I am excited to say that this summer I will presenting an original History at Sunset program at the park. The program is going to examine the Belle Grove Plantation complex as a whole. I want to look at the relationship of outbuildings to each other, the use of landscapes, agricultural endeavors, use of outside spaces, slavery at the site, and try to put the “big house” in greater historical context. It will be on Friday, July 24th at 7:00 p.m.
I was inspired by John Michael Vlach’s groundbreaking work, “Back of the Big House.” Published in 1993 Vlach examines the architecture of plantation landscapes by utilizing NPS HABS and HAER photographs taken in the 1930s. Even with its shortcomings, it has inspired scholars and public historians alike to move outside of the “big house” and examine plantations more holistically.
This is what I want to do during my program. I have started my research by attempting to gather as much material as possible. There are a plethora of land use studies, cultural resource reports, ethnographic reports, and historic resource studies completed within the last 15 years. Many of these studies were done by historical archaeologists, historic preservationists, landscape architects and other academic historians. These studies are worth their weight in gold.
Besides resource studies I have also been attempting to gather as much primary source documentation as possible. As of now I have an anthology of letters written by the plantation “master” Isaac Hite Jr. and his family. These letters provide an insight into both the personal and business matters of his life. The compiler also provides a crude sketch of slave genealogy as well. The ability to key word search certain newspaper articles online has also been a great help as well. I have found advertisements in local and regional papers by Hite during the first few decades of the 19th century.
One of the most intriguing and mysterious ads was placed in late summer 1824 in Washington D.C. and Baltimore papers. In this ad he informed readers that he will be selling 60 slaves that fall, along with other farming equipment. This is interesting because at the peakof the plantation Hite owned 103 slaves in the early 1800s. Records do not show him selling a majority of his slaves in 1824. One hypothesis is that he was acting as an executor of another man’s will and is selling his property. The goods listed are all farming tools, not domestic goods as you would expect in a estate sale. My personal thought is that Hite bought up numerous slaves in the lower Shenandoah Valley. There was massive soil exhaustion in Virginia and the nature of slavery shifting towards cotton growing in the deep south. Hite may have used his position as a businessman and wealthy landowner to buy slaves from struggling farmers. He then in turn sold them to slave traders willing to take them to the deep south towards Louisiana and other cotton states. There is no evidence to back this claim as of yet.
In an attempt to gather more primary sources I traveled to the local archive, the Stewart Bell Jr. Archives at he Handley Library in Winchester Virginia. This archive houses the majority of Belle Grove’s archival collection. There I was able to get copies of probates, wills, insurance policies, land holdings, and indentured servant records. I was able to put these on my flash drive and take them back to the office for further examination.
As I begin this research I am excited for the numerous opportunities it presents me. My research skills will be honed as I utilize archival material. I will also be able to gain a better understanding of how to use resource studies and other secondary source material. This also provides an interpretive challenge of how to best present this research in a formal program.
I plan on continuing to talk out ideas and share new research on this project.