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.

NPS

During the holidays, the Drawing Room in Hampton Mansion is set up as it might have been for the presentation of Christmas presents to enslaved children. Hampton records show a Christmas 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, items like dolls, doll furniture, musical instruments, and toy soldiers.

Although appearing to be selfless, 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 shows us that certain children did not receive a gift because of behavior or even attempting to run away. The list gives hints of other parts of the story as well, 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’s escape 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

Overseers

There were black overseers in the earliest days of the 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 estate, 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, 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 start 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 corporal punishment and a variety of forms of oversight to force the labor of hundreds of enslaved persons. As with indentured servants, enslaved persons were subject to whippings and those who attempted to escape could be put in iron collars. Corporal punishment could be a collaborative effort between overseers and owners.

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

NPS/Harpers Ferry Center

Owners

James McHenry Howard, Margaretta Howard Ridgely’s half-brother, recorded in his memoir family stories and oral histories told to him of slave treatment 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?” Kent Lancaster reports that so renowned were Ridgely’s discipline and Hampton’s reputation for slave order that neighboring plantations sent their slaves 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 slaves 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 a slaveholding class.

Last updated: June 7, 2020

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