University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Plantation Management in the Old South
William Scarborough’s, The Overseer, examines the importance and the daily duties of the plantation overseer and how they influenced and contributed to the production and efficiency of slaves in the “Old South”. This position was unarguably, the most important position in the southern plantation system as they determined the success or failure of a plantation. In some small plantations, but mostly larger ones, the overseer was in charge of the supervision of enslaved Africans, care of the land, planting, farm tools, and harvesting. The overseer has been especially known in history as the handler of harsh disciplinary actions against slaves for breaking heavy or mild rules. The emergence of job advertising stormed through the south with higher number of individuals owning slaves. Over time leading up to the Civil War, the position of overseer has been professionalized with some planters even requiring letters of recommendations from their applicants. The goal of the author is to gather facts and accurate evidence that demonstrate how overseers effectively completed their task set forth by plantation owners and were less concerned about the torture and harsh beating of the enslaved Africans. The writer focuses more on the profession itself as opposed to examining the individual’s social class or morals in society. He also attempts to provide a valuable interpretation of one of many groups that made up the white middle class of the Old South.
The book is divided into three sections with the first concerning the history and role of the overseer in the plantation establishment. It also gives key details on contract negotiations between the overseer and the plantation owner. Lastly, this section shows the view of the overseer by the general public. The second section examines the managerial duties and responsibilities and some of the disagreements between the plantation master and the overseer. The final section shows the occupation and the importance of the plantation supervisor during the Civil War and how the loss or reduction in available overseers affected the surviving plantations after the war ended.
The overseer system was first introduced in the United States by the Virginia Company of England with the primary job function of upholding gained territory. When Africans were shipped to the Louisiana Territory as slaves, this very system was implemented. The vast majority of overseers during the colonial period were indentured servants whose terms of service had expired. One major reason for the increase in overseers in the antebellum south, during the 18th century were the cultural change that demanded plantation owners to indulge in the arts and other cultural pursuits. The profile of many of the men that went into this profession were most likely either the son of a planter, white lower class men, and men who actually saw the economic benefits of being an overseer. One distinctive feature of the overseer system during the colonial period was the practice of leasing developed plantations with slaves as stock. With this agreement the overseer was in charge for maintenance of the slave force, and in return received one-third of the net proceeds from the selling of the crops. This profession would soon become highly profitable when cotton became the forefront of agriculture in the United States although to some had a negative view of the position. Although most of the overseers were originally poor and uneducated, they still gained enough respect by their employers to be acknowledged as a semi-elite professional with a very profitable position. Whatever may have been the view of the planter class regarding the step on the “social ladder” occupied by slave managers, the overseer himself had no feeling of class inferiority and showed little resentment toward the proprietary group.
One of the major duties of the overseer was the welfare and discipline of the slaves, the care of livestock and other agriculture implements, and the production of staple and subsistence crops. The overseer assigned certain task to specific slave groups and supervised the labor of slaves in the field. The overseer was expected to have basic medical understanding to be able to examine the slaves and make note of any who actually needed professional treatment to treat certain physical hinders. The slave manager was obliged to make periodic inspections of slave cabins and was responsible for the distribution of clothing for the slaves. Lastly, and most importantly, the overseer was expected to ensure the security of the whites
against uprisings of slaves, which was to some, inevitable. Depending of the plantation, there were also a second set of rules that were handed down from the planter to the overseer to instruct to the slaves. Some plantations had very harsh working conditions and required long hours, regardless of age or gender, while other were pretty mild with less work demanded from pregnant women and children under the age of seven. Some planters stated that “a happy slave is a productive slave” and the overseer had to abide by the wishes of the planter although they may have had different views on the use and managing of the slaves. The relationship between the overseer and the planter became pivotal leading up to the Civil War in 1861.
As the Civil War began to run its course, the production of agriculture (with slave labor) was extremely important in the surviving and continuity of the south. The role of the overseer became even greater than ever with the departure of healthy white men leaving to join the Confederate Army. In many areas in the south, the only remaining security against insurgencies from the slaves was the overseers. It was no surprise that the drafting of plantation managers to the Confederate Army, angered many planters knowing that there would not be enough qualified managers to keep the slaves productive and fearful. There were even laws put into place in states such as Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana that limited the number of overseers that could be drafted into the army. The south also made a rule stating that any wounded soldier who is able must return and oversee a plantation in order to contribute to the production of goods in the south. With this reduction in overseers, many slaves were able to escape and a number of large plantations fell due to the absence of the “slave Manager”.
Scarborough’s The Overseer, examines the life and impact of the plantation overseer and how it shaped the working system of slavery and production in the United States. The author’s uses key facts to back his thesis on the importance and professionalism of the overseer. Scarborough did extensive research by exploring primary sources such as the memoirs of planters, public records, legal documents, and advertising posters. He incorporates a number of different employment contracts between planters and overseers and
compared them based on the size of the plantation, state and region, and number of slaves. The author seemed to look at this job description from a professional standpoint as opposed to the ills and negative view that society and some historians have placed on the managers of plantations. He mentions that some overseers who were uneducated or inexperienced greatly affected the outlook for this profession and shadowed the somewhat complex job of managing an entire plantation.