Enslaved Life at Fairfield Plantation

As at most colonial plantations, generations of the Burwell family can attribute their success as planters and merchants to the exploitation of slave labor; between the late 17th century and the end of the Civil War, hundreds of people were enslaved at Fairfield Plantation. The exact numbers of enslaved individuals and their names are not well documented in historical records, yet we know that their numbers greatly exceeded the number of individuals of European descent. At the height of the Burwell family's wealth and landholdings, there were approximately 140 enslaved individuals. By the end of the 18th century, overwhelming debts forced the Burwell family to sell many slaves to plantations to the west and south as a way to increase cash flow and pay down mounting debts. A few neighboring plantations purchased slaves from the Burwell family, increasing the likelihood that some enslaved individuals stayed in the area even after being sold.

These enslaved individuals fulfilled a multitude of roles including carpentry, farming, domestic work, and blacksmithing, ensuring the plantation's success and smooth operation. Undeniably, control played a major role in the lives of the enslaved individuals yet they were not without agency. The elite merchant-planters and enslaved Africans existed within distinct spaces of power but despite this, they shared a single landscape. This shared landscape was altered by and for both the enslaved individuals and the merchant landowners alike. These alterations resulted in a diverse material record that tells a story of resilience, identity, control, and ingenuity.

This exhibit aims to tell the story of the everyday existence of enslaved individuals and the intersection between their personal lives and the labor imposed upon them at Fairfield Plantation. Each artifact is subject to individual interpretation and the interpretive information available is what has been extrapolated with the knowledge we have available at this time. However, as we continue to learn more about the lives of the individuals enslaved at Fairfield Plantation through ongoing archaeological excavations, we are frequently adjusting our interpretations while continually seeking to learn more about these individuals.

We hope that by looking at these artifacts and their current interpretations you are able to learn about these artifacts through a new and unique lens. The stories and lessons we can learn from these artifacts reveal the perseverance and resilience of human nature amidst a struggle for survival.

Collection Artifact Types