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Early on a March morning in 1805, as the first hints of dawn touched the Sea Islands and the marshlands south of Savannah, Old Jupiter rose, went out of his cabin, and with a blast from his conch-shell horn announced a new day. The sound filled the early-morning silence of the slave quarters at Liberty Hall plantation and called out the men and women who lived there. Lizzy threw off her blanket and slipped her Osnaburg dress over her shift. Lifting her two-year-old son Lymus to her hip, she hurried toward the kitchen, an outbuilding behind the plantation house. Quickly she stirred into flame the banked coals in the fireplace and began the preparation of a simple breakfast for John Jones. Neither she, nor Jupiter, nor John Jones, nor anyone else on the plantation knew that this day was to bring a crisis for all whose lives were so closely intertwined at Liberty Hall.
Jones was up by the time Lizzy reached the kitchen. He too had heard the sound of Jupiter's horn in the slave quarters, and he had slipped out of bed, leaving his young wife, Susannah, and their three-month-old son, Charles Col-cock, sleeping quietly. Jones dressed in hishunting clothes, moved down the hall past the rooms of his other children-daughters Betsy and Susan and son John-and descended the wide plantation stairs. Going into his study, he removed from a cabinet an expensive English-made gun. It had been his first, a gift when he was only twelve. "Old Mrs. Goldsmith," his mother had written from Governor Houstoun's home in Savannah, "has made you a present of a handsome silver mounted Gun, which she begs you'll keep for her sake." Over the years he had used it to hunt the ducks that flew into rice fields at dawn and, loading it with buckshot, to hunt the deer that lived in the woods and swamps that surrounded his plantation home.
Making his way toward the kitchen, Jones could see the slave settlement and fires glowing through the mist of the low-country morning. Sixty-two men, women, and children lived in the cabins that lined both sides of a sandy ribbon of a road. Those who were preparing to go to the fields stood outside around fires warming themselves. Here in the open, in communal yards, they spent most of their time when they were not working or sleeping. In earlier years most low-country slaves had lived in dormitories or mud-walled huts, but gradually rude cabins clustered in quarters or settlements such as those at Liberty Hall had become the norm. They provided some privacy and the possibility for the development of some family life, but they were smoky and dark, had little or no furniture, and were poor places to visit and talk. Except when it was raining or unusually cold, the better place to gather in the mornings and evenings was outside around the fires.
For years Jupiter had been the driver on the Jones plantation, and as he stood by the fire warming his old bones, he knew he was the boss, the master's right-hand man. When John Jones had been away in the 1790s tending to business in the state legislature, his letters to his first wife, Elizabeth, had been full of instructions to his driver: "Jupiter, my dear wife, will be obliged to give the Negroes some corn before Saturday." "Tell Jupiter I expect to see great matters done, as I have left everything to himself." Elizabeth had replied: "Jupiter told me he had finished thrashing that stack of rice, but could not tell me how much it would turn out." And John had written: "Do, my dear, speed Old Jupiter on, and tell him if he wishes to drive for me he must task away and let me see a heap of work done when I return, or I never will trust him again."
Over the following years Jupiter had kept the trust of his master and also of the men and women he lived among in the settlement. His position as driver had required a kind of tightrope performance-he had to convince his master that the work of the plantation was proceeding smoothly and efficiently, and he had to demonstrate to the other slaves on the plantation that he was a buffer between them and the master. He used many strategies to walk this narrow line. No strategy, however, was more important than his cultivation within Jones of a sense of dependence. For Jones knew that without a skilled driver, Liberty Hall would be both unprofitable and also difficult to manages.
No one knew the settlement better than Jupiter. Born around 1740, he had come to the old Jones place, nearby Rice Hope plantation, as a young man, and there he had learned not only the skills of survival in the Georgia low country but also the ways of organizing and managing the work of a rice and Sea Island cotton plantation. With him by the fireside was his wife, Silvey, blind and feeble, who had made her way out of their cabin. They had been together many years and had with them in the settlement their sons Jupiter and Hamlet, their daughter Hannah, and their grandsons Little Jupiter, Augustus, and Prince. A few years earlier, before Silvey was blind, John Jones had rented her to his cousin to work in a neighboring plantation kitchen. Jupiter had used all his skills to get her back to Liberty Hall, and finally Jones had consented. "Make Old Jupiter go to Mr. Dowses and bring old Silvey home and set her to work," Jones had written Elizabeth Jones. Later Jones had sent a message to Jupiter: "Tell him that as he has now got his wife I shall expect he will do his best for me."
As Jupiter looked at the others gathered around the fires, he saw many faces that he had known all his life. Old Monday and Sunbury were here, as were March, April, and May, July and September, November and December. They had all been slaves of the first John Jones and of his widow, Mary, and their names reflected practices from an African homeland. Lizzy, who had hurried off to the kitchen, had come to Liberty Hall in 1801 with her mistress Susannah. With her brother Cassius and sister Willoughby, Lizzy had belonged to Susannah only a year when their mistress married John Jones and they had all moved to Liberty Hall. Susannah's brother, John Girardeau, had willed them to his sister on his deathbed in 1800-with Dick, Paul, Sina, Sary, and little Rosetta, together with land and seven cows and calves.
Jupiter could see even more recent arrivals as he looked at others warming themselves before the fires, eating sweet potatoes cooked in fireplace ashes, or some hominy prepared the night before, or johnnycakes cooked on a long clean board before the morning fires. Abram, Ben, and Jim had come three seasons earlier when Jones had bought them from Captain Forester. Flora, Ishmael, and David had come the next season from Mrs. West's place. But Lucy, July, and Sanco, bought the same year, had already been sold off the plantation and had been little more than temporary laborers for a season and pawns to be moved around in the business of buying and selling slaves.
Of all those in the settlement, however, none were more distinctive than Fanny and her son Marcus and her handsome young daughter Elvira. Only a few seasons earlier, they had been living in Africa. Captured and brought to the coast of their native continent, they had endured the terrors of the passage to Savannah and its slave market. Carried to Liberty Hall by Jones, they were beginning the long process of learning the ways of a slave community that had for generations been creating out of bitter toils a distinct African-American culture known as Gullah. Already Marcus and Elvira were learning the Gullah dialect of the low country and its Sea Islands. In the evenings around the fires they could talk of African ways and memories, and, like so many before them, add their part to the folkways and culture of the low country. Fanny, however, was difficult to understand. She spoke one of the languages of Africa, lacked the linguistic agility of the young, and was learning only slowly a kind of Pidgin English. She did not know it yet, but for the next half-century she would bear as one of the burdens of slavery a kind of isolation as she struggled to listen to and speak a foreign language. Jupiter began to assign tasks. Late March was the time to begin planting provision crops of corn and peas and, as time allowed, for tilling gardens of potatoes and arrowroot, turnips and onions. Later would come the onerous work of rice and cotton fields, but for now each full hand, whether man or woman, received the familiar task of working a quarter of an acre of provisions, while half-hands and quarter-hands were given proportionally less. As Jupiter assigned these tasks, naming the fields and the sections to be worked, he was performing a central task of a driver that had been slowly evolving in the rice-growing region of South Carolina and Georgia. Already by 1805 several generations of slave drivers had played a key role in the struggle between low-country masters and slaves to name the negotiated boundaries of a task. Masters had used the weapons of the powerful-an organized military, the threats of whip, auction block, and gallows, the claims of superiority, and the styles of speech and dress that intimidate. All these they had used to push out the boundaries of a task, to demand as much work from slaves as could be squeezed out of them. Jupiter and other drivers and field hands had used the weapons of the weak-foot-dragging and playing dumb, gossip that threatened the reputations of owners, and secret scorn for the pretensions of masters; and when the work was heavy and needed to get done, some had run away. All these weapons they had used to limit the boundaries of a task and to reduce the work required of a slave.
The quarter-acre task that Jupiter assigned to full hands on this March morning in 1805 was the outcome of this struggle between low-country masters and slaves. John Jones still liked to think that he possessed some discretionary power, that if he wished he could walk down through the morning mists into the settlement and demand a third of an acre for a task. But for Jupiter and those who stood with him, the quarter-acre task had become a right to be guarded and claimed. Indeed, low-country slaves had extended the task beyond the original rice fields to the cultivation of Sea Island cotton and provisions and to other activities. For full hands, when pounding rice, the daily task was seven mortars. When laying fencing, it was one hundred 12-foot poles. And for a pair of sawyers, the weekly task had finally been settled at 600 feet of pine or 780 feet of cypress.
The landscape of Liberty Hall, like that of other low-country plantations, had encouraged this task system that Jupiter managed. On large areas of the plantation the dark waters of swamps quietly and slowly swirled through forests of giant cypress and black gum and thickets of sweet bay and palmetto. These dark waters provided in cleared areas the means for rice production through an elaborate system of dams, gates, and canals. On higher ground, where the hardwoods and pine had been cut and burned, and where Jupiter and his crews had grubbed out the stumps, Sea Island cotton grew. The task system (unlike the spreading gang system of up-country cotton plantations, with its largely sunup-to-sundown hours) meant that once a task was completed, a slave had the remaining hours of the day for working a garden or raising a pig, for fishing in the river or hunting in the swamp.
Already by 1805 the slaves of Liberty County and the surrounding low country had taken advantage of "after task" time to develop a remarkable if limited informal economy of buying and selling. The pigs and chickens, the marsh ponies and horses, the wagons and cows that low-country slaves owned-they were all the result of this task system. The Gullah culture of Jupiter and Lizzy, of Ishmael and David, of Marcus and Elvira, and of all the other descendants from the nations and tribes of Africa who gathered around low-country fires, was built upon this hard-won system and its informal economy.
While Jupiter was assigning tasks for the day, his son Hamlet was at the stable saddling a handsome English horse. John Jones fancied himself a kind of low-country Cavalier, a gentleman after the English fashion. He was, his grandson later wrote, "Very fond of everything English, importing his horses, hounds, gun, watch, dueling pistols, wines, etc." His English hunting horse was a roan, an animal of large size and spirit that cost as much as a healthy young slave. Jones thought just such a horse was needed for a man of his ancestry and status.
His father, Major John Jones of Liberty County, had been a young South Carolina aristocrat when he came to Georgia to make his fortune. He had an indigo plantation on one of the Sea Islands, and with an expanding slave force he had seen nearby Rice Hope become a prosperous plantation. This first John Jones had been in business with his uncle, Miles Brewton of Charleston, one of the wealthiest men in all the British North American colonies. With a Brewton cousin, the first John Jones had owned warehouses and a wharf in Sunbury, the little port for the growing colony south of Savannah. And there had been other Carolina blueblood relatives: Pinckneys and Hugers, Legares and Swintons, Colcocks and Hutsons. To add to his distinction, Major Jones had become a hero of the Revolution. In the battle for Savannah in 1779, when Patriot forces were trying to retake the city from the British, he had led a charge against the Spring Hill battery, and there, wrote a historian of the state, "in the fiercest and most desperate part of the contest, he was struck by a cannon-ball in the breast, and instantly killed."
Hamlet brought the roan to the plantation house. Jones mounted, took his silver-mounted gun, and rode down the plantation avenue that led to the gate and the sandy road that cut through Liberty County on its way from Savannah down the coast to Darien. At the gate he met his two hunting companions, Colonel Daniel Stewart and James Smith. Stewart, famous for his exploits during the Revolution and the Indian wars that had raged of late in central and south Georgia, was the brother of Jones's first wife, Elizabeth. Smith was a wealthy neighbor whose plantation had been raided only a few years earlier by the Creeks whom Stewart and his cavalry had chased south to the marshes of the Altamaha River. The three men were friends and had often hunted together in the surrounding woods and swamps.
If Jones thought himself a kind of Cavalier figure, with his love for English ways and English goods, his two friends were part of a Puritan tradition that had found its way to the Georgia coast and established itself deep in Liberty County soil. Their ancestors had left Dorchester, England, in 1630 for Massachusetts, settling there for five years before moving on to Connecticut, where they had remained for sixty years. In 1695 a colony had left for South Carolina. There beneath great oaks and beside the black waters of the Ashley River, they had laid out their village and built their meetinghouse. As with most good Puritans, they had prospered-in spite of a sickly climate-so that within two generations there had been a need for new land. Commissioners had been sent to Georgia and, after some negotiations, a grant of more than thirty-one thousand acres had been secured. In this way a colony of 350 whites accompanied by their 1,500 slaves had begun in 1752 a southward trek to what would become Liberty County.
These Puritans were the ancestors not only of Jones's hunting companions Stewart and Smith but also of most of the white planting families of the county. They had found the Georgia coast a good place to settle and at last to put down deep roots. With adequate slave labor the rich soils had offered ample opportunity for the cultivation of rice and Sea Island cotton. Yet as God-fearing Calvinists, they had been aware of the seductions of such a wilderness, and they had immediately set about establishing an organized community. They had declared that they had a "greater regard to a compact Settlement and Religious Society than future temporal advantages." "We are sensible," they had written in their Articles of Incorporation, "to the advantages of good order and social agreement, among any people, both for their Civil and Religious Benefit." At the time of the Revolution the patriotism of these Georgia Puritans had been so ardent that after the war their county had been renamed Liberty.
Excerpted from Dwelling Place by Erskine Clarke Copyright © 2005 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 6, 2011
An amazing, in depth account of Southern plantation life and the moral struggle of slave owners, slaves, communities, and a nation. A remarkable, stark analysis of Southern life. A must read for anyone interested in the institution of slavery or the South. A remarkable work of scholarship, research, and literature. One of a kind!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.