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.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Sotterley Plantation Talk

Sotterley Plantation Talk by Bob Arnebeck on his book
Slave Labor in the Capital
September 23, 2015

Being invited to Sotterley Plantation to talk about my book is a dream come true, which sounds like a silly thing to say. I didn't do any research here and the plantation isn't mentioned in the book. Slavery is not the stuff dreams are made of. It was a nightmare.
But there is only one other place to rival this plantation as a place to give a talk on my book. I wouldn't mind lecturing at the old Senate Chamber which you will find in the smallish building that connects the Rotunda of the Capitol with the north wing of the Capitol where the Senate meets today. That chamber looks today somewhat as it did when slaves lifted stones and bricks to the skilled workers who put them in place. That small building today was one of the largest in the nation then and the only part of the Capitol building built by 1800 when Congress moved to Washington.

Sotterley plantation is very close in location and spirit to an equally important part of my book. In the 1700's next door to this plantation there was a plantation called Resurrection Manor owned by the Plowden family. In December 1794 four of the slaves cutting trees to clear streets in Washington belonged to Plowden, Moses, Lin, Jim and Arnold, as well as 4 of the 26 slaves moving stone up to and up on the White House walls, Gerard, Tony, Jack and another Jim. Plowden sent more slaves to work in the capital city to be than any other master and lived the farthest away.
I found the names of the slaves and the name of their master in the records at the National Archives where I did most of my research. But nothing there, no letters or accounts connected the Plowden to Resurrection Manor. I learned that from Jessica Neuworth's monograph on the archaeology of Sotterley Plantation. I haven't found any letters explaining why Plowden hired out so many slaves to work so far away. That's another reason I'm glad to be speaking here because someone in this audience might be inspired to search local historical records and come up with an answer.
Now I could explain how the slaves helped build the Capitol and White House without fussing over where they came from. But slaves were people even though in most cases we only know their first names. So just as I think it is important to know that James Hoban who designed and supervised the construction of the White House was born on an estate in County Kilkenny, Ireland and came to America in 1785, I want to know as much as I can about Gerard, Tony, Jack and Jim, who were working under him. I want to know why they were hired and not simply trust in generalizations, usually racist, like there were simply jobs that white men wouldn't do. I'll try to show you that whites did the same work as the slaves. Indeed that was the point of hiring slaves.

The first workers needed after the city was planned were laborers to cut trees and prepare the building sites. President Washington picked Pierre L'Enfant, who designed the city, to also build it. L'Enfant hired 75 free laborers in September 1791. But the three commissioners, a lawyer, politician and doctor, that Washington appointed to be in charge of the French-born engineer quickly began to dislike L'Enfant. 
For example, they thought he paid his workers too much and fed them too well. He saw that they got chocolate butter for breakfast. In January 1792 the commissioners fired L'Enfant's workers and in April 1792, after L'Enfant left the project, the commissioners decided to use slave laborers. I think it was primarily the idea of the commissioner who was a lawyer, Thomas Johnson, a former Governor of Maryland who has a bridge named after him around here though he flourished in Frederick, Maryland, where he owned slaves who worked his lands and the iron foundry he owned with his brothers.

The other two commissioners were slave owners too but they couldn't just buy slaves to do this work. There was no way they could build the magnificent buildings to rival those in European capitals that President Washington wanted just using unskilled slaves. They had to hire skilled free workers too, preferably from Europe who had worked on the many monumental buildings there. So instead of buying slaves, they hired them to make a point to those free workers: no high wages. 

L'Enfant wanted to pay laborers $7 a month. The commissioners hired slaves by the year for $5 a month, usually paid quarterly or at the end of the year. The commissioners wanted to peg all wages at as low a rate as possible. So they only hired free laborers at the same low wage, $5 a month and also hoped skilled workers got the point. In addition, they tried to get skilled workers to work on a piece-work basis so they would not get $1 a day for setting stone but $1 for each, perch, 16½ feet, of stone they laid. With laborers hired by the year and skilled workers doing piece-work, the labor costs were set, hopefully as low a possible.

Indeed, President Washington urged the commissioners to buy indentured servants skilled and unskilled from Scotland and Germany. That might set the cost of labor for two or three years as emigrants worked to pay off their passage to America. As it turned out they never bought one indentured worker.

Slave hire seemed to make the point. At the end of their first year of hiring slaves the commissioners explained to Secretary of State Jefferson that the slaves “have proved a very useful check and kept our affairs cool.” By “cool” they meant that nobody asked for higher wages or expected chocolate butter for breakfast. Neither Washington, Jefferson, nor Congress told the commissioners to use slaves but they didn't complain when the commissioners did.

So though we find it shameful today, the commissioners thought hiring slaves just the thing to get the capital built as economically as possible. Slave masters could also find a good reason to hire out their slaves. The commissioners were obliged to feed and house the slaves, even provide medical care, and the master got $60 year. 

A little economics here: assuming that a slave was not needed for work on the plantation, then there were two ways to profit from him: sell him or hire him out. $300 was a likely price for a male slave. By hiring him out for $60 a year, a master got a 20% return on an asset that he or she still owned. Several of the masters hiring out slaves to work in Washington were women some who likely got ownership of the slaves through a legacy and didn't have a plantation for them to work on. Slave hire was an attractive way to profit from owning slaves and at the same time have little to do with them.

Well that paints a nice general picture of why slaves were used but why did Plowden send so many to Washington? And comparing the names of masters with the 1790 census, I found that almost half the slaves hired in 1794 and 1795 came from St. Mary's and Charles Counties. There was no shortage of slaves closer to Washington. Prince George's County from which the city of Washington was carved had over 11,000 slaves, a thousand more than Charles County and almost twice as many as St. Mary's County.

Now, it would be logical to think that the slaves were recruited, that is, the man the commissioners hired to hire the slaves, Captain Elisha Williams of Georgetown, would look for laborers who knew how to cut trees down, or had a talent for sawing lumber, or the muscles to excel in lifting stone. And that he might have traveled far from Georgetown to find the best slaves. There is no evidence that Williams did that.
Remember the prime reason for hiring slaves was to get cheap labor. The last thing Williams wanted to do was suggest to a master that his slave had any talents warranting more than the lowest wage.
A man name E. J. Millard, from this county, hired out two slaves Tom and Joe, and then 6 months later needed them back. The commissioners insisted that if Millard took them back he had to replace them with two other slaves. Any two would do, the last thing the commissioners wanted to do was suggest that Tom and Joe had become good at a particular job.

So there was no recruiting. Of course the commissioners placed ads in newspapers but hiring out a slave, losing control of him for a whole year, was not a decision lightly made. There had to be something giving a master confidence that a slave sent so far a way would come back in good shape.

In my book, I do suggest a reason why so many slaves came from here, just a guess: many of the slaves were hired out by masters who were Catholic and related to Daniel Carroll, one of the commissioners. He was the brother of Archbishop Carroll of Baltimore and indeed one of the Jesuit priests who worked with Bishop Carroll was a Plowden. Plus the Jesuit Order own several slave plantations in St. Mary's County. The Carroll family tree was entangled with those of the Fenwicks, Digges, Brents, and so was Plowden's. Fenwick, Digges and Brent slaves also worked on the Capitol and White House.

There are a couple books written about the contributions of Catholics to the founding of Washington. Daniel Carroll was a Catholic, as was James Hoban. There were many Irish workers and one of the surveyors was a Catholic. The first mayor of the city, Robert Brent, was Catholic. But no one before me has noted how many of the slave masters who hired out slaves to work in the city were Catholic. That's certainly not a popular assertion to make, especially this week.
As Ben Affleck has shown us, having ancestors who owned slaves can be embarrassing to some and here I am pointing a finger at the Catholic religion, too. Branches of my mother's family made their slow way up from St. Mary's to Prince Georges County and from the Northern Neck to Alexandria. The Fowlers landed in St. Mary's County and were Catholics. Family legend has it that they hired out slaves but I found no evidence that any worked at the Capitol. On my Virginia side, the Conways were sea captains and merchants and never accumulated slaves like their friend George Washington did.
Much like genealogy, in many ways my book is as much a mystery as a history. I hope I've excited you with how closely this area is related to the work done there. But we do know the Capitol and White House were built so let's finally get to work in Washington.
That I now have the slaves heading up the Potomac is a good time to frame the story I want to tell. My book is about slave laborers. Most popular books about slaves focus on African Americans who broke that mold, who achieved things that proved their individual worth; Also many books highlight the culture African Americans maintained despite the oppression of slavery.
My book is about male slaves separated from their women, children and elders doing a job with free workers most of them separated from their women, children and elders. These men did not come to a city or even a village to work. They came to old fields, sown fields, and wood lots. Temporary housing had to be built for all workers from stone masons to slaves. As late as 1797 there was no city to speak of. A French speculator counted the houses in the city and in area largely the size of London there were only 322 houses of all sizes and only 155 were occupied.

My book is not about the birth of the black community in Washington. In 1798 Julien Niemcewicz, a Polish visitor to the city, got the correct impression that half the 200 or so men working on the public buildings were black. But in 1799 most of the hired slaves he saw working were not hired again.
The nature of the work changed. All the stone had been raised and set in the buildings, the roofs were on the Capitol and White House. The commissioners only planned to hire 25 laborers not 120. The commissioners dismantled the log camp the laborers lived in, fired the camp cook and the nurse, and shut down the hospital built to treat sick and injured laborers. After helping build the buildings the hired slaves were not wanted, least of all to build a black community.

A little over 2 years after Niemcewicz admired the work of around 100 slave laborers at the Capitol, looking out from a window of the White House, First Lady Abigail Adams scoffed at how inefficiently a dozen slaves were employed removing piles of rubbish in her yard.

Amazingly, those two contrasting views of the slave labor in the capital are the only descriptions I've found. Many came to see the buildings constructed but nobody else mentioned the slaves. Equally as frustrating and more surprising, other than Niemcewicz, nobody described the skilled workers and their work.

If I didn't know from the payrolls, account books, and letters in the Archives that almost all of the skilled workers were white, I would suggest that the lack of commentary about the work is evidence that blacks did do most of the work, and that no one wanted to give them credit. That Polish visitor's observations can help make the case. When up on the roof of the Capitol he decided : “the Negroes alone work.” But at the time he visited, skilled carpenters were at loggerheads with their supervisor over how to frame the roof and skilled stone workers were taking long breaks to support them.

Americans then of the upper and middle classes were accustomed to not mentioning the help whether servants or workers were black or white. No one noted who dug the first part of the canal through the city, nor who dug the foundations of the White House and Capitol. On a visit to the city President Washington referred to the White House foundation “which is now digging.” Sounds like it dug itself. 

The only comment on the foundation digging at the Capitol was that “a considerable force” was doing it. No one noticed the crew of Irish emigrants, most probably only speaking Gaelic.
So despite the impression that Polish tourist got in 1798, the slaves did not do all the work. Also, when we describe the work they did do, we can't ignore what free workers were doing. They usually worked together, worked the same hours and worked at the same pace.

In writing about the use of slaves in the capital, some historians have thought that reviewing the rolls in the Archives listing the slaves was sufficient. After all the number of days worked and what they did are listed there. And looking at the slave payrolls alone, those historians thought they found proof of an extra burden placed on the slaves. Seeing that one group of slaves worked 30 days one month, a historian concluded that they worked on Sundays. But that same month some free skilled workers worked 31 ½ days. Neither the slave nor free workers broke the Sabbath.
Many workers were paid by the day and as I'll explain latter some slaves earned a few cents a day doing special jobs. All work began at sunrise and ended at sunset. During the summer, when most of the work was done, that meant working 14 hours a day. So to provide some incentive for working those long hours, a worker earned 2 hours credit for each 14 hour day so that for each 6 day work week those 2 hours a day credit added up to another day. So in May, July and August workers could get paid for 30, 31, even 31 ½ days work and never work on Sunday.

That is hard work, but building with stone dictated a certain pace. Mortar has to set; stones have to settle. Yes, once the commissioners, who infrequently visited the work sites, thought that pace too slow so they, as men in charge often do, made a rule against it. On July 30, 1794 they ordered their overseers “to keep the yearly hirelings at work from sunrise to sunset particularly the Negroes.” That rule is often quoted as proving that slaves worked the most, but free laborers were also hired by the year, a few free blacks but most white.
We may think that in the Old South all the slaves needed could be whipped into doing any job, but that simply wasn't the case. It would have been hard for the commissioners not to hire free laborers. No one stopped free men from coming to ask for a job. I didn't search for the backgrounds of these free laborers, but I do list them in the back of my book as well as the names of many of the skilled workers. Slaves could only legally come with their masters permission. Every year about one quarter of the laborers were free and most of them white.
The slave and free laborers who worked from dawn to dusk together ate the same three meals a day of salt meat and corn bread. We know this because their overseers ate the same thing and one of them, Samuel Smallwood, complained to the commissioners about his “Diet which are nothing more than salt meat for breakfast, dinner and supper which is neither palitabel nor constitutional.”

The slave and free laborers also went to the same, and only, hospital, tended by the same nurse, Mrs. MacMahon and visited by the same doctors. One year one of the doctors broke down the patient load at the hospital: 72 slave and 43 white laborers.
No one ever described where the laborers slept but in the records there is mention of the “laborers camp” and no mention of the “slaves camp” or “slave quarters.” The records also suggests that the camp consisted of log huts.

It was not uncommon at that time for blacks and whites of the lower classes to live together. It certainly would have been more convenient for the commissioners to not have to accommodate the races separately.
One master in particular may have appreciated such integration. Thomas Dixon hired himself out as a laborer for a year and also hired out his slave Will. He made money off his slave and if he wanted could sleep by him every night.

Since I began researching this topic some 30 years ago, I kept an eye out for evidence that the hired slaves were whipped and chained. I did find a receipt for foot locks which got me excited then I found out that a foot lock was a device used to secure masons to a stone wall as they worked. 

In 1798, David Stuart, one of the three commissioners who ordered the hiring of slaves, met that observant Polish tourist. Stuart had retired from the board of commissioners and Niemcewicz met him at Mount Vernon and Stuart enlightened him on how slaves were managed in the fields: their work “was of little profit unless they were whipped.” 

Samuel Davidson, a Georgetown merchant, owned part of the land the White House was built on. Now and then he bought slaves and sold them to gentlemen moving to Washington. He advised one buyer that “a little hickory oil, early and judiciously applied to him will... render him a very valuable slave.”
Many men, mostly Irish, were hired in the 1780s to build canals around the falls of the Potomac River. When one overseer whipped one of the Irish workers it was called to the attention to the project's directors and they decided it was a necessary corrective.

Whipping happened and could be done with impunity. In 1798 in Georgetown a land speculator whipped the lawyer of another speculator. The lawyer happened to be the nephew of President John Adams.

Perhaps whipping a slave was beyond mentioning but not, I think, in the case of hired slaves who belonged to someone else, maybe relatives of Commissioner Carroll.
From what little we know about the overseers they worried about other things than whipping and discipline. Samuel Smallwood, who by the way became the first elected mayor of Washington in 1822, complained that when everyone else was resting after the work bell rang ending the work day, he had to do the payrolls. Isaac Naismith had a wife and child, a liberal education and was recommended by a leading Maryland government official and couldn't understand why the commissioners made him an overseer which seemed to him to entail little more than making sure each laborer got fed.
Just before Christmas 1796 a group of laborers went into the woods to cut and square white oak trees for the 52 foot long beams needed for the roof of the White House: A white carpenter, two overseers and 28 hired slaves and 9 white laborers and 1 free black laborers worked off and on with a break for Christmas. Work continued until the middle of January. One overseer left after 4 days.

What kept the many slaves who out numbered the few whites on the job? Not a whip or a rifle. The slaves were paid, not much, just a Maryland shilling a day paid directly to them not to their master. Carpenters made 10 shillings a day.

James Hoban who was in charge of building the White House probably hit on the idea of paying slaves to do special jobs. By tradition slaves were paid extra wages, meaning money they kept themselves, for work on Sunday or holidays and for any work their master deemed special.

In 1792 just after a few months on the job, Hoban was frustrated by the inability to get lumber. There were no lumber yards nearby. Getting trees cut down and delivered was easy enough but finding sawyers to cut the boards was difficult and expensive. Some masters offered slaves to do the job but for wages almost as high as a carpenters. Hoban discovered that some slaves already hired would do the sawing for extra wages. Soon upwards of 24 slaves were making a shilling a day sawing lumber for the White House and Capitol.
For sure they were cheated out of their labor, they should have been paid more. It got worse. After the three commissioners who hired the slaves retired, President Washington replaced them with younger men, also slave owners who hit on a way to make money off the hired slaves. The masters of the hired the slave sawyers got $6 a month but then the commissioners hired the slave sawyers out to contractors in the city for $16 a month. One contractor protested and shamed the commissioners into still paying the sawyers a shilling for each day they worked for contractors.

As far I can tell, the slaves who worked with stone never got an extra wage. So I think the process of getting the stone to the stone cutters at the work sites and then to the masons building the walls was eased by the use of oxen, horses, carts, block and tackle, and cranes. The cranes were temperamental and that allowed a lot of standing around. When slaves did that it was usually called skulking. 

The process of unloading the sloops that brought stone to the wharves below the building sites took three days. That infuriated the commissioners and finally they decreed that it was the responsibility of the stone contractors to get the stone up to the building sites. That infuriated the contractors but unfortunately when they complained they never said who they got to unload the stone, probably slaves. 

That allowed the commissioners' hired slave to concentrate on what is still called by the International Union of Laborers tending the masons, that is getting the stone to the men skilled enough to set it in the foundation or in the walls. Somebody almost described this. One of L'Enfant's men wrote to his old boss that the masons at the White House were raising the wall of the first story with spirit. If only he had said with slaves using block and tackle or using sleds or whatever!

The overall supervisor of the stone work, an Englishman named George Blagden, implied how important the laborers tending the masons were. The commissioners periodically looked askance at the litter of building materials around the work sites and in October 1795 they asked Blagden to assign some laborers to move the stone to one side. Blagden replied the he could not “muster a force sufficient without putting an entire stop to the setting.” The laborers and masons worked seamlessly.

Now I am careful to use the word laborers and not hired slaves because not only do the payrolls list many free laborers but one of them, Ambrose Moriarty, which sounds Irish to me, wrote to the commissioners and introduced himself as one of the laborers who tended the masons.
Now in this talk I am simplifying things a bit and my book has a bit more of a blow by blow account. Nothing done on these buildings went as smoothly as that period in October 1795 that entranced George Blagden, In July 1795 some of the walls just set fell down, thanks, the commissioners thought, to the incompetence of a team of Irish masons. President Washington thought it was more due to the incompetence of the commissioners. 

The hired slaves tended those Irish masons, by the masons special request, yet nobody, not the masons, the commissioners nor the president cast any aspersions on the hired slaves.
I fear I may give some of you the impression that I am glossing over the back breaking work the slaves did. Just because white men also did it didn't make the work any easier. But that white men did the work suggests that no one then thought that the work was degrading. 

I think there were some jobs only the slaves probably did. For example some laborers had to wade into the river in February and retrieve rafts of timber. I think slaves generally boiled the plaster of paris so important for the interior walls. It is obviously a hot job, perhaps one that no white man would do. From the accounts of the contractor doing the plastering, I think maybe up to 5 slaves did that job. I photocopied all I could in the National Archives and confess I keep going over what I have. After the book came out, I found a receipt that I didn't look closely at before. It listed new shoes bought for some slaves. I finally noticed that some slaves got new shoes every three months. Could that have been because they boiled the plaster and kept ruining their shoes?

The use of slaves to make bricks is held up by some historians as the most hellish way slaves were exploited. Although the Capitol and White House were stone on the outside and plaster on the inside, there were thick brick walls in both buildings. That was the British way of building stone buildings. The commissioners were attracted to bricks because they were told that there was plenty of clay near the building sites. Even before slaves were hired, a brick maker was making bricks on the White House grounds.

Then when building began in earnest the commissioners contracted for a million bricks from a merchant/sea captain named John Mitchell who adopted the commissioners' business plan. He advertised for 60 slaves to make bricks offering to pay masters the same wage the commissioners offered, $60 a year.

In England there was a rural brick making tradition, Farm families took a break from the fields. The men dug clay and mixed it with water, the women molded the bricks, children carried the bricks to dry on straw and then the men shaped them into a kiln and baked them for a couple of nights.

There is evidence that the tradition continued on southern plantations and slave families were forced to make bricks. We also know that clay was dug on the low swampy side of Capitol Hill at Captain Mitchell's command. Historians suggest that slave children worked for him. That suggestion recently brought a congressman to tears as he described slave children suffering in the summer heat of Washington as the Capitol walls slowly rose on top of the hill.

Of course, there is nothing degrading about making bricks. I imagine playing with the mud was more fun for children than working in the fields. It was quite common in New England where there were no slaves to have boys, meaning lads over 12, take the bricks to be dried once the molder was done. It is possible that a master hired out a 12 year boy to run bricks. In 1800 the contractor building the Octagon House in Washington offered to hire or buy slave men or boys to make bricks. But I don't think Mitchell had slave children doing anything. This was no farmyard family party. He advertised for men to make a million bricks a year.
Let me quickly add that I have no proof that in his desperation Mitchell didn't force one of the female slaves among the 20 or so slaves he owned to mold bricks. But when he described his problems to the commissioners he described a rather different character he hired from a Georgetown merchant. That brick molder cost Mitchell $20 a month, plus he had to feed him and give him “a half pint of rum per day” and he could only have him for a month.

I'm not sure that molder was a slave, sounds like it. But free blacks were in the brick making business. I am pretty sure one of the first contractors to make bricks at the White House was a free black named William Hill who came up from Port Tobacco in Charles County.

More research and thinking has to be done, but rather than the nadir of their suffering, brick making for extra wages might have been the ticket to freedom for some slaves. The famous Georgetown slave Yarrow was a brick maker. His buying stock in a bank pleased his master who freed him.
On the commissioners' payrolls there were a handful of skilled slaves. For a month at least a slave named William made as much as white bricklayers at the White House. For a month a sawyer named Simon made as much as some carpenters. A half dozen slave carpenter worked at least from 1794 through 1797 at the both buildings. They were paid from half to 80% of what white carpenters got.

Except for Simon, James Hoban or his friends owned all those skilled slaves, which raises the suspicion that his hiring them was primarily a way to increase his salary. Hoban was a salaried employee making paid $1500 a year slightly less than the commissioners who made $1600. By hiring out his slaves, Hoban made about $2200. Anyway the upshot of it was that the commissioners decreed in late 1797 that no slave carpenters could be hired. Consequently all the interior carpentry all the finishing work in both buildings was done by free workers, all white as far as I can tell.

Now it would make sense for me to describe what was built. I am going to show slides in a few minutes and of course the buildings are depicted in some. But most of the hired slave laborers never saw the finished buildings. So in this talk, which is dedicated in part to the St. Mary's slaves. I'll go home with them.
This wasn't a case of the powers-that-be making an effort to make Washington a white city when Congress moved into town. Arriving politicians could read about slave sales and auctions. Young slaves of both sexes were needed as house servants. Northern congressmen knew they were in the South.

We know of what became of one slave who worked on the Capitol. A Philadelphia historian found that Ignatius who belonged to Joseph Beck was freed in 1799 or 1800 and with the name Ignatius Beck moved to Philadelphia where he made the polish used by bootblacks.
As for the rest we can't be sure what became of them. I am a Facebook friend of Raymond Plowden, an African American in Detroit, a former congressional aide to John Conyers. Raymond Plowden knows he has roots in St. Mary's County. What I'd give to prove that Moses or Jim or another of the Plowden slaves who helped build the Capitol was his great great grandfather.

I'll be the first to admit that not knowing more makes a disappointing end to a lecture and a book. I was also a little hazy as to why those Plowden slaves next door were sent to work on the Capitol and White House.

I suggested that it might have had something to do with their master being Catholic, a very well connected Catholic. The usual explanation historians give for the forced migration, that is the sale of slaves, in places like St. Mary's County is soil exhaustion. Over planting tobacco wore out the soil and if the planter didn't move west with his slaves, then he sold the slaves.
But as far as I can tell the slaves were taken back to this county. And I found evidence that in the 1790s new slaves were still being brought to Southern Maryland.
Georgetown University has put many documents on-line about the slaves owned by Jesuits in St. Mary's County. Before reading that I assumed that generations of slaves worked the land here. In 1684 when the Plowdens bought they bought their plantation, the slaves they bought to work their plantation were already here. So by 1792 Plowden slaves could be the grandchildren of those original slaves.

But a memoir by one of the Jesuit fathers complained about the St. Mary's slaves. Writing in 1822 about when he came to the county 30 years before which puts us back around 1792 about when Plowden sent his slaves to the city, he recalled that many of the slaves here were born in Africa or the children of slave mothers born in Africa. He also recalled that there was a suspicion that some of these slaves so close to Africa were poisoning people.

I mention this not to set the scene for a murder mystery set in the capital. There were no murders there while the Capitol and White House were being built. But I think this rumor about poison adds a dimension to my observation that many of the slave owners who did send slaves to the capital were Catholic. 

Obviously at that time the Catholic church, that owned slaves in Maryland, accepted slavery as part of the just order of things. Did that give masters who were Catholics the confidence to hire out their slaves and send them so far away? The slaves who worked at the White House and Capitol lived in a camp not far from the newly built Jesuit college in Georgetown. 

I really don't know but I think it is worth finding out, not to the detriment of the Catholic church. There is almost universal blame for slavery, and a network of Catholic masters in Maryland may have made life better for slaves. I do think that the evident absence of brutality in the treatment of slaves hired to work in the city can be credited to the influence of Daniel Carroll.

I'll close with one more mystery about the St. Mary's slaves. Historians are often rightly blamed for putting phrases into the minds of people in the past with no evidence that they ever thought them. How do I get off using the phrase “St. Mary's Slaves” like it was the name of a local team?
Remember John Mitchell the brick contractor. Because his ad soliciting 60 slaves did not get enough response, he asked the commissioners to loan him some slaves, and they sent seven slaves down Capitol Hill to work with Mitchell. This was when Daniel Carroll was a commissioner and contractors who needed slaves only needed to reimburse the commissioners the $60 paid to the masters.

A month or two later, as his business plan wasn't working out, Mitchell wrote back to the commissioners “It's probable gentlemen you have not an idea of the expense I am at for proper labor's after I found the negro's I hired from St. Mary's would not answer.”
The slaves went back up Capitol Hill to work for the commissioners.

I have no idea what he meant. The St. Mary's slaves would not answer! Were the slaves clueless about how to make bricks? The only photo we have of Plowden's Resurrection Manor was of the brick kitchen attached to the house that was still standing in the 1920's. Did they skulk? No one else complained about their work as they cut trees, sawed wood and moved stone.
I like to think that those St. Mary's slaves recognized that brick making, especially when the task at hand was to make one million bricks, was something even a black man had to be paid for. Perhaps Mitchell saw men and not slaves, and sent them back up the hill.

Comments I received on the talk

I let Jeanne Pirtle, the Education Director at Sotterley, who has done excellent research on the Sotterley slaves, read my talk before I gave it. Here are her comments, and links she had to more info on the Plowdens:

I don't see anything to change, however, the following information may be of use.   Plowden owned the house Resurrection Manor and the land it was on was also call "Scotts Neck".  Sotterley's first two owning families, the Bowles and Platers land was part of the 4,000 acre land originally granted to Edmund and George Plowden of England in 1684 also called Resurrection Manor.    Plowden is a old and very common St. Mary's county name.  In fact, enslaved people at Sotterley owned by WHS Briscoe and his neighbor brother-in-law Chapman Billingsly were emancipated in 1864 that included at least 5 people named Plowden:  Alex Plowden age 2,   Nellie Plowden   age 29 , Cecilia Plowden  age 52,  Jane Plowden age 50, and James Plowden age 57.  The Plowden's also owned "Bushwood" in the 19th century.  There was a steamboat wharf named Plowden Wharf.  Although we have very few names of the Plater slaves when the Capitol was built all of these enslaved families had kinships on nearby plantations and farms.  The money crop of tobacco was changing over to grains (wheat), which is not as labor intensive year round.  So Plowden hiring out his slaves makes perfect sense. I would love to know if the Plater's of Sotterley may have done some of the same.  I'm always looking for real names of enslaved in that time period.    Plowden   (the person before is George Plater III, owner of Sotterley.)

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