Durham County

Stagville plantation surveyors uncover enslaved people’s past

Amid the woodland sounds in a clearing north of Durham stands a two-story antebellum house with white wooden siding.

Over 200 years ago, it was called the “big house,” when Stagville was one of the largest plantations in North Carolina with eventually over 900 slaves.

The modern estate is covered in pine trees that have grown tall since the land was last farmed for tobacco in 1940s.

A survey team is working beneath the foliage to discover more about the lives of the enslaved people who lived on the plantation. They have uncovered items that help better illustrate the daily lives of the enslaved whose labor transformed the once small, working farm.

The surveyors’ work begins by digging for clues. They use hand tools, making foot-deep holes every 10 meters, then panning the dirt for any piece of iron, carved wood or fired clay.

These finds are an important step in Historic Stagville’s ultimate vision. The state historic site has shifted its focus over the last 10 years from depicting the life of the Bennehan-Cameron family that owned the plantation to the realities of slavery.

The property once spanned 30,000 acres, all of which was nearly cleared of trees.

“We get people who come out and see this wonderful shaded area and say, ‘This is so beautiful, it must not have been so bad back then,’” said site manager Julianne Herczeg.

“That’s the last impression we want people to get.”

‘Never out of his sight’

The long-term plan is to remove the trees around the big house so visitors can better understand how it felt to live under the constant watch of the master.

“We want people to understand that slavery is as psychological as it is anything else,” Herczeg said. “The big house is visible from the slave quarters. He is always watching you; you are never out of his sight.”

Before removing trees for historical accuracy, the ground is being surveyed to make sure aggressive land movement won’t destroy any potential artifacts

The team, led by a “living memory” from someone who lived on the plantation in the early 1900s, is working in an area where they expect to find remains of lost slave dwellings.

“Artifacts we are finding in our test pits are from the late 1700s and early 1800s,” said Anna Agbe-Davies, the UNC Chapel Hill anthropology professor leading the investigation.

The pits have given up small bits of pottery, crumbles of brick and a few iron nails. These pieces may seem insignificant, but what they tell anthropologists is important.

Few buildings remain

Only a few buildings remain from the pre-Civil War era on the plantation, including slave quarters in the site’s Horton Grove section. Not nearly enough to convey the hundreds of enslaved people who once lived there.

“Sites where people live create more artifacts than say, where they work,” Agbe-Davies said. “They are cooking, building, creating windows, basically making a big mess. People are very messy.”

The objects they’ve found so far are what researchers expect to find from places where people lived. They are the kinds of objects that have specific uses for the home and would not have been brought to work in the fields.

“These artifacts weren’t just dropped here accidentally by people who lived ‘over there,’” Agbe-Davies said. “They were probably part of houses that we are trying to find. There may have been a barn, or a tobacco shed, any number of things.”

Herczeg says archaeology is key to uncovering a past largely omitted from written history. If the test pits prove promising, researchers will come back for more in-depth excavations.

Finds could tell how slaves organized their homes, what activities they spent time doing or what types of food they ate.

“Enslaved people don’t leave the written records,” Herczeg said. “This is a history a lot of people don’t hear about. It’s a history that people should know about.”

Sean Jones: 703-955-6959