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

Material Cultural Patterns

An interdisciplinary approach combining folklore, anthropology, and material culture studies with archeology and history follows. It allows reconstruction of aspects enslaved peoples’ every day lives and the presence of West African cultural traditions among them in the American South (Lange and Handler 1985:15–32). Beginning in 1970, archeologists have been conducting investigations of slave sites in the Chesapeake region. Kingsmill Quarter, part of the Carter’s Grove Plantation in James City County, was the first site excavated in Virginia. Interpretation of archeological evidence unearthed at Kingsmill and other sites in Virginia and Maryland informs the following description of the material culture of enslaved African people and their descendants in 17th and 18th centuries.

Excavations of Sites Occupied by Enslaved African People, Chesapeake 1620–1800

Name Location Occupancy Date Excavated
Kingsmill Quarter James City County, VA 1620–1800 1972–1976
Jordan’s Point Prince George’s County, MD 1620–1720 1990–1992
Utopia Quarter James City County, VA 1700–1750 1993–1995
Bray Quarter James City County, VA 1700–1790 1972–1976
Oakland Park James City County, VA 1700–1740 1994
Tutter’s Neck James City County, VA 1730s–1740s 1960–1961
Curles Plantation Henrico County 1730–1862 1984–1995
Utopia II James City County, VA 1750–1780 1993
House for Families Mount Vernon, VA 1760–1792 1984–1989
North Quarter James City County, VA 1750–1780 1972–1976
Rich Neck Plantation Williamsburg, VA 1775–1815 1990–1994
Littletown Quarter James City County, VA 1780s–1780s 1972–1976
Hampton Key James City County, VA 1770–1790 1972–1976
Carter’s Grove James City County, VA 1770–1820 1970
Montcello, Mulberry Row Charlottesville VA 1770–1810 1981–1989
Carroll House Annapolis, MD 1721–1821 1986–1990
Slayton House Annapolis, MD 1770s 1990s

(Samford 1996; Galke 2000; Saraceni 2000; Jones 2000)

Material Culture: Shelter

Archeological excavations reveal much about living spaces of Africans enslaved in Virginia and Maryland during the 17th and 18th centuries. Initially, indentured, enslaved, or free Africans, Indians and English people lived together, many times under the same roof. By the end of the 17th century, changing living arrangements of Africans reflected changing social attitudes toward “Negroes” and the laws passed in Virginia and Maryland institutionalizing slavery. Enslaved people were given the task of building their own homes. Excavation at Kingsmill revealed that 17th century enslaved Africans lived in “earth-fast” houses. The name earth-fast describes a post and beam construction wherein the posts extended into the ground to form the house foundation. The posts were placed in a square or rectangular pattern. The walls were made of mud and sticks, called wattle-and-daub. Upright branches were interwoven by smaller branches and covered by a thick coat of clay mud. Beams topped the walls, a gabled roof, and perhaps a chimney. Logs and mud were also used. Later in the 18th century, some houses were made of brick although the earth-fast houses remained customary (Ferguson 1992:55–56).

Wattle-and-daub houses with thatched roof, circa 1890–1923, Barbados.

The English peasantry, Cherokee Indians and West Africans all used wattle and daub construction techniques. For enslaved Africans, wattle and daub building materials of the earliest earth-fast houses were similar to those used in West Africa. Evidence suggests slaves brought this kind of knowledge about building materials with them. As late as the 1930's an ex-slave remembered hearing “Daddy Patty,” who he thought was an Igbo, talk about the “boo-boo-no” (house) in which he lived in Africa, and how it was “made out uh sticks an straw thas plastuhed with mud (Jones 1985:199).”

Ranging in size from 12 × 12 feet to 18 × 24 feet, the houses in 18th century Virginia may have had stick and clay chimneys although no clear evidence of a hearth or a chimney was found in any of the buildings (Kelso 1984). Traces of stick and clay chimney supports may have been lost due to poor preservation. Ferguson argues that the people who lived in these dwellings had no chimneys because they cooked outside, an argument he says is supported by the excavation of slave quarters in South Carolina (Ferguson 1992:56–57). The small and simple earth-fast houses could easily be moved around the plantation to accommodate shifting field use (Samford 1996:92).

Three of the Virginia houses had porches, a rare architectural characteristic in seventeenth and eighteenth century England, but according to Vlach, a characteristic of West African architecture (Vlach 1978:136–138).

Houses and Village Scenes, Sierra Leone late 17th century.

In addition to using building materials with which they were familiar, eighteenth cantury African people built structures with West African architectural forms. This conical roof house built by 18th century Virginia slaves resembles the conical roofs on the structures in this 1678 drawing of Sierra Leone dwellings by John Barbot.

Greenway Court, Powder House, Built 1752, State Route 658 vicinity, White Post vicinity, Clarke County, VA.

In some instances, the excavated locations of enslaved people’s living spaces fit the 1732 description by traveler William Hugh Grove as “Negro Quarters all Separate from Each other but near the mansion house (Stiverson and Butler 1977 as cited in Samford 1996:92).” Grove’s description “Negro Quarters” might have described the Monticello’s Mulberry Row, where the depicted slave dwellings are also reminiscent of the African dwellings in Barbot’s journal.

According to Samford, enslaved people’s living spaces on outlying plantation quarters have not been well documented archeologically because their locations are less easily predicted. She questions if enslaved peoples housing on “quarters” might yield more evidence of West African cultural traditions farther away from the “watchful eye of the slaveholder” (Samford 1996:92). Archeological excavations at Atkinson’s and other sites near Williamsburg, Virginia explores African Americans lived in the 17th and 18th century life.

Collecting soil from one of the main root cellars at Rich Neck Slave Quarter.

Kelso found one to eighteen pits in the slave quarter excavations, all similar in size and depth. Called root cellars, these pits have characteristically been found under former slave dwellings in the Americas and under 19th century Ibo dwellings in Africa as well (Kelso 1984:105). Since the cellars do not appear on pre-slavery sites, Kelso concluded they were products of African American culture. Materials recovered from root cellars included straight pins and buttons, secondary refuse, that is, materials that probably fell through the cracks between boards over the cellars, useable tools, coins, imported ceramics, gun parts, fishing gear and discarded food remains (Yentsch 1991:3–4). Learn more about the Archeology of Chesapeake Slavery and African American archeological sites in Virginia.

Material Culture: Subsistence

Food remains, also called faunal remains, found in root cellars and other objects excavated from slave quarter sites provide evidence of enslaved peoples’ diet, food preparation, cooking and eating utensils.

Slave Dietary Foods
(Ranked in Descending Order)

  1. Pork
  2. Cornmeal
  3. Greens
  4. Sweet Potatoes
  5. Buttermillk
  6. Peas
  7. Wild Game
  8. Eggs
  9. Chicken
  10. Fish
  11. Coffee
  12. Molasses / Sorghum
  13. Other meats
  14. Fruit

(Brown 1983)

Before captivity, the basic West African diet included rice, spices, and vegetables—with a little fish, fowl, bullock, goat or sheep meat added. In most cases ordinary people used, palm oil in preparing food as stews of meat and rice or millet, also called Guinea corn. Other foods grown and eaten in Africa included groundnuts (peanuts),okra, coriander, sesame, black-eyed peas, pigeon peas, white yams, kola nuts, tamarind and watermelon. As European ships sailed back and forth from the New World to West Africa, they introduced maize, cassava, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes to West Africa and carried African vegetables, legumes and nuts to America. As a result, enslaved African women were familiar with growing, preparing, and cooking foods available in colonial Chesapeake (Samford 1996: 95–97; Yentsch 1998:198–204).


Because of their availability, low cost, and supposed nutritional value, pork and corn constituted the primary foods for most Virginia slaves and both could be raised on the plantation (Samford 1996:95). Savitt notes, that had corn and pork been the only foods consumed, then the response of Philip Vickers Fithian, a young northern tutor living on Robert Carter’s Nomini Hall Plantation, Westmoreland County in 1773 would have been justifiable: “‘Good God!’ Fithian wrote in his diary, ‘are these Christians (Savitt 2002:90–96)?’” However, some Virginia planters provided food supplements such as buttermilk, sweet potatoes, and other foods. Others, like Landon Carter, served meat as a reward to favored slaves, to induce enslaved people to work, or as a treat at irregular intervals throughout the year. The basic diet for enslaved people laboring on Carter’s plantation, included cornmeal, cowpeas, vegetables in season, and hog offal, such as sweetbreads, pigsfeet, and chitterlings. Analysis of excavated pollen and seeds from slave quarter sites reveals evidence of plants that may have been grown in their own gardens, such as pumpkin, watermelon, beans, peaches, cherries, corn, and peas (Samford 1996:96).

The kind and amount of food provided by planters varied from plantation-to-plantation and the amounts allotted to the enslaved differed. In Virginia, the usual amount of corn provided for a working male was about 1–1.5 quarts per day, most often ground into meal and they received about a half pound of bacon and pork per day. Female field hands and some indoor servants received proportionately less. According to Savitt, the diet children ate was better than the adult diet. Planters were more solicitous of the wants and desires of children and enslaved parents put their children’s needs before their own (Savitt 2002:96).

Faunal remains from the Rich Neck Slave Quarter. As seen here, highly fragmented beef, pork, and mutton bones probably represent one-pot meals.

Comparatively, chicken, turkey and other domestic fowl form much smaller component of the bones recovered from archeological slave sites. Some scholars speculate that fowl may have been valued more for their eggs than for their meat. Virtually every site contains the remains of wild species such as opossum, raccoon, snapping turtle, deer, squirrel, duck, and rabbit. Oyster shells, fish bones, and scales have also been found along with fishhooks and lead fishing weights. Most sites as noted earlier yield lead shot, gunflints, and gun parts, demonstrating that enslaved people had access to firearms for hunting in spite of laws forbidding access of “Negroes” to arms (Samford 1996:96).

Clearly, enslaved people supplemented the protein in their diets from sources other than planter-supplied rations.

Enslaved people not only supplemented their own diets with game, garden produce, fishing catches and wild meats, they also sold some of these foods to the planters allowing them to accumulate money or to buy material possessions and in some cases to buy their freedom (Samford 1996:96).

Food Preparation

Small Colonoware Pot.

Excavations at Carter’s Grove, Kingsmill, and other quarters, recovered kitchenware along with faunal remains. Enslaved Africans and their descendants used earthen or stoneware for storage and ate out of undecorated European manufactured creamware plates and bowls. Discarded animal bones and the bowl shapes of non-Indian colonoware or Colono ware found at Kingsmill and Rich Neck Quarter also suggest that enslaved people ate stews made of grains and meats common to West African cuisine ( Franklin 2001).

Culture or tradition?

Eighteenth century English planters and enslaved laborers consumed similar diets in all forms and in great quantities. Faunal remains and ceramics of African American sites raise an important question, says Samford: “Are the patterns archeologists uncover the products of poverty or tradition (1996:96)?” Ethnography can illuminate the answer to this question raised by archeology. Moore demonstrated that both African American and white tenant farmers in Virginia continue these dietary patterns (Moore 1989:70–83). Brown found a national sample of affluent and middle class African American women (n=55 ages 25–90) reported they continue, on occasion, to eat such foods, known today as “soul food (Brown 1999). A 1983 study of “adherence to traditional diet” among rural, low and middle income African American men (n=8) and women (n=13), all age 70 or older, found there was a statistically significant correlation between the foods identified in the literature as comprising traditional slave diets and foods the study group reported as consumed (Brown 1983). The correlation was even greater between the elderly study groups’ food preferences and slave diet and foods. Both the 1999 and 1983 study groups noted they preferred some traditional foods that, because of health concerns, they no longer ate. These findings suggest that even if the foods were originally eaten by enslaved Africans and English planters because of availability or later as a corollary of poverty, they have become cultural traditions among present day African Americans.

Material Culture: Clothing

By the mid-18th century, the clothes worn by Africans depended upon the kind of work they did and whether they lived in towns or on tobacco plantations. At Carter's Grove, Burwell purchased British-made caps, stockings, and yard goods from London to clothe his slaves. Walsh points out that someone other than the slaves actually cut out and sewed up the clothing for adults, particularly for the children. The Burwells purchased shoes or Jammy, a male slave, made shoes for the other enslaved people.

Colonial Williamsburg re-enactors dressed in an Oznabrig shift and petticoat (left), and cotton waistcoats and breeches (right).

This was not necessarily the case on other plantations. Needles and buttons found in Chesapeake archeological excavations suggest that sewing was fairly common among African women (Samford 1996). Maryland probate inventories include listings of “slave cloth” yardage goods and “slave shoes.” However, the inventories and runaway advertisements identify only a few women as “seamstress.” One probate inventory lists a family of enslaved people as part of a “Weavers House” inventory. Likewise, few inventories identify an enslaved man as a shoemaker and in only one instance; an enslaved woman is listed as “Dorcas the Weaver.” This evidence may indicate at least a few 18th century Chesapeake enslaved people participated in making cloth, sewing garments, and making shoes for one another. Runaway advertisements also note that some women made there own clothes, clothes for other slaves and could “sew, spin, weave and iron” like Jude, a “bright mulatto wench.”

Country men wore Oznabrig shirts, cotton waistcoats, breeches or pants made of “Virginia cloth,” that is material woven in Virginia. One runaway wore a “Pair of Country-made Shoes,” such as Roger wore when he ran away from a country plantation along with his wife Moll who wore an “old Oznabrig Shift, and an old Cotton Waistcoat (sic) and Petticoat (Virginia Runaways 2004 November 2, 1739).” To their owners, the clothes worn by enslaved people signified their low status and subservience. When enslaved people ran away with clothes above their station it was duly noted in the runaway advertisement.

“…[A]…negro wench, named Road about 28 years of age. She was born in New England, and speaks in that dialect, has remarkable thick lips, wears her hair combed over a large roll, and affects gaiety in dress. She had on, and took with her, a homespun striped jacket, a red quilted petticoat, a black silk hat, a pair of leather shoes, with wooden heals [sic], a chintz gown, and a black cloak. She is supposed to have a forged pass, and may endeavour to pass as a free woman, and change her clothes and name…” (Virginia Runaways 2004, June 15, 1775).

Early nineteenth-century doll of a liveried servant.

Baumgarten comments that while livery suits looked elaborate, they signaled submission. The services and the suit of the liveried man belonged to his employer, and the fancy suit enhanced the employer’s status, not that of the servant wearing the clothing. The suits followed a stylistic formula as seen in this early nineteenth-century doll of a liveried servant. The fineness of material and excess of buttons reflected the position and affluence of the master. Harry, a “likely well-made mulatto…” about 22 or 23 Years of Age, “…ran away wearing…a dark brown Cloth Livery Coat turned up with Green Waistcoat of the same, striped Velvet Breeches, a white Shirt, Shoes and Stockings…” (Virginia Runaways 2004, July 14 1774) Livery suits typically had a contrasting color on the cuffs and collar—‘turned up with Green’—and usually were embellished with special braid trimmings and buttons (Baumgarten 2003–2004).” Learn more about the kinds of clothes colonial people wore and the significance of clothing in maintaining social distinctions.

For Africans coming from the tropical environment of Africa or the Caribbean to the temperate climate of the Chesapeake had health consequences. Clothing was a necessity and none so necessary as shoes. From a cultural perspective, for the first generation of enslaved people, the adjustment to wearing different clothing was probably mitigated by their first experience with winter snows and cold weather. Of all the articles of clothing which masters provided their bondsmen, shoes, Savitt suggests, were the most important in terms of health and prevention of disease. Enslaved people could patch up their houses and build fires to keep warm indoors. They could hunt, fish, grow food, or even pilfer rations from the slave owner to supplement their diets (Savitt [1981] 2002: 84–86). However, obtaining or making footwear was more difficult. Only one in 46 men running away from Chesapeake slavery from 1736 to 1746 were shoemakers. In the Virginia Runaway sample, of all 959 men running away between 1736 and 1795, only nine were tailors. It is possible that men with these skills were less likely to runaway and are thus underrepresented in the sample. The same is true for the 15 seamstresses among the 399 Chesapeake women runaways (Geography of Slavery 2004). However, a cursory review of almost 300 Gunston Hall Probate Inventories of Maryland and Virginia slave owners’ estates from 1740–1810 support the notion that few enslaved people were shoemakers, tailors, seamstresses or weavers (Gunston Hall Plantation 2004). It is likely that, if for no other reason than to protect their investment and have able workers, most slave owners probably realized as did Robert Carter that with…“‘warm hous’s, warm bedding and warm Cloaths, I can’t believe but wee should have fewer mortalitys and I am sure I have done my part (Carter Letterbook as cited in Morgan 1998:125).’” For planters that under clothed their laborers, the enslaved could and did manipulate their social environment to bring about change or at least “get even” with the planter through work slow downs, real or feigned illness, and making poor crops (Morgan, 1998:125). The next section of this module examines Health and Health Care of enslaved people in the Chesapeake.