Housing for Slaves on Mulberry Row

By the late 17th century, the early adopters of slavery in Virginia had devised a system for provisioning their slaves which minimized their costs: corn and salt pork rations barely sufficient for survival; coarse garments distributed semi-annually, and housing that conserved expenditures for construction and heating. Slaves could supplement their meager allotments by cultivating vegetable gardens, cutting firewood, and fishing and trapping on Sundays, their one day of rest. (See also: The Landscape of Slavery)

The archaeological data amassed by the Monticello-based Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS) project show that, throughout the 18th century, most enslaved people in Virginia lived, by force not choice, in barracks-style housing: multiple families and unrelated individuals crowded together under one roof. This type of slave dwelling is recognized archaeologically by the subtle traces left by clusters of subfloor pits. Slaves dug these holes (varying in size from 3'x3' to 4'x6' and sometimes lined with planks or bricks) into the dirt floors of their wooden dwellings. Covered over with planks, the pits provided storage for the valued food and goods of a family or individual&—and inhibited unauthorized access by co-occupants. (See also: Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS))

Excavations on Monticello's Mulberry Row reveal that the shelters built for enslaved domestic and craft workers underwent noteworthy modifications in size and design at the end of the 18th century: from an average of 235 square feet in the 1770s to 140 square feet in the 1790s and from multi-room to single-room plans. Monticello archaeologists think these changes signal improvements in slave housing: a decrease in residential group size and an increase in the ability of slaves to choose with whom they cohabited. This conclusion is based on the presence of only one subfloor pit in each of these new, smaller structures. Archaeologists infer that, because slaves could exercise their preferences to live with elected partners and kin, they could relax their vigilance over the hard-earned objects and provisions stored within their houses. In the two stone houses built on Mulberry Row c. 1809, subfloor pits were omitted entirely, and, although built to accommodate single families, they are more spacious, over 320 square feet.

{Add Link: The Dynamic Landscape of Mulberry Row}

Already by the mid-18th century, roughly half of Virginia slaves were native-born, and by 1790, 98%. Although always vulnerable to separation at the caprice of owners, it became easier for enslaved people to build and maintain mutually-protective, kin-based social coalitions. Negotiating the ability to live in family units in the 1790s marked an important gain for slaves. For owners, it meant a loss: building more houses diverted time and materials from productive activity. What motivated owners to make this concession?

With the large, comparative database created by DAACS, archaeologists now understand that these changes in house type and size happened across the Chesapeake in the late 18th century. (At Monticello, the Plantation Archological Survey has discovered a parallel change at the landscape scale: the removal of field-slave houses from direct surveillance by the overseer. There is insufficient evidence to determine if this also took place regionally.) Significantly, these improvements for slaves came about after planters began to reorganize their work force to produce wheat for export. Archaeologists hypothesize that, with the proliferation of tasks and the consequent splintering of work units, the cost of hiring additional overseers to maintain control solely by surveillance and force would become prohibitive. Under these circumstances, positive incentives, such as improvements in housing, seemed more cost effective to planters, who became more willing to make strategic compromises in exchange for the cooperation of slaves in meeting work quotas. 

See also:

Trading Hoes for Plows

Housing for Field Hands at Monticello

Plantation Archeological Survey

Read more: Neiman 2008

Image: Plan drawing of subfloor pits

Photograph of subfloor pit

Image of wheat cultivation (clip from G.Washington lithograph??)

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