Forging Iron and Slavery in Valley of Virginia
Anderson, Richard V., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
They used to make iron in the James River watershed at the upper end of the Valley of Virginia. In Rockbridge and Alleghany counties today, there are places whose names echo this enterprise: Clifton Forge, Londale Furnace and Vesuvius.
The most successful area iron maker was William Weaver of Philadelphia, who, during the War of 1812, invested in a furnace and forge on Buffalo Creek, about nine miles southeast of Lexington. By 1858, Weaver, having moved to Rockbridge County in 1823, had the county's largest slave force.
It is ironic that Weaver should have engaged in chattel slavery. He was a Northerner and great-grandson of Alexander Mack, founder of the Dunkers, a faith opposed to slavery. Weaver, however, learned through experience that free white laborers often extorted wage advances that they never intended to repay or left during the seven-month period when it was possible to put a furnace in blast.
The alternative was slave labor, and Weaver did not allow hisDunker upbringing to inhibit him in his pursuit of prosperity. The slaves imported from Africa were more than hunters and cultivators. Many had been iron makers, passing this skill along for generations. Weaver was able, therefore, to buy slaves who already were skilled in iron-making or had enough experience to be trained as furnace and forge hands.
Weaver provided good housing and adequate rations and clothing for his work force. Slave quarters were dispersed over the property at Buffalo Forge, 18 cabins in all, each housing a family. One cabin, a two-story structure, served as a bunkhouse for unmarried men. The cabins were solidly constructed of logs or brick with stone chimneys, two of which survive.
One of the fascinating things about Weaver's slave iron makers is that they possessed sufficient leverage to negotiate. He could punish or sell a slave who displeased him. If, however, he had employed the whip, his career as a Virginia iron maker would have been short-lived. Whipping could have incapacitated a skilled worker and would have, at a minimum, left him angrily looking for some way to retaliate. Retaliation would have been fairly easy.
The huge wooden beams that supported the 500- to 600-pound forge hammers occasionally broke. When this occurred, the forge had to be shut down, and precious time was lost. Weaver's hands could easily break these beams whenever they wished, for instance, and blame it on happenstance.
No record exists that Weaver ever whipped any of his slaves during his 40 years in the valley. Of course, troublesome slaves could be sold. Yet Weaver used this recourse sparingly. There was an unwritten agreement with his iron makers that families would be kept together so long as production was maintained.
Beyond force and the threat of force, Weaver used incentive. Slave owners, with the exception of the brutal and benighted, learned early on that the mailed fist, even when gloved, was not sufficient to achieve maximum output. From his earliest days in the valley, Weaver paid slaves who did extra work. He established daily and weekly output quotas for each task associated with the work of his forge.
For example, the task for hammer men was two "journeys" of 560 pounds of iron bar per day. Once goals were met, Weaver paid "overwork," as this system was called, in either cash or goods.
The genius of that system was that goals for each task were not excessively high. Reasonable goals encouraged slaves to work beyond that minimum point and earn compensation. One family at Buffalo Forge who received the benefits of their overwork in cash caused a stir at a savings bank in Lexington when they were allowed to open an interest-bearing account. It occurred to the bank's directors that it was anomalous for "property" (a slave) to own property (money in a savings account). This irregularity having dawned on them, the bank's directors asked Weaver to close the account. …