Overseers supervised the slave plantations of absentee owners or planters who could not themselves manage a large agricultural enterprise.
In the Deep South, absentee planters with more than a few slaves were legally required to hire overseers. In the rice-growing region of the Southeast, overseers enjoyed higher salaries and more prerogatives than their counterparts in the Upper South. Depending on local customs and laws, overseers might share planters' authority to permit slaves to travel, conduct business, purchase liquor, assemble in large groups, or possess weapons.
In the Upper South, many overseers earned modest salaries and lacked the prerogatives and privileges of a trusted manager. They were financially liable for harm to their employers' property, including damage caused by slaves, regardless of the overseers' fault. On a Virginia plantation during the 1820s, Charles W. Jones and O. L. Fowler lost their jobs because they injured slaves while punishing them and negligently caused the death of livestock. Planters were not required by law to hire overseers, and the social distance between the two classes discouraged collegial relationships.
Most overseers were mature white men, some of them neighboring farmers. If they were aspiring planters—like Maryland's James Riggs, who worked for Charles Carroll for several years during the 1770s, and Jordan Myrick, who once managed thirteen South Carolina rice plantations simultaneously—then they frequently performed their duties capably and enjoyed job security. Planters' sons and other relatives performed less predictably. Itinerant, propertyless overseers who lacked relevant aspirations and skills gave the occupation a bad name but nonetheless found positions when cotton planting became profitable in the Deep South during the early 1800s.
Some planters appointed slaves to manage plantations rather than merely lead work gangs, but they often bore the title of "overlooker" or "driver" rather than "overseer." In Louisiana, they were called "commandeurs." This arrangement was not unique to the Deep South. Thomas Jefferson sometimes used an enslaved overseer named Jim. At the end of his life, George Washington relied solely on slave overseers, as he prepared all his slaves for their eventual freedom. In times of revolution or invasion, black overseers replaced white counterparts whose militia units were called to active duty.
Wary planters insisted that overseers sign highly restrictive contracts. These contracts spelled out in detail an overseer's duties, from times and methods of cultivation to care and feeding of slaves and livestock. These contracts also imposed an isolation on overseers by restraining them from leaving the plantation and entertaining visitors. Accounts by both planters and former slaves attest to overseers' cruelty and degradation, including the despicable but legal exploitation of female slaves. Nonetheless, after the Revolutionary War, planters grew cautious about slave revolts. As a result, overseers gained enhanced power, including the authority to deny slaves' basic needs and comforts such as hunting for meat or gathering for religious worship.
Overseers plied their trade amid several conflicts. Planters insisted that they produce bumper crops while not exhausting plantation resources, notably the slaves. Absentee employers appointed relatives, friends, and neighbors to scrutinize overseers' performance even as they entertained slaves' complaints. At the same time, slaves devised clever methods of resistance.
Bassett, John S. The Southern Plantation Overseer as Revealed in His Letters. Northampton, Mass.: Smith College, 1925.
Scarborough, William K. The Overseer: Plantation Management in the Old South. 1966. Reprint, Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1984.
Steffen, Charles G. "In Search of the Good Overseer: The Failure of the Agricultural Reform Movement in Lowcountry South Carolina, 1821–1834." Journal of Southern History 58 (1997): 753–802.
William E. Wiethoff