Slave Gardens

Slave Gardens
The slaves at Carter Plantations were able to utilize plots of land to grow their own food.

Slave Garden Plots and Poultry Yards

“Little Spots allow’d them”: Slave Garden Plots and Poultry Yards

by Patricia A. Gibbs (see whole article at

Observations of travelers, comments by planters, accounts showing purchases from slaves, a plat indicating a slave garden, and archaeological evidence inform us about the gardens and poultry yards that slaves maintained for their personal use in the eighteenth-century Chesapeake.
Slave quarter at Carter’s Grove, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Research and design by Edward A. Chappell, Willie Graham and Vanessa E. Patrick.
Drawing by Jeff Bostetter.

Masters usually allowed slaves living in rural areas to cultivate small garden plots and raise poultry. When a planter set out to establish a new quarter, he selected the location and had the area cleared, ordered his slave carpenters to build the dwellings and storage buildings, and supplied the necessary agricultural tools and minimal furnishings required to make the quarter habitable. Further improvements to the quarter depended on the resourcefulness and labor of the residents to partition the quarter into work areas and to fence in garden plots and poultry yards.1

Using axes and other tools available at the quarter, slaves made fences from saplings, branches, and vines and from salvaged boards. In March 1774, Philip Fithian, tutor to the children of Robert Carter at Nomini Hall, visited a quarter and watched “the Negroes make a fence; they drive into the Ground Chesnut stakes about two feet apart in a straight Row, & then twist in the Boughs of Savin [red cedar] which grows in great plenty here.”2 Fences at the reconstructed quarter at Carter’s Grove recreate a variety of fences built over a period of years. The circular fence of twisted boughs enclosing the garden next to the log double house is the type of fence Fithian described. The fence, made from scrap lumber woven and wedged between posts, required no nails. Other fences at the quarter made with pales and planks are held in place with reused nails. The locations of the curved fences enclosing one of the gardens and the poultry yard are based on archaeological evidence showing fragmentary posthole patterns. Other fence locations are conjectural.3

Travelers described these gardens as small. Hugh Grove, who arrived in Virginia from England in the summer of 1732, noted that the slaves were allowed to plant “little Plats for potatoes or [?] Indian pease and Cimnells [pattypan squash]”.4 Traveling through the Chesapeake in the 1740s, Edward Mmber noted that slaves cultivate “the little Spots allow’d them.”5 One Sunday morning in April 1774 Fithian observed slaves “digging up their small Lots of ground allow’d by their Master for Potatoes, peas &c; All such work for themselves they constantly do on Sundays, as they are otherwise employed on every other Day.”6 Englishman Isaac Weld who visited in the late 1790s, commented favorably on quarters in Virginia: “Adjoining their little habitations, the slaves commonly have small gardens and yards for poultry, which are all their own property… their gardens are generally found well stocked, and their flocks of poultry numerous.”7

Slave families with healthy members, including an adult male to do the heavy work of cultivating the soil, could raise enough produce to supplement their diet of master-provided rations and have surplus to sell to the master, to free persons who lived nearby, or at the town market if they lived near an urban center. On the other hand, slaves in poor health and women who lived alone with small children—those with the most need of the nutrients provided by garden produce—often had little time or energy on moonlit nights or on Sundays to plant and cultivate a productive garden. If they managed to grow a few vegetables, it is unlikely they had surplus to sell or trade.8

Documentary and archaeological evidence shows that slaves grew a variety of plants in these gardens. Vegetables included lima beans, pole beans, cabbages, collards, corn, cymlings (pattypan squash), onions, peanuts, black-eyed or other field peas, potatoes (sometimes specified as red or sweet), and potato pumpkins. Fruits included apples, cherries, peaches, watermelons, and muskmelons. Slaves also raised dipper gourds and hops. Most individual gardens produced only a limited number of vegetables and fruits. Potatoes, field peas, pole beans, cymlings, and collards were most commonly mentioned by travelers and planters.9

Most of these plants are easy to grow and produce high-yield crops. Seeds of many of these plants could be sowed every couple of weeks, allowing the gardens to be productive for the entire year. Some of these plants did not have to be harvested as soon as they ripened but could remain in the ground until needed or, as with potatoes, stored in pits under the slave dwellings. Field peas and beans could be eaten fresh or dried for use later in the year. Collards could be picked throughout the winter. None of these plants required specialized cooking equipment but could be boiled in a pot or, as with fresh corn or potatoes, roasted in the coals.

A remarkable record of purchases from slaves survives in household accounts kept by Martha Jefferson’s granddaughter Anne Cary Randolph. Begun in 1805, when Anne was fourteen and learning the art of housewifery from her mother, the record continues for four years. During that period more than half of the adult slaves at Monticello sold garden produce to the plantation mistress. Although most of the produce purchased was similar to that grown by slaves in gardens elsewhere in Virginia, sales of cucumbers, lettuce, salad greens, and sprouts represent vegetables generally grown only in the gardens of the middling sort and the gentry. Several slaves dominated the trade; only five of the seventy-one active traders had ten or more transactions. With forty-three transactions during the four-year time span, Wormeley, one of the gardeners at Monticello, was clearly the leading purveyor of produce to the kitchen.10

It is likely that the best-tended gardens were kept by elderly persons with few or no work assignments. Necessity, as well as a love for seeing plants grow, may well have encouraged retired slaves to garden since superannuated slaves only received half the allotment of rations issued to working adult slaves. Examples of elderly gardeners include Landon Carter’s Jack Lubbar (praised for raising “patches of pease”), Councilor Robert Carter’s Dadda Gumby (who offered Fithian “Eggs, Apples, Potatoes”), Francis Taylor’s Old Peter and Old Joe, and Spencer Ball’s Old Dick. Interviewed by Englishman John Davis at Ball’s Prince William County plantation about 1800, Old Dick remarked: “There is few masters like the `Squire.’ He has allowed me to build a log-house, and take in a patch of land, where I raise corn and water Melions.”11

By the second half of the eighteenth century both documentary and archaeological evidence supports the characterization of planter James Mercer that the “Negroes… are the general Chicken merchants” in the Chesapeake, raising and selling chickens and eggs as well as using them to supplement their diets. After George Washington’s slaves complained when he made minor changes to their rations in 1793, including switching from dried corn in the kernel to ground cornmeal, he suspected their criticism “arose as much from the want of the husks to feed their fowls, as from any other cause.”12

Many masters confined their own poultry raising to turkeys, ducks, and geese. A visitor to a Mount Vernon quarter in 1797 noted that “a small vegetable garden was situated close to the hut. Five or six hens, each with ten or fifteen chickens, walked around there. That is the only pleasure allowed to Negroes: they are not permitted to keep either ducks or geese or pigs.”13

Plantation mistresses often bought chickens and eggs from their own slaves or other slaves living nearby, presumably fattening the chickens for a period of time before having them killed, plucked, and readied for the spit or cookpot. Martha Jefferson’s household accounts show that she frequently bought chickens and eggs (as well as the occasional duck) from Monticello slaves or from slaves belonging to her neighbors. Accounts kept by Martha’s granddaughter Anne Cary Randolph indicate that between 1805 and 1808 she purchased chickens or eggs from all but three adult slaves at Monticello. Martha Blodget of Cawsons in Prince George County “bo’t of Mrs Bland’s Antony 6 fine chickens,” but qualified her action by noting that she made “it a rule never to buy of a negro without leave of their owners.” Old Dick boasted to his interviewer John Davis, “I keep chickens and ducks, turkeys and geese, and his lady [wife of Spencer Ball] always gives me the Alexander [Alexandria] market for my stock.”14

Evidence for slave garden plots and poultry yards in urban settings is slight, but it is possible that some Williamsburg residents, whose town lots were large enough to devote limited space to small slave gardens and/or poultry yards, extended this privilege to a few of their slaves. A surviving 1801 garden plan for Colonel Nicholas Rogers’s property in Baltimore labels a space in one of the back corners of the plan “for servants vegetable patch or for other purposes.” The single slave dwelling, the privy, and the hog pen back up to this space. An 1823 letter of Charles Carroll of Carrollton near Baltimore advised his overseer that his newly purchased slave “Clem a blacksmith must not have more priveleges than my other slaves or be better fed… he desires a buck patch [small garden for raising produce for sale]; these I grant… as many of my slaves have that privelege.”15 There probably was a pigpen behind merchant James Maxwell’s townhouse in Norfolk during the 1770s. Granting an exception, Maxwell allowed his slave Old Sarah to raise a sow and pigs on his Norfolk lot.16