Cape Lookout National Seashore Historic Resource Study By

Coastal Slavery in the State Context

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Coastal Slavery in the State Context

However pervasive in North Carolina, slavery was also far from homogeneous in distribution. There were generally more slaves in the east than in the west, but the densest concentrations were on the northeastern border (reaching south in a narrow band to from Northampton, Warren and Halifax to Jones County), and in Anson and Richmond counties on the central South Carolina border. The greatest concentration was in the rice-growing lower Cape Fear. Carteret was anomalous within the eastern counties: it (like many mountain counties) had fewer than 25 percent slaves in 1860, but Cecelski calculated that within the nineteen tidewater counties in 1860, slaves composed 45 percent of the population.9

Demographic distribution was more uneven yet. By the end of the eighteenth century, 31 percent of white families owned slaves, but on the eve of the Revolution nearly two-thirds of the slaves were on large plantations.10 As late as 1860, 75 percent of white families in New Hanover County owned no slaves at all, and 15 percent owned fewer than ten. The remaining 10 percent of white families owned more than 76 percent of the slaves.11

Portsmouth was the only area on the southern Banks ever to have a substantial slave population. By 1790 (almost forty years after its founding), the town had 188 whites, 38 slaves, and three free blacks. A decade later, with Shell Castle flourishing, there were fewer whites (142) but more slaves (78). By 1810 there were 225 whites and 115 slaves – about the same number as were there a decade later. The population peaked in 1860, when there were 117 slaves (averaging nine to a house in thirteen slave houses) and 568 whites (living more comfortably 5-6 per house in 105 houses).12

Two historians in particular have examined the substantial differences between coastal area slavery and that of the inland plantations. Robert Outland has analyzed slavery in the naval stores industry, and David Cecelski examined both the extraordinarily brutal treatment of slaves forced to build canals and the unusual freedoms of slave watermen. These cases make it abundantly clear that, as Cecelski argues, tidewater slavery varied greatly from industry to industry, and place to place, and that there were several distinguishable “maritime worlds.”13

Slaves forced to build canals through eastern North Carolina swamps may have had it even worse than naval stores slaves.14 The first ones brought in specifically for that purpose arrived in 1786 to drain a huge swamp around Lake Phelps in Washington County (the eventual site of the huge and hugely productive Somerset Place plantation). Those slaves “came to know a system of discipline and punishment,” Cecelski says, “brutal even by the usual standards of slavery, one almost unique to canal sites.” It was a life “so excruciating that some preferred death.” Building canals, Cecelski concludes, “was the nightmare of maritime slave life.”

The largest project was the 22-mile-long Dismal Swamp Canal that connected the Elizabeth and Pasquotank rivers, built between 1794 and 1805 (and deepened in the 1820s). [ILLUSTRATION: Dismal Swamp Canal Harper's New Monthly Mag May 1860 p725. CAPTION: Fig. 5-4: Dismal Swamp Canal. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, May 1860, 725] [ILLUSTRATION: DismalSwampCanal1839map. CAPTION: Fig. 5-5: Map of Dismal Swamp Canal in 1839. North Carolina Business History (; accessed 7 January 2010] Connecting and auxiliary canals followed, on up into the late 1850s: a six-mile channel from the Currituck Sound into the Northwest River; a five-mile feeder into Lake Drummond; the Clubfoot and Harlowe’s Creek (later New Berne and Beaufort) Canal (1795-1828) [ILLUSTRATION: Clubfoot-HarloweCanal1839map. CAPTION: Fig. 5-6: Clubfoot and Harlowe’s Creek Canal, 1839. North Carolina Business History (; accessed 7 January 2010]; the 40-60 ft. wide, seven-mile Mattamuskeet canal, one of several commissioned by the State Literary Fund to raise funds for public education and built by hired slaves (1838-1855); the fourteen-mile Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal – sixty-one feet wide and eight feet deep – between North River and Currituck Sound (built 1855-1859 with the age of steam dredge boats); a nine-mile bypass around the Great Falls of the Roanoke River (including a nearly 1,260 ft. cut through solid rock); and numerous others.15

This work was, as Cecelski observes, “the cruelest, most dangerous, unhealthy, and exhausting labor in the American South” – a distinction for which there was considerable competition. Canal digging slaves contended not only with backbreaking labor, but also with cottonmouths, copperheads, rattlers, mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers, and yellow flies. Diet and housing were unimaginably bad, sexual exploitation of slave women in the camps common, and escape both unlikely and subject to deadly consequences when attempted. Discipline was both absolute and brutal. Not surprisingly, new African slaves were sent to the canals to “break” them for later plantation work, and efforts to augment slave labor with hired white labor were generally unsuccessful.

Perhaps only slightly less exploited were slaves in the naval stores industry. Like slaves who built canals, those in the naval stores industry had a considerably harder life than those on inland plantations, Outland has argued.16

The industry, earlier situated primarily in the Albemarle, shifted south to the Cape Fear in the late 1830s as neglected stands of coveted longleaf pines – part of a vast swath of such trees that once stretched from southeastern Virginia, down through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida and then west through Alabama and Mississippi to the eastern edge of Texas – drew turpentine makers’ attention.17

Heightened demand caused a dramatic expansion in the naval stores industry in the 1840s and 1850s. As early as 1840, some 444 North Carolina tar and turpentine makers were already turning out more than 95 percent of the naval stores produced in the United States, and by 1860 their numbers had grown to 1,114. David Sanders’s Palo Alto plantation house in Onslow County, built around 1840, stood at the center of a 9,500-acre turpentine plantation.18 By the 1850s, Wilmington was the center of the industry. [ILLUSTRATION: Turpentine distillery Wilmington NCC.jpg. CAPTION: Fig. 5-7: Wilmington turpentine distillery, ca. 1850s. Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion. North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina Library.] [ILLUSTRATION: Turpentine distillery 1876 Kell Carteret County. CAPTION: Fig. 5-8: Carteret County turpentine distillery, 1876. Kell, North Carolina's Coastal Carteret County During the Civil War]

Naval stores were produced by an “integrated workforce” of both owned and hired slaves (almost all men, but including a few women and children as well) managed by overseers or drivers. They were extremely poorly clothed, fed and housed (frequently in shed-like lean-tos that were moved frequently), and pushed to the absolute limit of their strength (or beyond). The plantation slave’s option of supplementing a meager diet by growing a small garden was not available to the forest worker, and drinking water frequently had to come from streams contaminated by industry operations, or even from the highly contaminated resin boxes themselves.19 Turpentine stills also frequently exploded with lethal results, and wild animals, snakes, mosquitoes, ticks and chiggers were ubiquitous, as they were for canal workers.

Organized for the most part by the task system, turpentine slaves worked mostly alone in widely-spaced locations. Separated from their families, or kept from starting families in the first place, they were lonely and miserable. The hollers they devised to achieve some minimal communication amongst themselves constituted, as Eugene Genovese said, “a piercing history of the impact of hardship and sorrow on lonely black men.”20

The turpentine industry continued to thrive through the latter decades of the century. Once the lumbermen became aware of the vast stands of longleaf pine, however, they moved quickly with their cheap and wasteful methods to displace the turpentiners, and the longleaf was doomed – 150 million board feet shipped out of Mobile, Alabama in 1896 alone.21

Of all the maritime slaves, by far the most fortunate (if one can admit the term) were slave watermen.22 In his study of those watermen, Cecelski argues that several degrees of freedom (however conditional) were frequently available to slaves on the coast that were not enjoyed by inland plantation blacks, and that both the social patterns that emerged during slavery and the culture that developed in the later maritime economy have to be understood in terms peculiar to that history and economy.

Cecelski’s analysis of black watermen (hence of race and black-white relations in coastal maritime culture) ranges from Moses Gandy and his fellow slave boatmen to slave fishermen from tidewater plantations, to slave and free blacks in the shad, rockfish, and herring fisheries, to slave canal builders, to slave watermen who helped other slaves negotiate water routes to freedom, to black pilots who guided Union vessels into Beaufort early in the Civil War.23

Slaves skilled as river pilots could be away from their masters for weeks at a time, but far more numerous were slave fishermen. Slaves fished seasonally, Cecelski explains, after crop chores were done. A slave fishermen might fish alone and for himself, or with others – to improve his own family’s diet, for barter, or for his master. Some masters sent slave gangs long distances to fish. “Command over fishing skills and the relative freedom of a fishing beach,” Cecelski says, “could alter the usual dynamics of power between slaves and masters.” The activity exposed slaves to other African American maritime laborers, and exposed them to a more cosmopolitan social system than they would otherwise have encountered.

Such slaves met and interacted with other black mariners from both all over the eastern seaboard, as well as Dutch, British, French, Spanish, and Danish colonies in the Caribbean. In such a setting, they inevitably developed a broader cultural and political awareness and perspective.

That awareness positioned slaves – and black watermen in particular – to focus anti-slavery and insurrectionary sentiment. There was a strong and persistent pattern, Cecelski argues, “of black watermen serving as key agents of antislavery thought and militant resistance to slavery.”

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