Beyond Ideals: Proslavery Reforms On A Nineteenth-Century Cotton Plantation
The last four decades of the antebellum period witnessed the rise of a proslavery plantation reform movement aimed at preserving slavery in the face of increasing abolitionist pressure. Reformers promoted the image of ideal enslaved households operating as part of efficient modern plantations ruled by reason, benevolent management techniques, and scientific agriculture. Where implemented, reforms resulted in numerous changes to plantation life both around the home and in the fields. Slaves who bore the brunt of these changes struggled to resist plantation reforms or grudgingly accepted them depending on the impact upon established daily routines and any potential benefits bondsmen may have foreseen.
Utilizing a novel integrated landscape and household framework, this dissertation examines two neighboring slave quarter sites that were excavated between 2009 and 2012 on Witherspoon Island, a large nineteenth-century cotton plantation located in Darlington County, South Carolina. Looking at both the dwellings and surrounding yard space associated with these contested landscapes, this study seeks to understand what reforms may have been adopted by planter John Dick Witherspoon and their impact on the plantation’s vibrant enslaved community. Specifically, this dissertation examines the material and symbolic impact of labor reforms on enslaved inhabitants, their dwellings and associated landscapes through the lens of dwelling architecture, household sanitation, slave diet, religious instruction, health care, and market access for slaves. While many of the reforms regarding improved housing, diet or sanitation may have appeared outwardly humane, I argue that the core of the reform movement was concerned with developing a better means to physically control slaves across the plantation landscape both in the fields and in the private lives bondsmen worked to create.