Landscape of a Middling Plantation
Welcome to the Landscape of a Middling Plantation. This watercolor painting originated in the mid-1800’s. It is estimated to have been made around 1835-1845. This painting was given to the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) by Dale L. Couch, and the piece was discovered in either Southside Virginia or Northeastern North Carolina. We are unsure of exactly where the piece was found, but on the MESDA website, it says that it was one of those two places. We can assume this because of the landscape depicted and the style of watercolor painting. It has no enslaved people depicted, so we decided to focus on the architecture of the plantation. Even though we do not know the artist of this painting, we made some assumptions that because the only person depicted in the picture was a white overseer, the artist was most likely not of African American descent. We began to first dig into the title in hopes of understanding more of the contfound out that a “middling planation” is simply a medium sized plantation with about 20-50 slaves. Also for this project, we chose to use a mix of the term “slave” and “enslaved people” in hopes to get the message across clearly to the 5th graders. For this research guide, we will also be using them interchangeably. This was an intentional choice.
The barn is one of the most predictable and most important structures on a plantation. You could not have a plantation without a barn. Barns were used to store livestock. Animals like cows, chickens, pigs, and mules were all common on a plantation because they were sources of food and trade. In the painting, the barn is on the far left in front of a small building that looks like it could be for smaller farm animals like chickens. It makes sense that the barn is far away from the big house and closer to where slaves would potentially be while working. It’s no accident that the barn was built the way it was. The barn is extra large because of the big animals that were stored there. The door is also wide so that the animals can fit. It needed to be wide enough to fit the animal pins as well. It can also be concluded that the small window at the top was used for ventilation.
Slave quarters were where the slaves resided while on a plantation. Their homes were poorly built with mud that worked as plaster, dirt floors, and bricks. Slaves were not given the proper resources to build their homes. It is important to note that the slaves had no choice but to build their homes in this way because they were either given leftover supplies or them having to find supplies on their own. They built them the best way that they could to be able to withstand the wind, rain, and snow. Some slave quarters were duplexes, but it was most common for slave quarters to be single standalone homes. The layout of these homes were chimneys that could be attached and detached and there was usually one way in and one way out. All members of the family, moms, dads, grandmothers, grandfathers, and children all lived together in these small cabins. Beds were set up like bunk beds and slaves often slept on the floor. Slaves were not given the proper bed sheets or comforter. They slept on blankets on the floor and cotton or wool on the beds. Slaves were packed in these small cabins that were rarely built with windows just like animals. They were seen as property, therefore their enslavers did not feel it was their responsibility to make sure that their slaves were living in good conditons that were heathy and safe.
The Master’s House
This house was the easiest to discern amongst the other buildings. We knew that the master’s house would be one of the biggest buildings on the plantation because this is what allowed the reinforcement of the power dynamic between masters and their slaves. The master’s house was a central location on plantations. It was view as the place of power, and most slaves were never allowed into the master’s house, out of fifty slaves which is on the higher end of a middling plantation, only six would be assigned to do house work (Vlach 1993, 18). These plantation owners wanted to feel powerful, and to do that, they made their homes extravagant. “To mark their dominance over both nature and other men, planters acquired acreage, set out the boundaries of their holdings, had their fields cleared, selected building sites, and supervised the construction of dwellings and other structures” (Vlach 1993, 1). This excerpt from the Back of the Big House highlights the desire that masters wanted to create power dynamics when making plantations. They carried more about showing off their wealth than anything else. In the painting, Landscape of A Middling Plantation, we can see that the master’s house is the only two-story structure on the plantation. It is the only building with glass windows, and the house even includes a porch for socializing.
The kitchen of slave plantations was often located outside of the master’s house. This is because during the antebellum era, it was much easier for these all-wood structures to catch fire. There was also less effective ways to put out fires during this time. Therefore to preserve their wealth, plantation owners would build the kitchen outside of the master’s house. The kitchen is also conveniently located near the slave quarters becasue the enslaved people on the plantation would prepare the meals for the master’s family and the other people on the plantation. In the kitchen, enslaved people would not only cook meals, but they would also be responsible for washing dishes and preparing the ingredients used for cooking. The enslaved people who normally work in the kitchen would not have to work all hours of the day such as the enslaved people in the master’s house. These enslaved people were at a pretty high risk to be injured on the job. The kitchen was nothing compared to how safe and efficient they are now.
The storage units, also known as outbuildings, are located on the right side of the painting. As slaves were the ones working in these buildings, it was necesary to keep them distanced from the Master’s House. Storage units and labor spaces were normally distanced from the Master’s House to maintain the wealthy image of the plantation, with the Master’s House as the focal point. It was important to hide the presence of slaves but not their labor.
The furthest building to the left does not have coverings on the side. There is hay visibly stacked up inside. This specific unit highlights the presence of the enslaved and animals. The other buildings are not living quarters because they are visible from the front of the plantation. The furthest building to the right is an outbuilding that possibly houses animals. There is a larger door entrance and it is the tallest building. It also has ventilation with the window on the side. There is also a mule standing next to it.
The fence is an incredibly important aspect of the painting. Fences in this era were hand constructed through slave labor. The fence changes construction a few times in the image. The section of the fence located directly in front of the Master’s House is similar to a ranch rail fence, and is the most prestigious part of the fence. The fence is evenly carved and nailed together. Nails were handmade by slaves in this era. The process of forging nails was time consuming and meticulous, thus requiring more expendable slave labor.
This section of the fence highlights the importance of displaying wealth. In this era, wealth displayal was incredibly important. Slaves were viewed as property and were capital, and displayed incredible wealth. Although there was a balance between hiding slaves because they were a bad image and showing slaves because they signify wealth. This dichotomy was resolved through showing the impacts of slave labor. The fence shows that there are slaves on the plantation. It also shows that this is not a small plantation, as there are enough slaves to carefully craft a fence, yet keep up with the other plantation duties.
The next section of the fence, in front of the barn and storage units, was made by stacking planks of wood. This type of fencing is called the Worm Fence. It is created without post holes. The fence runs in a zig-zag in order to properly stack planks in between each other. The worm fence does not require any nailing and is a much easier manner of fencing. This section requires less labor and is somewhat hidden from the main section of the plantation, as it is not a signifier of wealth. This is representative of a middling plantation, where wealth is prominent but not expendable.
Saddle Storage Unit
We had the most trouble identifying the house at the front of the plantation. When talking with Ruthie, we at first tried to think of this building as some sort of architectural resistance made by the slaves. However, when we took a close look, we noticed what appeared to be shackles inside the unit. We then thought that we had identified this as a slave jail, or some building that had the main function of punishing enslaved people. However, as we delved deeper into our research, we came across a few problems with our hypothesis. Firstly, most slave jails were not structured like our building in the portrait. The common structure of a slave jail on a plantation was built rectangularly, with three doors facing outwards. There were also usually no windows on this structure. The house at the front was a very atypical design for a slave jail. Secondly, we learned that most slave jails were reserved for large plantations. Because this is a middling plantation, it would be unusual for a building to be dedicated to a slave jail when space was so limited. Finally, through our research we learned that slaves were punished in a public location. To further an enslaved person’s humiliation and subjugation to their master, most enslaved people were publicly beaten and whipped to send a warning to other slaves of what was to come if they dared to disobey the master’s orders. Therefore, with all the information we had gathered, we came to the conclusion that our perplexing house at the front was not a slave jail.
After some deep research into the structure of other plantations, we finally found a design of one that could help answer our question. The Whitney Plantation offered a map of twelve historic structures on a plantation. One building that we had not seen in any other portrait was the mule barn. It had the most similar structure to the building in our painting and was located near the front of the plantation. After closely examining our building again, we realized that what first appeared to be shackles could also have been used as equipment to wrangle in the animals. Looking at the painting as a whole, the direction the overseer is steering the horse also suggests that this house was used for animals. Seeing as we already identified a barn on our plantation, we researched what moden saddle storage units looked like and we discovered that there were many similarities between the structures. Therefore, we decided that, although we cannot prove conclusively, this building was most likely used to store saddle and riding equipment for the horses and mules.
During slavery, human capital built most of the economy in the United States. Human capital is slavery. The work that slaves put in made generous profits for plantations all over the south. Proof of slavery includes photographs, records of the price of enslaved people, freedom papers, books and bibles that slaves wrote in, and just about any other written records that you could find. Slavery was real and it existed in different forms, despite the numerous attempts where people have tried not to acknowledge it. One of those times is when pictures and paintings such as the “Middling Plantation” which serve as visual proof that slavery existed excludes slaves. The definition of a “Middling Plantation” is a plantation with 20-49 slaves. The painting did not have to include all 20-49 slaves, but it should have presented a few. It did present whips and also a structure that looks like it could have been a holding cell or whipping place for the slaves that lived there. The whips and the jail-like structure show that the painter wanted you to know that you were looking at a plantation without having to incorporate enslaved people. Too often we see representation of black people without actual black people being depicted. Although the artist is unknown, it could not have been a black person or a slave. An enslaved person or black person would not be able to paint about slavery and ignore the most important part, which was them.
Object biography by Ashleigh Ekwenugo, Rovina Mannah, Taylor McCabe, and Austin Torain. Spring 2022.
Handmade nail crafted by enslaved man Venture Smith.
“The Whitney Plantation offered a map of twelve historic structures on a plantation. One building that we had not seen in any other portrait was the mule barn. It had the most similar structure to the building in our painting and was located near the front of the plantation.”
“...Meanwhile, Back at Those Fences along the Railroad Cut...” Gettysburg Daily, 18 June 2011, https://www.gettysburgdaily.com/meanwhile-back-at-those-fences-along-the-railroad-cut.
“Landscape of a Middling Plantation.” Mesda, https://mesda.org/item/collections/landscape-of-a-middling-plantation/20208/.
Lavin, Lucianne, and Marc Banks. “Archaeology.” Artifact - Venture's Nails - Archaeology Magazine Archive, 2007, https://archive.archaeology.org/0705/etc/artifact.html.
Vlach, John Michael. Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery. Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1993.
“The Cultural Landscape of a Plantation.” Cultural Landscape of Plantation--the Plantation Landscape, https://www2.gwu.edu/~folklife/bighouse/panel5.html.
“An enslaved person or black person would not be able to paint about slavery and ignore the most important part, which was them.”