“The aspect of North Carolina with regard to slavery, is, in some respects, less lamentable than that of Virginia. There is not only less bigotry upon the subject, and more freedom of conversation, but I saw here, in the institution, more of patriarchal character than in any other State. […] One is forced often to question, [however], in viewing slavery in this aspect, whether humanity and the accumulation of wealth, the prosperity of the master, and the happiness and improvement of the subject, are not in some degree incompatible.”
Frederick Law Olmstead, 1856
“Marsa: that’s what she called him, so that’s what I’ll call him. He used to sell the women when they couldn’t have any more children. Grandma said that. He’d put them up on the block and they’d get sent away to another family. That’s what happened to grandma’s mother, Isariah. When they get the women, they matched them up so they could have children with the men. Marsa, he took Isariah for himself. But when she couldn’t have no more children, they put her on the block just the same. You didn’t get to see no one again after that.”
Family Oral History, 2009
Beyond the Vale grew out of an assignment I received in 2009 as an undergraduate at the University of Delaware. As part of an introductory course in Women’s Studies I was asked to create a matrilineal family tree. In completing this project, I discovered an ancestor named Isariah Wood, my third great grandmother. Born in the mid-1840s, Isariah was enslaved in Craven County, North Carolina for much of her early life.
Craven County is one of the most historically prominent places in North Carolina. Located on the banks of the Pamlico Sound, it is home to some of the earliest European settlements in the state. Its capital city, New Bern, served as the seat of government from about 1740 to 1792, and long stood as the state’s largest port city. New Bern’s economic success lasted well into the nineteenth century, making Craven one of the wealthiest counties in the region. This reality was largely made possible through the labor of enslaved people like Isariah.
After becoming aware of my ancestor’s existence, I immediately set out to learn more about her. I was especially interested in her time as a slave. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my initial research revealed little about this part of her life. Enslaved people are notoriously difficult to trace through the historic record. Few official sources discuss the details of their lives, and even fewer mention them by name. Isariah was no exception. In light of these difficulties, I found myself growing increasingly curious about the circumstances of her enslavement. Was she held on a large plantation or on a small farm? What kind of housing did she have access to? What kinds of tasks was she assigned? What did her community look like, and where did she fit within it?
It was not until I started classes at CUNY Graduate Center that I began to pursue these questions in earnest. Many of my projects were dedicated to exploring Craven County’s history, including its legacy of slavery. In the absence of specific information about Isariah, I knew that this was my best chance to learn more about her world. Unfortunately, while completing these projects I found the literature on Craven County’s enslaved community to be extremely limited. Indeed, in comparison to states such as Virginia and South Carolina, very little has been written about North Carolina slavery at all.
Local heritage narratives often portray North Carolina as “a vale of humility,” an idyllic space in which Southern elitism never truly took hold (Hovis 1-2). As a result, North Carolina’s investment in the slave system, an institution deeply associated with wealth and power, has been significantly downplayed (Hovis 96). While it is true that North Carolina never cultivated the kind of rich plantation economy that necessitated extensive slave holdings, enslaved individuals nonetheless made up a significant proportion of the state’s pre-Civil War population (Walbert). By 1860 this proportion had risen above one third, exceeding that of plantation-heavy states such as Virginia, Arkansas, and Missouri (“Results of the 1860 Census”). Despite this fact, it is only recently that slavery has begun to feature prominently in North Carolina state scholarship.
In places like Craven County, the neglect of slavery in local scholarship has produced a very one-sided view of life within the institution. While county historians acknowledge that enslaved people sometimes had difficult experiences they often stop short of describing the true horror of the system. In heritage and popular historical contexts it is common for slavery to receive only a passing mention. In more broad-scale histories, such as Alan D. Watson’s A History of New Bern and Craven County, Craven’s limited slave holdings and “lenient” slave codes are discussed in detail, while the day to day deprivations of enslaved life are all but ignored. Direct testimonies from individuals who were formerly held as slaves provide a more complex picture of the Craven County slave system. However, these testimonies are rarely addressed by local scholars. When they are addressed they are examined selectively, with only the more positive aspects of the narratives being discussed.
There is no way to know how each enslaved person experienced life within the Craven County slave system. However, there are a variety of resources that can tell local researchers more about the circumstances of their enslavement. These resources can help researchers to gain new perspectives on daily facets of enslaved life, such as work and housing, as well as major life events, such as birth, marriage, and sale. This information is important if we are to generate a more comprehensive understanding of North Carolina state history and culture.
Within the last several years resources on Craven County history have become more accessible. Websites such as FamilySearch.org and EastCarolinaRoots.com provide census and similar forms of population data free of charge, while the local library hosts a digital collection of vital, probate, and other historical records. These types of documents often contain valuable information regarding enslaved people. However, that information is almost always spread throughout a given record set. This makes it very difficult for researchers to locate, compile, and utilize historical documents in the study of Craven County slavery. For instance, the 1860 Federal Census used in this paper contains information about hundreds of enslaved individuals, including their day to day tasks, housing situations and community demographics. However, this information is spread throughout several separate sections, each of which must be searched separately. This makes trends and patterns especially hard to identify.
Beyond the Vale acknowledges these issues and seeks to address them. First, the project draws attention to the ways in which the current historical narrative of enslaved life in Craven County has been left incomplete. By exploring how slavery in Craven has been consistently downplayed or ignored, it strives to emphasize the need for more in-depth research of North Carolina’s enslaved past. For this reason, Beyond the Vale focuses heavily upon the testimonies of former slaves. Though few in number, these testimonies provide some of the most compelling evidence of the narrative’s inherent flaws.
The second goal of the project is to show how such flaws can be corrected via the historic record. More specifically, Beyond the Vale presents one methodology by which historical information can be processed in order to make it more usable for enslaved research. For this project I employed the 1860 Federal Census, a rich source of enslaved population data. Like most resources concerning slavery, the census contains data that is helpful but highly fragmented. This project seeks to identify a method by which such data on enslaved individuals can be brought together in a more useable format. Beyond the Vale’s database and powerful visualizations are the result of these efforts.