Shirley Plantation

Historical Significance

Enslaved labor was essential to the functioning of Shirley Plantation. African Americans tended the fields, harvested the crops, maintained the house, cooked the meals, and provided the majority of skilled labor, including carpentry, masonry, and blacksmithing.

The first record of servants at Shirley Plantation dates to 1616 when John Rolfe documented that Captain Isaac Madison commanded 25 indentured, white men in planting and curing tobacco. The first mention of African indentured servants at Shirley Plantation came in 1622, when the records show that eleven men including "One Negar," had died since April. Over the next century, Virginia was transformed from a "society with slaves" into a "slave society."

In 1783, the personal property tax of Charles City County listed 193 enslaved individuals at Shirley belonging to Charles Carter, the largest number of slaves ever listed as being owned at Shirley. Four years later, the Virginia personal property tax listed Charles as owning 35,108 acres of property and 785 slaves distributed throughout ten counties making him the largest slave-owner in Virginia at the time. Of the 785 slaves that Charles owned, 26%, or 201 slaves were in Charles City and 134 of the 201 were working at Shirley. Although Charles was Virginia's largest slave-owner at the time, Robert, his son and heir, was an outspoken critic of the institution of slavery.

Robert Carter once wrote to his children, "[f]rom the earliest point in time when I could distinguish right from wrong, I conceived a great distaste for the slave trade and all its barbarous consequences." Although Robert died before he could inherit Shirley, he stipulated in his will that the slaves were to remain on the plantation and that slave families were not to be separated when Shirley was divided between his four children. Robert's eldest son and inheritor, Hill Carter, did not free Shirley's slaves. He did, however, practice more humane ownership.

Much of the documentary evidence of slavery at Shirley came from Hill Carter, who began keeping records when he officially inherited Shirley at the age of 20 in 1816. His meticulous journals record doctor's visits, weddings, funerals, runaways, shoes lists, and construction of quarters for all of his slaves. These original receipts remain in the Shirley Plantation archives today.

While Hill Carter was master of Shirley, the number of enslaved persons on the plantation ranged from 98 in 1830 to 193 in 1860. A cholera epidemic in 1849 killed 30 individuals. Hill Carter recorded that the first to die was Harry Tanner, who passed away within the first twenty-four hours. Receipts indicate Hill spent $725 dollars on doctor bills, medicine, and brandy. Confederate tax records of 1862 show that Hill Carter owned 153 slaves at Shirley Plantation.

Mary Braxton Randolph Carter, Hill's wife, was raised with a strong antipathy for the institution of slavery. She spent long hours at the slave quarters, caring for the ill and teaching the slaves how to read, which was an illegal practice in Virginia and throughout the South. She even wrote that she would rather scrub floors than be forced "to hold 134 souls in thrall." In 1850, Hill recorded that his wife sponsored 40 colored children for baptisms at one time at Shirley.

The Civil War brought about many changes at Shirley. From 1860 to 1865, 80 enslaved men fled the plantation in hope of gaining freedom with the Union armies. In 1862, 18 enslaved individuals ran away while the Union army occupied the property. Hill Carter noted in 1863 that when the Union gunboats came up the James River, 15 slaves left with them. Many of the enslaved men who had left with the Union army in 1862 returned to Shirley in 1864 to collect their wives. This action in 1864 was the last of the mass exodus by the slaves at Shirley because in 1865 the 13th Amendment was ratified, and slavery was abolished. The former slaves who remained at Shirley after abolition became hired workers, known as tenant farmers.

Housing was provided for enslaved individuals and differed according to their primary responsibility. House servants lived on the upper floors of the Kitchen and Laundry buildings as did the staff of those dependencies. Field hands lived in the "Great Quarters" up to a mile away from the Great House. The "Great Quarters," as they were called, were documented during an archaeological field school held at Shirley from 1979 to 1980, as well as a 2005 archaeological excavation and artifact recovery. Both archaeological and documentary records reveal that the 19th century enslaved individuals at Shirley lived primarily within family households. Their dwellings were wood frame cabins, 20 by 40 feet, with a double chimney that provided interior space to serve two households. An excavation of the North Yard revealed much new evidence of African servants or slaves as early as the late 17th century, including such items as cowrie shells, clay pipes, and glass bottles. This dig also uncovered what was recorded as a spirit protection bowl believed to be of African origin. 

Physical Description

There is only one surviving mid-nineteenth-century slave house at Shirley Plantation. Subsequently, the building was transformed from a two-family slave dwelling to a single-family tenant house, and finally, to a hay barn. The slave house and land is no longer part of Shirley Plantation. The house is visible from the road and on private property; it is not open to the public.

Geographical and Contact Information

501 Shirley Plantation Road
Charles City, Virginia
23030
Phone: 804-829-5121/800-232-1613
Fax: 804-829-6322

Cite this Page:

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, “Shirley Plantation,” African American Historic Sites Database, accessed August 22, 2017, http://aahistoricsitesva.org/items/show/387.

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