Forms of Control

A list of enslaved children and Christmas gifts they received each year.
A list of enslaved children and gifts they received for Christmas.


During the holidays, the drawing room in the Hampton mansion is set up as it might have been for the presentation of Christmas presents to enslaved children. Hampton NHS archival records preserve a Christmas gift list for the enslaved children form 1841-1854. The gift list records over 50 names of enslaved children over a decade and the corresponding gifts that were given including items like dolls, doll furniture, musical instruments, and toy soldiers.

Although appearing at first to be beneficial and kind, this practice of gift giving also created a sense of obligation on the part of children. It was also used as a punishment; the list records that certain children did not receive a gift because of their behavior or even attempting to seek their freedom. The list gives hints of other parts of the story as well, such as where young children from Hampton were rented out to other plantations (and thus not available to receive their gifts) or in some cases, had successfully sought their freedom, never to appear on the gift list again. For example, after Rebecca Posey seeking her freedom in the summer of 1852, she is noted as “gone” on the gift list that December.

Painting depicting enslaved women in a field and an overseer with a whip.
An artist's depiction of an overseer in the fields.

NPS/Harpers Ferry Center


There were Black overseers in the earliest days of the iron furnace and Black managers of the Home Farm in the days of tenant farming. Black overseers supervised a very different sort of working environment than white overseers. Black overseers on the plantation, such as Savee in 1745, oversaw small, interdependent groups of enslaved persons and indentured servants. In the days following emancipation, Black managers at the Home Farm, such as John Humphries, oversaw farm laborers who had some autonomy in how they went about their daily work.

Over time, the Ridgelys relied on a mixed labor force of enslaved workers, convict laborers, indentured servants, hirelings, paid artisans, free Black laborers, and tenant farmers to maintain their estate. As crews of workers at the Iron Furnace grew larger, white men took over the role of overseer, and imposed strict work expectations in exchange for housing, supplies, a portion of the agricultural harvest and sometimes cash.

White supervisors started to be hired consistently in the early 1800s, and several white managers were hand selected and trained by Charles Carnan Ridgely. These young men were chosen through the Baltimore Orphans’ Court as apprentices whom Carnan Ridgely molded as future managers. Samuel Reynolds was one of these young men; he contracted in 1804 to serve Ridgely for four years “to learn the Arts, Trades, and Mysteries of Managing an Iron Works or Furnace.” Within a decade, Carnan Ridgely had recruited a second young apprentice named Richard Green to manage the “mysteries” of Northampton. Carnan Ridgely also hired white overseers to manage agricultural farms at Epsom, Mine Bank, Reister’s Place and White Marsh.

Over the years, some Ridgely family members serving as overseers and other hired overseers used physical torture and a variety of forms of cruelty to extract labor of hundreds of enslaved persons. As with enslaved persons, indentured servants were also subject to beatings and whippings. Additionally, those who attempted to escape could be put in iron collars. Inflicting physical torture could be a collaborative effort between overseers and enslavers.

painting depicting Charles Carnan Ridgely and an overseer
Artist depiction of Governor Charles Carnan Ridgely and an overseer.

NPS/Harpers Ferry Center


James McHenry Howard, Margaretta Howard Ridgely’s half-brother, recorded in his memoir family stories and oral histories told to him of treatment of the enslaves people at Hampton. In one incident, he records a day when “General Ridgely” (Governor Charles Carnan Ridgely) had an overseer deliver ten lashes to an enslaved man. Despite the pain of these lashes, the man showed pride and refused to apologize, causing a dismayed and angered Ridgely to dispense yet another ten lashes. In a battle of wills, the enslaved man remained “sullen and defiant” and refused to apologize. General Ridgely ordered ten more lashes with the angry admonition, “confound you why can’t you look pleased?” Historian Kent Lancaster reporteds that so renowned was Ridgely’s torture and Hampton’s reputation for cruelty that neighboring plantations sent their enslaved individuals there to be “broken in.”

Henry White (1840-1927), John Ridgely’s grandson, recalled that slavery at Hampton “was also bad for the tempers of the owners.” On several occasions, White recalled that “I well remember having seen my grandfather Ridgely lose his temper on one or two occasions, and box the ears of one of the grooms for reasons which seemed to me entirely inadequate.” White recoiled from these acts because they “left a most disagreeable impression on my mind, which is as vivid at the age of 75 as it was on the day of its occurrence (sic).”

On the other hand, White’s memoir tells us that white children at Hampton considered enslaved individuals as “personal friends of the children of the house, the older ones being called ‘uncle’ and ‘aunt.’” Such a divided narrative conveyed both the horrors of slavery and, at the same time, a close-knit familial intimacy with the enslaved that characterized the paternalism of the Ridgely family as an enslaving class.


Learn More

  • African American man holding a wheelbarrow outside of the mansion
    Enslaved People

    Hampton was the second largest plantation in Maryland. Learn about the struggle, hardships, and lives of the enslaved.

  • Enslaved workers working on the plantation farm by the overseer's house and slave quarters.
    Slavery at Hampton

    From the colonial period through 1864, the Ridgelys enslaved over 500 people. Enslaved persons, from young children to the elderly

  • A drawing of people at nighttime on a dirt road
    Freedom Seekers

    Learn all about people that would seek their freedom from Hampton.

  • Indentured Servants at Hampton
    Indentured Servants

    Indentured servants made up a significant portion of the Hampton labor force at one time. Read about their stories on the plantation.

  • Artist depiction of the iron making process.
    Working Conditions

    Accounts of the working conditions of the forced labor iron works.

  • African American Woman, Nancy Davis, and little white girl Eliza Ridgely
    Learn about more
    People of Hampton

    Hundreds of people lived, worked, and were enslaved at Hampton coinciding America's development as a nation. Explore more of their stories.

Last updated: March 22, 2024

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