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A Look Back At The Types Of Work Slaves Performed On Southern Plantations
Perhaps you have a certain picture in your mind when thinking of the former slaves to which the Americas owe so much for in their rapid rise to power in colonial and pre-Civil War years.
Sadly, images of happy, but hard working black folk singing mournful songs while picking cotton in the snow white fields all back dropped by a peaceful oak shrouded plantation house, is what many of today’s citizens picture in their minds. Sure, it’s quite possible this overused movie scene may have happened somewhere in the Deep South, but it certainly was not the normal state of things.
Slaves were not merely members of a huge group with similar unfortunate circumstances. Sure, some were purchased to be worked in large gangs. There were others of course, who were used along with perhaps only one or two other slaves for other businesses besides farming. Perhaps the worst case scenario may have been being the only slave owned by a poor white farmer, and having to work alongside him as he tended his small plot of dirt.
Never To Return Home!
Then and Now!
Land of The Free!
It had to have been terrible for either a male or female slave not to have at least one other person of the same culture and circustance to commiserate with. One can only imagine the loneliness such an innocent human being had to endure.
Forever separated from his homeland, with no one but his master to pass the time with, what miserable lonely nights a single slave must have endured in parts of the isolated Georgia countryside.
Such a poor soul spent long hot days working in the cotton fields, and even longer nights, hearing nothing but the hoot owls and whippoorwills as they sang their mournful lullabies.
Nothing much to hope for other than a day or two of rain to perhaps allow for some easier chores. Certainly there were many prayers made by these unfortunate souls. But prayers were only answered for the white folks. Or so it must have seemed to the slaves.
There's a good chance this lone male slave will never get the chance to wed, or to bear a child, unless by some chance--"perhaps if we have a good crop this year," the master says--"we may trade for a female slave to help my wife around the house".
For most of us today it's impossible to imagine this depth of loneliness and despair. "It's in the past," we tell ourselves. But we still remember it, don't we? And we should. Like the treatment the Native Americans received, this part of our country's history is stamped in blood and sweat. But we should all freely furnish the tears for their misery.
Toil and Strife--A Plantation Slave's Life
Different Strokes From Different Folks?
The historical truth is, there were all sorts of Masters--and Mistresses too, for that matter. For this reason, different kinds of relationships developed between large plantation owners because of the way they allowed their overseers to run the workforce of their plantations.
The crops themselves determined to a certain extent just how hard the slaves were driven, or worked, depending on the way they were used by the overseer to get the desired results.
Some plantation owners would not allow their slaves to be mistreated and checked often to be sure they were not.
But other owners seldom visited their holdings, allowing an overseer to have complete control over the entire enterprise.
A look at a few such plantations, along with the various crops they grew, may give you an idea of what was required of slaves on several such southern plantations. .
A sight for tender eyes!
The Fabulous Fanny Kemble
The Pierce Butler Rice Plantation --Darien, Georgia
While cotton is the most mentioned of southern plantation crops, it was by no means the only lucrative source of income obtained by the sweat of a slave’s brow. The Pierce Butler rice plantation--located on Butler Island near Darien Georgia--is just one example of a large plot of low lying land using a network of canals and dykes to control the water level along freshwater tidal rivers and creeks. This was essential for producing rice, a very important staple of colonial America.
The plantation house pictured above was where Frances "Fanny" Kemble visited in 1838. The famous British actress and new wife of Pierce Butler-- grandson and namesake of the plantations original founder--Fanny” wrote a subsequent book about the harsh life the slaves led on this island and on Butler’s other plantation on nearby St. Simon’s Island.
Her book Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation in 1838-1839 was thought to have had a major influence on Britain’s decision to not support the south during the Civil War.
Keeping the canals working was a very labor intensive job. The hot, humid climate took its toil on those who worked in the mud and muck of the rice fields. Most of the owners fled inland during this time because of the mosquitoes along with the malaria the dreaded insects brought with them.
Fanny was shocked at the treatment the slaves received on the two plantations, so much so, she eventually left her husband and returned to England where she penned the remarkable journals relating her experiences in the south..
The Zephiniah Kingsley Plantation House
Indigo--A Color To Die For!
The Zephaniah Kingsley Plantation
A bit further south on the St Johns River--near the town of Mayport, Fla.--Ft. George Island was the site of the Zephaniah Kingsley Plantation. Today it is a wonderfully preserved example of a coastal slave operation unlike most others of its time.
Kingsley believed in a slave being able to eventually buy his own freedom. In fact, he bought and married his wife after first freeing her. Before long, she too had slaves of her own.
Besides growing the much desired Sea Island cotton the southern coastal states were famous for, another important but less mentioned product was produced here.
Indigo dye was a very lucrative product which brought much more on the market than cotton in terms of labor and time. Although processing the dye was not a simple matter, Kingsley managed to learn it well.
Kingsley had a reputation of teaching new slaves a trade on this plantation. By becoming adept as a blacksmith, wheelwright, carpenter, cooper, etc., a slave could conceivably earn his master a nice return on his investments, as well as, future freedom and job security for himself.
But this was only during the Spanish rule in Florida. When the long-time Spanish possession became the 13th colony admitted to the new country, Kingsley fled to Haiti with his slaves where they would be freed, as they had no chance of freedom with the slavery laws incorporated into the new state of Florida.
The production of indigo was very harmful to the health of the slaves when deriving the dye from the plants. While soaking the leaves of the indigo plant in different vats, slaves used their feet to crush them.
This was done so the dye could eventually ferment and form the bright blue substance later dried and formed into blocks for shipping.
It was rare when a slave involved in the indigo dye making process lived longer than seven years.
This was due to toxic chemical vapors a worker inhaled while handling the product. It affected the slave's lungs badly, eventually leading to serious illness and early death for most.
Real Plantation Homes
Digging Up One's Roots
There is a reason--other than the research I've done on this article--why I know a bit about the work slaves were forced to do on plantations here in the southeastern part of the US.
I grew up listening to the old folk in my family talking about my great grandfather's job as overseer on a plantation which required several hundred slaves to operate during its peak shortly before the Civil War.
He'd only worked there a short time before becoming smitten by the owner's 16 year old daughter. Apparently she felt the same way about my great grandfather. She was sent off to school to allow the flames to cool somewhat, but great grandad managed to find her and they eloped.
Of course, this was much to the chagrin of my now great-great grandfather because he promptly disowned his daughter, pledging to have nothing more to do with her
It was said my great grandmother had never had to do so much as rinse out a handkerchief before she married as she'd always had slaves to answer her every wish.
But she apparently was happy in her choice of marriage, and it really didn't matter because the Civil War soon eliminated her father's wealth and with it, his animosity towards his daughter, her husband, and his grandchildren.
"You can't choose your kin," is a familiar saying in the south. There has always been a part of me which is ashamed my ancestors ever had anything to do with such a horrendous business as slavery.
But I suppose we all have nefarious characters among our ancestors, and we can do nothing about it but make sure we don't forget the bad, as well as the good, in our family history. I certainly never will.
Growing Rice In The Deep South
Frances "Fanny" Kemble's fascinating journal of her life on stage and in America. Filled with her eye-witness accounts of a very rough, but colorful nonetheless, view of the south and the institution of slavery.
Gratitude To the Slaves
We often forget the roles slaves played during the early part of America's beginnings. Without them we surely would not have been able to fight a war with Britain and grow food at the same time. They were an integral part of our victory for independence, even though they were not included with the rest of the population in this wonderful outcome.
And even after the Civil War when the chains and whips weren't openly displayed, they were mired in a system almost as bad, and in some cases worse, than they'd recently been released from. This was the "sharecropping" system. Some large landowners even paid their black sharecroppers in script or tokens which could only be used at the company store for extremely high priced items.
In this manner the rich land owner even made a profit on the monies he paid out for their labors. Even into the 20th century they were treated as second class citizens, as if they hadn't been through enough already.
When the "Carpetbaggers" bought up vast tracts of land down south they needed cheap farm labor to work it, and the ex-slaves filled the bill. They also were used to chip the virgin yellow pine forests for turpentine before felling and sawing the trees for lumber. Of course, they paid them very little for the hard labor, and now they didn't have to furnish them food, shelter, clothing, or medical needs. A win-win situation for the rich landowners.
So the answer to what sort of work the slaves did is--everything! This even included rinsing out handkerchiefs for spoiled rich girls. Or so I've been told.
- Fort George Island Florida : The Zephaniah Kingsley Plantation
A fascinating look at an island plantation operated by slaves, owned by several noted early Americans, and Spanish operators. Full of historical events and interesting people who made the island more than just a cotton and indigo plantation.
- Georgia's Historic Southern Plantations : Butler Island Rice Plantation
Photos and history of one of Pierce Butler's Georgia plantations near Darien. Fanny Kemble, famous British actress who married Butler's grandson and namesake, lived here for a short time.