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(H)our History Lesson: American Life & Labor at Chicora Wood

Rice Mill
Enslaved workers at Chicora Wood planted, harvested, and then thrashed rice. Thrashing rice means separating grain from the stalks. Then, they pounded the husks from the grain. They did this by hand until the 1830s, when steam-powered threshing and pounding mills (shown above) became common.

Courtesy Library of Congress.

This lesson was adapted by Katie McCarthy from the Teaching With Historic Places lesson plan, “Discover American Life & Labor at Chicora Wood.” If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, explore the full Lighting Lesson.

Grade Level Adapted For:

This lesson is intended for middle school learners but can easily be adapted for use by learners of all ages.

Lesson Objectives:

Learners will be able to...

  1. Explain the connection between forced labor of African Americans and prosperity for European Americans.

  1. List the ways the Allston family made rice production at Chicora Wood Plantation exceptionally profitable.

  1. Research ways of learning about people who did not leave a written record of their own.

  1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.

  1. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source.

Inquiry Question:

Who built America? How do we remember them? How do historic places help us learn about people who did not leave a written record for us to study?

Reading: Labor and Production on Chicora Wood Plantation

Chicora Wood was a rice plantation in Georgetown County, South Carolina, owned by the European American Allston family. The Allstons chose to invest in slave labor to start their rice business in the 1730s. Before this region was colonized by Europeans, the land was forested and settled by the Catawba, Cherokee, Chicora, Edisto, Pee Dee, and Santee tribes. After the land was claimed by Britain, the Allstons purchased it and brought enslaved laborers with them. The laborers cleared the woods, developed rice fields, and built European-style homes, fences, and barns. Chicora Wood reigned as one of the most profitable businesses in South Carolina over the next century.

This forced labor system grew for almost 100 years before Robert Allston inherited Chicora Wood in 1827. Along with the means for rice production, the plantation owner also “inherited” 90 enslaved individuals between 1819 and 1840. Passing a property’s enslaved workers to new owners strengthened the idea that enslaved African Americans’ natural role was to submit as property and labor on the land. Allston increased his means for production by buying more enslaved workers. He knew that any child born into slavery would remain his property. In Allston’s eyes, he was courteous for keeping families together. He owned enough enslaved people to manage seven plantation sites in 1860.

The enslaved men and women at Chicora Wood produced 840,000 pounds of rice in 1850. By 1860, that number nearly doubled to 1,500,000 pounds. As a result, owner Robert Allston was one of the richest people in the United States at the start of the Civil War. He was also the ninth largest slave owner. While production doubled between 1850 and 1860, Allston increased the number of people he enslaved at Chicora Wood from 401 to 631.

The 631 enslaved people worked in every aspect of plantation life at Chicora Wood. A cooper named Sam made three or more barrels a day to hold rice. A nurse named Racheal cared for the Allston children. A carpenter named Tom built buildings, fences, and wagons. A cook named Amy prepared the Allston’s meals. A young boy named James lived off-site as an apprentice to a shoemaker. Most of the 631 people enslaved by Allston, however, labored in rice production.

At the plantation, rice was farmed in large amounts to sell across the country. During harvest season, overseers required enslaved workers to break up to one-thirtieth of an acre of rice land per day, all by hand. At other times of the year, laborers were made to dig trenches used to flood rice fields.

In the 1830s Allston bought a steam-powered mill at Chicora Wood to clean rice more efficiently. This meant enslaved workers had to clear more land and harvest more rice to keep up with the machine. However, records of torture, refusal to work quickly, and slave revolts show the enslaved individuals on Chicora Wood pushed back against their oppressors. For example, in 1864, an enslaved man listed only as “Stephen the Valet” escaped the Allstons’ forced labor. Stephen’s parents, Mary and James, were jailed in isolation. The Allstons retaliated against them for their son’s escape.

After emancipation, some freed people left Georgetown County. Others remained, hoping to make a paid living using their skills in agriculture. After decades of soaring profit at the expense of human lives, rice production in Georgetown County dropped. Production in the county fell from 54 million pounds in 1860 to six million pounds in 1870. By the 1930s, Robert Allston’s daughter ended rice production at Chicora Wood. Having belonged to one of the richest families in the country, she claimed was too expensive to repair and clear the land.

Questions for Reading 1

  1. What kinds of work did enslaved residents do at Chicora Wood? Who benefited from this labor? How did they benefit?

  1. What were the factors that contributed to the increase in rice production from 840,000 pounds to 1.5 million pounds at Chicora Wood in the mid to late 1800s?

  1. Robert Allston owned Chicora Wood, Exchange Plantation, Rosebank Plantation, Nightingale Plantation, and several other sites in South Carolina and North Carolina. How do you think he managed so many sites?

  1. What kinds of jobs do you think were available to European Americans living in plantation regions? Hint: Consider the goods and services that were likely not supplied by slave labor and plantation-owning families. Why do you think so?

Activity:

Reclaiming History on Chicora Wood
Documents about enslaved people are usually written from the perspective of white owners and deal with economic matters instead of personal or human ones. While the documentary record cannot fully paint the complex lives of enslaved individuals, we know these people lived lives filled with love, pain, and a longing for freedom, simply because we are all human.

Have participants research how cultural institutions recall, preserve, and honor the lives of enslaved individuals (examples below). Then, instruct participants to pick one piece of evidence from this lesson and use it to design an art project to remember and honor the individuals enslaved at Chicora Wood and in Georgetown County.

Participants can produce a poem, picture book, or art piece. Ask them to use their piece of evidence and think about color, word choice, and perspective. Ask, how would you make sure somebody in the future knows the enslaved individuals were more than property and labor? After the activity, you may want to display the participants’ work.

  • Taking an account of an enslaved person’s birth, marriage, or movement written by an enslaver and retelling the account from the perspective of an enslaved person.

  • Recording oral histories of descendants of enslaved people and preserve their memories.

  • Using art to portray enslaved people in the fullness of their lives. Show them in loving moments such as going to church or hugging a friend and in moments of struggle, such as being separated from family at an auction or working in a field.

  • Preserving “witness trees,” trees that are old enough to have witnessed and provided shade to enslaved people living nearby.

  • Basing tours and history on the recorded testimonies of people born into slavery.

  • Prioritizing the history of the enslaved laborers as above or equally important to the historical experiences of the European Americans at the site.


Note: American historic sites that explore new ways to study the lives of enslaved people include National Parks, James Madison’s Montpelier, George Washington’s Mt. Vernon, the Library of Congress, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana.

Wrap-up:

  1. How can we learn about and honor historic people who were unable to leave behind strong written historic records?

  1. Why is learning about the people enslaved at Chicora Woods and other plantations important?

  1. What does learning about this topic make you more curious about? What are some ways you could continue to explore this topic?


Additional Resources:

This lesson examines forced labor on a plantation site as well as the effects of the efficient economic system on enslavers and enslaved. Below are materials for further exploration of enslavement, as well as information about the American Indian groups in Georgetown County.

Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories

The Library of Congress houses audio recordings of interviews of formerly enslaved individuals taken between 1932 and 1975.

The Whitney Plantation
The Whitney Plantation is the only plantation to interpret their site solely through the lens of slavery and enslavement. Their site contains videos, lesson plans, primary sources, and photos about the transatlantic slave trade, plantation landscapes and daily life, artwork, and first-person slave narratives.

James Madison’s Montpelier: “The Mere Distinction of Colour”
Over 300 enslaved individuals lived at Montpelier. The Montpelier website shares oral histories from the active descendent community, archaeological discoveries, and an award-winning exhibit titled “The Mere Distinction of Colour” to tell the complex story of freedom and enslavement while working for the framer of the Constitution.

Students Opposing Slavery – President Lincoln’s Cottage
The National Trust for Historic Preservation site, President Lincoln’s Cottage, supports Students Opposing Slavery. SOS is an educational program aimed to raise awareness of human trafficking and empower young leaders to end modern day slavery.

Current & Historic Tribal Communities
As of 2020 there are ten state-recognized tribes in South Carolina: Catawba Indian Nation, Beaver Creek Indians, Edisto Natchez-Kusso Tribe of South Carolina, Pee Dee Indian Nation of Upper South Carolina, Pee Dee Indian Tribe, the Piedmont American Indian Association, the Santee Indian Organization, the Sumter Tribe of Cheraw Indians, the Waccamaw Indian People, and the Wassamasaw Tribe of Varnertown Indians. Many live in or near Georgetown County. Other native communities, such as Chicora, exist separate to this designation.

Pee Dee Indian Tribe
The Pee Dee Indian Tribe focuses on advocating, educating, and empowering the next generation of Pee Dee and other American Indian groups. One website contains information about the Pee Dee tribal government as well as their Tribal history.

Waccamaw Indian People
The Waccamaw website contains current events, an essay collection about the Waccamaw Indians, and interviews with Chief Hatcher.

Part of a series of articles titled Conversations about Legacies of Slavery .

Last updated: February 16, 2021