How to buy the book

You can order at History Press as well as Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other on-line retailers. I will send you a signed copy for $23, a little extra to cover shipping. I will send you both Slave Labor in the Capital and Through a Fiery Trial for $40. Send a check to me at PO Box 63, Wellesley Island, NY 13640-0063.

My lectures at Sotterley Plantation in St. Mary's County, Maryland, on September 23, 2015, and the DAR Library on December 5 are now blog posts below listed under book talks. The talk I gave
at the Politics and Prose Bookstore on February 28, 2015, along with Heather Butts, author African American Medicine in Washington, was taped by the bookstore. Take a listen.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas 1794

As far as I could tell when I did research in the National Archives, overseers and foremen began consistently keeping payrolls and time roles in December 1794.  I photocopied all I could find for that month, time roles for laborers and stone carvers, and payrolls for stone cutters and carpenters.

According to the time role for laborers, the cook Thomas Smith and the overseer Bennett Mudd worked on Christmas Day, as well as a free laborer named Francis Smith. No one else worked that day. Everyone else was marked absent. Of course, time rolls give no idea if the meal Thomas Smith prepared on Christmas Day 1794 was in anyway different from what he usually did with the salt meat and Indian meal which was the laborers' and overseers' common fare.

But special or not, we learn something about the city in 1794 if we use the information we have to figure out who might have been around to partake of that Christmas dinner.

In conjunction with Obama's Inauguration in 2009, the National Archives shared a photograph of the time role of overseers and laborers at the President's house. It gives graphic evidence of the hired slaves working on the public buildings.

You can see the free workers on the top of the list and the hired slaves at the bottom. An "N" prefaces the slave's one name and the master's name comes after that. 

In doing this blog post, I stumbled on a good way to share this photo. I use the "original size" of the photo which, of course, doesn't fit into the neat dimensions of the blog. But you can scroll down and see the names of the free and slave workers at their actual size. Use the bottom bar on the blog and move it to the right and see which days the men worked. You can align the right edge of your device with "25 Thursday," Christmas Day, and see that for all but three men, it was a day off. You can also see who worked on Christmas Eve and who continued working after Christmas.

I used this time role as an illustration in Slave Labor in the Capital. It is a fundamental document about the founding of Washington. For one thing it shows that there was no work on Sunday. Work on that day was not even listed as an option. In my book, I pointed out how the information on it shows that most of the hired slaves stopped working a few days for Christmas. Their yearly hire was up. 

The few slaves who worked after Christmas likely had owners who lived nearby like Middleton Belt's Jack and James Claggett's George, The last day of three of Edward Plowden's slaves was the 22nd and they didn't work again in December. They were taken back by to St. Mary's County. (His slave named Arnold did work after Christmas. There is no telling why.)

There is another time role of the laborers for December 1794 kept by another overseer, Thomas Hardman. It shows the axemen and others who worked with the surveyors. The Archives didn't share a photo of that so a scan of a photocopy I took in 1989, when I collected documents as I researched my book Through a Fiery Trial, will have to do. There is no gap in the list between free and slaves workers, but again the slaves are marked with "N." 

Here is a close up of the portion of the time role listing the hired slaves. No one listed on that time role worked on Christmas Day.

Jerry Holland, the second name on the list below who was a free black, worked on Christmas Eve and then had 3 days offs. Scroll down from that mark on Christmas Eve and you can see that 4 hired slaves also worked then, including Peter, another of Middleton Belt's slaves. Five of the slaves had their last day on December 20th, including three of Edward Plowden's slaves who faced a long trip back to St. Mary's County. Seven of the free laborers worked on Christmas Eve.

Counting the men who worked on Christmas Eve and after Christmas, then Thomas Smith might have prepared Christmas dinner for 34 laborers including 14 hired slaves.

As far as I can tell from what records we have, the slave and free laborers worked together and ate together, or at least ate the same food. Payrolls show us another thing they shared. The free laborers were illiterate, too. When they signed for their pay, they made their mark instead, even the cook Thomas Smith.

That Christmas dinner probably included others. Another December time role that I photocopied was not so detailed. But it shows that at least one of the four stone carvers working at the President's house had to have worked after Christmas. He was marked for working 24 days. And another worked 22 1/2 days had to have been around too. (My photocopy cut off their first names, but they were all free, skilled workers and well paid.)

In 1794 Washington was little more than a work site. Hired laborers had to be fed and given a place to sleep. Slaves were hired from masters on that condition and free laborers did not make enough money to afford a home. Skilled workers who made two to three times as much money as the laborers were also given free housing. There is evidence that many of them got rations from the laborer's cook, though there is no record of how many were fed in December 1794. 

We also have the payroll of the carpenters at the President's house, and from that we can see that at least 11 of them were around on Christmas Day, including 5 slave carpenters. It would be more accurate to say two slave carpenters, Harry and Tom, and three teenage apprentices who earned just a bit more than laborers. These slaves belonged to James Hoban who superintended construction and Peirce Purcell who was the foreman at the site. Like all masters, they collected the wages of their slaves.

Then there were the stone cutters. It is fair to say all eyes were on them as they prepared the sandstone for setting at both buildings. There are 32 stone cutters listed in the December payroll. (When scanning the photocopy of this payroll that I made at the National Archives, the size of my scanner forced me to cut off 5 names: Thomas Barth, Frederick Necks, Thomas Dollar, George Jacob and David Waterston. Those 5 are listed in the appendix of Slave Labor in the Capitol where I list the names of slaves, their masters, as well as free workers.)

Of those 32 stone cutters, 20 worked enough days to suggest they were around on Christmas Day, though to suggest that skilled stone cutters would break bread with common laborers is pushing the spirit of Christmas a bit far. Then again, the laborers hauled the sandstone to the work sites. The stone cutters depended on them.

In my book, although all these documents informed my narrative, I don't mention Christmas Day 1794. But December 1794 might be a good starting point for another book about building the capital. That book could try to discover who all the men listed were and what became of them. But a key to learning more about these men is for the National Archives to photograph and share all the payrolls, time roles, and other documents, and put them on-line.

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