Home » Historical Background

Historical Background

Slavery was a part of life in Craven County from the earliest days of European settlement until the outbreak of the Civil War. Several of the first English colonists to establish homesteads in Craven were slave holders. One of Craven’s earliest known residents, Furnifold Green, owned two slaves, a “negro woman called Fillis” and a “negro man call’d Nick” (Green 211-212). In his 1711 will, Green left these two slaves to his sons, John and James, suggesting that they were considered slaves for life (Green 211-212). This designation is important in an era where many laborers were indentured, working under contract for a number of years before being freed (Spindel). William Brice, another English settler, reportedly made use of enslaved indigenous labor, a practice that became widespread enough to eventually lead to war with local tribes (La Vere 89, 189).

The practice of slavery was not limited to Craven’s handful of English settlers. When the Swiss and German founders of New Bern arrived in 1710, a number of these colonists came to own slaves as well. Baron Christoph von Graffenried, leader of the Swiss-Germans, was accompanied by two black slaves during his infamous captivity under the Tuscarora Indian tribe (La Vere 37), while John Martin Franck, another prominent Swiss-German settler, came to own over 20 slaves during his lifetime (Franck 197-200).

As there has yet to be a comprehensive survey of early Craven property records, there is no way to know how many slaves were held in the county prior to 1720, when the enslaved were first listed separately from whites in Craven’s annual tax rolls. At this point, 23% of the county’s taxables were enslaved people – an unusually high percentage for a relatively poor frontier settlement (Watson 43). Despite this fact, Craven’s enslaved population would only grow. By the 1740s, “slaves comprised 24% of the total population, averaging 1.4 bondsmen per family in the county” (Watson 43).

There are few accounts from this time period describing the nature of the Craven County slave system. We do not have any factual basis for determining what enslaved life was like or how enslaved people were treated on a day to day basis. Nonetheless, scholars have long asserted that slavery in early Craven was comparatively mild, citing evidence of enslaved residents travelling freely, buying, selling, and trading, and in some cases even living independently of their masters (Watson 158-159). The majority of this evidence is anecdotal, however, and more research is needed to determine whether or not it reflects the nature of the Craven County slave system at large.

The need for further research becomes especially exigent when considering that there is equally compelling evidence that slavery in eighteenth-century Craven County was violent and oppressive. In January of 1778, postal inspector and travel journalist Ebenezer Harris wrote that he found in Craven “a Number of Negro Children of both sexes, entirely naked” and “a Negro Woman with nothing on her but a very ragged Petticoat” (Johnston 377). He later went on to theorize that they were never afforded proper clothing (Johnston 377). The diet of the slaves was said to be equally meager (Watson 156). Unless permitted to tend garden plots or trade with local whites, Craven County enslaved people were often left wanting (Watson 156). Many people view the cruelty of slavery only in terms of overt physical violence. However, forced dependence and foreclosed agency were no less harmful and often bred a great deal of resentment and resistance on the part of the enslaved (Watson 157).

By the dawn of the American Revolution, the practice of indentured servitude had waned and slavery had become the predominant form of labor in the county (Watson 42). “Unskilled slaves [tended crops], or blazed pine trees and collected sap – which they distilled into tar – from the forests. Skilled slaves, as well as the growing free population in Craven, served as mechanics and carpenters on merchant vessels and farm buildings, as coopers making barrels to transport the tar, pitch, and turpentine, or as mill operators, sawing thousands of feet of lumber or grinding corn into meal” (Browning 13). In addition, slaves served as seamstresses, housekeepers, and fishermen (Browning 13).

Though whites largely depended on enslaved individuals for their labor, they did not always trust them to remain satisfied with their lower place in society. This sense of unease was substantiated in 1775, when an extensive slave conspiracy stretching into several adjacent counties was revealed (Watson 79). When “slaves and disorderly persons” were again accused of unlawful assembly in 1777, patrols were set up to police and surveil them (Watson 84). Composed mainly of poor whites, these patrols were given permission to punish slaves and free blacks alike for “misbehavior,” an allowance which further solidified the already developing racial hierarchy of the county (Browning 14). Historical documents from this period onwards portray a society in which white inhabitants were becoming increasingly convinced that “racial slavery was essential to their commerce and communal identities” (Browning 13). Though the overwhelming majority of whites did not own slaves, they nonetheless acquiesced to the system, being in large part convinced that [black] slaves should be confined to the lowest strata of society (Fenn, et. al. 246). Thus the full weight of a dominant white society, convinced of the slaves’ inferiority and prepared to use force to keep them in their place, was arrayed against slaves who attempted to question or alter their status (Fenn, et. al. 246).

This pattern of suppression continued well into the nineteenth century, when many of the “privileges” that Craven County’s slaves had previously enjoyed were violently curtailed. Legal records indicate that slaves were increasingly limited in their access to free travel, hunting, fishing, and trading goods (Watson 313). There were also efforts during this time to prohibit slaves from interacting with free people of color, a series of measures that were intended to stem rising dissatisfaction among the enslaved population (Browning 14-15).

In addition to white anxieties regarding insurrection, nineteenth-century slave life in Craven was shaped by several other statewide and south-wide trends. First among these was the expansion of slavery into the American Southwest. Sparked by the invention of the cotton gin, this phenomenon encouraged the mass migration and sale of slaves throughout the state, shattering countless enslaved families (Jewett and Allen 192). Over 140,000 slaves were sold or otherwise transported out of North Carolina at this time (Jewett and Allen 192). In Craven, slave traders such as Ansley Davis and John Gildersleeve  advertised in local newspapers looking to purchase slaves for the southwestern market, while many slaveholding families emigrated with their slaves to states such as Missouri, Alabama, and Florida (Davis 3; Gildersleeve 2; Watson 311). This outmigration, combined with rising slave prices, caused ownership throughout the county to grow more consolidated, with wealthy planters increasing their holdings while smaller farmers were ultimately priced out (Watson 311). By 1860, slave ownership had reached record lows (Watson 311). At the same time, more slaves than ever resided on large farms and plantations (see fig. 9).

Life for Craven’s nineteenth century slaves is significantly better documented than that of their eighteenth-century predecessors. This is due in large part to the WPA Slave Narratives Project, a Depression-era initiative that set out to recover the testimonies of formerly enslaved individuals living throughout the United States. Craven County is the subject of three interview,; those of Martha Allen, Harriet Rogers, and Alex Huggins. In addition, there is the testimony of William Henry Singleton, author of Recollections of My Slavery Days, a 1922 account of Singleton’s time on plantations throughout the South, including the place of his birth in Craven County.

These accounts of antebellum enslaved life are extremely important. They are the only testimonies regarding the Craven County slave system that come directly from those who experienced it first-hand. Though they are few in number and subject to many critiques, their relevance in this respect cannot be overstated.

The narratives of Martha Allen, Hattie Rogers, Alex Huggins, and William Henry Singleton present a complex and somewhat conflicting picture of the Craven County slave system. For example, Huggins explained to his interviewer that “nobody was bein’ mean to me. No, I was’nt bein’ whipped. Don’t you know all that story ’bout slaves bein’ whipped is all BUNK” (Huggins 450). As “val’able prope’ty,” Huggins maintained that he and his family were treated well by their master (Huggins 450).  Huggins would later go on to say that he “heard so much talk ’bout freedom…[he] jus’ wanted to try it” (Huggins 450). It was this desire to explore what a life of freedom could offer that inspired him to run away from his master, rather than any ill treatment.

On the opposite end of the spectrum lies the testimony of Martha Allen, who said that her “mammy belonged ter Tom Edward Gaskin an’ she wuzn’t half fed” (Allen 14). In describing daily life on her home plantation, she stated that “de cook nussed de babies while she cooked, so dat de mammies could wuck in de fiel’s, an’ all de mammies done wuz stick de babies in at de kitchen do’ on dere way ter de fiel’s. I’se hyard mammy say dat dey went ter wuck widout breakfast, an’ dat when she put her baby in de kitchen she’d go by de slop bucket an’ drink de slops from a long handled gourd” (Allen 14). On the Gaskin plantation, said Allen, “de slave driver wuz bad as he could be, an’ de slaves got awful beatin’s” (Allen 14). Gaskin’s enslaved women were also subject to more intimate forms of brutality. When Allen’s mother, Harriet, denied her young master’s advances, “he chunk[ed] a lightwood knot an’ [hit] her on de haid wid it” (Allen 14).

Sexual exploitation was also described by Hattie Rogers and William Henry Singleton. In their interviews, both identified their fathers as close relatives of their masters. Hattie Rogers provided the following information to her interviewer: “I called my father Marse Levin. We belonged to Allen Eubanks of New Bern, N.C. and his sister’s son was my father. Marster didn’t care who our fathers was jest so the women had children” (Rogers 227). Rogers’ mother was just 15 at the time of her birth (Rogers 227). Similarly, William Henry Singleton’s “mother was a colored woman but [his] father was the brother of [his] master. [He] was sold because there had been trouble between [his] master and his [master’s] brother over [him] and as [his] presence on the plantation was continually reminding them of something they wanted to forget [his] master sold [him] to get [him] out of the way” (Singleton 1- 4). Singleton was four years old at the time of his sale (Singleton 1).

Despite these testimonies, scholars insist that slavery in Craven County remained mild throughout the antebellum period. For example, historian Alan D. Watson asserts that antebellum slaves “manifested a freedom of action…that almost belied their status” (312).  In A History of New Bern and Craven County, Watson writes that “although worked long and arduously on the farms,” the treatment of enslaved people was overwhelmingly lenient (312-313). In the text, he insists that Craven’s enslaved population rarely faced punishment, even for engaging in activities that were prohibited to them (Watson 313). In Watson’s view, this behavior was allowed because many slave owners considered their slaves members of the family, and respected (to an extent) their autonomy (43, 312-313).

The first-hand accounts of Allen, Rogers, Huggins, and Singleton stand in direct counterpoint to this narrative. Despite their differences, they universally portray the Craven County slave system as an institution in which enslaved people were treated as property rather than people. Their stories confirm that even when treated leniently, enslaved people were never truly able to overcome their chattel status. In antebellum Craven, enslaved people’s lives were always dependent upon the will of their masters, who could at any time and without consequence subject them to neglectful or even violent treatment. It is imperative that we accept and understand the inherent cruelty of this system. For Craven County researchers, this means acknowledging the limitations of the current narrative and beginning to interrogate our assumptions about antebellum slavery. What was slavery really like in the years before the Civil War? Where might we look for evidence, and what might this evidence mean for our understanding of the Craven County slave system at large?

Much of the enslaved experience is ultimately unknowable. We will never understand what it felt like to live as a slave any more than we can understand what it was like to live as a yeoman farmer or a wealthy plantation owner. However, the circumstances of enslavement – how slaves were housed and worked, the structure of their communities, the ways in which they were commodified – can and should be researched. This information is indispensable in helping to contextualize historical events, long-term trends, and current attitudes. In Craven County it is also necessary to balance an otherwise biased narrative. The systematic omission and minimization of slavery in Craven County scholarship must be addressed, not only because it is generative in an academic sense, but also because it is one of many steps in dismantling a centuries-old legacy of racial inequality.

Beyond the Vale looks to the historic record to assist in this effort. Specifically, the project explores how historical population data can be collected and organized for increased usability in antebellum enslaved research. This data, which includes information from the United States Federal Census and county marriage records, is widely available and has been relatively well-preserved. However, it is rarely used to its full potential for research on enslaved populations. This is because population data concerning the enslaved is often separated out and analyzed on its own. Removed from its context, this data is much less useful, especially in the identification of large-scale trends and patterns. Beyond the Vale explores how such difficulties can be mitigated by rethinking the ways that historical population data is structured and used together.

Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message
Skip to toolbar