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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Publication information: Book title: Back of the Big House:The Architecture of Plantation Slavery. Contributors: John Michael Vlach - Author. Publisher: University of North Carolina Press. Place of publication: Chapel Hill, NC. Publication year: 1993. Page number: 135.
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