We’re posting an addendum to our Instagram post on Arden thanks to the really insightful question posed by local writer Ami Worthen (@amiwhoa) in the comments. Our original post read, “The painting featured depicts “Struan” a home built in the Arden area in 1847 by Alexander Robertson, a wealthy rice planter from South Carolina who summered in the area.”
Ami asked, “question: ‘built in the Arden area in 1847 by Alexander Robertson’ – by him or did he have enslaved labor that built it?”
This is a really important question, and we want to make sure to share some notes. Despite the commonly understood narrative that there was an absence of enslaved labor in the Southern Appalachian region prior to the Civil War, since the 1980’s there has been an explosion of scholarly work to the contrary. Here in the North Carolina Room, we have access to a tremendous number of sources that make one thing very clear: enslaved people were bought and sold in Buncombe County and their labor was central to the daily life of the upper classes.
Struan, the Alexander Robertson home, was built in Arden several years before the Civil War. Robertson was himself a wealthy planter from South Carolina who, like many others of his station, traveled to western North Carolina during the summer months to escape the heat and insects of the low country. Often, these travelers would bring enslaved people along with them their second homes in the mountains and foothills. These homes were sometimes rented, sometimes owned, and there is some evidence that locally enslaved people were “rented” into these wealthier households.
Although we currently have no access or knowledge of any personal papers of Alexander Robertson that might provide detailed information on the construction process, based on what we know, it is safe to assume that enslaved people (perhaps some local to WNC, and others who were transported from SC), played a central role in the construction of Struan. A survey map (MAP400) held in our collection depicts what the authors of Cabins and Castles called a “tidy row of slave quarters,” the 1860 slave schedules records that Robertson enslaved 17 individuals in Buncombe County (this doesn’t account for those who may have lived at other properties in South Carolina), and records on file at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds show that while living in Buncombe County Robertson purchased at least one enslaved person, a man named Jack.
When we think and write about the antebellum period in western North Carolina, or anywhere in the United States, especially the south, it is imperative that we make our best effort to present a complete picture of the past. Thanks, Ami, for reminding us to do this, even in a quick social media post. When we leave people out of the picture, it distorts the past, and continues to perpetuate a false narrative.
If you want to dig deeper into this topic, listed below are some resources that will help you along the way. We here in the NC Room, and the staff are ready to help you find a circulating copy in the NC Cardinal System if you want to take a copy home!
- Dunaway, Wilma A. Slavery in the American Mountain South. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
- Garren, Terrel T. Slavery, Civil War and Freedom: A Period Study of African Americans From Buncombe County, Henderson County, and Madison County, North Carolina. (Self-Published, 2009).
- Inscoe, John. Mountain Masters: Slavery and the Sectional Crisis in Western North Carolina. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1996).
- Wofford, Ann. When All God’s Children Get Together: A Celebration of the Lives and Music of African American People in Far Western North Carolina. (Andrews, NC: One Dozen Who Care Publishers, 2013).
Thanks to Ami Worthen for asking the question, and to the folks at the North Carolina Room for the response. As Mr. Santayana said, “Those who do not learn history, are doomed to repeat it.” That implies learning history as completely and accurately as we can.
Thank you for this.
One often overlooked resource in studying the history of black families in the South are the church records. There was no such thing as a “black church” or a “white church” until Reconstruction. One of the most prominent Presbyterian ministers in North Carolina in the early 1800s was Rev. John Chavis (c. 1763-1838), a free black man, and graduate of Washington College (now Washington & Lee University) in Virginia. Rev. Chavis preached in churches with mixed congregations and also had an academy in Raleigh were many of the most prominent men in North Carolina sent their sons. Both white and black students attended his academy.
The records of both the Ramah Presbyterian Church and the Coddle Creek ARP Church down in the Piedmont, where ancestors of mine worshiped from the colonial era, are replete with records the servants of the families who attended the church.
Interestingly, among the founders of the Presbyterian Church in Marion (McDowell Co.) in 1845, was “Eliza Erwin……,servant of A. L. Erwin.”
Here’s an interesting article on Rev. Chavis.
Yes, this is a great point, John. A lot of what we know about the enslaved people who lived at what is now the Vance Birthplace State Historic Site began with names from church records. Slave holders in WNC were not as careful records keepers as those elsewhere where slavery was a more central part of the economy, or where a plantation style economy ruled. Locating the enslaved in bills of sale and personal ledgers is less likely. The staff at VBP has done an incredible amount of research on the folks who were enslaved by the Vance family, and updated the interpretation plan at the site in recent years to reflect the importance of their labor at the site. That research is available here: https://historicsites.nc.gov/all-sites/zebulon-b-vance-birthplace/history/enslaved-people-vance-family