Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery

By John Michael Vlach | Go to book overview

NINE
Overseers' Houses

Whenever planters owned more than thirty slaves, work routines were usually supervised by overseers. The census of 1860 listed almost 38,000 men in such positions. This was an increase of almost 20,000 from the previous decade, reflecting the planter class's growing dependence on hired supervisors by the middle decades of the nineteenth century. 1 Although some overseers forged lasting associations with their employers, on the whole they tended to be highly mobile men who rarely held a position for more than a year. The short duration of their employment can be explained, to a great extent, by the nature of their work. Overseers were expected to coerce efficient, profitable labor from reluctant slave gangs while simultaneously adhering to their employers' warnings not to abuse the slaves by pushing them too hard. It is not so surprising, then, that they were routinely judged inept.

Although planters generally regarded overseers as a bothersome nuisance, they nonetheless found their services useful. According to historian Eugene D. Genovese, planters used their overseers to shield themselves psychologically from the harsher aspects of slavery. Because the overseer was the person most immediately responsible for the slaves' misery, when he was censured or fired the master of a plantation would appear to be concerned with the slaves' well-being. By disposing of a harsh overseer, particularly one prone to use the whip as his chief meant, of discipline, slaveholders might flatter themselves that they were benevolent and kindly masters. In the short run, their slaves might even have shared this perception. 2

An overseer's paradoxical position as intermediary between a group of slaves and their owner was sometimes reflected in the layout of the plantation. At Hampton, Pierce Butler's cotton estate on St. Simons Island, Georgia, the overseer's house

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Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page ii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Acknowledgements xvii
  • One the Plantation Landscape 1
  • Two Big Quarters 18
  • Three the Yard 33
  • Four Kitchens 43
  • Five Smokehouses 63
  • Six Outbuildings 77
  • Seven Barns and Stables 107
  • Eight Production Machinery and Buildings 123
  • Nine Overseers' Houses 135
  • Ten Building for Slave Welfare 142
  • Eleven Quarters for Field Slaves 153
  • Twelve Plantation Landscape Ensembles 183
  • Thirteen Conclusion 228
  • Notes 237
  • Index 251
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