African American Heritage & Ethnography African Nation Founders: Africans in the Chesapeake—Cultural Patterns

Cultural Patterns

Location of Carter’s Grove and Kingsmill, Virginia.

By the mid-18th century, most enslaved people were African Americans, native-born in the Chesapeake region. The majority lived and worked on tobacco plantations, although some were “industrial slaves” working at iron forges and others were hired out to work in gristmills and other industries. As plantation sizes increased, 40% or more of enslaved people lived in quarters away from the home plantation and the slave owner’s direct supervision. On the largest plantations people lived in small villages on “quarters” of the plantation holdings. An enslaved man was often responsible for the work in the quarter that was designated by his name, such as “Mingo’s Quarter.” Relatively few enslaved people lived in urban areas with the slave owner’s family.

By the last decades of the 18th century, 44% of the 46,547 enslaved people in the Chesapeake region lived in groups of more than 20 people in ten Tidewater counties: Anne Arundel, Prince George’s, St. Mary’s in Maryland and Essex, Gloucester, Lancaster, Middlesex, James City, Warwick, Charles City and York in Virginia. Another 34, 000 enslaved people lived in similar sized groups on quarters or plantations in the Piedmont area of Virginia. Even in the “frontier” counties formed in Virginia after 1760, 1 in 3 enslaved people lived in groups of more than 20 people (Kulikoff 1986:338).

The rural life style and cultural customs of enslaved people at Carters Grove, Virginia is well documented from the end of the 17th to the end of the 18th century. As the 18th century closed, some people in the Carter’s Grove slave community were forced to migrate westward to Burwell lands in the “frontier” counties formed in central and western Virginia (Walsh 1997).

Enslaved people on Prince George’s County, Maryland plantations and small farms were distributed over a wider geographic area than those in James City County, where Carter’s Grove Plantation was located. Gutman (1976), Kulikoff (1986), and Morgan (1998) and others detail aspects of African American life styles and cultural patterns described in this section. The following reconstruction of enslaved people’s cultural patterns comes from primary source documents, such as diaries and probate inventories, other secondary historical sources, archeological studies, travelers’ accounts, runaway slave advertisements and an occasional first person narrative. (1637–1664 Proceedings, Burnaby et al 1916; Fisher 1928; Inscoe 1983; Cody 1987; Savitt; Sobel 1987; Chambers 1996; Samford 1996; Walsh 2000; Emerson 1999; Gunston Hall Probate Inventory Data Base, 2004; Archives of Maryland Online, 2004).

Family, Kin and Community

Even though those in Maryland were more isolated and with limited social contact as compared to Virginian Africans, in both locales they formed families that slave owners recognized and recorded as family units in inventories (Menard 1975:33–37). Family and community formation was compromised during the 1710–1730, the periods of heaviest African immigration to the Chesapeake. During this period, African or “country-born” men, as they were called, competed with “native born” men for wives. Disproportionate sex ratios, resulting from the importation of greater numbers of African men than women, fostered internal conflicts and competition between African and African American men. In 1712, according to Kulikoff, one African American complained “his country-men had poysened [sic] him for his wife.” Another killed himself because he could not have more than one wife (1986:334). At Carter’s Grove, in 1733, “country-born” men lived in sex-segregated barracks. “Seasoned immigrants,” as Kulikoff refers to them, lived in conjugal units but without children, while native-born African Americans lived as families. These were optimal conditions. Native-born women at Carter’s Grove preferred native-born men as husbands, limiting their opportunities for marriage. Newly enslaved African-born women often waited two or three years before taking a husband (Kulikoff 1986). These personal preferences impeded formation of families.

1789 artist’s rendition West African birthing practices.

The capability of a people to reproduce, infant illness, and death in the first year of life are all measures of the overall health of a population. African women’s hard work in tobacco fields, probably dietary changes if not nutritional deficiencies, coupled with fewer opportunities for sexual encounters may have contributed to delayed child-bearing patterns observed among newly arrived African women. When the women did reproduce, most bore only three children, and of these, only two were likely to survive. With twice as many African males as women imported for enslavement, delayed childbearing by the women and high mortality of both infants and adults, there was no natural increase among Chesapeake Africans until early 18th century (Kiple 1987; Berkin 1996:110–111).

Menard found that in 1710, there were still 3 African men for every 2 African women in rural Maryland and 1.7 children for every African woman of childbearing age. He suggests the West African women continued customary childbearing and childrearing practices of nursing their children two to three years and abstained from sexual intercourse until the infant was weaned. These practices result in a three to four year interval between childbearing. It is possible that women continued these customary child rearing and post childbirth sexual practices, further limiting their childbearing frequency (Menard 1975:40–42).

Over time immigration slowed down and the native-born African American population increased naturally. Disruption of family life through sale or dispersal of people following the death of slave owners both compromised and, shall be shown, fostered development of kin networks and community life.

Family Groupings

Examples of Family Groupings

“An Inventory of the Goods and Chattles [sic] of Thos. Addison, Esqr. Appraised in Maryland this 16th day of March 1775. Slaves at Oxon Hill (Gunston Hall n.d., Addison 1775)”
Name Relationship Age
Nuclear, extended or blended(?)1
Long Tower Hill 44
Lucy wife 31
Jenny daughter 10
Dick ? 22
Jack son 4
Tom   4 months
George, a shoemaker 23
Judith wife 23
Sall daughter 3
Ned, a carter 40
Joan wife 46
Jim son 16
Sue daughter 8
Patience   6
Ned son 3
Tom   17
Short Tower Hill 24
Kate wife 21
Mol daughter
Lydia   22
Harry son 1
Peg   20
Billy son an infant
Molly sister to Peg 14
Intergenerational and Fictive(?)
Peter, a gardener 60
Mary   39
Chole daughter 17
Quebec daughter 12
Sall daughter to Nan 172
Mana daughter to Sall an infant
Phillis   13
Esther daughter to Nan 112
  1. Beck aged 56 and son Towerhill age 15 who were living in a separate household in 1775, are found in 1762 Probate Inventory of Addison’s father living at the Middle Quarter with “Towerhill.”
  2. Nan is not listed in this probate nor is she found in the 1762 Probate Inventory of Addison’s father.

(Gunston Hall Probate Inventory Data Base, N.D. [2004])

At Carter’s Grove, Oxen Hill plantations and the Calvert’s Prince George’s County “quarters” 18th century African American families lived in nuclear families as well as intergenerational, blended, and even fictive kin families. Besides a husband, wife and their children, a family might include elderly relatives and grandchildren. Families might include a child of the husband or more likely a child of the wife by another spouse or a mulatto child fathered by the slave owner or a member of his family. Even though inter-racial liaisons were censored by law, mulatto children were sometimes the offspring of African men and white women indentured servants. Some families were polygamous, a sanctioned form of marriage in West Africa. Fictive kin families were formed of children sold onto a plantation community or left behind when their parents were sold or sent off to work in a far quarter of the plantation.

The needs of English plantation owners took precedence over enslaved people’s familial ties so the older children of slaves, particularly males were often separated from parent. For example, because of inheritance practices from 1730–1775, the Addison family in Oxon Hill, Maryland dispersed a family of Africans and their descendants over three separate plantations. Two were adjacent to each other and the third a few miles away. Ned, 45 years old and his 46-year-old wife Joan lived on the main plantation with their four youngest children. Joan’s older brother Sam lived a few miles away. Another couple, Jack aged 64 and his 56-year-old wife Sarah lived next door to the Addison’s Oxon Hill place. Three of their sons, age 15 to 26 lived at Oxon Hill. Peter Harbard grew up on the plantation of Henry Darnell. In 1737, he was sold to a plantation across the road. He lived with his grandmother, his father, and several aunts and uncles. Several of his cousins lived on nearby plantation while other kinfolk lived in Annapolis (Gutman 1976:32–43). Thus, English inheritance practices strained marriage and family ties but strengthened the formation of African American kinship networks and community.

Many enslaved people participated in “abroad marriages,” that is they were married to someone on another plantation or in another city. As Chambers put it: “They created their own networks of consanguinal and affinal ties that bound them to one another across the physical landscape (Chambers 1996:121).”

Urban Family Life

It was unusual for enslaved Africans like those working in Annapolis to live as complete family units. Most city households employed more women than men in domestic service; there were often few men, if any, working and living in urban settings. When men did work in town they served as coachmen, waiting men, or gardeners. Others were tradesmen who worked in shops or were hired out. Sometimes African children were raised together with English children whom they served.

Portrait of Henry Darnell III by artist Justus Engelhardt Kuhn, c. 1710.

In comparison to families living and working in rural areas, enslaved people in cities had less privacy and more frequent cross-cultural contact with the slave owners. In town, enslaved people lived in loft areas over the kitchens, laundries, and stables. They often worked seven days a week. However, what they lacked in privacy they made up for in autonomy.

Enslaved people had greater opportunities to move about in relative freedom in towns. They were often go-betweens for field slaves as well as and the owners. Privy to the latest news discussed in the “big house,” as they traveled back and forth from seaports and countryside farms to markets, urban Africans circulated news of the English world to other Africans and communicated messages and news about the African world within that domain (Yentsch 1994).

Traveling Men, Kin, and Community

The Africans in the Calverts’ Annapolis household possessed a considerable autonomy and stature within the African community. They frequently traveled between Annapolis on the western shore of the Chesapeake to the other Calvert quarters in Prince George’s County, near present day Washington, DC. Evidence of this is found in records of fines imposed upon the Calverts resulting from “Negro John, the elder” and “Negro John, the younger,” riding on cart shafts, apparently father and son, traveling together. They were also fined for Mulatto Will galloping his horse through the streets (Yentsch 1994:172–173).

Carter’s Grove men were entrusted with traveling alone over great distances to conduct plantation business. The late 1770s and 1780s, records from Carter’s Grove show that Billy, Daniel, Tom, and three other unidentified enslaved African American men received cash to cover their travel expenses from Carter’s Grove to the Burwell western quarters on Bull Run in Prince William County or to their Frederick quarters on the Shenandoah River. These African Americans knew the way, the value of coin, and the customary charges they should pay for food, forage and ferriage along the way (Walsh 1997:184; Yentsch 1994:172–173 Morgan 1998:207–209). This was valuable knowledge, useful for aiding or participating in running away from enslavement.

These traveling enslaved men were highly informed and kept a keen ear to those political events that might have had an impact on their lives. They had the opportunity to foster community as they exchanged information about family, kin, and friends as well as about the political and social events of the day. Africans also traveled for their own social purposes as well. Old Dick, who was enslaved in Annapolis, talking about his wife, a house servant in Elk Ridge, Maryland said:

“‘It is a good 25 miles to from Annapolis to Landing Place…[the tavern where his wife worked]…but a Negur never tired when he go to see his sweetheart, after work on Saturday night I would start for Elk Ridge, and get to my wife before supper was put away (Davis 1803:383–384 as cited in Yentsch 1994, ftn 8 Pp 368–369)).’”

Living in town also afforded enslaved people the opportunity to aid runaways, providing them safe harbor and helping them gain passage onward to north, this was especially true in seaport towns. Calvert slaves were known to have provided one runaway safe “harbor” for more than a month in 1729 and on another occasion out on one of the Calvert Quarters (Yentsch 1994:177).

Resistance: Runaways and Kinship

Kin as a factor in running away from slavery, Virginia 1736–1790.

From 1736 to the end of the Colonial period, kinship ties increasingly figured into enslaved people’s decisions to run away, where they would run and with whom they would flee slavery. Young and old ran away like Roger and Moll, a young married couple who ran away together as did two brothers in their thirties along with Dinah, their mother. People ran away to their kin in other parts of the Chesapeake.

The texts of some newspaper advertisements for runaways support the contention that knowledge Africans gained through travel must have been communicated throughout the African community and used to facilitate running away to distant places. In September 1776, James Scott, Jr. who lived in Fauquier County, Virginia, advertised in the Virginia Gazette for a woman named Winney who in the past, as a runaway, traveled as far as…“Maryland, near Port Tobacco, where she passed for a free woman, and hired herself in that neighbourhood [sic] several months.”

Kin networks extended across several counties.

By the end of the 18th century, the Chesapeake landscape was a network of large and small plantations, growing more and more dense. Although many planters on Marylands western shore still held fewer than a dozen enslaved people, as the colonial period came to a close, African American family and dense kin-based social networks spread across the several counties like the family of Sally Grey described in this Williamsburg Gazette advertisement.

Freed and Quasi Freed Families

While never a majority, during the 18th century, a growing number of enslaved people, particularly mulattos, entered the ranks of free people of color. Evidence suggests that other mulattos might have lived on a slave owners estate in quais-freedom as seen in this entry in the 1742 Probate Inventory of Henry Fitzhugh:

“Mulatto Peters Estate (to wit)
Peter £20 Moll £20 Charles £40 Bunting £30
Punch £20 George £20 [ ] £30
(Gunston Hall n.d., Fitzhugh 1742).”

Other enslaved people listed as mulatto in probate inventories were devalued based on the amount of remaining time in their service obligation:

“1 mulatto woman Jane Bedde about 1 year to serve” was valued at £6.0.0 (Gunston Hall n.d., Coleman 1745).”

Mulatto children might be freed in a slave owner’s wills or at a age, specified in the will, when they would complete an indenture. Samuel Hansen’s 1794 probate inventory included:

“1 boy Sam Liberty, 2yrs old to be free at age of 28 yrs” valued at £5.0.0 and “2 children Ann and Thomas Liberty to be fee [sic] at 28” together worth £7.10.0 (Gunston Hall n.d., Hanson 1794)

Forced march of enslaved people depicted in 1819 wood engraving.

However, there were many other mulattos listed in inventories with no indications that they might be freed. Yentsch notes that mulattoes born of white women were indentured then freed while those born of “Negro” women remained enslaved for life (1994:176).

English inheritance practice was to divide slave property equally among heirs; as a result, enslaved families often remained within proximity of one another across the Chesapeake landscape. African American family, kin, and community networks were able to develop in the Chesapeake for over 100 years before they were broken over the last quarter of the 18th century by the forced migration of enslaved people from the Chesapeake region to western Virginia and Maryland quarters.