History and Art History
College of Humanities and Social Sciences

"A Great Uneasiness In Our County": Slavery and Its Influence on Family and Community Stability in Northern Virginia, 1782-1860

Sheri Huerta

Major Professor: Jane Turner Censer, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Randolph Scully, Cynthia Kierner

Johnson Center, #327-C
April 06, 2017, 10:00 AM to 08:00 AM

Abstract:

Adopting a comparative approach, this dissertation examines the dynamics of control, resistance, and adaptation to enslavement along the borderlands of the enslaved South in northern Virginia from 1782 to 1860. The focus on three contiguous counties, Fauquier, Loudoun, and Prince William shows that despite similar political and cultural influences and location, each county developed subtle, yet distinct differences in patterns of slave ownership, flexibility towards emancipation, periods of enslaved resistance, and methods of enforcing racial control. This study investigates these local differences, their effect on the stability of enslaved families and how perceived threats to masterly control shaped community reactions.

Because of its position upon the fringes of the slave South and in proximity to avenues of escape, northern Virginia presents a compelling location for study of the role of enslaved families and communities on slave societies. This dissertation exposes sources of tension through a close reading of county records such as deeds, wills, patrol accounts, tax records, and criminal case files combined with state documents, legislative petitions, church minutes, private correspondence, Freedmen’s Bureau records, newspaper accounts and runaway advertisements. Major questions reveal the particular dynamics of each county’s slave society through three main themes of identity, resistance, and perceptions of control. First, how did each county maintain an identity as a slave society in proximity to free states and anti-slavery rhetoric and amidst demographic changes and economic stresses? Second, how did these changes and stresses affect enslaved family stability and lead to acts of resistance? Third, how did communities, churches, and local courts support the rights of masters to hold slaves and how did enslaved persons manipulate these local powers to assert limited control over their lives and paths to freedom?

A confluence of factors created distinct periods of unrest in each county: These arose when enslaved resistance challenged visions of masterly control; when the number of runaways and escape strategies changed; when slave values rose and fell; when options for emancipation crested and diminished; when abolitionist influences seemed to threaten community solidarity; and when public fears that enslaved resistance represented a wide-spread movement against slaveholders rather than singular transgressions.

Even within a relatively small geographic space of the slave South, the particular location and community composition diversely affected the nature of enslavement. County-wide differences in the level of tolerance shown for manumissions and to manumitted slaves threatened enslaved family stability. Similarly the decisions of some slaveholders’ decisions to limit slaveholding through slave sales or seek better opportunities through western migration dismembered enslaved families. Acts of resistance often coincided with these periods of intense enslaved family disruptions or preceded such anticipated crises such as a master’s death. Runaways coordinated escapes with work schedules or seasonal (and predictable) movements of people that varied by and within each county. When enslaved families felt most threatened and options for freedom seemed most limited, violent resistance erupted in slave-holding communities. These acts of resistance combined with fears of abolitionist influences threatened the security of slaveholders; local communities then ordered out patrols or created extralegal groups for policing.

Tolerance for manumission, frequency of runaways, fluctuating values of enslaved bodies, and acts of violent resistance not only altered the way that slaveholders perceived the importance of enslaved chattel to personal wealth and community control but also determined how enslaved families recognized and responded to threats to stability and actively resisted forced separation. By tracking these changes over time a more complete picture develops of when, why, and how enslaved persons challenged their subordinate status and when the public perception of these acts of resistance shifted from uneasy fears to wide-spread threats that seemed to require community action.

Discerning the ability of enslaved persons to make even small improvements in their lives in slavery rests firmly at the core of this study through understanding how they cultivated beneficial networks of support and influence, sought out resources to mitigate the deprivations of enslavement, and forged alliances that generated income and local support for self-purchase. Considering these acts of self-affirmation not only in relation to broader changes across the slave South, but more importantly within their context as a borderlands underlines the importance of place in creating subtle, yet telling differences in the stability of a slave society and thus challenges sectional, regional, or even state-wide generalizations of such societies’ uniform identity.

 

Print Friendly and PDF