Saturday, April 3, 2021

Venus & Destiny: Plantation Cloth in Florida

Venus was an enslaved woman in Florida, living at the Jones family plantation near Tallahassee. The place---over 7,500 acres of cotton farm---was known as El Destino, Destiny. A glimpse of her life is preserved in the work records kept by the overseers from 1847 until the Civil War ended in 1865. 

See a link below to an online version of the "Florida Plantation Records from the papers of George Noble Jones" by Phillips & Blunt.

In 1929 Mariah Carr of Marshall, Texas, showed
traditional cotton spinning on a wheel.

In the spring of 1847 the overseer recorded Venus spinning day after day, perhaps on a large wheel as in the above photo where Mariah is spinning cotton. Venus may have been spinning wool as they raised sheep as well as cotton at El Destino. An 1854 list of tools there counts 6 spinning wheels.

Woman and child wearing typical garments of coarse cloth,
called slave cloth, negro cloth or osnaburg, often
spun and woven on the plantation but also produced commercially.

The spinners, weavers and seamstresses had been busy in 1850.

Collection of Shadows on the Teche, New Iberia, Louisiana
Simple pants for a boy spun, woven and stitched on a
Louisiana plantation.

Richmond's Valentine Museum owns this quilt
that came with the story it was made by enslaved women.
The coarse fabrics look to be similar to what was produced on the plantation.

Fabric summary from Phillips & Blunt

In May 1847 after day of spinning, "Venus at Mr. J[ones's] house helping Jane," who was a cook.

We have no idea how complex a loom the plantation had.
This imaginary illustration is from the 1970s.
Venus's other tasks were weaving and "sewing for negroes," at which she, Winey (or Winney) and Tempy spent many days in May. The usual division of labor on plantations was that the plantation's white mistress cut the slave's clothing (she did not want anyone wasting cloth.) The actual sewing was then delegated to white family members (Mary Chesnut in South Carolina spent her plantation time sewing for her mother-in-law) or in Venus's case to enslaved seamstresses. As there was no "Plantation Mistress" at El Destino we wonder who cut the cloth. 

On the owners' occasional visits Venus was assigned to Mr. Jones's house to cook or serve as a maid to Mary Nuttall Jones (1812-1869)  During those brief festive times the Joneses apparently entertained Tallahassee's rural aristocrats.

Mary Wallace Savage Nuttall Jones (1812-1869)
the Plantation Mistress.
Widowed young, she married George Noble Jones
as his second wife in 1840. Was this portrait taken soon after her wedding?

Kingscote, the Jones's Newport house of 
Gothic design begun about the time
they married in 1840 still stands.

Mary Wallace Jones and George Noble Jones were rarely at El Destino. They spent most of their time at their Georgia houses and plantations and during the fever seasons when malaria and yellow fever raged they spent summers in their Newport, Rhode Island home.

Wormsloe, a Jones family home near Savannah.

George was rich, Mary was richer and it seems to be through her family that Venus and her brother Aberdeen were brought from Georgia to El Destino (the word also means Destination). Venus was probably born at Silk Hope on the Little Ogeechee River near Savannah, a colonial Georgia plantation owned by the Habersham & Savage family. 

One gets a glimpse of plantation work in these records but also a view of Venus's personal life. Doing a digital search for her name in the online edition tells us a little about her.

In April, 1847 Venus was ill, in the journal notes "confind" to the sick house. She may have been delivering a baby, an event often described as a "confinement," but several other women were "confind" that month too and it may be that they had to all-too-common, contagious infection. Venus remained confined for over three weeks from April 4 to the 27th when she returned to her usual task of spinning. 

Venus is recorded as having at least three children in 1847: Jack, Julia and Peggy; by 1854 she'd added Hariat and Amey. Her husband was likely the man named Pleasant, who worked in the blacksmith shop and on the cotton wagons. On April 30, 1852 Overseer John Evans wrote George Jones: "I reckon that you have heard of the Death of Pleasant."

Ouch! We hadn't heard.

Venus may have spent her summers doing field work when the cotton and corn needed tending, joining other women at hard labor. 

 Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Sketchbook, Maryland Historical Society

August of 1854 was a hot one and the overseer D. N. Moxley did not know or care about heat stroke. Four women fainted in the fields and to punish them (or foolishly try to make up for lost work) he required extra labor in the fall. 

Tallahassee in the 1830s by Francis Castelnau,Florida Memory

In October the women rebelled and ran away to Tallahassee seeking refuge with Tom Blackledge, father of one of the runaways. His wife Delia (some spelled it Dealier or Dealer) was also enslaved at the Jones's place but Tom worked in town. Tom's employer Dr. Davis wrote a letter backing up the women's protests. They were jailed in Tallahassee for running away and it cost Moxley "about $13 to get them out" .

During this time Moxley came upon Venus on the road to town. He caught her and tried to strong arm her into the plantation's lock-up but she broke away. He grabbed her again and and her brother Aberdeen defended her by threatening Moxley with an axe. The African-American foreman Prince Habersham fortunately calmed everyone down.

There were "bastings" from Moxley for everyone involved. He also forbid Tom Blackledge to visit his family at the plantation and curtailed any visits to town by anybody.

Overseer's house at El Destino
Duke University Collection

Because George Jones was rarely at El Destino his overseers sent him journals of the work being carried out daily, a boon for anyone with an interest in the lives of the people held in slavery there.

The "Big House" is not the Hollywood version. With no resident
aristocracy, El Destino was a plain working cotton farm. 
 Phillips and Glunt took this photo on a visit in the 1920s
and the building burned soon after.

After the war the former slaves were listed. Here is Venus's brother's family:

Aberdeen - Laborer at Mill - 36
Martha - Weaver Prolapsus Uteri - 32
Whatley - Plough boy - 14
Minie - hoes, ¼ hand - 11
Mary - Water carrier - 10
Daphne - 9
Ben - 7
Stephen - 6
Venus - 4
Ellen - 2

Aberdeen was 36 in May, 1865. He'd named a four-year old for his sister. His poor wife Martha, also a weaver, is described as unable to work, having a prolapsed uterus after eight children born from the time she was about 18. Aberdeen and family continued to live in the area as a tenant farmer. 

 1880 Census for the Habersham family

Prince Habersham whose parents had been born in Africa was also living nearby with his wife Nancy, children and grandchildren..

But where is Venus? We can certainly hope she lived to see emancipation.

More on these Floridians:

See an online version of a 1927 study of the records by Ulrich B. Phillips & James David Glunt, "Florida Plantation Records from the papers of George Noble Jones"

Related publications:

Slavery & Plantation Growth in Antebellum Florida 1821-1860 by Julia Floyd Smith:

"Slave Cloth and Clothing Slaves: Craftsmanship, Commerce, and Industry" by Madelyn Shaw:

"Clothes for the People, Slave Clothing in Early Virginia" by Linda Baumgarten:

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