the horrifying matter-of-factness of slavery -- 12/14/20

Today's selection -- from Langdon Cheves of South Carolina by Archie Vernon Huff, Jr. Langdon Cheves was a prominent South Carolinian and rice plantation owner who served as a U. S. representative from 1810 to 1815, speaker of the house in 1814 to 1815, and president of the Second Bank of the United States from 1819 to 1822. The excerpt below underscores the horror of slavery in its very matter-of-factness. Note especially the comments on “rice field” versus “cotton field” slaves, given the brutally greater difficulty of the former:

"The purchase and maintenance of a slave labor force was one of Cheves's chief concerns. Slaves were his largest single invest­ment, and he treated their acquisition and care with correspond­ing attention. In 1841 he estimated the value of his land to be $70,000, while his slaves were worth $78,000. Between 1830 and 1841, as well as can be determined, he spent a total of $96,000 for land and $115,991.28 for slaves. The number of slaves at Delta varied from year to year, depending on rate of birth, purchases, and losses through death or runaways. The 1840 Census lists 187 slaves, while Cheves estimated about 1841 that he had 195. After the initial purchases he continued to invest heavily in slaves. Be­tween 1832 and 1841, he purchased 53 Negroes for Delta. Thirty-one slaves were bought between 1836 and 1838, no doubt because of the cholera epidemic in September 1837, in which 25 slaves died. In the nine years between 1837 and 1845 there were 40 slave births, with the number in any one year varying from 1 in 1840 to 15 in 1845. Because of the loss of the plantation records it is impossible to give any complete statistics of loss and gain for the eleven-year period during which Cheves managed the planta­tion.

"The average price Cheves paid for slaves increased gradually from 1830 to 1841, though the cost of individual Negroes varied widely. A number of factors affected the purchase price, includ­ing the demand for and the age, health, and skill of, particular slaves, and whether a slave was bought individually or as part of a group. Large gangs of Negroes, which included men and women and children of all ages, were priced lower than smaller groups or individuals. In 1830 Cheves bought two large gangs at $300 per slave. In 1839 he bought a gang from his neighbor, Daniel Heyward, at $819 per slave. In 1831 he bought a man and a woman for $750, and a 'female Negro slave named Tenah' for $400. In 1836 he purchased three slaves 'at public outcry' for an average of $440 each. The nature of a slave gang is illustrated by one Cheves bought in 1844, composed of seventeen slaves. There were twelve 'prime workers' of both sexes, whose ages varied from eighteen to thirty-eight, and five children from four to six years old.

"Cheves secured all of his slaves from the estates of their former owners, either through slave dealers or directly from the executors of the estates. In Charleston he purchased slaves from the firms of Condy and Dawes, A.G. McGrath (later governor of South Carolina), and Bee and Carter. His first purchases, in 1830, were from the firm of Bee and Carter -- the senior partner, Bar­nard E. Bee, was a member of a distinguished South Carolina family and had a summer home in Pendleton, near the Cheves's. When Cheves approached Bee in November 1830, the dealer did not have as large a gang on hand as Cheves desired. Several weeks later, however, Bee was authorized to sell the slaves belonging to the estate of Pinckney Horry, who had owned Hampton Planta­tion, between Charleston and Georgetown. Hugh Rose, Bee's agent, selected a suitable gang for Cheves. But when the slaves heard they were to be carried to the Savannah River, they left the plantation and refused to come back unless Rose purchased the rice they had been allowed to raise for themselves at Hampton. Only when Bee personally went to the plantation and arranged to sell their crop would they consent to return to Hampton. Sixty­-four slaves were shipped by steamboat to Cheves at Savannah. Bee no doubt felt he had earned the 2 percent commission he charged for that sale!

"Cheves secured other slaves directly from the executors or from the heirs of estates. From William E. Haskell -- whose son Charles had married Cheves's daughter in 1830 -- Cheves purchased sixty-three slaves, the property of two children for whom Haskell was guardian. In payment Cheves gave Haskell a mortgage on the slaves for $18,000 and agreed to pay the indebtedness in three annual installments. In 1839 Cheves purchased a gang of thirty­-six slaves from a Cuthbert estate. At the time of purchase 'the woman Beck' was sick with scarlet fever. The contract specified that 'should she die, the average price, say $600, shall be ad­justed.' Before delivery could be made, the woman died, though she 'had attendance of a physician and every care given her that could be.' The agreed amount was deducted from Cheves's bill.

"Generally Cheves was careful to purchase 'rice field Negroes' for Delta, but in 1814 he bought eleven 'Cotton field Negroes, from about twenty miles from Charleston.' When the slaves dis­covered they were going to a rice plantation they 'threatened to resist.' But they 'cooled down,' and Cheves gave them 'new blankets to put them in good humor.' He sent them to Delta by steamboat under the care of June, one of their number, who 'it has been said [was for] six years an apprentice to a ship car­penter.'

"After a decade of experience, Cheves had learned what he considered the 'essential points' of purchasing slaves. Most im­portant were 'the age, the strength, and the health of a Negro.' He was skeptical of 'a high priced Negro, warranted in all re­spects,' because for such slaves 'I have almost always found the warranty fail.' He was also careful lest a highly recommended slave be a 'drunkard,' though on the plantation 'there is the possibility of restraining him from liquor.' Though every planta­tion the size of Delta needed a number of skilled workmen to do carpentry, blacksmithing, and the like, the price of such slaves was high. Cheves recommended that his son purchase such skilled laborers from his factor, Robert Habersham, who would allow the slaves to be taken 'on trial' before final purchases were made." 


Archie Vernon Huff, Jr.


Langdon Cheves of South Carolina


University of South Carolina Press


Coyright 1977 by the University of South Carolina


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