Overseers and Drivers
Overseers and Drivers
Overseers were agents employed by Southern slaveholders to supervise the daily affairs on a plantation. These individuals often came from a class of land less young men, some of whom were the sons of well-established slaveholders. Over time, however, a professional class of managers also developed to meet the needs of the ever-expanding plantation economy of the South during the antebellum era.
An overseer's duties on the farm were manifold. Their primary task was to insure the timely production of cash crops such as cotton, tobacco, rice, and sugar cane. Because these were such labor-intensive crops, an overseer was also responsible for directing the activities and living conditions of slaves, who were the backbone of the region's workforce.
On some farms overseers were given a great deal of license to carry out their duties as they saw fit. For example, on absentee plantations, where the owner was gone for months at a stretch, agents sometimes held a virtual free reign over the plantation. More typically, however, slave owners were physically present at least part of the time on the farm. As a result, owners monitored closely the activities of their hired agents and laid out all manner of rules regarding everything from the proper feeding, clothing, and housing of slaves to the exact dates for which the crops should be sown, weeded, and harvested.
Such close oversight could breed resentment between slave owners and overseers. While overseers chafed at any perceived interference, owners insisted on complete obedience from their agents. Overseers were therefore expected to abide by all plantation regulations or else face dismissal for insubordination. Complicating this relationship was also the matter of class distinctions. As members of the Southern landholding class, plantation owners tended to snub non-slaveholders as their social inferiors. This was a point that did not go unnoticed by either party. In fact, slaves sometimes adopted the same attitude of superiority toward their managers. One servant reminisced with a decided degree of satisfaction, for example, that her overseer had always been "nothin' but white trash" (Rawick 1972–1979, vol. 6, p. 120).
Beyond occasional quibbles with the master, however, overseers maintained the most contact with slaves. Living in adjacent quarters and working side-by-side in the fields on a daily basis, managers and slaves developed close working relationships. Yet, as often as not, these relationships were highly contentious. Slaves distrusted white authority figures in general, especially those who were not their owners. Thus, resentments might grow quickly against overseers that wielded the whip too often. Another source of conflict was the systematic sexual abuse of female slaves by overseers. This sort of exploitation was commonplace, according to one former agent. He recalled, for example, how in his neighborhood overseers "took … [few] pains to conceal their habits of licentious intercourse with the female slaves" (Roles 1864, p. 14).
Such endemic tension between overseers, masters, and slaves, coupled with the fact that overseeing was not a relatively high-paying profession, led to a high turnover rate on many plantations. In fact, some managers remained on the same farm only for the duration of one growing season before seeking their fortunes elsewhere. Regardless, as the cotton economy continued to prosper demand for overseers remained high in all areas of the South for decades during the antebellum era.
A driver was a slave appointed by an owner to maintain discipline and supervise the cultivation of crops on the plantation. Typically drawn from the ranks of the most experienced hands, a driver was usually an older male slave with a well-established reputation for obedience and due diligence. On large plantations a slave driver functioned as an assistant to the overseer. In this role, he helped direct the activities of field hands and administer punishments to slaves who refused to work. On smaller farms cost-conscious owners sometimes utilized slave drivers in lieu of overseers. In this situation, drivers assumed many of the same duties as a paid agricultural agent. They were responsible not only for managing the labor force but for rationing out food and clothing and maintaining tools and housing.
Because drivers enjoyed the confidence and trust of the master, they occupied a relatively privileged status on the plantation. Some benefits could accrue as a result. For example, slave drivers in charge of rationing out foodstuffs and clothing could appropriate the best and biggest shares for their family members. Likewise, with regard to fieldwork, drivers could favor their friends and family by allocating the easiest tasks to them.
A driver's influence also extended to the slave community at large. Some were held in very high esteem among the slave population. For example, many of these men served as preachers. Or, they were sometimes called upon to mediate disputes between slaves. Yet, as often as not, drivers were reviled by their fellow slaves. Their position as favored servant could generate intense resentment, especially if a driver profited materially from his position at the expense of other slaves. More importantly, because one of a driver's main duties was to discipline his fellow slaves, he could quickly earn the enmity of others by asserting this authority too often.
Bassett, John S. The Southern Plantation Overseer as Revealed in His Letters. Northampton, MA: Smith College, 1925.
Genovese, Eugene. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaveholders Made. New York: Random House, 1976.
Rawick, George P., ed. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. 41 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972–1979.
Roles, John. Inside Views of Slavery on Southern Plantations. New York, 1864,
Scarborough, William K. The Overseer: Plantation Management in the Old South. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984.
Van Deburg, William L. The Slave Drivers: Black Agricultural Labor Supervisors in the American South. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979.