Painting of Edge Hill
Learning about the aspects and structures of a plantation is crucial to understanding the lives of enslaved families and their enslavers. Our project explores the Edge Hill plantation, specifically the main house, the kitchen, the horse barn, the creek, the overseer's cabin, and the families who resided at Edge Hill. We describe these structures in the context of their uses at the Edge Hill property as well as in the greater sense of plantation owners in North Carolina in the 19th century.
The goal of our project and research guide is to direct one through the structures and the insides of a plantation in 19th century North Carolina. We explain the stories of the facilities in which both the families of Edge Hill lived and the enslaved worked.
While the plaque at the bottom of the Painting of Edge Hill has the title “Bradley Plantation,” Edge Hill did not necessarily have all the components to be considered a formal plantation. A plantation is defined as a “large property or land holding dependent on the labor of enslaved people.” For the Bradley Family, Edge Hill was considered their summer home where they would vacation to get a break from their “intemperate and rural Cape Fear plantations,” which were other plantation properties that were not located on the water. Even though Edge Hill was not their primary home, they still considered it a plantation for the social status that it granted them. Naming this property a plantation increased the Bradley Family’s social status because plantations were deeply rooted in a society that was largely divided by class and status due to the plantation system during this time period.
Edge Hill is located right outside of Wilmington, North Carolina, on the Bradley Plantation. The existence of Wilmington is credited greatly to the Cape Fear River. The river proved to be beneficial for the people in the city due to the success it brought to Wilmington as a trading center. The city played an important role during the civil war, serving as a major port for the confederacy. By 1860, Wilmington was the largest port and city in the state. Its population numbered approximately 5000 whites of various ethnicities, 4000 enslaved individuals, and 600 free blacks. In 1812, Richard Bradley established Edge Hill on sixty-five acres of land along the Bradley Creek, which was located on the Cape Fear River. Those who resided on the creek enjoyed the coolness of the outdoors and the ability to get away from the heat in town. The white picket fence surrounding the property symbolized wealth and achievement for the families who lived at Edge Hill. In the painting, we also see that the property is surrounded by oak trees, which draws attention to both positively and negatively. Although oak trees are recognized for their beauty, they have a deeper meaning on these plantations. These trees were often used for lynchings on plantations. It was a way for enslavers to ingrain fear in the individuals they enslaved. There was also an abundance of water on the property, such as creeks and a water tower. Because Edge Hill was directly on the water, it attracted many people in the summertime.
The Families of Edge Hill
Since its construction in the early 1800s, Edge Hill has been passed down through several different families serving both as a summer home and full-time residence. The founder, Richard Bradley II, son of Richard Bradley and Elizabeth Ashbridge Sharpless, purchased the sixty-five-acre property in 1808. Bradley built Edge Hill and raised his children there, using it as a summer home to escape the heat of the bustling city. Bradley eventually passed the house down to his son Richard Bradley III who married Sarah Jane Williams and continued to utilize the house as his vacation home. He served as the first commodore of the Carolina Yacht Club (CYC) at Wrightsville beach which existed on Bradley Creek, where Edge Hill was built. The Bradley family frequently sailed on the creek, participating in many regattas at the CYC.
After Richard Bradley III, the Edge Hill home was passed down through members of the family eventually falling under the ownership of William Giles Jr.. Giles was successful in his various business ventures including his immense work in the lumber industry. Unlike the previous inhabitants of Edge Hill, Giles turned the summer home into a year-round home, making a living in the small summer town with his wife, Almeria Reston Giles, and their six children. Giles Reports owning 48 slaves, purchasing more as his lumber company expanded. These slaves were likely divided between his home at Edge Hill and his lumber business in Savanah, Georgia. The Giles continued to keep the house in their family for many generations, spending time with relatives under the forest of oak trees or by the banks of the creek. After the Giles family, the property was purchased by W.D. MacMillen Rhett around the year 1855. W.D. MacMillen Rhett is a member of the extended Bradley family. The Rhett’s, like the Giles, used Edge Hill as a year-round residence.
Though the original Edge Hill home is no longer standing, the home has been rebuilt using salvaged old bricks, heart pine flooring, and original wall paneling. This newer home was constructed by the Rhett-Fox family and still stands today. The home is currently occupied by Katharine Rhett Fox who was married to Judge James Carroll Fox of Wilmington, NC. Katharine and her late husband Honorable Judge James C. Fox were given the property as a gift by her family. It was on the shores of Bradley creek that they raised their children who still inhabit the home today.
The main house is the center of the painting, and likely was the center of life on the Edge Hill property. Some consider the home to be an I-House, also referred to as a Plantation Plain Style home. While I-Houses vary from region to region, the guidelines for characterizing such a house were developed by several scholars, including Kniffen, Glassie, and Noble who all agreed “upon the following criteria: side-facing gables, one room deep, a minimum of two rooms wide, and two full stories high.” This term came about because this style of home was widely popular in Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, but was present in many other states, including North Carolina.
The home is almost framed by the numerous tall trees that surround the home, hiding the roof in the painting. Your eye is likely drawn to the wide-open front door. The artist likely painted the door open to represent the Giles’ family home as an open place to friends and family. The shutters on the home were green, matching the outside gate. The green accents of the home present the house as a part of nature, highlighting the outdoorsy feel of the property that mostly served as a summer home to the families in Edge Hill as a way to escape to the water for the hot months of the year.
The kitchen at Edge Hill was positioned on the left side of the property. It was separate from the main house, something quite different from modern-day homes. However, it was common for wealthy families to separate their main house and kitchen. A separate kitchen served many purposes, both practical and social. Due to the use of coal ovens, kitchens were often smokey and gave off an unpleasant smell. Additionally, due to the threat of fires from cooking, a separate structure protected the main house from damage. Lastly, the separate kitchen at Edge Hill provided an important social function: separating the enslaved people who worked in the kitchen from the residents of the main home. The kitchen house was positioned so that the windows and front door faced the main house’s dining area, and this possibly served to allow the enslavers to watch over the cook. The enslaved people who worked in the kitchen likely carried hot food on trays to the main house. These enslaved workers would likely be required to dress nicely because they were seen as “part of a display of wealth, sophistication, and order of the domestic space.” Enslaved cooks could be hired out for their talents, providing a way for these people to accumulate their own money.
Structurally, the kitchen house has two floors, and the second floor likely served as the living quarters for the cook and the cook’s family. The chimney is positioned at the back of the home which meant that the cook likely had a ladder that ran through the internal sidewall, leading to the area above. It is also possible that the kitchen house was a place to do laundry or weave, and those who were associated with that work could have potentially lodged on the top floor as well. In 1800s Wilmington, an enslaved cook “may have cooked for a family of about ten members and a similar number of slaves living on the property,” no easy task. The enslaved cooks at Edge Hill likely served the family, and may have traveled with the Giles family when they returned to their residence in Georgia.
It is important to consider the influence enslaved people had on southern cuisine. While little is physically recorded of enslaved peoples’ influence in the kitchen, “African American foodways are a synthesis of African, Caribbean, European, and Native American products adjusted to New World conditions.” It was common for enslaved cooks to learn recipes from female enslavers. The cookbook, The Virginia House-wife by Mrs. Mary Randolph (1824), had one of the strongest influences on southern cuisine, and many of the recipes were with “seasonings familiar to Africa and the West Indies - ginger, saffron, thyme, sage, sweet basil, shallot, and hot pepper.”
The house also had a horse barn where they kept their cattle, specifically horses and cows. The horse barn was separate from the main house and is to the right of the house in the painting. The barn provided shelter for the horses, as well as being an area for crop storage. The horse barn was also a work space for several enslaved people specifically the jobs within the barn were a holster and taking care of the animals. Those enslaved kept the animals in shape, ensuring they were being fed, exercised and groomed. A barn and stables was a key feature at almost all plantations during this time. There were many different varieties of barns, such as the sizes and uses of them. Some families used their barns primarily for crop storage while others used them for their animals. The barn at Edge Hill was used for both of these however at a small scale.
Structurally the horse barn at Edge Hill holds a frame and corn crib structure. The visible side of the barn is a corn rib structure which is used to help aid crop storage. The other portion of the barn had a frame structure which means it had a beam, column, and slab. In the painting, there is also a visible wagon in front of the entrance door of the barn. This wagon was used for working with the crops. Additionally, there was a paddock adjacent to the barn which is not shown in image. This was an area for the horses to exercise, be ridden, and spend time outdoors.
Considering the Bradley and Giles family both loved spending time outdoors and being busy with activities during their summers, the presence of animals was essential to their daily life. During the summer at Edge Hill, the barn was a very important structure to their daily life as well as a workplace for those enslaved.
The Bathing House was a one-story building located next to the horse barn. It is assumed that the bathing house was intended for the management of the plantation. It is also a possibility that the enslaved people on the property resided there. Bathing houses were usually a part of the architecture on properties during this time period. Usually, plumbing was not accessible inside the homes so bathing houses existed. Inside these bathing houses, there was usually a tub, a sponge, a washbasin, and a pitcher of water. Bathing during this time period was now not only considered medical treatment but it was a way to promote cleanliness which was a symbol for those in the middle and upper class. Bathing houses held a “prominent position” in American plantations during this time period.
A very important and highly used area of the Edge Hill property was the creek which the house resided next to. This creek is known as Bradley’s Creek and the house was on sixty five acres of land along it. The Creek can be seen in the painting to the left of the main house in the back. In the painting the family sailboat is depicted on the creek. The creek was a place for summer activities for the families who lived at Edge Hill and it was a work space for those enslaved. Most of the work done by those enslaved regarding the creek and sailboat was maintaining and repairing the boat, aiding in water activities and manufacturing and importing salt. The creek was used for swimming and fishing, as the house was a large social space for those in the neighborhood.
Sailboats and having access to this creek was a symbol of wealth for families in the 19th century in North Carolina, and was a very important aspect of both the Giles and Bradley families lives. The families also kept yachts on the creek at the Edge Hill property, and the Giles family was very involved in the yacht club races at the Carolina Yacht Club . Also at their other property in Savannah, Georgia the Giles family purchased a part of the Vale Royal Plantation and were part of the building of a large steam powered lumber mill at the junction of Musgrove Creek, the canal, and the Savannah River. This emphasizes how crucial it was to both their work and social life to be near a body of water.
While Richard Bradley lived at Edge Hill he used the creek to manufacture and import salt. Salt marshes are coastal ecosystems where large amounts of salt are present from the tides. Salt Marshes are most common in areas close to coasts, specifically the Atlantic Ocean. The Cape Fear River which went through Wilmington, North Carolina, and led into the Atlantic, was a major hotspot for them. Bradley Creek is connected to the Cape Fear River and therefore was an area of lots of wildlife and an opportunity for work with salt. The salt marshes were a large area of work for those enslaved during this time, and are a reason Edge Hill is considered a plantation. A quality of a plantation is a place where the labor of enslaved people is used in order to profit off of crops, and in the case of Edge Hill, this was salt.
The Creek in the painting is also well known for its role in the famous television show Dawson’s Creek. This show is filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina, and has many scenes on the Bradley Creek and the name of the show is even connected to the Creek.
The Overseer’s Cabin
An overseer was generally a low-class white man who worked on the plantation and was in charge of supervising the slaves. Most overseer’s wanted to become enslavers, though some enjoyed their middle-man position, having power over the slaves, but not actually owning any. Unlike the slaves who worked on the plantation, overseer’s were paid workers. The overseer's cabin was typically a small building located on a plantation or large property between the enslaver's house and the quarters in which enslaved peoples slept. The overseer’s cabin at Edge Hill was located just across the creek between the main house and the enslaved quarters. The placement of this building is consistent with the typical positioning of overseer’s cabins as the slavemaster would be close to both the enslaved individuals and the slave-owning family. Though Edge Hill was not a large cash crop plantation, it did produce various vegetables which were mostly consumed by the family. These crops were likely cultivated and cared for by several slaves owned by the family living at Edge Hill. The Giles family as we know owned around 48 slaves and therefore it would have been customary for them to hire an overseer. This cabin would have essentially served as a small cabin for the overseer to live in during his employment on the property.
Object biography by Lulu Bradley, Anne Marie Joyce, Sophie Schneider, and Anna Veber. Spring 2022.
Bradley Creek today.
This is notably the setting of Dawson's Creek.
You can learn more from this short piece: “Edge Hill: A Way of Life," published by the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society!
You can learn more about enslaved women working in kitchens from Kelley Fanto Deetz's Bound to the Fire and related public work here.
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Deetz, Kelley. “‘When Her Thousand Chimneys Smoked’ Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks and Their Kitchens.” (PhD diss, University of California at Berkeley, 2010). https://digitalassets.lib.berkeley.edu/etd/ucb/text/Deetz_berkeley_0028E_11012.pdf
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Zhang, Esther. “Plantations - To Their Roots.” DukeEngage. July 16, 2019. https://dukeengage.duke.edu/plantations-to-their-roots/.