About the Project

The generic image of the quarters of enslaved workers living in the American South is of small cabins aligned in rickety rows along the margins of plantation society. Like the even more well-known picture of grand plantation houses that dominates both popular and scholarly treatments of the antebellum South, this image of slave houses has taken on the status of historical icon. The problem with this vision is not that it is inaccurate as much as it is incomplete, biased toward conditions that existed on only a small percentage of elite plantations of the type most often found in the Deep South during the decades preceding the Civil War. Ongoing scholarly research indicates that the nature of the housing for slaves over the preceding 200 years was considerably more diverse. Single-family cabins were only one among a variety of quartering schemes that were available, and large plantations often incorporated a mixture of options. Furthermore, the size, arrangement, and type of construction of quarters changed over time, reflecting local conditions as well as regional social and demographic trends. Finally, although most of the region's slaves performed as agriculturists living and working on plantations and farms, a substantial number of individuals lived in urban environments, where they were most often quartered in mixed use spaces, such as kitchens, dairies, laundries, and the like.

Over the last 25 years archaeologists and historians have combined to compile a growing if still limited corpus of data pertaining to Chesapeake slave housing. Several pioneering studies resulting from work carried out in the late 1970s and 1980s (cf. Herman 1984, McDaniel 1982, Upton 1982 and 1988, Vlach 1991, Wells 1987) have provided the basis for the current interpretation of the characteristics of slave housing in the region. More recent studies have attempted to contextualize this information within a larger portrayal of slave life in the 18th-century Chesapeake (cf. Chappell and Patrick 1991, Kulikoff 1986, Morgan 1998, Sobel 1989, Vlach 1993). Archaeologists (cf. Agbe-Davies 1999, Franklin 1997, Heath 1999, Kelso 1984 and 1997, Neiman 1998, Pogue and White 1991, Reinhart 1987) have added significantly to the scant body of information relating to 17th and 18th-century slave quarters and thus have provided crucial temporal breadth and depth to help expand the interpretation. Most recently, Sanford (2005) has analyzed the evidence for slave housing included in fire insurance policies underwritten by the Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia for the period 1796 to 1865, which has enriched our understanding of housing conditions for slaves living primarily in urban contexts.

Taken together, these investigations clearly indicate a diversity of housing that ranged from "available" spaces like attics, cellars, and hidden corners of main dwelling houses, to equally unspecified parts of ancillary buildings near owners' houses and "mixed use" structures like kitchens that were outfitted with a room or rooms set aside for slaves, to independent structures often located at some distance from the main complex. While all of these spaces were used as domiciles, the term "quarter" was generally applied to buildings (either singly or in a group) that were specifically devoted to housing slaves, and which were further distinguished by their location and the tasks the inhabitants were required to perform. Since slaves were almost uniformly lodged near their workplaces, house servants, craftsmen, and other skilled individuals usually lived near their owner's main dwelling -- in available spaces, in "quarters", or in both – and which was collectively referred to in the 18th-century as the "home house quarter." Agricultural workers normally lived some distance away in proximity to the fields where they labored, usually in a cluster of buildings referred to as "farm quarters" (Chappell and Patrick 1991).

Mount Vernon, the 18th-century home of George Washington, in Fairfax County, serves as a well documented example of the diversity of types of housing for slaves to be found at an elite Virginia plantation. These ranged from a brick building that held as many as 60 individuals in barracks-style conditions to small wooden cabins that might shelter only a half-dozen occupants. The brick quarter was located at the Mansion House Farm – the home farm where the Washington family lived and where the resident slaves performed duties as house servants and as craftspeople in support of the entire plantation. The various outbuildings there also served as domiciles, and visitors' accounts indicate that cabins supplemented the shelter provided by the brick quarter. In addition, an extremely well-appointed, large and expensive structure – the "Servants Hall" – was built at the Mansion House Farm to provide temporary quarters for servants, black and white, that accompanied visitors to the plantation. In contrast, housing at the four outlying farms where the field hands lived consisted exclusively of log buildings, clustered together near houses that accommodated the overseers (Pogue 2002).

While this snap shot of the range of slave housing at Mount Vernon portrays conditions at a specific elite plantation, and even may be representative of other plantations of that size and scale for a given time period (the second half of the 18th century) and geographical area (Tidewater Virginia), it fails to take into account the trajectory of changes to the housing system that occurred both before and afterward. It is this variation, that occurred over time as well as synchronically, that remains to be fully understood, and which will be addressed in this project. Nevertheless, sufficient information exists to allow an initial interpretation of the 250-year trajectory of the development of broader social conditions of slavery in the Chesapeake, and of their material culture correlates, that has been generally accepted and which will provide the analytical framework for this investigation.

As the 17th century progressed, Chesapeake planters increasingly turned to unfree Africans as substitutes for the decreasing availability of indentured Englishmen willing to migrate to the New World to serve as the labor force required to successfully carry out tobacco monoculture. With the first major influx of Africans to America in the mid-17th century, documentary references first appear relating to the "quartering" of Africans/Negroes on individual plantations. Given the small numbers involved, it is unlikely, however, that many of these individuals were domiciled in separate "purpose built" quarters before the last quarter of the century. With the rapid growth of the slave population that occurred over the course of the century, coming as a result of increased migration and natural increase, separate quarters became the norm at most plantations. In 1686 the French traveler, Durand de Dauphine, noted this recent development in describing the type of housing that he observed: "Whatever their rank … they build only two rooms with closets on the ground floor, & two rooms in the attic above; but they build several like this, according to their means. They also build a separate kitchen, a separate house for the Christian slaves, one for the negro slaves, & several to dry the tobacco" (Upton 1982).

The violent nature of the slave trade meant that individuals were likely to be separated from their families upon their arrival in America and, along with the desire of owners to keep close control over their workers, this led to the practice of housing large numbers of unrelated individuals together (Upton 1982). Archaeological evidence for a quarter that has been uncovered in James City County, and which is believed to date to circa 1690, has been interpreted to have housed a large group of unrelated individuals. The relatively small structure (26 ft. by 16 ft.) was supported by 10 earthfast posts and included a single interior chimney that probably was serviced by a wooden chimney. As such, it is typical of the type of impermanent construction in use throughout the region at this time. Of particular interest in this context is the discovery of 15 features within the building footprint that are interpreted as sub-floor storage pits. Such features have been found with regularity associated with the houses of enslaved laborers, and the remarkable number of pits in this case suggests that a large number of unrelated individuals were housed there (Fesler 2003). See below for more discussion of the significance of these pits.

Over the span of the first half of the 18th century, Chesapeake farmers increasingly turned to wheat rather than tobacco as their cash crop. This fostered a more stable agricultural system, and rewarded a greater investment in buildings and horse-drawn implements, in turn allowing slave owners to expand the number of acres under cultivation because wheat was a much less labor intensive crop than tobacco. By the time of the American Revolution the shift away from tobacco to a mixed-farming regime with wheat as the major crop was well underway. The shift altered the experience of enslaved and free people in fundamental ways that we are just beginning to understand (Neiman 2003).

Neiman (1998 and 2003) has analyzed the incidence and characteristics of the sub-floor pits that have been found at numerous sites of slave houses in the region. His sample consists of evidence from 45 slave houses that together were occupied from the beginning of the 18th century to the Civil War. In addition to yielding a wealth of artifacts that have been instrumental in interpreting the daily activities of the slaves, the pits exhibit patterns in frequency that have been related to the broader trajectory of change regarding the living arrangements of the inhabitants of the quarters. Both at Monticello and in the region as a whole, the frequency of sub-floor pits decreases over time, as does the average size of the pits themselves, and they either disappear or become quite rare after circa 1800. Since the pits are believed to have served as personal storage spaces that would have been needed when the occupants of the quarters were unrelated, this supports the finding that by the early 19th century at Monticello (and possibly earlier elsewhere) slaves were able to live in smaller, probably family-based, groups over whose membership they had greater control.

The enforced importation of Africans to the Chesapeake slowed after 1750 and then effectively ended by the time of the Revolution. The relatively closed Chesapeake system fostered the development of families and extended kin-based social support groups. As wheat cultivation became dominant throughout the region at this same time, the different labor needs encouraged slave owners to divide their work force into smaller groups, and to give more responsibility to the slaves themselves. Acceding to slaves' wishes for greater control over their living conditions may have served as a positive reward in return for these greater expectations (Neiman 2003).

As evidenced by Neiman's (1998) analysis of sub-floor pits, intensive investigation of what seem to be unimportant details may have an unanticipated interpretive payoff. Overall building size, and in particular the dimensions of floor space, is another characteristic that seems to have multiple levels of significance. It is clear that quarters came in different formats – single cell, duplex (two rooms), multiple rooms, and even in rare instances, multiple stories – and sizes that related to the number and occupations of the inhabitants, as well as their family status. All of these formats could have been used at any one time, and it was even possible to find all of these building types installed at an elite plantation such as Mount Vernon. But as Neiman (1998, 3003) has proposed, over time single cell and duplex slave cabins seem to have come to predominate. Furthermore, the data from Monticello and elsewhere suggests that the total amount of space made available to slaves for their domestic quarters decreased over time, which may indicate that on average the number of individuals housed there declined as well. At present the interpretation that house size in the late 18th century correlated with the number of occupants is an hypothesis that begs to be tested more fully by expanding the data set.

As for the structures themselves, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the vast majority of slave quarters undoubtedly were constructed in the same way as most other Chesapeake buildings -- even including the homes of their masters -- with a relatively slight wooden frame enclosed by clapboarded sides and a roof, supported by posts set directly into the ground, and heated by one or two fireplaces with wooden chimneys. There seems no doubt that most of this housing was poorly built, described by Edward Kimber in 1736 as "Huts or Hovels," and there was little expectation that they would last for more than a few decades. By the third quarter of the 18th century, however, logs had become the dominant building material for slave houses on outlying quarters, as it was for a variety of other service buildings and for housing for many freed blacks and whites as well. Quarters located near the main house on elite plantations were likely to have been built of more durable materials and often echoed the generally more elaborate architectural design schemes adopted there. Thus, home house quarters tended to be sturdy frame structures set on brick foundations and with brick chimneys, or even built entirely of brick, as at Mount Vernon (Upton 1982, Pogue 2002).

A variety of scholars (among them Wells 1987, Upton 1982, and Vlach 1993) have pointed out that the historian must be cautious in using information about plantation architecture that has been readily assumed and accepted. This project takes this warning as a point of departure, and will attempt to test many of those assumptions while at the same time expanding the data base upon which to base new interpretations. We expect that new questions will be raised even as we attempt to address old ones. Some of the research questions that this project is aimed at exploring are as follows:

  • Are there regional patterns in the character (size, method of construction, format) of Virginia slave quarters; if so, what explains those differences? How did they change over time?
  • Does the average size of slave quarters throughout Virginia decrease over time; are there variations to this overall trend that are related to specific factors like the economic condition of specific plantations and geographical distribution?
  • When does log construction become the dominant type of building material for slave quarters? Does this transition occur at the same time throughout the state?
  • How representative are standing slave houses? Are these confined to upscale, antebellum plantations that made a greater investment in more durable construction methods?
  • What structural changes were made to quarters? How do those changes relate to broader temporal trends or to the impact of emancipation?
  • Is it possible to identify alterations to these buildings during slavery, and to understand the reasons?
SelectionFile type iconFile nameDescriptionSizeRevisionTimeUser