In 1820, there were 103 enslaved people on the property who performed a range of tasks from tending the fields, to cooking, to blacksmithing, to woodworking, to masonry, to leather working, to milling, to weaving. The cook was considered one of the most valuable enslaved people on the property with the highest level of training, and enslaved children would often help in the kitchen by bringing in water and firewood.
When their eldest daughter, Ann, married Mr. Philip Williams, a lawyer from Woodstock, Virginia, Major and Mrs. Hite ensured that their daughter had the enslaved people they needed to set up their new homestead. In a letter written on 6 May 1826, Mrs. Hite asks whether the new bride and her husband will need help with their garden, and if so, she and Major Hite will send one of their male servants, despite the inconvenience to Belle Grove’s harvest.
In a follow-up letter written just a few days later, Mrs. Hite continues to go into detail about two of their unmarried enslaved men:
Daniel’s qualities you know, they say however that he is smart at work and he can be smart in the house and probably would with you as he would have other things to do to prevent idleness he did work a little in the garden under Hogin. Isaac too has worked in garden but has never been in the house, at any period in his life except for the last mentioned business. Isaac would I presume be the most valuable at present he has however a proud spirit and might not at all times be very manageable. Daniel is in his 17th year since January, you and your husband must make your choice, they are the only two that have not wives.Mrs. Hite on 10 May 1826
These two letters from Mrs. Hite to her daughter are revealing, if not a little raw and shocking, too. While Mrs. Hite describes Isaac as having a proud spirit and not always being very manageable, she also seems unwilling to send married men away from the plantation (and arguably away from their families). In two letters she wrote in December of that same year, 1826, she talks about the enslaved families in such a way that she clearly saw them as close units who needed and relied on each other, but she was still their enslaver.
Tell Hannah that Daniel has got pretty well now but has been complaining very much since she went away. Evelina and her child are doing very well.Mrs. Hite to her daughter, Ann Maury, on 21 December 1826
Anthony is very impatient for the return of his wife [Judah] as the children are very troublesome to him at night he complains that he can get no rest for them. I hope her coming will not subject you to any inconvenience. I should not have agreed to his going was it not for the children.Mrs. Hite to her daughter, Ann Maury, on 30 December 1826
What do you think?
Think like a historian and step back into the 1800s in the Shenandoah Valley for just a moment: Did Mrs. Hite attempt to keep enslaved families together, or was she an enslaver who looked at her enslaved as property instead of real people?
Did you know?
There has been a shift away from slave and slave owner/master to enslaved person and enslaver. Historians, scholars, and writers believe that slave is dehumanizing and unfair because the person didn’t have a choice – their enslaved life was forced on them. Using “enslaved” as an adjective (description) rather than a noun (object) helps reinforce that fact that one group of people – the enslavers – forced an enslaved life on another group of people – the enslaved. From here, we can then bring in the humanity of the enslaved person by adding who they actually were – man, woman, child, worker, and so forth. Similarly, the term slave owner implies that a person can own another person, which isn’t the case, so “enslaver” more accurately describes those who forcibly enslaved people.