The African American Experience at Stratford: 1782

African American Experience at Stratford Hall


Jeanne A. Calhoun
Director of Research and Education
Robert E. Lee Memorial Association, Inc.

At Stratford and other plantations throughout the South, the Great House dominates both the physical and mental landscape. The lives of the owners have become part of the history of the region. Forgotten are the African-Americans who built and maintained the settings within which such families as the Lees lived.

The lives of these enslaved African-Americans have been lost among the shadows of the past. Generally the only written records were left by the owner and his peers; estate accounts, an occasional letter, and court cases are the usual sources upon which we must rely. Historical archaeology, a relatively new discipline, is making a significant contribution to an understanding of slave culture. Archaeologists are hampered, however, by the nature of most slave dwellings, wooden and flimsy, and the scarcity of their possessions. It is also impossible archaeologically to separate the remains left by an African-American from those deposited by any other individual from an approximately equal economic level; for instance, a poor white artisan or tenant farmer would have left a similar assemblage of artifacts. This makes it vital to understand the historical context of any archaeological site which might be associated with African-Americans. The recent excavations at Monticello are a good example. Although the archaeologists believe they have discovered evidence of cast-offs from the Jefferson family, the historical record suggests that those sites in question may have been occupied by white artisans or laborers.

At Stratford, we have two inventories (1758; 1776) and three estate lists (1782; 1786; 1789) which include information on the African-American population on the plantation. The most valuable of these is the 1782 documentation of the division of Philip Ludwell Lee’s estate. To ensure an equitable division, the 137 slaves belonging to the estate and living on Stratford, the Clifts, and Hallow’s Marsh are recorded by name; included are their age, value, and, in some instances, occupation. Mrs. Elizabeth Fendall, the widow of Philip Ludwell Lee, was allotted 41 slaves – twelve girls, eight boys, eight women, and thirteen men. The remaining 96 slaves – 27 girls, 20 boys, 21 women, and 28 men – were the joint property of Matilda and Flora Lee. Four years later, in 1786, the then 98 slaves belonging to the estate were divided between Matilda and Flora Lee. Presumably those belonging to Flora left Stratford to work on her property.

A Note About Methods and Sources

In this essay, I have relied heavily on the 1782 slave list. There was great diversity among plantations and each one must be considered separately. Due to the fragmentary nature of the historical record of slavery at Stratford, however, I have drawn extensively from both primary and secondary sources to create a context within which the life of an enslaved African-American on the plantation can be better understood. In my attempt to bring forth these slaves as individuals, a certain amount of speculation has been unavoidable. I have, however, been careful to qualify when necessary, and hope that the delineation between the objective and the subjective is clear.

There are a few points I would like to make about the 1782 slave list itself. The manuscript does have limitations; no occupations are recorded for women and the absence of such craftsmen as coopers indicates that not all of those practiced by the men were recorded. It also does not define family groups. This document is, however, the most complete record of the slave population at Stratford which has yet been discovered and may remain our most valuable source of information about these elusive individuals.

The Rebellious Ones

Slavery was not accepted passively by many African-Americans. Resistance could take a variety of forms. Theft and escape were overt means of expressing resistance; sabotage and work slow-downs were less obvious, but equally damaging to the agricultural rhythm of the plantation. Landon Carter unknowingly described one instance in which Philip Ludwell Lee’s slaves subtly rejected a change in their work patterns:

I talked to Colonel [Francis Lightfoot] Lee …. Lee was perfectly satisfied of the disservice introduced by Carts and plows and really the impossibility of their doing any service …. He …. told me a story of his brother Phill. He had one Pritchard for his Overseer who without Carts or plows always made large fine Crops of Corn and Tobacco. Colo Phill imagining that more might be made with Carts and plows with no small expense provided them in abundance but Pritchard upon one year’s tryal being satisfied that his people had laid aside their diligence in working resolved not to live with him and never since has that plantation afforded a good Crop. The Colo. has now taken to his hoes again and is satisfied he is in a good way for a Crop.
All but one of the individuals who emerge as rebels appear in the Westmoreland County records. Tom Limerick must have been both clever and determined. In 1763, he plunged into a succession of troubles, exasperating and embarrassing his master while endangering himself. First, he was tried and acquitted on the charge of stealing a horse from a woman in adjacent Cople Parish. Immediately following this, he was accused of pilfering from a closet in Philip Ludwell Lee’s kitchen some beef and pork, a pewter spoon, an osnaburg towel, five pieces of Indian bread, and a parcel of fat.1 Once again, Tom Limerick was found innocent of theft. The justices, however, were not disposed to let him off completely. Apparently on the assumption that he must have done something wrong to be suspected of so much, he was found guilty of a misdemeanor and given 39 lashes with a whip.

Tom Limerick was undaunted. A few months later, he was brought again to court. This time he was accused of stealing several pieces of Spanish silver from a house belonging to Philip Ludwell Lee, as well as a piece of sail cloth and a Treasurer’s note from his master’s store. Despite his plea of innocence, the undoubtedly already suspicious justices declared him guilty. Finally finding himself in a serious situation – theft in certain circumstances was punishable by death – Tom Limerick claimed “benefit of clergy.”

This plea was allowed in certain instances as, a means to avoid a more severe penalty. Benefit of clergy could only be used once to escape punishment; a branded left hand proclaimed to all that this expedient was no longer available. Not surprisingly, Tom Limerick does not appear again in court records or on any of the slave lists. This was one man that Philip Ludwell Lee was probably eager to sell.

Later, in 1776, a male slave named Kajah was convicted of hog stealing. This was a common crime; often slaves would gather in the woods to consume the evidence. Some slaves considered such appropriations only their due, while others were concerned with augmenting their diet. Whatever his reasons for the theft, Kajah was found guilty and sentenced to 39 lashes.

Another slave, Rippon, was accused in 1777 of breaking and entering the milk house of William Speaks. He was said to have stolen ten shillings worth of bacon. 2 Rippon was found guilty but saved himself from a severe whipping by pleading benefit of clergy.

Master and slave could also engage in psychological warfare with one another. This is made abundantly clear in Landon Carter’s diary and Philip Ludwell Lee, in a letter to his sister Hannah Corbin, described an encounter with one of his slaves, Sawney.3

Sawney may have been a favored slave of the family, for Philip Ludwell Lee believed he had run away to Peckatone, where by lying he had convinced Hannah of ill treatment. A perturbed Colonel Phil explained to his sister that Sawney had irritated him by waiting at dinner dressed in an old pair of dirty leather breeches with his shirt tail hanging to his knees. His master, finding him after dinner asleep on the dresser with a pipe in his mouth, “wacked him* & told him if ever I [saw?] such a dress again I w[oul]d correct him….. ” 4 He complained that while waiting on the table, Sawney would drink liquor out of the bottles behind your back and eat meat out of the dishes he carried, ‘tho’ he has his regular meals. Despite such provocation, Sawney “has never been touched above twice …and then very gently.’ A sense of betrayal creeps into his tone, as Philip Ludwell Lee described his favorable treatment of the slave. In almost a litany of indulgences, he told Hannah that he allowed the slave ten pounds a year, ‘to go to all the dances,’ and even acceded to his request not to send the slave woman Pat to an outlying quarter for ill behavior. He insisted repeatedly that Sawney had plenty of clothes, even detailing certain items, such as a yellow coat, and adding, “[he] has had more clothing than any of them.’ Revealingly, the defensive Philip Ludwell Lee declared, “he should not be master.” Admitting that “[he] [waits] [the] table the best I ever saw,” Philip Ludwell Lee asked that his sister punish Sawney for running away and send him back to Stratford.

Slave Labor

I wish particular attention may be paid to rearing young Negroes & taking care of those grown up, that ye number may be encreasd as much as possible,- also putting several ye most promising & ingenious Lads apprentices to different trades, such as Carpenters, Coopers, Wheelwrights, Sawyers, Shipwrights, Bricklayers, Plaisterers, Shoemakers & Blacksmiths; Some women also should be taught to weave.
William Lee 1778

The African-American population on a large tobacco plantation was made up of both skilled and agricultural workers. Richard Henry Lee wrote his brother William in 1770 concerning the slaves at Green Spring:

Out of the 164 slaves … but 59 are crop negroes, I mean exclusive of boys, – 12 are house servants, 4 Carpenters 1 Wheelwright, 2 Shoe makers, 3 gardeners and Ostlers…
Most Africans arrived in Virginia between June and August, when the tobacco plants had already been moved from the seed beds and were growing rapidly in the fields. Many of these men, women, and children brought skills with them, including experience in agriculture in their native land.5 Their first task on the plantation was to weed between the rows of tobacco plants, using either their hands, axes, or hoes. Ibos and other Africans had used similar techniques in raising crops in Africa. After a few months, they were then taught how to harvest the tobacco.

On large tobacco plantations, slaves were divided into gangs depending on their strength and abilities. These were led by black foremen. Under Landon Carter’s system:

My overseers tend their foreman close for one day in every Job; and deducting 115 of that day’s work, he ought every day to keep up to that. Therefore, by dividing every gang into good, Middling, and indifferent hands, one person out of each is to be watched for 1 day’s work, and all of the same division must be kept to his proportion. And I can truely say that I never found 20,000 [plants] per hand of corn and tobacco too much to be tended except in very wet years.
Slave children usually began to work part-time in the tobacco fields around the age of seven. Tasks for children varied greatly from plantation to plantation; often, they spent the rest of their day running errands, watching the younger children, doing odd jobs, or playing.

The lives of these agricultural laborers were determined by the agricultural rhythms of the plantation. Certain times in the year were busier than others and they would have to work whatever hours were necessary to ensure a good crop. Landon Carter wrote:

Upon Saturday’s rain I sent to W. Lawson my Overseer to be ready before day this morning that we might make a finish; his answer was he would be at it long before day as it was moonshine. I got up before two o’clock, had all the people sent for, but no overseer at home. Neither did he come till full day when I had planted at last 1,200 [plants].
Artisan and house slaves were not wholly exempt from such labor. If he needed more hands to accomplish a task immediately, or if a slave had finished his assigned work, Carter had no hesitation sending them to the fields. In 1770 he gloated:
a most hearty day’s work of gangs, Jobbers, Carpenters, and even spinners. For every toe has been as active as it could possibly be …. by 4 o’clock I had planted and replanted full 200,000 plants….

Although most black women were field hands, by the 1770’s a small but growing number were employed in weaving, making clothes, dairying, and household and child care. Men had already become more diversified, joining white artisans as skilled craftsmen. Initially, many of these had learned their trade through an apprenticeship to a white man. As the number of African-American craftsmen grew on the plantation, they were increasingly able to train their fellow slaves, often passing along skills to their children or kinsmen.

Slave Labor at Stratford

The household of Philip Ludwell Lee and his wife Elizabeth was a busy one, in which slaves, indentured servants, and free white men and women all had a role. Married around 1761-1762, the Lees had two daughters, Matilda and Flora. The needs and desires of the family determined not only their lifestyle, but that of the many men, women, and children who staffed the Great House, home plantation, and even outlying quarters. In the 1782 slave list there are sixteen individuals with specific skills recorded. These are the men discussed below.

In 1773, Philip Ludwell Lee wrote his brother William in London, “As you know the repairs of my great house are large every year.” Although this was a request for an indentured joiner, Colonel Phil also had four enslaved house carpenters who were undoubtedly kept busy working not only on the mansion, but also the other numerous buildings about the plantation and quarters. Philip Ludwell Lee’s ledger records that he hired out joiners and carpenters; it may be that when he could not keep them busy with his own tasks, their time was leased to neighbors eager to pay for their services.

One of these house carpenters, Harry, was also a fiddler. Philip Ludwell Lee was an enthusiastic musician and kept a band at Stratford. Apparently composed of both slaves and indentured servants, the band would entertain their master’s guests and, from a perch on the coach, herald his arrival at neighboring plantations. Harry also played fashionable music for the dances so loved by the eighteenth century Virginia gentry. In 1782 the young Lucinda Lee, visiting at nearby Chantilly, happily confided to her journal, “Dinner is just over. Harry, the Fiddler, is sent for, and we are going to dance.”

Philip Ludwell Lee’s intense interest in horses is reflected in the employment of two slaves as postilions, 35 year old Titus and 16 year old Caesar. Valued at 80 and 60 pounds respectively, they were both important members of the community. The postilion rode the near horse of the leaders to guide the team drawing the coach. They were also sometimes used as messengers.

The Lees entertained frequently. Setting a good table was an art and a reflection of Elizabeth Lee’s domestic management and elegance. Thomas Lee had employed two English male indentured cooks, the latter of whom was highly skilled and also worked for a few years for Philip Ludwell Lee. In 1782, Philip Ludwell Lee’s cook, Caesar, was 50 years of age.6 He may have benefitted from the instructions of Richard Mynatt, the English indentured cook who left Stratford in 1754. Caesar’s culinary labors were undoubtedly closely supervised by the mistress of Stratford.

Anthony was the gardener for the Lee family. He certainly would have had assistance, and possibly supervision by a white indentured servant, in maintaining the formal and kitchen gardens of the Great House.

Blacksmiths were highly valued artisans on a plantation. They shoed horses and were responsible for making and repairing a wide variety of equipment for the main house complex and plantation. Philip Ludwell Lee had two African-American blacksmiths. In 1782, Billy and Phil were both seventeen and assessed at 100 pounds.

The two ship carpenters were the most valuable slaves. Thirty year old Osman was worth 120 pounds, while the slightly younger Edmund was appraised at 100 pounds. They may have been employed about the Stratford waterfront or could have worked on the construction and repairs of Philip Ludwell Lee’s vessels at the Nomony shipyard. Hiring out was a common practice by this time, particularly for slaves with desirable skills. Osman and Edmund may have been very profitable investments for their master.

Congo, the 55 year old bricklayer, was estimated to be worth 75 pounds. His high value at what was an elderly age for a slave in eighteenth century Virginia reflects the skills he must have honed throughout the years. Congo was nine years old in 1737 when he arrived in Virginia and was purchased by Thomas Lee.7 It was unusual to apprentice an African-born slave to an artisan, but his intelligence and promise must have been obvious. Congo may have learned his craft from an experienced bricklayer employed by Thomas Lee during the construction of Stratford. Certainly the imposing walls, Great House, and outbuildings would have benefitted from his expert attention in later years.

The young weaver, Tom, would have been employed near the Great House in the production of fabric for use on the plantation. He probably worked with a few female slaves, although their identity is unknown.

Boatswain was a young child when he was purchased by Thomas Lee in 1732. He may have gained his name from the profession for which he was intended. A boatswain was in charge of the crew manning a vessel. River travel was important for both people and crops and Boatswain would have been in a very responsible position. By 1782, however, he was 60 elderly for a slave, and almost certainly too weak to continue such strenuous work. As an experienced waterman, it is probable that he now fished for the household.

In 1771, the acerbic Landon Carter complained:

He has also hired a Miller expressly against my orders for I have over and over repeated that I would have a hand of my own taught to grind While Millers are no honester and we are to pay them for thieving from us.
If, around 1760, the mill at Stratford was transformed into a commercial mill grinding for export, it is probable that an experienced white miller would have been hired to direct the more sophisticated operation. Slaves could then have worked under his supervision, providing labor but also learning the craft and, in the future, saving their master the wages of a miller.

The severe damage obviously suffered by the Stratford waterfront during the 1769 hurricane and subsequent loss of the tobacco inspection warehouse probably resulted in an abrupt decline in commercial activity at the Landing. The mill almost certainly was seriously damaged. Once Philip Ludwell Lee learned that the inspection warehouse would not be replaced, he may have decided against the investment needed for the restoration of a commercial mill and reverted to a more simplistic operation designed to serve his plantation and neighboring farms.

The estate of Philip Ludwell Lee employed a slave named Bab “at the mill” in 1776. By 1782, six years later, his place had been taken by the 40 year old James. In 1732, Thomas Lee purchased the ten year old African boy Monkey. Monkey was a shoemaker for Philip Ludwell Lee. He appears in his master’s ledger for 1766-1767 and again in 1770-1773. As no occupation is given for him in the slave list, it may be that Monkey made shoes in his free time and sold them to his master for spending money. This type of self-employment was frequently permitted on plantations.

Slave Housing

Even on the same plantation, slave housing varied considerably. Separate dwellings were a luxury generally enjoyed only by favored house slaves or those with special skills or duties. Some of the household and skilled slaves often lived in a quarter near the main house complex, generally in better constructed dwellings than those provided for the average slave. The others, some of whom may have worked about the Great House and outbuildings but primarily in agricultural pursuits, would have lived in large quarters out of sight of the main house. Although their dwellings were usually more primitive, they at least enjoyed a certain measure of privacy from the constant intrusion of their master and his family.

Slave dwellings were generally occupied by family groups, although this was not always the case.8 The houses in a typical quarter were arranged in either straight or opposing straight lines, forming what sometimes appeared to be a small village. The spacing between the buildings varied, ranging from 30 to 34 1/2 or, at the most, 100 feet.

Most slave houses were very small. With one room and possibly a loft above, they typically measured 12 by 16 or 20 feet. There was usually a wooden chimney lined with clay and a dirt floor. The buildings were seldom finished on the interior, although they might benefit from an occasional coat of whitewash. Typically there would be, at most, one window with wooden shutters instead of glass. If there was a loft, there would be a ladder, ladder stair, or, in more elaborate houses, a narrow enclosed winder stair. The cabins seem to have had shingled roofs, although thatch may have been more common than the records currently indicate. Landon Carter, for instance, had a thatched roof put on the house built for his slave Postilion Tom.

The slave holder spent little time or expense outfitting these dwellings. A built-in bed was the most common, and sometimes the only, comfort provided. Clothes, a blanket, an iron pot, and a grindstone or handmill for beating corn into meal were also usually present. Those slaves who hunted and fished for the Great House would have had guns, possibly traps, and fishing equipment.

The individuals living in these houses adapted their surroundings to suit their needs and desires as much as was possible. Their own workmanship, purchases made from the profit of labor in their spare time, scavenging or pilfering among the equipment of the plantation supplied them with such amenities as stools, additional pots and other implements for cooking and eating, pipes, and musical instruments. They might also make shelving, if this was not already provided. The shelves could either be fixed in the niche next to the fireplace or be of a moveable type, supported on round sticks set into the wall. Spikes were sometimes driven into the rafters so they could dry herbs and other plant material.

Most dwellings seem to have had “cuddy holes” and root cellars under the floor. These storage areas were small holes, about three feet all the way around, often lined with boards. They have frequently been found during excavations of slave houses in Virginia and Maryland and were used to store everything from sweet potatoes to stolen items best hidden from inquisitive eyes.

The area around the quarter was considered a public space. The families’ pet dogs, the chickens many slaves managed to raise, and other livestock permitted by the master were common sights. Here also were the small gardens where they raised produce to supplement their diet, sell, or trade for services. Tools used both in agriculture and their duties might also be kept in the yards.

Some slaves were required to sleep where they could, if needed, attend to their duties at all times. At Sabine Hall, two slaves “lay in [the] house” and Thomas Jefferson’s slave Isaac recalled that he:

slept in the out-chamber [school] where the scholars was: slept on the floor in a blanket: in the winter season get up in the morning and make fire for them.
Landon Carter made evident the lack of privacy available to those slaves living in his house when he described the incident of the stolen butter pot:

This morning we had a complaint about a butter pot’s being taken from the dairy door where it was put to sweeten last night and that it was seen there after candle light. Unfortunately for the thief that night was a very particular one, everybody that was well or could move was ‘sent down to hang a prodigeous cutting of tobacco in Scaffolds at the Mangorike tobacco house. So that it must be done near home. Owen had gone over the River at 12 o’clock … and did not come back till 2 in the night. So he could not say whether the Servants that lay in house had done it or not. How[ever] I sent Billy Beale [Carter’s steward] to search all their holes and boxes; And in their loft, it was found, but both of them solemnly denying they knew anything of it.
Slave Housing at Stratford

The reconstructed slave quarters at Stratford are two 16 x 32 feet stone duplexes covered with wood, which would have housed a family on each side.9 Although only some 150 yards southeast of the Great House, these were effectively screened from sight by the kitchen court and trees. Despite their discrete situation, they were still part of the immediate landscape of the main house and, as such, more attractively and carefully built than those in the typical quarter. Brick chimneys were used both to improve their appearance and lessen the danger of fire to the Great House. Historical architect Paul Buchanan has recently theorized that a matching set of duplexes was on the southwest of the main house, opposite to and screened by the stables as well as trees.

Certain house and skilled slaves would have occupied these duplexes. To the southeast, these dwellings were within convenient access of the garden, kitchen, smokehouse, meathouse, and laundry. The service areas of the Great House were easily reached through the entrances on the east. Judging from the 1782 list, it seems most likely that the families of Anthony, the gardener, Harry, the house carpenter and fiddler, Caesar the cook, and one other domestic or skilled slave lived in these dwellings.10

One of the postilions, Caesar, was young and, as he was probably related to the cook, may have lived with his family on the southeast or, possibly, slept in a loft over the stables. Titus, the other much older postilion, may have lived with his family in one of the duplexes to the southwest of the Great House. Other possible occupants of these dwellings include the blacksmiths, house carpenters, and bricklayer. The miller, James, would have lived near his place of work, even if only in a loft over the mill. The ship carpenters may have lived on the waterfront; if they were hired out to the Nomony shipyard or were employed there by Philip Ludwell Lee, these two men, Osman and Edmund, may have lived in that area.

Due to the lack of evidence as to the occupations of the women and the absence of family groupings in the list, it is impossible to assign them or the children to any particular quarter. Undoubtedly some of them worked about the Great House and dependencies, but what tasks they undertook remains unknown.

The other individuals included in the 1782 list would have been divided among various quarters.11 There was one at the Upper Clifts, another along the road to the mill, where the Directors’ cabins are now, one at Hallow’s Marsh, and another near the current water tower on Stratford. 12

It is difficult to determine how many slaves lived on any one quarter due to the grouping together on the list of all of the slaves at Stratford, Hallow’s Marsh, and the Clifts. We do know, however, that, in 1776, there were 83 men, women, and children living and working at Stratford. By 1782, there were 137 slaves at Stratford, Hallow’s Marsh, and the Clifts. Although it will not be accurate, it is legitimate to approximate and speculate that, in 1782, there were around 27 slaves on each of these two quarters, with around 83 others divided among the various quarters on Stratford, the home plantation.

Naming Practices

A man’s name is a principal component of his personality, perhaps even a portion of his soul.
-Sigmund Freud
The study of the names of enslaved African-Americans in the eighteenth century is complex and controversial. Traditionally, naming practices have been used as evidence of acculturation and assimilation. Acculturation is a borrowing between two diverse cultures which results in new and blended patterns. Assimilation means to become absorbed into a cultural tradition different from one’s own andto accept its habits and attitudes.

As soon as an African was put on a slave ship, he or she was given a new name by the slaver. One common practice was to call the first woman on board Eve and the first man Adam. Those with more literary pretensions would sometimes use the asexual names Primus and Secundus.

Once brought to the colony and sold, the slave was typically renamed by the new master. The Bible was the most common source of names. Biblical names of slaves at Stratford included Daniel, Rachel, Eve, Abraham, Jacob, Abel, Sarah, Mary, James, and Solomon.

After the Bible, the “classics” were the most prevalent sources of names. This may have been more than a reflection of the emphasis on Graeco-Roman civilization in eighteenth century education; many planters enjoyed stressing the similarity of their society to ancient Greece and Rome, in both of which the institution of slavery flourished. Classically inspired names at Stratford included Caesar, Anthony, Titus, Marcus, Homer, Osman, and Philander. Caesar the postilion may have been named for his father, who I believe was the cook, Caesar. This passing on of a name from father to son was a part of the Western tradition, although it may have been adopted by slaves to record parenthood in a society which usually recognized only maternal lines.13

Another source of inspiration for the master was place names. Sometimes these would have importance to the owner. The name Rippen undoubtedly derived from the Jenings family, close relatives of the Lees, who were from Ripon in Yorkshire. It was also common to relate a name to the ship on which the slave travelled to Virginia, or the origin of his journey. At Stratford, these names were Nassau, London, Dominick, and Congo. An African place name, such as that of the bricklayer Congo, might also have indicated a slave’s place of birth. This may have been an adaptation of this pattern, as it was an African custom to include a child’s birthplace as part of his name.

White masters also gave occupational names. This may have been a continuation of the medieval English tradition of taking one’s trade for a name. This would apply to only one individual at Stratford, Boatswain.

Many white owners chose names from the same group they used for their own families. Instead of the proper form, however, the slave would be given the nickname or diminutive version. All of the names used in diminutive form by skilled slaves at Stratford were, in their proper usage, Lee family names – William, Francis, Henry, Philip, and Thomas.14 One of the slaves was called Edmund, a common name in the Jenings family. As the Stratford Lees did not use this name, the diminutive form was unnecessary.

The continued use of such Westernized names for skilled slaves at Stratford may be evidence of a greater assimilation of these African-Americans into Virginia society. A consideration of the names of those slaves whose crafts are recorded in the 1782 list shows a strong correlation. These were: Anthony (classical), Billy (diminutive), Boatswain(occupational), Caesar (classical), Congo (place name), Edmund (family), Frank(diminutive), Harry (diminutive), James (Biblical), Osman (classical), Phil (diminutive), Rippen (place name), Titus (classical), and Tom (diminutive).

It is among those slaves for whom no skill is recorded that African names and patterns seem to be significant. It is unknown to what degree the original meaning of these names and practices were retained throughout the years, but their persistence, even in English form, may be an indication of the African-Americans’ attempt to retain aspects of their own culture.

Although much more research needs to be done before definitive conclusions are drawn, such female names as Sukey, Beck, and Sinna are believed to be African in origin. African naming customs included using words denoting time, weather, and appearance. Those names at Stratford in which this custom is reflected in English words are Easter and Clear. It is also possible, however, that these children were named for relatives and the original rationale had, by this point, been forgotten.

Two more obvious examples of the custom of names denoting time are the names of Kajah, the slave convicted of hog stealing, and Cager. Kajah and Cager may have been variations or misspellings by the clerk of the Westmoreland County court of the African name Cudjo, which meant Monday. In Africa, many tribes followed the custom of naming their children for the day on which he or she was born, using one of fourteen ‘day names,” seven of which were used for females and seven for males. This practice has been compared to the use of astrological signs to determine a person’s character traits. In other words, this naming practice was a way to classify an individual’s personality or perhaps endow him with certain characteristics. It is also reminiscent of the English nursery rhyme, “Monday’s child is fair of face.”

The endurance of competing Western and African traditions at Stratford implies a variable situation. This may reflect the assimilation of the skilled slaves and the acculturation of those laboring in the fields, who seem to have retained, to an extent, African names and customs, although these were sometimes expressed in English words. The degree to which the Lee masters tolerated foreign African names may have been determined by the familiarity and day-to-day contact of the white family with each particular slave.


Philip Ludwell Lee died in 1775. His daughter Matilda married the Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light Horse Harry’ Lee in 1782. Although a superb military leader, Lee was unfortunate in his business affairs. Inexorably he slid deeper and deeper into debt, dragging friends and family members with him. In 1809, he was imprisoned for debt.

When the owner experienced financial difficulties, the slaves suffered. Their care, whether in terms of a doctor’s visits or even food, was frequently the first expense to be cut. Inevitably, the slaves themselves were seen as an easily available source of cash. One lawsuit included a description of a sale carried out during Lee’s absence. His agent
“invited me to Stratford where he had the doors of … the s[ai]d Lee’s dwelling house open … and gave up the household furniture and stock of different kinds the property of … Lee and Sundry Negroes, which Said property was … by me sold”

The year 1782 signaled the end of stability for African-American families at Stratford. Increasingly, the lives of Henry Lee’s slaves were undoubtedly made bitter by the disruption of families through sales and a bleak recognition of the uncertainty of their future.


1 A pre-restoration photograph of the interior of the outside kitchen shows the partition, architectural evidence that the closet was in this building. Possibly following this theft, the lower part of the window was closed, making it virtually impossible for a person to enter from the outside but still allowing some light. The items stolen indicate that the closet was used for storage.

2 The terms bacon and ham were often used interchangeably during this period.

3 Unfortunately, this letter is severely mutilated. Although it was written from Stratford in December, the year is missing.

4 According to architectural historian Paul Buchanan, the dresser would have been a type of cupboard, large enough for a man to stretch out upon comfortably, built into the wall of either one of the kitchens or possibly the room now interpreted as the housekeeper’s, which may have been a pantry. As built-in furniture, it would not have been included in an inventory.

5 For example, in colonial South Carolina the Africans brought to work the plantations were frequently more familiar with the cultivation of rice than their white masters. Much of the success in the commercial development of this crop has been attributed to skilled African labor.

6 It was common on large plantations to have a male cook.

7 The ages of slave children imported into the colony had to be recorded by their masters within three months of their purchase. Careless record keeping sometimes results in slight discrepancies between the age recorded initially and that given in later documents. I do not believe the difference is significant if it is no more than two years.

8 On out-lying quarters, slaves would sometimes be housed in dormitory type structures; if the usual “street” arrangement of separate houses was used, there might be less regularity in the placing of the structures.

9 As a result of his archaeological survey, Fraser Neiman has tentatively dated the original construction of these dwellings as the early 1770s. They may have replaced earlier buildings on the site.

10 This is speculation, of course, but entirely logical given their occupations and the proximity of the duplexes to the Great House. Caesar and his family could also have lived in the kitchen building. Unfortunately, the fragmentary record of these people’s lives makes such “intelligent guesswork” almost unavoidable if they are to emerge as individuals.

11 A few of the slaves may have slept in the Great House or other buildings in the main house complex.

12 The location of the quarter at the water tower is shown on the 1933 topographic map of Stratford. This site has been severely disturbed. Although it is not marked, it can be seen while walking the nature trail to the spring houses. Archaeologist Fraser Neiman found considerable evidence of colonial occupation near the Directors’ cabins. In his opinion, the paved road and parking lot may have had only limited impact on these sites, which are very probably associated with this slave quarter.

13 In Africa, it was common to name one’s children for their grandparents.

14 Only Harry was old enough to have been named by Thomas Lee. All of the others were born during Philip Ludwell Lee’s ownership of Stratford. There were three unskilled slaves named Dick, so presumably the name Richard was not forgotten.
*A newer transcription of this highly illegible letter indicates that this word was “waked” instead of “wacked,” making Philip’s response much different from the previous translation.