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The Lives of African-American Slaves in Carolina During the 18th Century

South Carolina SC African-Americans Understanding Slavery Slaves in Carolina in the 18th Century

Historians like Daniel Littlefield, William Dusinberre, and Peter Wood are beginning to help us understand something about the lives of South Carolina's first African-Americans.

For example, we know that South Carolina had a clear black majority from about 1708 through most of the eighteenth century. By 1720 there were about 18,000 people living in South Carolina and 65% of these were enslaved African-Americans. In St. James Goose Creek, a parish just north of Charles Towne, there were only 535 whites and 2,027 black slaves.

The massive investment in slavery and land by the planters, the almost universal focus on rice and its particular labor requirements, even the planters' long summer absenteeism, all gave the low country plantations a special character. This slave-based agricultural system created a proud "aristocracy" whose impact on American history was spectacular, leading first to the American Revolution and later to the Civil War.

Whether we speak of food, or housing, or health, callousness toward the slaves' welfare was the hallmark of the system. Archaeological research shows us that slavery in the early eighteenth century was very different from the view we have of antebellum slavery. For example, the neat rows of wood frame slave cabins which seem so typical on plantations in the 1850s were a late reform, developed by Southern planters in an effort to deflect abolitionist outrage. The early eighteenth century slaves often lived in minimal huts built of upright poles set in a trench and covered in clay. The roofs were probably covered in palmetto fronds or other thatch. Archaeologists call these houses "wall-trench structures" and they were used at least up to the American Revolution. Most had no fireplaces and they were built with earthen floors. The buildings range from about 13 feet in length and only 9 feet in width up to about 21 feet in length and around 14 feet in width. There were only a few windows and these were all open, with perhaps only a shutter to close out the bad weather.

These mudwall, thatched wall-trench buildings had relatively short lifespans, perhaps only ten years or so. They were quickly attacked by termites and other pests. The wet Southern climate eroded the clay used to plaster the walls. The houses were probably very cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Consequently, most activities took place outside and the structures were used primarily during bad weather.

Some trace these buildings to Africa, pointing out the similarities in styles. and certainly it seems likely that the design of these earliest slave houses were influenced by their inhabitants. In the 1840s or 1850s the slave Okra built an African-style house with wattle and daub walls and a thatched roof of palmetto leaves on a Georgia Sea Island plantation. The owner, however, made Okra tear the house down, proclaiming that he wanted no "African hut" on his plantation. As late as 1907 a clearly African-style house was built near Edgefield, South Carolina. The former slave explained that he modeled his house on traditional Kongo styles.

Recent archaeological studies suggest that there were a number of different styles of early slave houses. Some, while still having a wall-trench design, may have incorporated a fireplace - perhaps reflecting the gradual introduction of European forms. Archaeologists are still exploring the diversity present in these early slave dwellings so it is likely that we will find even more styles as we continue our research.

Archaeological research suggests that some houses were built in loosely clustered settlements. Sometimes the houses were oriented with the topography, running along sand ridges for example. Regardless, these early eighteenth century slave settlements don't seem to resemble the highly organized and carefully arranged settlements found later in the nineteenth century. Probably, through time, owners exerted more control and influence on their slaves, forcing them to live in more "appropriate" or European-like settlements.

Since so much of the slaves' lives were spent outside their houses, archaeologists are also discovering that the slave settlements often exhibit outdoor hearths, or places where the African-Americans prepared their food. Large pits, filled with charcoal and broken pottery may be found near the houses. Also present are small smudge pits where the slave burned corn cobs, perhaps to keep away the insects.

Since the wall-trench houses required large quantities of clay to cover the wattle walls, archaeologists are also finding many large pits probably dug by the slaves to gather clay. Once excavated, these pits (which may be three or four feet in diameter and several feet deep) were quickly filled with yard trash - bits of broken pottery, animal bone, and other refuse.

The slaves' diet was probably dominated by plant foods. Especially on coastal plantations broken and dirty rice was plentiful and may have been the staple of the slave diet. Meat was probably a relatively uncommon luxury and, when available, almost certainly represented the least meaty cuts of the animal such as the legs, feet, jaw, and skull. Better cuts were probably reserved for the planter's table.

In the eighteenth century slaves mostly ate stews or other "one-pot" meals. These might consist of small quantities of meat, especially hog fat, used as seasoning combined with large quantities of plant foods. Allowed to simmer, or stew, on a low fire during the day, the meal would be ready by nightfall when the slaves were finally finished with their daily tasks. The presence of these "one-pot" meals is not only supported by the food remains found by the archaeologist, but also by the presence of small clay cooking pots and small clay bowls. Rarely are plate forms found. In fact, it is even uncommon to find eating utensils at these early slave sites.

The most common type of pottery the slaves had is a low-fired earthenware called "colono ware." It is thought to have been made by the slaves, perhaps styled on African pottery. Very similar pottery was also being made by the Native Americans during this same period, so it is also possible that some colono ware was actually made by Indians and sold to the plantation owner for use by his slaves. This colono ware pottery dominates early eighteenth century slave settlements and often almost no European pottery will be found. Some vessels are simple bowl forms, while others were made to mimic European styles. Archaeologists are currently exploring this pottery, using a variety of chemical studies to help better understand whether it was made by Native Americans or African-Americans.

At the earliest eighteenth century slave settlements there are very few artifacts. It seems that about all the slaves "possessed" were a few colono ware pots, and one or two green glass bottles salvaged from the plantation owner and perhaps used to store water. Other kitchen items are exceedingly uncommon. Even simple utensils are rarely found at eighteenth century slave settlements and slaves probably had to make do with wooden spoons (which won't be preserved in the archaeological record). Likewise, glasses and cups are almost unheard off. In fact, fresh water was even uncommon at many plantation settlements.

Personal possessions are uncommon, although occasionally glass beads may be found. Many archaeologists believe the importance of these beads can be traced back to Africa. Likewise, the presence of bits of copper wire in the archaeological record may suggest decorative items used by the African-Americans. The very few clothing items that are recovered may include buckles, buttons, and occasionally a pin or thimble for sewing.

Many of the eighteenth century slave settlements have fragments of kaolin tobacco pipes. These were apparently one of the few "luxury" items given to the slaves and tobacco use was common. There are almost no furniture items, since the slaves' houses were probably devoid of all but the most rustic furnishings. Sometimes a lead fishing weight will be found, providing evidence that the slaves sought out food sources to help them vary their diets.

It may surprise some people to learn that slaves, in the early eighteenth century, often had access to guns. Archaeologists find gun flints, lead shot, and even gun parts in the slave settlements. Fire arms were given to the slaves to scare birds away from the crops and to provide meat for the planter's table. They were probably also highly valued since they could be used to supplement the slaves' own diet.

Everything that most slaves "owned" could probably be put in a small pile. The archaeological evidence suggests the emphasis was always placed on "essential" items, such as pottery. "Non-essential" items, such as decorative objects, are so uncommon they must have been treasured by the slave community.


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