Plantation Artifacts Dispel Helpless Slave Stereotype


An archeological team excavating an old James River plantation in Virginia has found evidence that some enslaved Africans partially supported their families with their own gardens and livestock and that they hunted for game and fished the river. They became part of entrepreneurial America, bartering or buying dishes, beads and children’s toys.

The work of College of William and Mary archeologist Tom Higgins, supported by similar finds at other Virginia plantations, shatters the long-held belief that all slaves were helpless, dependent people who could do little to care for themselves.

“We know now that the people who lived here took the initiative to make their condition better,” Higgins said as he walked along a soybean field where 100 or more slaves had lived on the 2,000-acre Wilton plantation east of Richmond. “They were creative. They found ways to take care of themselves under a brutal and oppressive system.”

Higgins bases his conclusions on several discoveries made by a team of archeologists that has been exploring an acre of the farmland since April. The Virginia Department of Transportation hired them to document the area before construction begins on a road through the former plantation.


Higgins spread out a drawn-to-scale map of the area. He pointed to the location of barracks-style housing and adjoining fenced areas, appropriate for penned animals or garden crops.

Some slaves were given guns to hunt wildlife, and although Higgins found no state government permits issued to the African workers of Wilton, he did find pieces of 18th century guns buried in the heavy clay along with animal and fish bones.

Within the boundaries of what had been large, single-room buildings dating from the 1700s, Higgins found multiple rectangular holes that had been lined with brick or wood. Similar spaces had been found at the restored Carter Grove plantation near Williamsburg and at Monticello near Charlottesville, he said.

At Wilton, he found five such spaces under what had been a slave house that burned to the ground about 1790. So sudden was the destruction that the log walls caved in, the twig and mud chimneys collapsed, and the five rectangular holes were buried under the debris. In these spaces, which some historians call root cellars or hidy-holes, Higgins found an impressive collection of things that would have been considered special to occupants of the house.

He spread out some of his favorite items: the metal part of an oversize hoe, two heavy clothes irons, earth-tone beads, stone marbles, a dozen common pins and a metal thimble.

He held up a reconstructed, china chamber pot with graceful blue flowers, blackened at the top by the fire.

“If this had been trash, it would have been broken into small pieces,” he said. “It would have been trampled and crushed.”

Higgins’s theory about the use of the underground storage areas as places to keep important personal possessions is supported by the director of archeology at Monticello, Fraser Neiman.


“I like to call them safe-deposit boxes,” he said.

Neiman said that the “boxes” were first documented about 20 years ago and that historians have had several theories about their use. One theory holds that they were used in the practice of an African custom; another says they were places to hide items stolen from the plantation owner.

He discounts both. The “boxes,” have been found only in Virginia and not in other slaveholding states. They have been found in connection with large, single-room slave quarters, but not at excavations of smaller, family-size houses.

He said people living communally needed secure places to put their possessions, such as extra food, cash or purchased items. They disappeared from use about 1800 when Virginia plantation owners built individual houses that offered security for personal possessions, he said.


Wilton House Museum administrator Sylvia Evans said the group would like to exhibit the artifacts found by Higgins as a way to acknowledge the role played by the slaves at the plantation.