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Chapter Three

Cotton and Slaves  

Dr. Dan L. Morrill

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

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The Stafford Plantation Slave Cabin is the only known domicile in Mecklenburg County in which slaves once lived.


Popular images of the Old South are clothed in romantic myths.   Some people draw their inspiration from movies like "Gone With The Wind" or "Song Of The South."  To their way of thinking, Dixie was a land filled with stately, white mansions, with luxuriant magnolia trees and manicured lawns, with chivalrous gentlemen wearing spiffy suits, with elegant damsels in sweeping gowns, with seemingly endless fields of cotton, and, of course, with obedient, content, devoted slaves. 

      Others see the Old South in darker hues.  Largely because of its being intertwined with the institution of human bondage, the ante-bellum South for folks of this persuasion was a region filled almost exclusively with exploitation and unfairness.  Images of cruel slave masters twirling their mustaches as they prepare to flog their bondsmen or take sexual advantage of their demure bondswomen are uppermost in the imaginations of the most vitriolic critics of the ante-bellum South.  The reality of the Old South, however, was more complex, subtler, and more muted than either of these caricatures suggests.

     One fact is undeniable.  Slavery was a fundamental component of the social hierarchy of pre-Civil War Mecklenburg County.  In 1860, slaves composed approximately 40 percent of the local population (6800 of 17,000), making Mecklenburg County one of the highest in terms of the number of bondspeople in the North Carolina Piedmont.  This writer encounters many individuals who wrongly believe that Mecklenburg County was never part of the Cotton Kingdom of the Old South.  It most assuredly was.  Indeed, some of the most imposing plantation houses in all of the North Carolina Piedmont are located in Mecklenburg County.  Each bears incontestable testimony to the fundamental importance of slavery to this region's ante-bellum way of life.

      Anyone who doubts the impact of the institution of human bondage upon Charlotte-Mecklenburg in the years before and during the Civil War need only examine the historical record.  In Charlotte, for example, where 44 percent of the people were slaves in 1850, town officials passed ordinances that closely circumscribed the behavior of blacks.  Bondspeople were not allowed to be out on the streets after 9:30 P.M without written permission of their owners.  They could not buy or sell alcohol or even smoke a pipe or a cigar in public.  Slaves could not leave their plantations without a pass or assemble without the permission of their owners. Slaves could not hold worship services and were forced to go to the white man's churches.  A town guard roamed the streets of Charlotte from 9:00 P.M. until dawn and had the authority to "visit all suspected Negro houses," including those occupied by free blacks, most of whom were artisans.  Any black who defied these ordinances was harshly punished.  "A severe lashing awaited blacks found guilty of breaking any of these ordinances," writes historian Janette Greenwood.

This is a slave collar.  The inscription reads:  "Levy M. Rankin, Dealer Of Fine Mules & Negroes.  Charlotte, N.C. 1853."

       There is no denying that the institution of human bondage rested ultimately upon coercion.  The great majority of whites, who prided themselves on having been the first to declare themselves independent from British rule in 1775, had no qualms about enslaving their black brethren. Slavery was entirely legal and protected by the U.S. Constitution. The United States, despite outlawing the importation of slaves in 1808, witnessed a massive expansion of the institution of human bondage in the 75 years following the American Revolutionary War.  There were 697,897 slaves in the United States in 1790.  The number had increased to 3,953,760 in 1860. 

   Bondspeople represented a major financial investment on the part of their owners, so it is not surprising that their masters exerted great effort to capture runaways.  In 1860, the average sales price for a healthy, young bondsmen was equivalent to the price of an average house.  Admittedly with deflated Confederate dollars, slaves sold in Charlotte in August 1864 brought the following prices.  "Boy 18 years old $5,150, boy 11 years $4,100, girl 16 years $4,300, woman 35 years $3,035, girl 16 years (very likely) $5,000, boy 21 years $5,200, man and wife and 2 children aged 2 and 4 years (the man with one eye) $6,500."

     Advertisements seeking assistance in capturing escapees appeared frequently in Charlotte newspapers during the Civil War. 

$300 Reward.
I will give the above reward to any person who will take up my boy SAM, if captured without serious injury and delivered to me or confined in Jail so that I can get him. He has been lying out over twelve months ranging from near Charlotte to Reedy Creek. He is 22 years old, medium size, and has a scar on his forehead. Address me at Charlotte, N.C.
Feb. 24, 1863
Jno. Wolfe

Runaway from my plantation, nine miles from Charlotte, on the Statesville Railroad, a negro boy named DANIEL. The boy is about 22 years old, five feet one or two inches high, right or left foot cut off by a railroad car, and walks with a stick. I will give the above reward if the boy is brought to my plantation or confined in any jail so that I can get him. The boy was raised in Petersburg, Va., and was purchased in Richmond last winter.
Aug. 24, 1863
R. P. Poindexter

      One slave house, the Stafford Plantation Slave Cabin, survives in Mecklenburg County.  The physical record of human bondage is also present in several slave cemeteries.  Perhaps the most evocative is the McCoy Slave Burial Ground  off McCoy Road just east of Beatties Ford Road.  A rock monument, most likely erected in the 1920s, contains the following inscription.








Some visitors to this site are offended by the marker's language.  They consider it to be paternalistic and demeaning.  Others are touched by what they regard as a gesture of gratitude on the part of the descendants of the slave owner.  Regardless, there is certainly no question about the sincerity of the McCoy family's motives.  They remember Jim and Lizzie  with great affection and have even handed down one of the many stories Lizzie used to tell the McCoy children.

Location of McCoy Slave Cemetery

     Here is one of Lizzie's favorite tales.    It's about a little boy who had three dogs -- Junga, German, and Ring.  To entice the dogs to run to him, the boy would play this song on his horn: "Tu to, my Junga, Tu tu my German, Poor Ring, long time a comin', they want me to die, they want me to die. "  One day the boy's mother told him to lock the dogs in the smokehouse and take two bags of wheat to the mill to get the contents ground into flour.  After meeting and talking with a squirrel, a possum, and a coon, the boy encountered the "Old Bad Man," who grabbed the little boy and carried him into the forest and chained his arms and legs to a wall in his house. "Human bones were scattered all around the room and a large stone sharpening wheel sat in the middle," Lizzie would tell her enthralled audience.

      Then the "Old Bad Man" took out a knife and asked the little boy if he had one wish before he died.  The little boy said that he wanted to play a tune on his horn.  "Tu to, my Junga, Tu tu my German, Poor Ring, long time a comin', they want me to die, they want me to die. "  The loyal canines, Lizzie explained, responded as expected.  They dug their way out of the smokehouse, scampered to their master, and ate the "Old Bad Man."

      The Neely Slave Cemetery is another poignant reminder of the days when human bondage held sway in Mecklenburg County.  It is situated in a small grove of trees in an office park near Carowinds Amusement Park in the Steele Creek community. Thomas Neely , who had arrived in southwestern Mecklenburg in 1754 and who owned fewer than ten slaves at the time of his death in 1795, was a generous, kind-hearted, and compassionate master.  He made special provisions in his will for the welfare of his chattel labor. He stipulated that  "our negro Joe . . . to be taught to read" and wanted his son to give “our negro wench Susy two days every week for the purpose of providing herself in clothing." Neely ordered that the "negro child Dinah . . .to be learned to read,"  and even insisted that "none of my legatees may sell any of my negroes out of the family under penalty of losing their inheritance.”

      Sarah Frew Davidson , the mistress at The Grove Plantation, the home of her father William Davidson,  encouraged some of her slaves to become literate.  Her motive was religious.  "After tea attended to the instruction of our young servants," Sarah recorded in her journal on February 7, 1837.  "Being much troubled and perplexed relative to my duty on this subject and believing that religious instruction can not be well communicated without some knowledge of letters, about six weeks ago I commenced learning them to read."

      Slaves in the South placed great emphasis upon performing "a good burial," because death was an act of liberation, a breaking of the chains of bondage.  “The slave funeral was at once a ‘religious ritual, a major social event, and a community pageant,’ drawing upon a mixture of cherished traditions,” explains historian Emily Ramsey.  Customs brought from Africa mixed with habits learned on the plantation to produce a dramatic amalgam of funerary traditions.  “After the death of a slave, a coffin would usually be made by a slave carpenter while the body was laid out on a cooling board” writes Ramsey.  “Since a corpse would decay quickly in the stifling Southern heat, slaves adopted the practice of sitting up all night to guard the body from prowling animals, often ‘singing and praying through the night.’” 

     Typically, the funeral began after sunset.  A procession of mourners, carrying torches to light the pathway, would leave the slave houses and proceed across the fields and meadows toward the burial ground, which was usually located in a far corner of the plantation.  The coffin and the pallbearers would go first, followed by the dead person’s family, then the master and his family, and finally the members of the slave community.  Mournful spirituals accompanied the entire proceedings, and sobbing and lamentations were acceptable behavior throughout the ceremony.  Simple fieldstones mark the burial sites in the Neely Slave Cemetery .  The ground is covered with periwinkle.  Archeologists have identified 42 graves.   

          The Neely Family Bible reveals a lot about the nature of the personal relationship that existed between the Neely family and their bondsmen and bondswomen.  John Starr Neely , the last member of the family to own chattel laborers, meticulously recorded the birth date of all his slaves who were  born on the farm in the 1850s and 1860s.  “Louisa was born August 25th, 1854,”  Neely inscribed.  “Henry Jackson was born July 10th, 1856."

Location of Neely Slave Cemetery

       One of the most confounding aspects of the institution of human bondage was its capriciousness.  Masters were in total control and could distribute rewards or punishments as they saw fit.  Indeed, their influence extended even beyond death.  George Elliot , a Mecklenburg County planter who died in 1804, stipulated in his will that two of his slaves would be set free.  "For the many faithful, honest, and meritorious labors and services which I have received for near forty years from my honest slaves . . . Tom and Bet, I hereby liberate them and each of them from slavery." He gave Tom and Bet money and even the use of part of his plantation for their lifetimes.  The same master, however, withheld freedom from his other slaves and gave them instead to members of his family.  "I will give and bequeath to my son Richard Elliot one Negro boy named Zena, to him, his heirs and assigns forever," George's will proclaimed.  "I will give and bequeath to my daughter Jane Dun, to her, her heirs and assigns one Negro girl named Patsey forever."

        The largest known surviving slave cemetery in Mecklenburg County was once part of the Alexander Plantation on Mallard Creek Church Road.  It contains more than seventy graves.  Sadly, it is now situated in a gated apartment community and is not easily accessible.  This writer first visited the Alexander Slave Burial Ground in the mid-1970s with William Tasse Alexander , a direct descendant of the slave owners.  We walked through bramble and thicket to reach the hallowed spot.  Rows of rock-marked graves amid a lush blanket of periwinkle told us that we had arrived.  Standing near the middle of the cemetery was an inscribed tombstone erected after the Civil War by the children of former slaves.  "Our Father & Mother.  Soloman Alexander .  Died May 18, 1864.  Aged 64 Years.  Violet Alexander .  Died Aug. 10, 1888.  Aged 83 Years."

This marker is on the fence surrounding the W. T. Alexander Slave Burial Ground

Location of W. T. Alexander Slave Cemetery

     The system of human bondage that held sway in the Old South is obviously repugnant from the perspective of the prevailing values of today.  However, one should  consider slavery within the context of the time in which it existed.  While it is undeniable that some bondspeople were whipped and otherwise mistreated, others were treated quite well, such as those who belonged to John Starr Neely  or William Tasse Alexander   The great grandparents of a descendant of some of the bondsmen and bondswomen buried in the Alexander Slave Burial Ground  told William Tasse Alexander that the Alexanders were kind and fostered close-knit slave-non-slave relationships. The Alexanders bought shoes for their slaves, allowed them to visit other plantations, and even permitted them to marry bondsmen and bondswomen who lived elsewhere.  Do not forget that Sarah Frew Davidson  taught the slave children on her plantation to read and write.

Sugar Creek Academy (1837)

      It is also worth noting that slaves were not alone in being beaten in ante-bellum Mecklenburg County.   Early nineteenth century disciplinary customs dictated that unruly white youngsters be whipped.  White parents had no compunctions about beating their children.  Indeed, their children expected to be whipped  -- often and severely.  "Spare the rod and spoil the child" was a popular dictum of the day.  There is a small brick building near the intersection of Sugar Creek Road and North Tryon Street.  It was once a school.   The sons of slave owners started coming here in  1837 to prepare for higher education.  The first full-time teacher was Robert I. McDowell , an honor graduate of Hampton-Sydney College.  He would have readily whipped any student who deviated from accepted norms of behavior in the classroom.

     The evidence is clear.  As a labor system, slavery was fundamental to the operations of the economic system that brought great wealth to some residents of Mecklenburg County in the first half of the nineteenth century.   The cotton gin, invented by Eli Whitney  in 1793, enabled farmers to ship about twelve times as much cotton to market than they could before, and the world price decreased by approximately one half.  This meant that industrious individuals who owned substantial amounts of land and the requisite labor supply could increase their annual income by 600 percent.  "The machine allowed cotton to be cheaply cleaned so that it could be spun into thread. All over the South a plantation economy quickly developed to produce short-staple cotton to fill the new demand," historian Tom Hanchett explains. In 1790, the United States produced about 3,000 bales of cotton.  The figure increased to 178,000 in 1810 and ballooned to more than 4 million bales on the eve of the Civil War. 

     The planters (anyone owning 20 or more slaves) and prosperous farmers had a virtual stranglehold on political influence in North Carolina.  A white man had to own 50 acres of land to be able to vote for State senators and 100 acres of land to serve in the legislature.  85 percent of the members of the General Assembly were slave owners in 1860, while 72 percent of the white families in North Carolina owned no bondspeople.  Free blacks were totally excluded from the electoral process after 1835.

     Oligarchy held sway at the local level as well.  The most powerful County officials, the Justices of the Peace, were recommended by the local delegation to the State legislature and appointed by the governor, not elected by the people. Justices of the Peace constituted a court that set the tax rate, decided where roads were to be built, made provisions for education and poor relief, settled boundary disputes, and rendered judgments in law suits.  "It was a cozy system," writes historian Paul D. Escott in his book, Many Excellent People. Power and Privilege in North Carolina 1850-1900.

      Not surprisingly, the most successful of Mecklenburg's cotton farmers made their enhanced economic status known by building fancy, new houses.  These ante-bellum plantation mansions still adorn the Mecklenburg landscape. "The model for much of the architecture of the early nineteenth century was directly or indirectly that of ancient Greece and Rome," one scholar asserts.  The Federal style  was the most popular.  Devised by the Adam brothers in Great Britain and sometimes called the Adam style , buildings of this genre most commonly have small entry porches, windows aligned horizontally and vertically in symmetrical rows, cornices decorated with tooth-like dentils, side-gabled roofs, and semi-circular or elliptical fanlights.

The W. T. Alexander House, most likely built between 1820 and 1825, is one of Mecklenburg County's finder Federal style plantation houses.

      An excellent example of the Federal style  is Rosedale , Sarah Frew Davidson 's home at 3427 North Tryon Street in Charlotte.  Built shortly after 1800 and for many years the centerpiece of the William Davidson  Plantation, Rosedale has exquisite interior appointments.   "Adamesque  mantels, cornices, and ornamental blinds exhibit a correctness unique in Mecklenburg County, where vernacular interpretations of Adamesque interior detail were more usual in houses of the Federal period," writes Charlotte architect Jack O. Boyte.  Other imposing Federal style houses in Mecklenburg County include Latta Place , Oak Lawn , White Oaks , the W. T. Alexander House and Holly Bend . 

Cedar Grove

     The grandest Federal style  house in Mecklenburg County is Cedar Grove .  It is part of a series of structures on the Torance Plantation  on Gilead Road near Huntersville.  These buildings illustrate how the local built or man-made environment of the late 18th and early 19th centuries evolved in response to changing economic conditions and practices. Hugh Torance , a peddler originally from Salisbury, erected a humble log home on this land in 1779 but had to wait until Cornwallis's British and Tory army marched away from Mecklenburg County in 1781 before he could move in.  Soon thereafter, Torance married Isabella Falls , whose first husband had been killed in the American Revolutionary War.  Isabella and Hugh Torance  had a single son, James, who was born in 1784.

     Hugh Torance  made his livelihood mainly from farming.  He struggled during the early years to eke out an adequate living.  After the invention of the cotton gin, however, Hugh began to prosper.  His wealth enabled him to transform his home into an imposing two-story Federal style  house in 1796.  If you visit the Hugh Torance  House, you will notice that it has two chimneys.  One is built of rock and the other of brick.  The rock chimney is the older and was on the western end of the original log cabin. The brick chimney dates from 1796, when the front of the house was reoriented to face west.

    Hugh Torance  and his family vacated his first abode on the Torance Plantation  in 1800 and set up housekeeping in a larger brick home he built next door.  James, his son, had been living with an uncle in Salisbury and attending school but returned to the plantation in 1805.  He established a store in his father and mother's old house.  Again, by visiting the Torance House you will see a one-story addition that extends eastward from the main block of the structure.  That is where James Torance  operated his mercantile business.

Torance House and Store

    The account books from  James Torance 's store have been passed down over the generations.  They provide a fascinating glimpse into the lifestyles of the people of northern Mecklenburg County in the early 1800s.  "Debts at the store were often settled in the fall with cotton, and some customers paid by freighting cotton and farm produce from the store to Camden and Charleston," says historian Christina Wright.  "But Mecklenburg," Wright continues, "was still the frontier; settlers were still trading in fur and indigo, and buying powder and flints, as late as the 1820s."  James did sell an impressive array of goods from his store, including farm implements, medicine, spinning wheels, looms, clothing, medicines, and even  "little luxuries like coffee, tea, and spices."

     Hugh and Isabella Torance died in 1816, leaving their son a sizeable estate that included 33 slaves.  Like his father, James was an industrious and adroit businessman and made lots of money raising cotton for shipment chiefly to the South Carolina port cities of Charleston and Georgetown.   Always looking for ways to enrich himself, James also erected a large watered-powered grist and saw mill on his plantation in 1824-25.  Soon thereafter, farmers began coming from the surrounding plantations to have their grain ground into flour and the timber sawn into lumber.  Only the massive rock foundation walls of the Torance Mill  have survived.

     In 1831, James Torance  decided to build a new home for him and his third wife, Margaret Allison , at the site of his mother and father's house.  The massive red brick structure, named Cedar Grove , was the largest and grandest home in ante-bellum Mecklenburg County.  James traveled to Charleston to buy the knocker for the front door.  Tin, copper, sash cord, wood screws, and locks were shipped from New York City.  Pipe arrived from Philadelphia.  The lumber and brick were produced on the plantation. Cedar Grove survives virtually unchanged.   "There are 5,000 feet of floor space, the first-floor ceilings are thirteen feet high, and the cellar walls are twenty-two inches thick," says Wright about Cedar Grove.  An elegant spiral staircase ascends from the entry hall, down which Southern belles no doubt made their spectacular entrances at the gala festivities.

     James Torance  was a member of Hopewell Presbyterian Church , still an active congregation on Beatties Ford Road.  Nowhere in Mecklenburg County does the aura of the Old South linger with greater impact than in the sanctuary of this venerable house of worship.  Sometime before 1760 the Hopewell congregation erected its first meetinghouse.  It was a simple log structure. During the Revolutionary War this log edifice gave way to a frame building, which served as the meetinghouse or church until the 1830's.  In 1833, or shortly thereafter, Rev. John Thomson  guided the Hopewell congregation through the rigors of building a brick meetinghouse that according to one estimate cost $3000 to erect.

Hopewell Presbyterian Church

      That the congregation selected the Federal Style for its new house of worship is not surprising. After all, this was the architectural motif that the plantation owners of the Hopewell community -- the Lattas, the Torances, and the Davidsons -- had selected for their imposing homes.  The brick meetinghouse was altered in the late 1850's. The brick floor was removed, and a vestibule was added. The people of Hopewell Presbyterian Church  even installed a pulpit.  Finally, an exterior door on the east side of the expanded house of worship led to the slave gallery.

    Imagine what attending a service in Hopewell Presbyterian Church  in the 1850s would have been like.  The hierarchical social order of ante-bellum Mecklenburg would have been apparent to even the most casual observer.  Seats were rented to raise money to pay the minister's salary and to meet other church expenses.  Downstairs the slave owners and their families would have sat in their subscribed pews.  The wealthiest planters would have sat near the front, and their less fortunate compatriots would have occupied pews toward the rear.  The poorest whites would have had to sit in the balcony, their seats separated from those occupied by the slaves only by a wooden divider.

     Juliana Margaret Conner , a Charleston belle who visited Hopewell Presbyterian Church  in 1827, was not overly impressed by even the wealthiest and most politically powerful people she met   She called Charlotte a "place not offering anything worthy of note or interest" and remarked that none of the women at Hopewell was properly attired for church.  "There were not two bonnets which differed in shape and color in the whole congregation," she exclaimed.   Conner described the backcountry gentry as an essentially a boring lot who lived a humdrum, "almost primitive" existence of "no excitement."  The Piedmont planters knew nothing of culinary delicacies, feasting instead upon foods like "ham and chickens, vegetables, tarts, custards and sweetmeats, . . . . corn or wheat cakes and coffee." 

      The minister at Hopewell would have preached with great emotional fervor, his sermon emphasizing the depraved nature of mankind and the absolute necessity of God's grace for salvation.   Each fall and spring Hopewell Presbyterian Church  would have celebrated "Communion Season."  All members, including the slaves, would have come forward to sit at a table where the minister or an elder would have served each individual bread and wine out of a common cup.   To the leaders of the Hopewell community there was no conflict between slavery and the lessons of the Bible. To their way of thinking, most slaves lacked discipline and culture and had to be treated like children but always within a system of strictures based upon God's law. "For centuries, a wide range of social thinkers had seen the institution as fully compatible with human progress and felicity," writes Peter Kolchin in his book, American Slavery 1619 - 1877.   Jeff Lowrance, the present minister at Hopewell Presbyterian Church, told this writer that he is "embarrassed" that the members of his congregation once followed this misguided line of thinking.

Sandifer House

      Most slave owners in Mecklenburg County, like their counterparts elsewhere in the South, owned relatively small numbers of bondsmen and bondswomen. "In rough terms," states Peter Kolchin, "about one-quarter of Southern slaves lived on very small holdings of 1 to 9."  The percentage in such peripheral cotton growing areas as Mecklenburg County was even higher.  The majority of Mecklenburg farmers simply did not have enough money to compete with the likes of James Torance  or W. T. Alexander.   Representative of this sizeable group was Thomas T. Sandifer , a physician, whose house still stands on Moore's Chapel Road. In 1860, Sandifer's "personal estate was worth $7,000.00, and he held three slaves," writes historian Frances P. Alexander.  "Sandifer's slaves included two men, ages 33 and 20, and one woman age 31."  The relationship of Sandifer and his slaves would have been personal and intimate.  "On farms with fewer than ten slaves," says Kolchin, "masters could typically be found in the field, toiling alongside their slaves while bossing them and casually interacting with them."

Oehler House

Basement Kitchen

   There were a few Mecklenburg farmers who eschewed slavery and refused to participate in it.  Such was the case with George Martin Oehler , who along with many of his relatives migrated from Germany to northern Mecklenburg County and neighboring Cabarrus County in the early 1840s.  Oehler became an elder of Ramah  Presbyterian Church in 1856 but was asked to leave at the outbreak of the Civil War because of his  “Northern sympathies.”  Oehler's house is hidden deep in the woods just north of the intersection of Asbury Chapel Road and Huntersville-Concord Road east of Huntersville. 

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