History in Our Backyard Chapter 3: Plantation Life in the Wilderness

The plantation system was fully established in Virginia well before our independence from England.  Plantations often included several tenant farms and almost certainly used slave labor to work the land.  Tenant farmers frequently hired laborers to work the land with the family. If they could afford it, they would choose to purchase slaves, which would be a step up prestige wise, but they had to provide for their basic needs.  Plantations with a significant slave population hired overseers to manage the slave workforce. The overseers were usually experienced farmers and in most cases their abuse of slaves was rampant. Both the owner and the overseers regularly carried large whips to “encourage” higher rates of work.  They worked the slave labor force tirelessly – usually 6 days a week – and the daily routine rarely varied:  rising at sunrise, working all day, and returning at dusk.  On larger plantations, slave labor was also used to support the owner and his family as cooks, maids, and nannies. The lady of the manor organized the supervision of her children, the preparation of family meals, and upkeep of the gardens while the actual work fell to the house servants.  Other female slaves worked in the fields. Slaves also became skilled craftsmen in such fields as blacksmithing that allowed the plantation to become nearly self-sufficient.

Weekly activities included market days – usually Wednesday and Saturday – when produce would be transported to town; plantation owners often used trusted help, including slaves, to conduct varied business activities in town.  During the winter months after harvest, the plantation owner often provided slave labor to court-ordered road construction gangs.  Otherwise, the owner would focus on further developing his acreage.

Sundays, for a plantation’s white residents, were for worshiping and socializing with friends and family.  Organized social activities included events such as county fairs, weddings and horse races.  Slaves’ Sunday activities were much more limited; that day was a time to rest, socialize with other slaves, tend their small garden plots, when allowed, and hold religious services.  

Slaves’ lives were extraordinarily difficult.  Life expectancy – to mid-30s – was about half that of the white citizenry. Their homes were crude dirt-floored cabins with little furniture. Tattered hand-me-down blankets, course fabric materials fashioned into apparel, and basic foods usually lacking in real nutritional value were the norm.  In a benevolent plantation environment, slave children might be able to play with non-slave children, even the owner’s children, but generally they were pressed into labor at an early age and abuse was prevalent. In its ugliest forms, young slave girls served as mistresses to the plantation’s white population.  As a result, the number of “mulattos” in the slave community rose rapidly.

This plantation system persisted in Virginia and the Wilderness with only slight variations for 150 years until the Civil War in the 1860s brought an end to plantation life and slavery.

Author:  Bob Epp

Date:  October 2017

Previous Chapter 2: The Wilderness – The Early Years

Continue to Chapter 4: An Oral History of a Local Slave Family

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