.

The journal, entitled Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, was published in England in May of 1863, 22 years after her visit to Butler and St. Simons Islands. It did indeed help to mobilize English sentiment against the Confederacy. An American version was published in July of the same year.

We now approached the low, reedy banks of Butler Island, and passed the rice miff and buildings surrounding it, all of which, it being Sunday, were closed. As we neared the bank, the steersman took up a huge conch, and in the barbaric fashion of early times in the Highlands, sounded out our approach. A pretty schooner, which carries the produce of the estate to Charleston and Savannah, lay alongside the wharf, which began to be crowded with Negroes, jumping, dancing, shouting, laughing, and clapping their hands (a usual expression of delight with savages and children), and using the most extravagant and ludicrous gesticulations to express their ecstasy at our arrival.

On our landing from the boat, the crowd thronged about us like a swarm of bees; we were seized, pulled, pushed, carried, dragged, and all but lifted in the air by the clamorous multitude. I was afraid my children would be smothered. Fortunately Mr. O--, the overseer, and the captain of the little craft above-mentioned, came to our assistance, and by their good offices the babies and nurse were protected through the crowd. They seized our clothes, kissed them -- then our hands, and almost wrung them off. One tall, gaunt Negress flew to us, parting the throng on either side, and embraced us in her arms. I believe I was almost frightened; and it was not until we were safely housed, and the door shut upon our riotous escort, that we indulged in a fit of laughing, quite as full, on my part, of nervousness as of amusement.


Butler Mansion

Once the pride of Pierce Butler's grandfather, this Philadelphia mansion sat on the corner of Chestnut and Eighth Streets. When Butler fell on hard times in 1856, the house was put up for sale for $30,000. By then, Butler had taken in boarders and had even attached a sign that read "Butler House" to the side of the neglected and now dilapidated mansion.

Contributor: bgill
Created: July 13, 2007 · Modified: July 13, 2007

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