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Slavery at Rock Spring Plantation

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Category: research Video duration: Slavery at Rock Spring Plantation
Research historian John Whitfield discusses the lives of the enslaved community at the former Rock Spring Plantation in Patrick County, now known as the Reynolds Homestead.
You know, as you look across the meadow there, you can see the main house here on the Reynolds Homestead as it's called today. There are actually quite a few places such as that if you travel around Virginia, here and there. Some are still occupied. But here at the Reynolds Homestead, history has been preserved. What we're going to take a look at today is how life was for the enslaved Africans who were here roughly between 1840 and 1860. Our base year being that 1860. When you think about slavery or consider involuntary servitude, what comes to your mind? You might also ask yourself, why begin here at the Penn Reynolds Cemetery, which I call it that because many of the Africans buried here assume those surnames after the Civil War. A lot of our history and a lot of the culture was buried with the individuals who are here today and they are the ones many of them and their descendants who live the life we will discuss today. You might say it's rather quiet and rather unoccupied here. Don't you believe it. Unoccupied? Not at all. There's a great deal here, a lot of their lives and their stories are here. Some years ago, there was a project undertaken here, and it was a ground penetrating radar project. Individuals here we're able to identify depressions. Those depressions represented grave sites. It was there that we started to learn more through further genealogical research about the lives of those who are buried here. So if you follow me into the Penn Reynolds Cemetery. The individuals who are buried here, many of them did not live to see freedom. Some of the descendants, of course, did and this cemetery continued to be in use for little over a century from 1854 to 1958. But as we go from place to place here on the plantation, hopefully you can keep in mind the fact that this was a loss of freedom and liberty for all who lived here enslaved. Among those who are buried here are children as young as a day or two old, few months old, And there was one man named Moses, born about 1779 was about 75 years old when he was buried here at Rock Spring. What was his life like? Perhaps we can find some clues as we continue on our journey. Lay historians have opined that slavery had very little impact here in Appalachia. That the land was inhospitable and too rocky for large-scale cash crops. However, this was not so. There were numerous plantations such as the Reynolds Plantation here, Rock Spring, dotting this area here in Patrick County and elsewhere in Appalachia. In fact, in the year 1860, there were recorded at least 2,500 African enslaved. But it wasn't just on the plantations that they work. Behind me here is a reconstructed tobacco barn. This tobacco barn is typical of the type that you would've found in this region. Very important in the processing and the curing of tobacco. In fact, in addition to the tobacco barn, may likely more than one here on the property, there was a tobacco store and a tobacco factory. And it is here that we'll briefly discuss the story of tobacco, its importance, and who raised it, processed it, and how it was turned into profit and wealth for generations of his family. Here at the plantation. There were in 1860, at least 500 improved acres, out of 2,300 acres, mostly devoted to tobacco, although there were other lesser crops, wheat, corn, oats, some flax. And in a tobacco store, numerous items would have been sold. There was also a post office here, likely associated with the store during the time of the Civil War. In any case, the processing of the tobacco is most interesting because the tobacco will be brought in. And there were, in 1860, 14 individuals, seven men and seven women enslaved, involved in the processing of tobacco here. They would strip the stems, clean it off, and then it will be processed, pressed into casks known as hogsheads, and then shipped off by rail or by wagon to places such as Lynchburg, a major tobacco center, and elsewhere. But here, it's interesting to point out to the ages that we've mentioned before in a cemetery, that the average age of enslaved workers in the fields between 10 and 16 years old. Now, one of the features also of this, this type of work, dangers in the fields doing various types of weather would account for the mortality rate among young people, which accounts for some of the smaller grave sites in the cemetery. As I mentioned, a third of the workforce was 10 to 16, very young and even younger children were taught in many plantations on how to work in the fields an even earlier age. We do know also that tobacco was a large cash crop here, very important to the wealth of various families in this area. The other factor is that the slaves who worked here in the fields provided skilled labor. In many cases, Africans were selected upon their ability to raise crops. Their knowledge of planting. Indeed, this is true also for the Africans who were brought first from the African continent. Rice growing regions in Africa specialists in growing other crops in Africa were selected for their purpose. And enslaved here in Americas making it very profitable. There were overseers here as well. But they knew nothing about raising the crops. It was all up to the Africans themselves to raise and promote the crop itself. Now, Booker T. Washington, during his lifetime enslaved in Franklin County, talked about the conditions in which enslaved Africans lived: the food they ate, the shoes they wear, clothing, and so forth. He recalled how his brother had to wear a course fabric shirt for him and break it in for him so he could wear it. The clothes that enslaved Africans wore were the poorest quality. He talked about the shoes, hard shoes, wooden shoes. that he had to wear. The same would have been true here as well. And he always said they had very little to eat. They would take a soup bowl, a simlin bowl, the simlin squash bowl, They would have a day when they could, time during the day when they could eat their meal. Once in the morning and once in the evening. According to one of the Africans who was enslaved in Franklin County. Such would've been the case here at Rock Spring Plantation. We've moved on now from our last location, but the story is still the same. Here at the plantation kitchen. We learn about the activities and a central part of any slave plantation in Virginia or elsewhere. Here we know that in about 1860 there was a middle-aged African woman enslaved here on the plantation by name of Mariah Reynolds, just Mariah at that time. She would have one or two other young girls there with her teaching them the art and skill of kitchen operations here on this plantation. She was responsible for the round the clock operation of this kitchen, both for the use of the slave family, all the slave families here, as well as the slave-holding Hardin family, Hardin Reynolds family. I'd like to open the door and let you take a look at the interior of this kitchen, specifically the hearth, where the fires had to be kept going throughout the day and the night. This is one of the few original structures still on the grounds of this plantation. You have to consider the whole structure to understand its use. The brick itself, for example, just as the brick in the main dwelling house here, made by enslaved Africans, built by the same here on this plantation. Notice the kitchen rather spacious actually, but it was kept running around the clock. The hearth here preparing meals for both the enslaved, as well as the Hardin Reynolds family. It had multiple purposes. We have a cellar where various foods would be stored. We have meat salted. We have living quarters upstairs on this two-story structure. And it's a common construction that you will find here in Virginia. Sometimes made of log and sometimes, in this case, made of brick. But I mentioned salt earlier and how important that was during the time, particularly during the Civil War, when there was rationing of the same. and there were special journeys had to be made to get salt, primarily from West Virginia, from the salt mines there. As matter of fact, A.D. Reynolds, the oldest son of Hardin Reynolds, recalled such a trip in 1862 when he had a four-team wagon and a Negro driver, possibly Peter Overby or Peter Reynolds the drivers here on the plantation to go there and to obtain enough salt, not only for the plantation here, but to be sold through the plantation store as well. Salt was critically important, where they have very little type of refrigeration. Primarily salt was used. The other possibility would be to place into the ice house next door. Ice was harvested during the winter. The blocks placed beneath the structure inside. There, they will keep butter, cheese, so forth. We do know that hundreds of pounds were produced in the year 1860. And they had at least 12 to 15 milk cows here for that very purpose. And which could have been sold as well in the store. But for the number of individuals here, likelihood is a good deal of that would have been used primarily for the slave-holding family. Where there's very little mentioned in the diet of enslaved Africans of dairy. Primarily, their food consists of salt pork and corn meal or corn products. That's the other structure here. That's the granary. Now the granary is also extremely important because this is where grains are stored, once a mill would be processed through a local mill, Mr. Reynolds had a mill. And that was extremely important as well in providing food stuffs for the plantation. The mill, the icehouse, and the granary were largely the most important structures here in terms of survival that you could find. Of all the enslaved Africans here, Rock Spring plantation, perhaps the most well-known is that of Ms. Kitty Reynolds. Born just Kitty, possibly on a neighboring plantation, on the Penn plantation. She and her father and other members of their family were likely enslaved here at Rock Spring plantation. We do know that during the Civil War, she had a number of children right here. Mary Reynolds was listed as a young mistress to Kitty. Mary Reynolds, the youngest daughter of Hardin and Nancy Jane Reynolds. At the time, Mary Jane was 18, and this was a common practice to assign or give as a gift even a young African woman or a young boy to a member of a slave-holding family as a gift. Sometimes on a birthday, most often during a wedding as wedding gift. And so Kitty lived her life here during slavery and that relationship. We do know that she has several children while she was enslaved, and that she's married to her husband here, Anthony Reynolds. There were actually six, seven in all, slave quarters here on a plantation in 1860. This would have counted as one. There were six others. We don't know the exact location, but what we do know, typically on plantations, slave quarters will be no more than 50 to 100 yards from the kitchen, as you see here. Because of the necessity once again for preparing meals for all the enslaved. Once a week, there would be a special gathering, usually on a Monday, to pull rations. The heads of the enslaved households would go to the granary, there, or perhaps to the cellar here to receive rations of meal and salt pork. The person who held the keys would have been Nancy Jane Reynolds as mistress of the plantation household or a designated slave. They would open up the areas and the head of households would queue up and receive their ration for that week. I'd like to point out too that there were other activities here. Perhaps that were a more happy nature, a rarity during slave life. That was the weddings. We learn from the pension application files of Letty Reynolds, widow of Jack Reynolds who was a soldier during the Civil War and of Rhoda Reynolds, widow of Miles Reynolds, a soldier in the United States Colored Troops from the Civil War, that they were married here on the plantation. Rhoda in 1848 and Letty in 1849. The officiant was Hardin Reynolds himself. In the case of Letty Reynolds, she'd been brought enslaved here from North Carolina upon the marriage of Hardin Reynolds to his wife, Nancy Jane. And her husband, as well as the husband of Letty, Jack Reynolds, were part of a very special experience. At the end of the Civil War A.D. Reynolds, the eldest son of Hardin Reynolds, upon his return, met his father and hugged him as his father, was kind of quiet and saddened when he told him that all of his men had gone, they had fled the plantation. Why? How did that happen? Further stated that 'what are we going to do for bread? Negroes are all gone. Corn is planted but no one to harvest it. What was he referring to? In April 1865, a special event for the enslaved took place. Did they know it was going to happen? Perhaps they had some inkling through news, through the post office or elsewhere. On what was known as the Grapevine Telegraph. But the raid by General George Stoneman took place in this area between April 2 and April 8, 1865. That raid liberated many Africans in his area. Some of the men who left joined the United States Colored Troops, the Union forces. Some remained in the service. Some were only with the service for another year or two until the war's end. But we learned a great deal from the applications that their widows made about life here in the plantation. We learn of birth and death, of marriage, as I mentioned before. We learn that rations were given as Hardin Reynolds recalled. Important to note here as I conclude that the records which I used to uncover much of information I have in my final report here at the Reynolds Homestead, was derived from readily available sources. For many years there had been the notion that there was nothing available on enslaved Africans. That information from their early lives could not be found. This is not true. There was a great deal of information, even more actually, available. But much of it takes a great deal of time and the will to uncover. Even though some courthouse records have been lost, there are records in the state archives and elsewhere. Now, a great deal has been digitized online where you can search for your ancestor or others who were enslaved. This is the type of search that's really worthwhile because this type of work will lead us to a better understanding as to where we are today based upon our historical past.