Saturday, March 28, 2009

My Visit to Historic Stagville

Last Thursday I ventured south from Petersburg on I-85 to visit some family in the Raleigh-Durham area. Before leaving I had decided that I would take some time and visit Historic Stagville on the way down, and I am certainly glad I did. I was politely welcomed to the site and was led on an interesting and educational hour-long tour by site manager Frachele Scott.

Stagville is now a North Carolina state historic site, but in the late 18th century and up through the Civil War it was a prosperous plantation. In fact by 1860, the Bennehan and Cameron families owned around 900 slaves and almost 30,000 acres that stretched into three North Carolina counties. Unlike Deep South plantations that focused on cotton, Stagville grew tobacco and grain crops such as corn, oats, and wheat.

Stagville was first started by Virginian Richard Bennehan in the late 1700s. The Bennehan House is pictured above. The section on the right was built in 1787, and then was expanded in 1799. The Bennehan's daughter, Rebecca married local lawyer Duncan Cameron and they had a son, Paul. Paul Cameron ran the plantation until the Civil War.

Through the years the Bennehans and Camerons enlarged their slave labor force through both natural increase and the purchase of additional workers. Evidence of slave life is still visible at Historic Stagville. At Horton Grove, the field slave quarters, several of the unique buildings that housed slaves are still in existence. These quarters are unlike others I have seen and read about. They are two story structures that are divided into four family apartments; two on the bottom floor and two on the top. The buildings are frame board and baton siding but have brick interior instead of exterior walls. These brick interior walls kept the interiors warmer in winter by fireplace heat, and cooler in the summer, they also helped keep out small pests. The bricks in the walls and chimneys were made and fired there on the plantation. A number of bricks in one original surviving chimney has finger and hand marks where slaves pulled the still soft bricks out of the brick molds. Archeology digs have produced evidence as well. At one site an African cowrie shell was found. And two divining rods were found in the wall of one of the slave quarters.

Another amazing example of the plantation's architecture is the Great Barn, which is believed to be the largest agriculture related structure in North Carolina in 1860. The hand-hewed beams and the enormity of the structure is a wonder. The engineering is said to resemble that of traditional ship building, and is thought to possibly have been designed by the slaves themselves.

One story that I read in the visitor's center illustrated the number of slaves at Stagville. One former slave interviewed years later said that master Paul Cameron would see slaves walking from one section of Stagville to another and ask, "Who do you belong to?" The former bondsman would say, "We belong to Master Paul," and Cameron would nod in acknowledgement and occasionally throw them some change. Cameron had so many slaves he didn't recognize them individually. The changes wrought by the Civil War made Stagville a different place. Some slaves stayed on and worked as sharecroppers through Reconstruction and beyond, while others sought opportunities elsewhere.

The Ligget and Myers Tobacco Company bought much of the land in 1954 after the last Cameron heir sold their land. In 1971 the Liggett Group gave 70 acres to North Carolina to preserve. Historic Stageville opened in 1977 and has been preserving this historic gem since. If you find yourself in the Raleigh-Durham area I highly encourage you to stop and learn a little North Carolina history. Thanks again to Ms. Scott for the wonderful tour of the grounds.

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