What These Letters Tell Us
South Carolina SC African-Americans About the Quash Stevens Letters What These Letters Tell Us
These 18 letters, dating from 1865 through 1893, are almost certainly only a very small sample of the hundreds of notes that Quash wrote from Kiawah during life there. They provide a unique glimpse of Kiawah, as seen through the eyes of a former slave and half-brother of the island's owner, Arnoldus Vanderhorst. This blood relationship to the Vanderhorst family must have deepened the resentment of the treatment he received from young Arnoldus V. The letters also reveal a consistent, but ambiguous, sense of deference to the family, especially to Adele. He showed constant respect, but at the same time he did not attempt to hide his disappointment when letters went unanswered, requests were ignored, or no one was in town when he made a special trip to see them. It is likely hard for us, today, to understand the place in which Quash found himself – a son of wealthy planter, a black, a freedman.
The surviving accounts reveal that Quash was never a renter or laborer on Kiawah, although he is never referred to as a manager or overseer. How Quash dealt with his place, midway between "labor" and "management" is not documented. Quash only rarely provides, or allows, some hint of his relationship with the other black families on the island to show through. Perhaps the best is his description of the hardships families on the island were facing after the 1893 hurricane. He describes their plight, which must also have been his plight, honestly and without exaggeration. His later comment that he dispensed the aid provided by the Relief Committee from Charleston not only suggests that he was in charge on Kiawah, but also that he was disappointed the aid didn't come directly from the Vanderhorsts.
The letters are not grand works of writing. Spelling is consistently poor and some thoughts seem so jumbled that we can only guess at the underlying meaning. The letters, when read out loud, phonetically, provide some evidence of Quash's Gullah dialect. But Quash could read and write – abilities almost unheard of among black freedmen of the period. Literate or semi-literate, Quash stands out among his peers. It is therefore not surprising that one of his grandsons became an attorney and eventually a member of a state supreme court. It is likely that Quash passed on to all of his children the importance of education, as well as a love of the land.
Much of the letters is taken up with accounts of farming activities – the success or failure of various crops, the condition of the stock on the island, or the items being sent to town for use by the Vanderhorst family. There is also much attention to the weather and how it was affecting life on Kiawah – especially the island's agricultural life. This attention to the details of profitability suggest that Quash not only had an obvious place of importance on Kiawah after the Civil War, but that he may have been the island's overseer before the war as well. Clearly he was trained to read the soil, the weather, and the island's ability to produce. Even his attention to the shortage of ham bacon being sent over to the island suggests his training.
Only once in the surviving letters does Quash discuss politics, briefly discussing the hardships that blacks faced when trying to vote and remarking on how Tillman's election [as governor] would bring increased hardships on blacks across the state – "No Man Life is safe Now." This brings us, yet again, in touch with the reality of Quash's life – he was a black man in a white man's world. Regardless of his Vanderhorst blood, or his position of trust on Kiawah, or his education, he was still a black man living in a hostile world of Tillmanites, white hoods, axe handles, and hatred.
In spite of this, Quash established for himself a family. He educated his children and sent them off into the world. While we know little about Quash Stevens, his life was one of humble greatness – making the best out of his circumstances. He was eventually able to purchase his own plantation, although it is likely that he never forgot Kiawah. He raised, supported, and influenced his family, with a grandson eventually becoming a supreme court judge in the state of New York.
QUASH STEVENS LETTERS
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