Quarters for Field Slaves
The dwellings constructed to house field slaves were generally small, unpretentious cabins grouped together a significant distance away from the Big House. Viewed as emblematic features of the plantation environment as well as the miserable shacks where black people were kept, these buildings completed the social statement initiated by a planter's mansion. Any man of property might own fields, barns, sheds, equipment, and livestock, but only the most financially well off could own large numbers of human beings. In 1860 no more than 12 percent, of all southerners owned enough slaves to be considered members of the planter class.
All across the Old South, the ideal plantation landscape was bracketed between a planter's house and the houses of slaves. Letitia Burwell, who enjoyed the benefits of being a planter's daughter, revealed how important the slave domain was to a white resident's sense of place when she wrote: "Confined exclusively to a Virginia plantation during my earliest childhood, I believed the world one vast plantation bounded by negro quarters." 1 Big Houses and slave quarters were significantly linked but located at the opposite ends of a scale of power. When Frederick Law Olmsted first entered the South in 1852, these were the two elements of the rural landscape that immediately commanded his attention. Passing through northern Virginia, he observed: "A good many old plantations are to be seen; generally standing in a grove of white oaks, upon some hill-top. Most of them are constructed of wood, of two stories, painted white, and have, perhaps, a dozen rude-looking little log-cabins scattered around them, for the slaves." 2 Although, in architectural terms, slave quarters were humble, almost inconsequential structures, they were nevertheless a public index of a planter's wealth and a proof of his or her right to be treated with deference.