Construction and Clearing Land

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Construction and Clearing Land

On both large plantations and smaller farms, slaves worked at a variety of tasks clearing land and constructing buildings and other facilities. Many slaves who worked primarily as field hands nevertheless acquired some basic skills in rough carpentry and other types of labor involved in building and maintaining the structures and roadways needed on a farm or plantation. In some parts of the South, slaves worked several days per year on the public roads. Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903), who traveled widely throughout the slave states, reported seeing about thirty male and female slaves working on the roads near a plantation in the Carolinas. He noted, "The women were in the majority, and were engaged at exactly the same labour as the men: driving the carts, loading them with dirt, and dumping them upon the road; cutting down trees, and drawing wood by hand, to lay across the miry places, hoeing, and shoveling" (1958, p. 161). During wartime slaves built fortifications and military camps. In the American Revolution (1776–1783), both British and American forces made use of slave labor for such jobs. During the Civil War (1861–1865), slaves were used to build fortifications for the Confederate army, and runaway slaves or captured contraband slaves were put to work doing similar tasks for the Union forces.

Beyond this kind of basic construction work that most slaves might do on occasion, many slaves were specially trained in building trades such as carpentry and masonry. Slaves built virtually everything on a plantation, from the barns and livestock pens, to their own quarters, to their master's house itself. Historian Adam Rothman cites an advertisement in the Louisiana Gazette in 1820 offering a sugar plantation for sale; the ad noted that of the 100 slaves being sold with the land, 40 of them "have callings, such as carpenters, coopers, bricklayers, cabinet makers, plain cooks and pastry cooks, etc." (2005, p. 189). Slaves who worked in skilled trades were often trained by being apprenticed, perhaps informally, to a white tradesman or to an experienced slave who knew the craft. Some were even sent overseas to learn trades such as carpentry, cabinetmaking, and landscape architecture.

Historian Charles Joyner, in his study of slavery in the South Carolina low country, notes several examples of highly skilled slave carpenters. Renty Tucker was a slave owned by Plowden C. J. Weston. Tucker built a beautiful chapel known as St. Mary's on Weston's Weehawka plantation, and also a summer home for the Westons on Pawleys Island. A slave carpenter named Richmond who worked on the Woodbourne plantation owned by J. Motte Alston is another example. Richmond built the big house on this plantation almost entirely by himself, requiring help only to move items too large for one man to handle (1985, pp. 72-73).

On the rice plantations in the lowland areas of South Carolina, slaves also built the intricate network of ditches, dikes, and sluice gates that allowed water to be put on and taken off of the rice crop at the proper times. Tasks such as this, as well as work on roads and railroads, gave some slaves an introduction to some basic aspects of civil engineering.

Many skilled slave builders were hired out to labor for others. Generally, the wages they earned went to the master, although some masters allowed the slaves to keep part of these earnings. Slaves were also hired by state and local governments to work on a variety of public works throughout the South.

Railroads in the South used slave labor in construction. It is common to see slaves listed among the assets owned by railroad companies, but most of the slaves working on railroad construction were hired. Historian Wilma Dunaway notes that by 1860, nearly 600 slaves were at work in western North Carolina on railroad projects. Male slaves were hired to do the construction work, while female slaves cooked and did laundry for the construction crews. Dunaway also notes that the Virginia and Tennessee railroad listed 643 workers in 1856, and two-thirds of these were slaves. On the Virginia Central railroad, sixty slaves worked in two crews to dig a tunnel through the Blue Ridge Mountains, working simultaneously from each end (2003, p. 101). Slaves hired out to work on public works or railroad jobs were often covered by life insurance at the expense of those hiring them, so that the master would be protected from the economic loss if the slave died in an accident.

The work of clearing new land for farming was a very basic but physically demanding type of labor. Many southern farmers continually cleared new lands to replace fields that had been exhausted from overuse. Tobacco was a crop that was particularly hard on the soil; planting was shifted to newly cleared fields every three to four years. John Brown, a runaway slave from Georgia, described clearing tobacco fields for planting:

In the month of February they begin what is called 'burning the beds,' this is, the dry brush is burnt off from the beds intended to be sown and planted. The ground is then broken up with the grubbing-hoe, an implement something like a pick-axe, only that it is four inches wide, and very heavy. The ground must be well manured before it is broken up, because the tobacco-plant is greedy of food, and likes good living. (1991, p. 149)

Southern farmers often practiced crop rotation, which they called "crop shifting." Land that would no longer grow tobacco might be fruitful for growing grain crops for a few more years. After the grain yields began to decline, the land might be left to lie fallow or unused for several years. A practice known as "long fallowing" involved leaving the land unused (except as pasture) for as long as twenty years. After such a long interval, the land would begin to revert to forest, and if it was to be replanted to crops, it had to be cleared again.

Clearing a field often began with burning off the underbrush and girdling the trees—cutting a deep band around the trunk of the tree, to cause it to die. The first crops might be planted with many of the trees still standing, with the crops simply planted around them. This often made it impossible to use plows drawn by draft animals, therefore, crops were often planted and cultivated with a hoe. Farming with the hoe as the principal tool was a practice many colonial era slaves were familiar with from their African agricultural heritage. Over time, the dead trees in a cleared field would blow down. Getting the stumps out of the ground, often called "grubbing stumps," was particularly difficult, and farmers often simply planted around them, but over time slaves cleared most of the stumps when other tasks were less pressing. Clearing land was the type of work that could be used to fill the downtimes in the agricultural cycle, when the labor of the slaves was not demanded by planting, cultivating, or harvesting the major staple crops. Much of this work was done in the winter. Even at night, slaves sometimes worked burning piles of brush from newly cleared fields.

After the dead trees in a field had fallen, a logrolling might be held, when slaves gathered up the wood. Some of the wood was saved for firewood or lumber, but much of it was burnt in the fields. The term logrolling was also used to refer to raising a house, barn, or other type of building. Slaves and their owners from neighboring plantations came together for a big project such as this, and the work was often accompanied by a large meal and became an important social gathering. Historian Eugene Genovese cites the account of Frank Gill, an Alabama ex-slave, about logrollings:

[D]em was great times, ca'se if some ob dem neighborin' plantations wanted to get up a house, dey would invite all de slaves, men and women, to come wid dere masters. De women would help wid de cookin' an' you may be shore dey had something to cook. Dey would kill a cow, or three or four hogs, and hab peas, cabbage, an' everything lack grows on de farm. (1974, p. 320)

Historians have noted many examples of slave laborers involved in the building trades and other types of skilled craftsmanship. But the toil of the many thousands of anonymous laborers who cleared the land, maintained the roads, and constructed much of the built environment of the slave states has often been described in only the most general terms. Joyner has noted how many of the slaves in the South Carolina rice country, and their descendants, took a measure of well-deserved pride in the work they had done. Even though they did not own the land, they had invested themselves and their skill in it and in the crops it produced. He cites Ben Horry, a former rice plantation slave, who told an interviewer for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) slave narratives in the 1930s, "Missus, slavery time people done something!" (Born in Slavery, p. 42).


Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938. Manuscript and Prints and Photographs Divisions, Library of Congress. Available from

Brown, John. Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, a Fugitive Slave [1855], ed. F. F. Boney. Savannah, GA: Beehive Press, 1991.

Dunaway, Wilma A. Slavery in the American Mountain South: Studies in Modern Capitalism Series. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Genovese, Eugene G. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon, 1974.

Joyner, Charles. Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985.

Olmsted, Frederick Law. The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveler's Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States [1861–1862]. Reprint, New York: Knopf, 1958.

Otto, John Solomon. The Southern Frontiers, 1607–1860: The Agricultural Evolution of the Colonial and Antebellum South. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Phillips, Ulrich Bonnell. American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment, and Control of Negro Labor As Determined by the Plantation Regime [1918]. Reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1966.

Rothman, Adam. Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Stampp, Kenneth. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South. New York: Knopf, 1956.

                                         Mark S. Joy

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Construction and Clearing Land

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