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Monday, September 5, 2011

Greenfield and the Peculiar Institution

Greenfield Plantation

     For one hundred ten years Greenfield plantation was the home of the Estes and Row families in Spotsylvania. Richard Estes bought Greenfield from Edward Herndon in 1795. Richard's daughter Nancy Estes married a son of Thomas Row of Orange County, Absalom, in 1825. By then the Esteses and Rows had been slave owners for generations. By the mid nineteenth century slavery as a social institution was so deeply woven into the warp and woof of southern life that its abolition was unthinkable. The financial well being of thousands of white owners was directly tied to their inventories of these enslaved blacks and the business of buying and selling them.
     So did this mean that all my ancestors were evil brutes unworthy of our study? Or were they born into a system not of their creation and had no reason to doubt the existence of slavery as an economic necessity? And if those four million illiterate black slaves were suddenly freed, what then? Where would they go, what would they do? I am in no way qualified to offer an opinion on the mindset of my ancestors regarding this issue. All I can do is present the evidence contained within the family's archives and let history be the judge. For the next several posts in this space I will be doing just that.
     Naturally, I would prefer to think that my forebears were not gratuitously cruel taskmasters who enjoyed inflicting an added layer of misery on their servants. But for one example, which I will discuss below, there is nothing in the record to suggest that they were like that. Likewise, there is also nothing to show that they at any time doubted the validity of their property rights regarding their slaves. In this they had the full backing of the Congress and the Supreme Court. That said, there is no getting around the fact that human slavery was a hard business and it required a hard hand to administer it and to make it economically viable. For the owners, there was the added dimension of their physical safety to be considered. 
     Five years before the savagery of the Nat Turner rebellion shocked slave owners in Virginia and beyond, the Row family experienced firsthand how quickly the tables could be turned. Carlton Row, a son of Thomas Row, married Lucy Hardia in 1818. They had a plantation in King George and their daughter Rachel was born there the following year. For some transgression or other Carlton had one of his slaves whipped (or possibly he applied the lash himself). Revenge would not be long in coming. On March 6, 1820 Carlton and Lucy died after eating dinner. The deed was accomplished by the simple expedient of adding poison (some say ground glass) to their food. What became of the slaves involved is unknown, but we can guess. Little Rachel was spared. She went to live with her grandfather Thomas Row in Orange and spent the remainder of her childhood there and with her uncle Absalom at Greenfield.
     What was life like for the slaves at Greenfield during the lifetime of Richard Estes? Was he an unfeeling beast without a shred of compassion for his servants? Was he a simple country farmer that did his best to mitigate the effects of the harsh reality he and the slaves were born into?
     One perspective can be found in the book about the history of the Rows written by my cousin Marie Clark in 1985. This point of view was commonly held in years past and I can remember without difficulty being taught at home and school that the slaves were happy with their lot.

Excerpt from Marie Clark's book

Whether or not this was true is impossible to say. What I do know is that when the slaves of Greenfield had the opportunity to escape their bondage, they did so without hesitation.
     The documents below help to illustrate one of the most dreadful aspects of the lives of the slaves. I refer, of course, to the break up of families occasioned by slave auctions. This is a chapter in Greenfield's history that I wish had not been written. But we, the descendants of these slave owners, now long dead, must not avert our gaze.

From Spotsylvania census 1830

From Spotsylvania census 1830

     The Federal census taken in 1830 shows that Greenfield was then populated by twenty nine souls. Twenty five of these were black slaves. Then there was 72 year old Richard Estes. There were also a man, woman and child of whose identities I cannot be certain but suspect were the family of the overseer. That same year it is apparent that Richard decided that twenty five slaves were now too many, for he posted in the Virginia Herald this notice:

Virginia Herald 6 December 1830

     The weather must have proven favorable, for Richard Estes sold about eleven human beings that day. How well he made out on his stock sale is not known. My guess of eleven slaves sold from Greenfield that day is based on the inventory and appraisement of Richard Estes' estate made after his death in August 1832. Two pages from his estate papers are shown here. Page 3 lists the fourteen blacks that remained at Greenfield after the sale two years prior.

Inventory of Richard Estes' estate, page 1

Inventory of Richard Estes' estate, page 3

     These people had names. Let us remember them here. Cupid, Bristoe, Sanco, Charles, Sam, Frederick, James, Walker, Polly and two children, Siller, Tom and Jane. Their availability was made known in another notice published in the Virginia Herald, which advertised a sale scheduled for November 2, 1832. Richard Estes' son in law, Absalom Row (my great great grandfather) had purchased Greenfield at the estate sale held on September 26. The fate of these fourteen people is not clear from Richard Estes' estate papers. Perhaps they all remained at Greenfield. Perhaps they were sold piecemeal at the auction.

Virginia Herald 26 September 1832

     These fourteen were but a handful of the countless enslaved blacks who worked for the Row and Estes families from the late 1600s until the end of the Civil War. These men and women (and, yes, children) toiled ceaselessly from sunrise to sunset, six days a week. They worked the fields, drove the teams, ginned the cotton, repaired the fences. They milked the cows, butchered the hogs, groomed the horses. They chopped the wood, kept the fires going, cooked the meals, wove the blankets and clothing. The horizons of their remembered pasts and imagined futures could not have been more than just an endless number of todays. They worked day after day, year after year. Like a changeless tide, generations of these people rose and ebbed with the passing of time.

And from the shadows, their eyes implore us.

Slave cemetery at Greenfield. Photo by John Cummings

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