Slavery in the United States/Chapter 4


Our master at first expressed a determination to pass through the city of Richmond; but for some reason, which he did not make known to us, he changed his mind, and drove us up the country, crossing the Matepony, North Anna and South Anna rivers. For several days we traversed a region, which had been deserted by the occupants—being no longer worth culture—and immense thickets of young red cedars, now occupied the fields, in diging of which, thousands of wretched slaves had worn out their lives in the service of merciless masters.

In some places these cedar thickets, as they are called, continued for three or four miles together, without a house to enliven the scene, and with scarcely an original forest tree to give variety to the landscape. One day, in the midst of a wilderness of cedars, we came in view of a stately and venerable looking brick edifice, which, on nearer inspection, I discovered to be a church. On approaching it, our driver ordered us to halt, and dismounting from his horse, tied him to a young cedar tree, and sat himself down upon a flat tomb-stone, near the west end of the church, ordering us, at the same time, to sit down among the grass and rest ourselves. The grave yard in which we were now encamped, occupied about two acres of ground, which was surrounded by a square brick wall, much dilapidated, and in many places broken down nearly to the ground. The gates were decayed and gone, but the gate-ways were yet distinct. The whole enclosure was thickly strewed with graves, many of which were surmounted by beautiful marble slabs; others were designated by plain head and foot stones; whilst far the larger number only betrayed the resting places of their sleeping tenants, by the simple mounds of clay, which still maintained their elevation above the level of the surrounding earth. From the appearance of this burial place, I suppose no one had been interred there for thirty years. Several hollies, planted by the hands of friendship, grew amongst the hillocks, and numerous flowering shrubs and bushes, now in bloom, gave fragrance to the air of the place. The cedars which covered the surrounding plain, with a forest impervious to the eye, had respected this lonely dwelling of the dead, and not one was to be seen within the walls.

Though it was now the meridian of day in spring, the stillness of midnight pervaded the environs of this deserted and forsaken temple; the pulpit, pews, and gallery of which were still standing, as I could perceive through the broken door-way, and maintained a freshness and newness of appearance, little according with the time-worn aspect of the exterior scenery.

It was manifest that this earthly dwelling of the Most High, now so desolate and ruinous, was once the resort of a congregation of people, gay, fashionable, and proud; who had disappeared from the land, leaving only this fallen edifice, and these grassy tombs, as the mementos of their existence. They had passed away, even as did the wandering red men, who roamed through the lofty oak forests which once shaded the ground where we now lay. As I sat musing upon the desolation that surrounded me, my mind turned to the cause which had converted a former rich and populous country, into the solitude of a deserted wilderness.

The ground over which we had travelled, since we crossed the Potomac, had generally been a strong reddish clay, with an admixture of sand, and was of the same quality with the soil of the counties of Chester, Montgomery, and Bucks, in Pennsylvania. It had originally been highly fertile and productive, and had it been properly treated, would doubtlessly have continued to yield abundant and prolific crops; but the gentlemen who became the early proprietors of this fine region, supplied themselves with slaves from Africa, cleared large plantations of many thousands of acres—cultivated tobacco—and became suddenly wealthy; built spacious houses and numerous churches, such as this; but, regardless of their true interest, they valued their lands less than their slaves, exhausted the kindly soil by unremitting crops of tobacco, declined in their circumstances, and finally grew poor, upon the very fields that had formerly made their possessors rich; abandoned one portion after another, as not worth planting any longer, and, pinched by necessity, at last sold their slaves to Georgian planters, to procure a subsistence; and when all was gone, took refuge in the wilds of Kentucky, again to act the same melancholy drama, leaving their native land to desolation and poverty. The churches then followed the fate of their builders. The revolutionary war deprived the parsons of their legal support, and they fled from the altar which no longer maintained them. Virginia has become poor by the folly and wickedness of slavery, and dearly has she paid for the anguish and sufferings she has inflicted upon our injured, degraded, and fallen race.

After remaining about two hours in this place, we again resumed our march; and wretched as I was, I felt relieved when we departed from this abode of the spirit of ruin.

We continued our course up the country westward, for two or three days, moving at a slow pace, and at length turning south, crossed James river, at a place about thirty miles above Richmond, as I understood at the time. We continued our journey from day to day, in a course and by roads which appeared to me to bear generally about south-west, for more than four weeks, in which time we entered South Carolina, and in this state, near Camden, I first saw a field of cotton in bloom.

I had endeavoured through the whole journey, from the time we crossed the Rappahannock river, to make such observations upon the country, the roads we travelled, and the towns we passed through, as would enable me, at some future period, to find my way back to Maryland. I was particularly careful to note the names of the towns and villages through which we passed, and to fix on my memory, not only the names of all the rivers, but also the position and bearing of the ferries over those streams.

After leaving James river, I assumed an air of cheerfulness and even gaiety—I often told stories to my master of the manners and customs of the Maryland planters, and asked him if the same usages prevailed in Georgia, whither we were destined. By repeatedly naming the rivers that we came to, and in the order which we had reached them, I was able at my arrival in Georgia, to repeat the name of every considerable stream from the Potomac to the Savannah, and to tell at what ferries we had crossed them. I afterwards found this knowledge of great service to me; indeed, without it I should never have been able to extricate myself from slavery.

After leaving James river, our road led us southwest, through that region of country, which, in Virginia and the Carolinas, they call the upper country. It lies between the head of the tides, in the great rivers, and the lower ranges of the Alleghany Mountains. I had, at that time, never seen a country cultivated by the labour of freemen, and consequently, was not able to institute any comparison between the southern plantations, and the farms in Pennsylvania, the fields of which are ploughed and reaped by the hands of their owners; but my recollection of the general aspect of upper Virginia and Carolina is still vivid. When contrasted with the exhausted and depopulated portion of Virginia, lying below the head of the tide, much of which I had seen, the lands traversed by us in the month of May and early part of June, were indeed fertile and beautiful; but when compared with what the same plantations would have been, in the hands of such farmers as I have seen in Pennsylvania, divided into farms of the proper size, the cause of the general poverty and weakness of the slave-holding states is at once seen. The plantations are large in the south, often including a thousand acres or more; the population is consequently thin, as only one white family, beside the overseer, ever resides on one plantation.

As I advanced southward, even in Virginia, I perceived that the state of cultivation became progressively worse. Here, as in Maryland, the practice of the best farmers who cultivate grain, of planting the land every alternate year in corn, and sowing it in wheat or rye in the autumn of the same year in which the corn is planted, and whilst the corn is yet standing in the field, so as to get a crop from the same ground every year, without allowing it time to rest or recover, exhausts the finest soil in a few years, and in one or two generations reduces the proprietors to poverty. Some, who are supposed to be very superior farmers, only plant the land in corn once in three years; sowing it in wheat or rye as in the former case; however, without any covering of clover or other grass to protect it from the rays of the sun. The culture of tobacco prevails over a large portion of Virginia, especially south of James river, to the exclusion of almost every other crop, except corn. This destructive crop ruins the best land in a short time; and in all the lower parts of Maryland and Virginia the traveller will see large old family mansions, of weather-beaten and neglected appearance, standing in the middle of vast fields of many hundred acres, the fences of which have rotted away, and have been replaced by a wattled work in place of a fence, composed of short cedar stakes driven into the ground, about two feet apart, and standing about three feet above the earth, the intervals being filled up by branches cut from the cedar trees, and worked into the stakes horizontally, after the manner of splits in a basket.

Many of these fields have been abandoned altogether, and are overgrown by cedars, which spring up in infinite numbers almost as soon as a field ceases to be ploughed, and furnish materials for fencing such parts of the ancient plantation as are still kept enclosed. In many places the enclosed fields are only partially cultivated, all the hills and poorest parts being given up to the cedars and chinquopin bushes. These estates, the seats of families that were once powerful, wealthy, and proud, are universally destitute of the appearance of a barn, such as is known among the farmers of Pennsylvania. The out houses, stables, gardens, and offices, have fallen to decay, and the dwelling-house is occupied by the descendants of those who erected it, still pertinaciously adhering to the halls of their ancestry, with a half dozen or ten slaves, the remains of the two or three hundred who toiled upon these grounds in former days. The residue of the stock has been distributed in marriage portions to the daughters of the family gone to a distance—have been removed to the west by emigrating sons, or have been sold to the southern traders, from time to time, to procure money to support the dignity of the house, as the land grew poorer, and the tobacco crop shorter, from year to year.

Industry, enterprise, and ambition, have fled from these abodes, and sought refuge from sterility and barrenness in the vales of Kentucky, or the plains of Alabama; whilst the present occupants, vain of their ancestral monuments, and proud of an obscure name, contend with all the ills that poverty brings upon fallen greatness, and pass their lives in a contest between mimic state and actual penury—too ignorant of agriculture to know how to restore fertility to a once prolific and still substantial soil, and too spiritless to sell their effects and search a new home under other skies. The sedge grass every where takes possession of the worn out fields, until it is supplanted by the chinquopin and the cedar. This grass grows in thick set bunches or stools, and no land is too poor for it. It rises to the height of two or three feet, and grows, in many places, in great profusion—is utterly worthless, either for hay or pasturage, but affords shelter to numerous rabbits, and countless flocks of partridges, and, at a short distance, has a beautiful appearance, as its elastic blue tops wave in the breeze.

In Maryland and Virginia, although the slaves are treated with so much rigour, and oftentimes with so much cruelty, I have seen instances of the greatest tenderness of feeling on the part of their owners. I myself had three masters in Maryland, and I cannot say now, even after having resided so many years in a state where slavery is not tolerated, that either of them (except the last, who sold me to the Georgians, and was an unfeeling man,) used me worse than they had a moral right to do, regarding me merely as an article of property, and not entitled to any rights as a man, political or civil. My mistresses, in Maryland, were all good women; and the mistress of my wife, in whose kitchen I spent my Sundays and many of my nights, for several years, was a lady of most benevolent and kindly feelings. She was a true friend to me, and I shall always venerate her memory.

It is now my opinion, after all I have seen, that there are no better-hearted women in the world, than the ladies of the ancient families, as they are called, in old Virginia, or the country below the mountains, and the same observations will apply to the ladies of Maryland. The stock of slaves has belonged to the family for several generations, and there is a kind of family pride, in being the proprietors of so many human beings, which, in many instances, borders on affection for people of colour.

If the proprietors of the soil in Maryland and Virginia, were skilful cultivators—had their lands in good condition—and kept no more slaves on each estate than would be sufficient to work the soil in a proper manner, and keep up the repairs of the place—the condition of the coloured people would not be, by any means, a comparatively unhappy one. I am convinced, that in nine cases in ten, the hardships and sufferings of the coloured population of lower Virginia, is attributable to the poverty and distress of its owners. In many instances, an estate scarcely yields enough to feed and clothe the slaves in a comfortable manner, without allowing any thing for the support of the master and family; but it is obvious, that the family must first be supported, and the slaves must be content with the surplus—and this, on a poor, old, worn out tobacco plantation, is often very small, and wholly inadequate to the comfortable sustenance of the hands, as they are called. There, in many places, nothing is allowed to the poor negro, but his peck of corn per week, without the sauce of a salt herring, or even a little salt itself.

Wretched as may be the state of the negroes, in the quarter, that of the master and his wife and daughters, is, in many instances, not much more enviable in the old apartments of the great house. The sons and daughters of the family are gentlemen and ladies by birthright—and were the former to be seen at the plough, or the latter at the churn, or the wash tub, the honour of the family would be stained, and the dignity of the house degraded. People must and will be employed about something, and if they cannot be usefully occupied, they will most surely engage in some pursuit wholly unprofitable. So it happens in Virginia—the young men spend their time in riding about the country, whilst they ought to be ploughing or harrowing in the cornfield; and the young women are engaged in reading silly books, or visiting their neighbours’ houses, instead of attending to the dairy, or manufacturing cloth for themselves and their brothers. During all this, the father is too often defending himself against attorneys, or making such terms as he can with the sheriff, for debts, in which he has been involved by the vicious idleness of his children, and his own want of virtue and courage, to break through the evil tyranny of old customs, and compel his offspring to learn, in early life, to procure their subsistence by honest and honourable industry. In this state of things there is not enough for all. Pride forbids the sale of the slaves, as long as it is possible to avoid it, and their meagre allowance of corn is stinted rather than it shall be said, the master was obliged to sell them. Somebody must suffer, and "self-preservation is the first law of nature," says the proverb—hunger must invade either the great house or the quarter, and it is but reasonable to suppose, that so unwelcome an intruder would be expelled, to the last moment, from the former. In this conflict of pride and folly, against industry and wisdom, the slave-holders have been unhappily engaged for more than fifty years.

They are attempting to perform impossibilities—to draw the means of supporting a life of idleness, luxury, and splendour, from a once generous, but long since worn out and exhausted soil—a soil, which, carefully used, would at this day have richly repaid the toils of the husbandman, by a noble abundance of all the comforts of life; but which, tortured into barrenness by the double curse of slavery and tobacco, stands—and until its proprietors are regenerated, and learn the difference between a land of slaves and a nation of freemen—must continue to stand, a monument of the poverty and punishment which Providence has decreed as the reward of idleness and tyranny. The general features of slavery are the same everywhere; but the utmost rigour of the system is only to be met with on the cotton plantations of Carolina and Georgia, or in the rice fields which skirt the deep swamps and morasses of the southern rivers. In the tobacco fields of Maryland and Virginia, great cruelties are practised—not so frequently by the owners, as by the overseers of the slaves; but yet, the tasks are not so excessive as in the cotton region, nor is the press of labour so incessant throughout the year. It is true, that from the period when the tobacco plants are set in the field, there is no resting time until it is housed; but it is planted out about the first of May, and must be cut and taken out of the field before the frost comes. After it is hung and dried, the labour of stripping and preparing it for the hogshead in leaf, or of manufacturing it into twist, is comparatively a work of leisure and ease. Besides, on almost every plantation the hands are able to complete the work of preparing the tobacco by January, and sometimes earlier; so that the winter months form some sort of respite from the toils of the year. The people are obliged, it is true, to occupy themselves in cutting wood for the house, making rails and repairing fences, and in clearing new land, to raise the tobacco plants for the next year; but as there is usually time enough, and to spare, for the completion of all this work, before the season arrives for setting the plants in the field, the men are seldom flogged much, unless they are very lazy or negligent, and the women are allowed to remain in the house, in very cold, snowy, or rainy weather. I who am intimately acquainted with the slavery, both of Maryland and Virginia, and know that there is no material difference between the two, aver, that a description of one is a description of both; and that the coloured people here have many advantages over those of the cotton region. There are seldom more than one hundred, of all ages and conditions, kept on one tobacco plantation; though there are sometimes many more; but this is not frequent; whilst on the cotton estates, I have seen four or five hundred, working together in the same vast field. In Maryland, the owners of the estates, generally, reside at home throughout the year; and the mistress of the mansion is seldom absent more than a few weeks in the winter, when she visits Baltimore or Washington,—the same is the case in Virginia. Her constant residence on the estate makes her acquainted, personally, with all the slaves, and she frequently interests herself in their welfare, often interceding with the master, her husband, to prevent the overseer from beating them unmercifully.

The young ladies of the family also, if there be any, after they have left school, are generally at home until they are married. Each of them universally claims a young black girl as her own, and takes her under her protection. This enables the girl to extend the protection and friendship of her young mistress to her father, mother, brothers and sisters. The sons of the family likewise have their favourites among the black boys, and have many disputes with the overseer if he abuses them. All these advantages accrue to the black people, from the circumstance of the master and his family living at home. In Maryland I never knew a mistress, or a young mistress, who would not listen to the complaints of the slaves. It is true, we were always obliged to approach the door of the mansion, in the most humble and supplicating manner, with our hats in our hands, and the most subdued and beseeching language in our mouths–but, in return, we generally received words of kindness, and very often a redress of our grievances; though I have known very great ladies, who would never grant any request from the plantation hands, but always referred them and their petitions to their master, under a pretence that they could not meddle with things that did not belong to the house. The mistresses of the great families, generally gave mild language to the slaves; though they sometimes sent for the overseer and had them severely flogged; but I have never heard any mistress, in either Maryland or Virginia, indulge in the low, vulgar and profane vituperations, of which I was myself the object in Georgia, for several years, whenever I came into the presence of my mistress. Flogging—though often severe and excruciating in Maryland, is not practised with the order, regularity, and system, to which it is reduced in the south. On the Potomac, if a slave gives offence, he is generally chastised on the spot, in the field where he is at work, as the overseer always carries a whip—sometimes a twisted cow-hide, sometimes a kind of horsewhip, and very often a simple hickory switch or gad, cut in the adjoining woods. For stealing meat, or other provisions, or for any of the higher offences, the slaves are stripped, tied up by the hands—sometimes by the thumbs—and whipped at the quarter—but, many times, on a large tobacco plantation, there is not more than one of these regular whippings in a week—though on others, where the master happens to be a bad man, or a drunkard, the back of the unhappy Maryland slave, is seamed with scars from his neck to his hips.

It was my fortune, whilst I was a slave in Maryland, always to have comparatively mild masters; and as I uniformly endeavoured to do whatever was held to be the duty of a good slave, according to the customs of the country, I was never tied up to be flogged there, and never received a blow from my master, after I was fifteen years old. I was never under the control of an overseer in Maryland; or, it is very likely that I should not have been able to give this account of myself.

It is the custom of all the tobacco planters, in Maryland and Virginia, to plant a certain portion of their land in corn every year; so much as they suppose will be sufficient to produce bread, as they term it, for the negroes. By bread, is understood, a peck of corn per week, for each of their slaves.

After my return from the navy-yard, at Washington, I was generally employed in the culture of tobacco; but my attention was necessarily divided between the tobacco and the corn. The corn crop is, however, only a matter of secondary consideration, as no grain, of any kind, is grown for sale, by the planters; and if they raised as much, in my time, as supplied the wants of the people, and the horses of the stable, it was considered good farming. The sale of the tobacco was regarded as the only means of obtaining money, or any commodity which did not grow on the plantation.

It is unfortunate for the slaves, that in a tobacco or cotton growing country, no attention whatever is paid to the rearing of sheep—consequently, there is no wool to make winter clothes for the people, and oftentimes they suffer, excessively, from the cold; whereas, if their masters kept a good flock of sheep to supply them with wool, they could easily spin and weave in their cabins, a sufficiency of cloth to clothe them comfortably.

As many persons may be unacquainted with the process of cultivating tobacco, a short account of the growth of this plant, may not be uninteresting. The operation is to be commenced in the month of February, by clearing a piece of new land, and burning the timber cut from it, on the ground, so as to form a coat of ashes over the whole space, if possible. This ground is then to be dug up with a hoe, and the sticks and roots are to be carefully removed from it. In this bed, the tobacco seeds are sown about the beginning of March, not in hills, or in rows, but by broad cast, as in sowing turnips. The seeds do not spring soon, but generally the young plant appears early in April. If the weather, at the time the tobacco comes up, as it is called, is yet frosty, a covering of pine tops, or red cedar branches, is thickly spread over the whole patch, which consists of from one to four or five acres, according to the dimensions of the plantation to be provided with plants. As soon as the weather becomes fine, and the young tobacco begins to grow, the covering of the branches is removed, and the bed is exposed to the rays of the sun. From this time, the patch must be carefully attended, and kept clear of all grass and weeds. In the months of March and April the people are busily employed in ploughing the fields in which the tobacco is to be planted in May. Immediately after the corn is planted, every one, man, woman, and child, able to work with a hoe, or carry a tobacco plant, is engaged in working up the whole plantation, already ploughed a second time, into hills about four feet apart, laid out in regular rows across the field, by the course of the furrows. These hills are formed into squares or diamonds, at equal distances, both ways, and into these are transplanted the tobacco plants from the beds in which the seeds were sown. This transplantation must be done when the earth is wet with rain, and it is best to do it, if possible, just before, or at the time the rain falls, as cabbages are transplanted in a kitchen garden; but as the planting a field of one or two hundred acres, with tobacco, is not the work of an hour, as soon as it is deemed certain that there will be a sufficient fall of rain, to answer the purpose of planting out tobacco, all hands are called to the tobacco field, and no matter how fast it may rain, or how violent the storm may be, the removal of the plants from the bed, and fixing them in the hills where they are to grow in the field, goes on, until the crop is planted out, or the rain ceases, and the sun begins to shine. Nothing but the darkness of night, and the short respite, required by the scanty meal of the slaves, produces any cessation in the labour of tobacco planting, until the work is done, or the rain ceases, and the clouds disappear. Some plants die under the operation of removal, and their places are to be supplied from those left in the bed, at the fall of the next rain.

Sometimes the tobacco worm appears amongst the plants, before their removal from the bed, and from the moment this loathsome reptile is seen, the plants are to be carefully examined every day, for the purpose of destroying any worms that may be found. It is, however, not until the plants have been set in the field, and have begun to grow and flourish, that the worms come forth in their full strength. If unmolested, they would totally destroy the largest field of tobacco in the months of June and July. At this season of the year, every slave that is able to kill a tobacco worm, is kept in the field, from morning until night. Those who are able to work with hoes, are engaged in weeding the tobacco, and at the same time destroying all the worms they find. The children do nothing but search for, and destroy the worms. All this labour and vigilance, however, would not suffice to keep the worms under, were it not for the aid of turkeys and ducks. On some large estates, they raise from one to two hundred turkeys, and as many ducks—not for the purpose of sale; but for the destruction of tobacco worms. The ducks, live in the tobacco field, day and night, except when they go to water; and as they are great gormandizers, they take from the plants and destroy an infinite number of worms. They are fond of them as an article of food, and require no watching to keep them in their place; but it is otherwise with the turkeys. These require very peculiar treatment. They must be kept all night in a large coop spacious enough to contain the whole flock, with poles for them to roost on. As soon as it is light in the morning, the coop is opened, the flock turned out, and driven to the tobacco field.

Two hundred turkeys should be followed by four or five active lads, or young men, to keep them together, and at their duty. One turkey will destroy as many worms, as five men could do in the same period of time; but it seems that tobacco worms are not the natural food of turkeys; and they are prone to break out of the field, and escape to the woods or pastures in search of grasshoppers, which they greatly prefer to tobacco worms, for breakfast. However, if kept amongst the tobacco, they commit terrible ravages amongst the worms, and will eat until they are filled up to the throat. When they cease eating worms, they are to be driven back to the coop, and shut up, where they must have plenty of water, and a peck of corn to a hundred turkeys. If they get no corn, and are forced to live on tobacco worms only, they droop, become sickly, and would doubtlessly die. In the evening, they are again driven to the field, and treated again in the same manner as in the morning.

The tobacco worm, is of a bright green colour, with a series of rings or circles round its body. I have seen them as large as a man’s longest finger. I was never able to discover in what manner they originate. They certainly do not change into a butterfly as some other worms do; and I could never perceive that they deposite eggs anywhere. I am of opinion that there is something in the very nature of the tobacco plant, which produces these nauseous reptiles, for they are too large, when at full growth, to be ranked with insects.

In the month of August, the tobacco crop is laid by, as it is termed; which means that they cease working in the fields, for the purpose of destroying the weeds and grass; the plants having now become so large, as not to be injured by the under vegetation. Still, however, the worms continue their ravages, and it is necessary to employ all hands in destroying them. In this month, also, the tobacco is to be topped, if it has not been done before. When the plants have reached the height of two or three feet, according to the goodness of the soil, and the vigour of the growth, the top is to be cut off, to prevent it from going to seed. This topping, causes all the powers of the plant, which would be exhausted in the formation of flowers and seeds, to expand in leaves fit for use. After the tobacco is fully grown, which in some plants happens early in August, it is to be carefully watched, to see when it is ripe, or fit for cutting. The state of the plant is known by its colour, and by certain pale spots which appear on the leaves. It does not all arrive at maturity at the same time; and although some plants ripen early in August, others are not ripe before the middle of September. When the plants are cut down, they are laid on the ground for a short time, then taken up, and the stalks split open to facilitate the drying of the leaves. In this condition it is removed to the drying house, and there hung up under sheds, until it is fully dry. From thence it is removed into the tobacco house, and laid up in bulk, ready a stripping and manufacturing.