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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an item in the
Tennessee Historical Magazine

published by the
Tennessee Historical Society

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Vol. V
Management of Negroes upon Southern Estates
— An Echo of Slave Days in the Southland.

(The Tennessee Historical Society has lately been presented with two interesting volumes dealing largely with industrial, economic and social conditions in the South some seventy-five years ago, viz.:

Industrial Resources of the Southwest, by J. D. B. DeBow, Professor of Political Economy in the University of Louisiana.

Few remain that participated in the institution of slavery, and such as survive remember those days from the standpoint of childhood. The immediate problems of that day, of course, passed away with the industrial situation of which they were a part, nevertheless the present generation needs to study a number of phases of modern life in the South in the perspective of this past. In the light of this interest two articles appearing in the above volumes are reproduced representing views of the larger and smaller slave-holder in reference to proper care of those whom they regarded as providentially placed under them.— Ed.)


Some very sensible and practical writer in the March number of The Review, under the "Agricultural Department," has given us an article upon the management of negroes,​a which entitles him to the gratitude of the planting community, not only for the sound and useful information it contains, but because it has opened up this subject, to be thought of, written about, and improved upon, until the comforts of our black population shall be greatly increased, and their services become more profitable to their owners. Surely there is no subject which demands of the planter more careful consideration than the proper treatment of his slaves, by whose labor he lives, and for whose conduct and happiness he is responsible in the eyes of God. We very often find planters comparing notes and making suggestions as to the most profitable modes of tilling the soil, erecting gates, fences, farm-houses, machinery, and, indeed, everything else conducive to their comfort and prosperity; but how seldom do we find men comparing notes as to their modes of feeding, clothing, nursing, working and taking care of those human beings intrusted to our charge. . . .

From the vast amount of experience in the management of slaves, can we not deduce some general, practicable rules for their government, that would add to the happiness of both master and servant? I know of no other mode of arriving at this great desideratum than for planters to give to the public their rules for feeding, clothing, housing and working their slaves, and of taking care of them when sick, together with their plantation discipline. In this way we shall be continually  p98 learning something new upon this vitally interesting question, filled, as it is, with great responsibilities; and while our slaves will be made happier, our profits from their labor will be greater, and our consciences be made easier.

I would gladly avail myself of the privilege of contributing my mite to the accomplishment of this end, by giving my own system of management, not because there is anything novel in it — that it is better, or differs essentially from that of most of my neighbors — but because it may meet the eye of some man of enlarged experience, who will necessarily detect its faults, and who may be induced to suggest the proper corrections, and for which I should feel profoundly grateful.

Housing — The "Quarter."

To begin, then, I send you my plantation rules, that are printed in the plantation book, which constitute a part of the contract made in the employment of the overseer, and which are observed, so far as my constant and vigilant superintendence can enforce them. My first care has been to select a proper place for my "quarter," well protected by the shade of forest trees, sufficiently thinned out to admit a free circulation of air, so situated as to be free from the impurities of stagnant water,​b and to erect comfortable houses for my negroes. Planters do not always reflect that there is more sickness, and consequently greater loss of life, from the decaying logs of negro houses, open floors, leaky roofs, and crowded rooms, than all other causes combined; and if humanity will not point out the proper remedy, let self-interest for once act as a virtue, and prompt him to save the health and lives of his negroes, by at once providing comfortable quarters for them. There being upwards of 150 negroes on the plantation, I provide for them 24 houses made of hewn post oak, covered with cypress, 16 by 18, with close plank floors and good chimneys, and elevated two feet from the ground. The ground under and around the houses is swept every month, and the houses, both inside and out, whitewashed twice a year. The houses are situated in a double row from north to south, about 200 feet apart, the doors fa­cing inwards, and the houses being in a line, about 50 feet apart. At one end of the street stands the overseer's house, workshops, tool house, and wagon sheds; at the other, the grist and sawmill, with good cisterns at each end, providing an ample supply of pure water. My experience has satisfied me that spring, well and lake water are all unhealthy in this climate, and that large under­ground cisterns, keeping the water pure and cool, are greatly to be preferred. They are easily and cheaply constructed, very convenient, and save  p99 both doctors' bills and loss of life. The negroes are never permitted to sleep before the fire, either lying down or sitting up, if it can be avoided, as they are always prone to sleep with their heads to the fire, are liable to be burnt and to contract disease; but beds with ample clothing are provided for them, and in them they are made to sleep. . . .

Food and Rest.

I allow for each hand that works out four pounds of clear meat and one peck of meal per week. Their dinners are cooked for them, and carried to the field, always with vegetables, according to the season. There are two houses set apart at midday for resting, eating, and sleeping, if they desire it, and they retire to one of the weather sheds or the grove to pass this time, not being permitted to remain in the hot sun while at rest. They cook their own suppers and breakfasts, each family being provided with an oven, skillet, and sifter, and each one having a coffee-pot (and generally some coffee to put in it), with knives and forks, plates, spoons, cups, etc., of their own providing. The wood is regularly furnished them, for I hold it to be absolutely mean for a man to require a negro to work until daylight closes in and then force him to get wood, sometimes half a mile off, before he can get a fire, either to warm himself or cook his supper. Every negro has his hen-house, where he raises poultry, which he is not permitted to sell, and he cooks and eats his chickens and eggs for his evening and morning meals to suit himself besides, every family has a garden, paled in, where they raise vegetables and fruits as they take a fancy to.

Care of Children — Nursery.

A large house is provided as a nursery for the children, where all are taken at daylight, and placed under the charge of a careful and experienced woman, whose sole occupation is to attend to them, and see that they are properly fed and attended to, and, above all things, to keep them as dry and as cleanly as possible under the circumstances. The suckling women come in to nurse their children four times during the day, and it is the duty of the nurse to see that they do not perform this duty until they have become properly cool, after walking from the field. In consequence of these regulations I have never lost a child from being burnt to death or, indeed, by accidents of any description; and although I have had more than thirty born within the last five years, yet I have not lost a single one from teething, or the ordinary summer complaints so prevalent amongst the children in this climate.

 p100  Clothing and Spending Money.

I give to my negroes four full suits of clothes with two pair of shoes, every year, and to my women and girls a calico dress and two handkerchiefs extra. I do not permit them to have "truck patches" other than their gardens, or to raise anything whatever for market; but in lieu thereof I give to each head of a family and to every single negro, on Christmas day, five dollars, and send them to the county town, under the charge of the overseer or driver, to spend their money. In this way I save my mules from being killed up in summer, and my oxen in winter, by working and hauling off their crops;​c and, more than all, the negroes are prevented from acquiring habits of trading in farm produce, which invariably leads to stealing, followed by whipping, trouble to the master, and discontent on the part of the slave. I permit no spirits to be brought on the plantation or used by any negro, if I can prevent it; and a violation of this rule, if found out, is always followed by a whipping and forfeiture of the five dollars next Christmas.

Sickness — Hospital.

I have a large and comfortable hospital provided for my negroes when they are sick; to this is attached a nurse's room; and when a negro complains of being too unwell to work he is at once sent to the hospital, and put under the charge of a very experienced and careful negro woman, who administers the medicine and attends to his diet, and where they remain until they are able to work again. This woman is provided with sugar, coffee, molasses, rice, flour, and tea, and does not permit a patient to taste of meat or vegetables until he is restored to health. Many negroes relapse after the disease is broken and die, in consequence of remaining in their houses and stuffing themselves with coarse food after their appetites return, and both humanity and economy dictate that this should be prevented. From the system I have pursued I have not lost a hand since the summer of 1845 (except one that was killed by accident), nor has my physician's bill averaged fifty dollars a year, notwithstanding I live near the edge of the swamp of Big Black River, where it is thought to be very unhealthy.

I cultivate about ten acres of cotton and six acres of corn to the hand, not forgetting the little wheat patch that your correspondent speaks of, which costs but little trouble, and proves a great comfort to the negroes; and have as few sour looks and as little whipping as almost any other place of the same size.

 p101  Social and Religious Life.

I must not omit to mention that I have a good fiddler, and keep him well supplied with catgut, and I make it his duty to play for the negroes every Saturday night until twelve o'clock. They are exceedingly punctual in their attendance at the ball, while Charley's fiddle is always accompanied with Ihurod on the triangle and Sam to "pat."

I also employ a good preacher, who regularly preaches to them on the Sabbath day, and it is made the duty of every one to come up clean and decent to the place of worship. As Father Garritt regularly calls on Brother Abram (the foreman of the prayer meeting) to close the exercises, he gives out and sings his hymn with much unction, and always cocks his eye at Charley, the fiddler, as much as to say, "Old fellow, you had your time last night; now it is mine."

I would gladly learn every negro on the place to read the Bible, but for a fanaticism which, while it professes friendship to the negro, is keeping a cloud over his mental vision, and almost crushing out his hopes of salvation.1

These are some of the leading outlines of my management, so far as my negroes are concerned. That they are imperfect, and could be greatly improved, I readily admit; and it is only with the hope that I shall be able to improve them by the experience of others that I have given them to the public.

Should you come to the conclusion that these rules would be of any service when made known to others, you will please give them a place in the Review.

Rules and Regulations for the Government of a Southern Plantation.

1. There shall be a place for everything, and everything shall be kept in its place.

2. On the first days of January and July, there shall be an  p102 account taken of the number and condition of all the negroes, stock, and farming utensils of every description on the premises, and the same shall be entered in the plantation book.

3. It shall be the duty of the overseer to call upon the stock-minder once every day, to know if the cattle, sheep and hogs have been seen and counted, and to find out if any are dead, missing or lost.

4. It shall be the duty of the overseer, at least once in every week, to see and count the stock himself, and to inspect the fences, gates, and water-gaps on the plantation, and see that they are in good order.

5. The wagons, carts, and all other implements, are to be kept under the sheds, and in the houses where they belong, except when in use.

6. Each negro man will be permitted to keep his own axe, and shall have it forthcoming when required by the overseer. No other tool shall be taken or used by any negro without the permission of the overseer.

7. Humanity on the part of the overseer, and unqualified obedience on the part of the negro, are, under all circumstances, indispensable.

8. Whipping, when necessary, shall be in moderation, and never done in a passion; and the driver shall in no instance inflict punishment, except in the presence of the overseer, and when from sickness, he is unable to do it himself.

9. The overseer shall see that the negroes are properly clothed and well fed. He shall lay off a garden of at least six acres, and cultivate it as a part of his crop, and give the negroes as many vegetables as many be necessary.

10. It shall be the duty of the overseer to select a sufficient number of the women, each week, to wash for all. The clothes shall be well washed, ironed, and mended, and distribute days to the negroes on Sunday morning; when every negro is expected to wash himself, comb his head, and put on clean clothes. No washing or other labor will be tolerated on the Sabbath.

11. The negroes shall not be worked in the rain, or kept out after night, except in weighing or putting away cotton.

12. It shall be the duty of the driver, at such hours of the night as the overseer may designate, to blow his horn, and go around and see that every negro is at his proper place, and to report to the overseer any that may be absent; and it shall be the duty of the overseer, at some hour between that time and daybreak, to patrol the quarters himself, and see that every negro is where he should be.

13. The negro children are to be taken, every morning, by their mothers, and carried to the houses of the nurses; and every cabin shall be kept locked during the day.

14. Sick negroes are to receive particular attention. When they are first reported sick, they are to be examined by the overseer, and prescribed for, and put under the care of the nurse, and not put to work until the disease is broken and the patient beyond the power of a relapse.

15. When the overseer shall consider it necessary to send for a physician, he shall enter in the plantation book the number of visits, and to what negro they are made.

16. When the negro shall die, an hour shall be set apart by the overseer for his burial; and at that hour all business shall cease, and  p103 every negro on the plantation, who is able to do so, shall attend the burial.

17. The overseer shall keep a plantation book, in which he shall register the birth and name of each negro that is born; the name of each negro that dies, and specify the disease that killed him. He shall also keep in it the weights of the daily picking of each hand; the mark, number, and weight of each bale of cotton, and the time of sending the same to market; and all such occurrences, relating to the crop, the weather, and all other matters pertaining to the plantation, that he may deem advisable.

18. The overseer shall pitch the crops, and work them according to his own judgment, with the distinct understanding that a failure to make a bountiful supply of corn and meat for the use of the plantation will be considered as notice that his services will not be required for the succeeding year.

19. The negroes, teams, and tools are to be considered under the overseer's exclusive management, and are not to be interfered with by the employer, only so far as to see that the foregoing rules are strictly observed.

20. The overseer shall, under no circumstances, create an account against his employer, except in the employment of a physician, or in the purchase of medicines; but whenever anything is wanted about the plantation he shall apply to his employer for it.

21. Whenever the overseer, or his employer, shall become dissatisfied, they shall, in a frank and friendly manner, express the same, and if either party desires it, he shall have the right to settle and separate.

A Mississippi Planter.

 p104  II

The public may desire to know the age of the writer, the length of time he has been managing negroes, and how long he has tried the mode of management he recommends. It is sufficient to say I have had control of negroes in and out of the field for thirty years, and have been carrying out my present system, and improving it gradually, for twenty years. . . .

Housing for negroes should be good; each family should have a house, 16 by 18 feet in the clear, plank floor, brick chimney, shingle roof; floor elevated two feet above the earth. There should be no loft, no place to stow away anything, nutº pins to hang clothes upon. Each house should be provided with a bedstead, cotton mattress, and sufficient bedclothes for comfort for the heads of the family, and also for the young ones.

Clothing should be sufficient, but of no set quantity, as all will use or waste what is given, and may be no better clad with four suits than others with two. I know families that never give more than two suits, and their servants are always neater than others with even four.

Clothing Allowance.

My rule is to give for winter a linsey suit, one shirt of best toweling, one hat, one pair of shoes, a good blanket, costing $2 to $2.50, every other year (or I prefer, after trying three years, a comfort). In the summer, two shirts, two pair pants, and one straw hat. Several of my negroes will require two pair pants for winter, and occasionally even a third pair, depending mostly upon the material. Others require another shirt and a third pair of pants for summer. I seldom give two pair of shoes.

Food is cooked by a woman, who has the children under her charge. I do not regard it as good economy, to say nothing of any feeling, to require negroes to do any cooking after their day's labor is over.

The food is given out daily, a half pound to each hand that goes to the field, large and small, water carriers and all; bread and vegetables without stint, the latter prepared in my own garden, and dealt out to the best advantage, endeavoring to have something every day in the year. I think four pounds of clear meat is too much. I have negroes that have had only a half pound each for twenty years, and they bid fair to outlive their master, who occasionally forgets his duty, and will be a gourmand. I practice on the plan, that all of us would be better to be restrained, and that health is best subserved by not overeating.

 p105  My cook would make cotton enough to give the extra one pound. The labor in making vegetables would make another pound. I say this to show I do not dole out a half pound a day from parsimony.

Hours of Labor.

My hours of labor, commencing with pitching my crop, is from daylight until 12 A.M.; all hands then come in and remain until 2 o'clock P.M.; then back to the field until dark. Some time in May we prolong the rest three hours, and if a very hot day, even four hours. Breakfast is eaten in the field, half an hour to an hour being given, or they eat and go to work without being driven in and out, all stopping when my driver is ready.

I give all females half of every Saturday to wash and clean up, my cook washing for young men and boys through the week. The cabins are scoured once a week, swept out every day, and beds made up at noon in summer, by daylight in winter. In the winter breakfast is eaten before going to work, and dinner is carried to the hands.


I do not punish often, but I seldom let an offense pass, making a lumping settlement, and then correct for the servant's remembrance. I find it better to whip very little. Young ones being rather treacherous in their memory, pulling an ear, or a sound box, will bring everything right . . .

I have a fiddle in my quarters, and though some of my good old brethren in the church would think hard of me, yet I allow dancing; aye, I buy the fiddle and encourage it, by giving the boys occasionally a big supper.

I have no overseer, and do not manage so scientifically as those who are able to lay down rules; yet I endeavor to manage so that myself, family and negroes may take pleasure and delight in our relations.

It is not possible in my usual crude way to give my whole plans, but enough is probably said. I permit no night work, except feeding stock and weighing cotton. No work of any kind at noon, unless to clean out cabins, and bathe the children when nursing, not even washing their clothes.

Religious Services.

I require every servant to be present every Sabbath morning and Sabbath evening at family prayers. In the evening  p106 the master, or sometimes a visitor, if a professor,​2a expounds the chapter read. Thus my servants hear 100 to 200 chapters read each year anyhow. One of my servants, a professor,​2b is sometimes called on to close our exercises with prayer.

Owning but few slaves, I am probably able to do a better part by them than if they were one or two hundred. But I think I could do better if I had enough to permit me to systematize better.

I would keep a cook and a nurse. I would keep a stock feeder, whose whole duty should be to attend to stock in general, to clean out the stable, have troughs filled with feed, so that the plough hands would have nothing to do but water,​d clean down, and tie up the teams. I would build a house large enough, and use it for a dance house for the young, and those who wished to dance, as well as for prayer meeting, and for church on Sunday, making it a rule to be present myself occasionally at both, and my overseer always. I know the rebuke in store about dancing, but I cannot help it. I believe negroes will be better disposed this way than any other. I would employ a preacher for every Sabbath. One of my negroes can read the Bible, and he has prayer meeting every Sabbath at four o'clockº P.M.; all the negroes attend regularly, no compulsion being used.

I have tried faithfully to break up immorality. I have not known an oath to be sworn for a long time. I know of no quarrelling, no calling harsh names, and but little stealing.

A Small Farmer.

The Editor's Notes:

1 Among other things the Revised Code of Mississippi passed in January, 1823, intending as it was said, as matters of police and as safeguards at insurrection, provided that:

"All meetings or assemblies of slaves or free negroes or mulattoes mixing or associating with such slaves, above the number of five, at any place or public resort, or at any meeting-house or houses, in the night, or at any school or schools, for teaching them, reading or writing either in the day or night, under whatsoever pretext, shall be deemed and considered an unlawful assembly. . . . Provided, that nothing herein contained shall be so construed as to prevent the master, employee or overseer, of any slave or slaves, from giving permission in writing to his, her or their slave or slaves to go to any place or places whatever, for the purpose of religious worship; Provided, that such worship be conducted by a regularly ordained or licensed white minister, or attended by at least two discreet and reputable white persons, appointed by some regular church or religious society."

The disfavor and disapproval of this legislation by the best classes of citizens and slave holders was shown in the following election by the defeat of some of the most prominent politicians office, notedly the Hon. George Poindexter for Congress, a majority of the voters interpreting this law as substantially excluding the colored people from religious privileges.

"Mississippi as a Province, Territory and State," Claiborne, p385.

We find the same concern in the ancient world: Cato advises us to keep slaves clear of superstition (de Agricultura, 5.4), and Columella dots the i's: diviners, witches, soothsayers and the like prey on the superstitious and gullible in order to extract money from them or lead them into criminal activity (de Re Rustica, I.8.6).

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2a 2b A professing Christian.

Thayer's Notes:

a A clearly related set of rules for the Management of Negroes, yet with significant differences; published in the same "Review" (DeBow's Review) in February 1853, pp177‑178. Although February is not March, it seems to be the item referred to by the writer in the first sentence of his own rules; or it may be an editorial working by hands unknown. At any rate, the comparison will be instructive.

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b Once a standard concern of town planners and architects, that now seems to be increasingly neglected, with results occasionally reported in the newspapers. At any rate, our plantation owner here sensibly pays attention to these things, following a long tradition: among the ancient Romans, see for example the architect Vitruvius: de Architectura, I.4.5‑6 and most of chapter 6 (winds); I.4.12 (stagnant water); and the agricultural writer Columella, who may work some of his slaves in chain gangs, but still wants them healthy (de Re Rustica, I.6.3).

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c Here too the problem is identically noted by a Roman author: Columella again, R. R., I.7.6.

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d At this point the text as reprinted in the Tennessee Historical Magazine is interrupted by a line reading

A Social Building.

which seems to be the caption to an image in the original text of DeBow's Review.

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Page updated: 1 Jun 17