America was riding its destiny. She had defeated the most powerful navy in the world, not once but twice. Cotton crops were thriving. Northern cotton mills were humming. Settlers were going west. Fish hauls came in as fast as you could bring ’em on land. Canals were opening. Ports were bustling and commercial ships crowded the waters. It was called the Era of Good Feelings.
In the Albemarle and across the South, gifts from land and water, still largely unspent, were full of promise and ready to be plucked by freemen for profit and slaves for masters.
The Albemarle was still a rural backwater. Travel over land was tricky and lack of a deep-water port prevented large vessels from trading directly. But livin’ was easy, as Ella Fitzgerald sang in Summertime. Of course, how easy depended on your place in society: planter or merchant; yeoman farmer; slave.
Planters and Merchants
Planters were the elite minority. Many could trace their ancestry to aristocratic families in England. They owned the best land. With connections and credit they had acquired large tracts, anywhere from 500 to 1000 acres with discounts if they brought in indentured servants or slaves. Isolated because of large holdings, plantations were prosperous and as self-sufficient as small towns.
Plantation life was a clubby, closed-circle capitalistic operation. Rich soil and long summers with mild winters were good for growing cash crops that needed special care, like cotton, rice, and tobacco. When rice and tobacco languished in the Albemarle, cotton became the cash crop, especially after the invention of the cotton gin (cotton engine) that speeded separation of fibers from seeds. Slaves provided the power and the profits.
Planters became powerful members of state government, as much to maintain order in the state as to feather their own beds. Owning land was a requirement for serving in the legislature; at one point 85 percent of its members were planters, more than any other southern state.
This was a gay time for planters and their families, when even the humdrum took on a luster of romance. A tutor for the Capehart family wrote of afternoon visiting, fine dining, fishing and hunting, fetching mail at the post office, holiday festivities, and summer vacations on the beach in Nags Head.
Merchants were the other powerful class of people, and they usually lived in the finest houses in the community. They ran maritime empires that stretched from New England to the West Indies and across the Atlantic Ocean.
Here’s a small sampling of items offered by mercantile businesses: shoes, coffee, sugar, tobacco, horse powder, calico, jeans, soap, medicine, cheese, candles, salt, molasses, and bags of shot. Other profitable enterprises: credit to locals and shipping for commercial farmers.
If you were wealthy, you and your friends had special privileges. You could become part of the summer social scene in Raleigh to escape disease-carrying mosquitos that swarmed on the coastal plain.
Or you could retreat to the barrier beaches, where fresh sea breezes swept the pests away; where chartered packets brought in fresh produce twice a week; and where you could enjoy swimming, fishing, afternoon naps, and in the evenings, dancing to music at the hotel.
The Working Middle Class
Most people had no connections to aristocracy nor the wherewithal to form shipping empires or take vacations by the sea. Nor did they own the sizeable tracts of land that would allow them to have a voice in state government.
In 1837 The Fayetteville Observer wrote: The great mass of our population is composed of people who cultivate their own soil, owe no debt, and live within their means.
Yeoman farmers and free blacks lived on small farms, around a hundred acres or so. They did not grow cash crops. They grew corn and raised livestock and hunted to feed their families.
Deer were native and wild boar had been introduced in the 1500s by the English as a reliable source of food. Most livestock roamed freely, fattening on abundant mast from native trees, so little care was needed, except for keeping them away from the cornfield. Planters and yeomen alike dined on free-range beef and pork.
In spring families caught enough fish to salt for the winter. They sold excess produce or a bale of cotton, picked up odd jobs to meet the tax bill and purchase necessaries or an occasional luxury.
Some time during the mid-19th century and into the twentieth century, the mule became a fixture on southern farms and in fisheries. They withstood the heat of summer, their small size fitted nicely into cotton fields, and they ate a lot less than a horse.
An ambitious entrepreneur could add income by specializing in light industry: tanning hides; milling (75 to 80 cents to turn a bushel of corn into meal); fulling (cleaning and shrinking wool fibers); weaving cloth; cutting shingles and staves; and building boats.
Illiteracy remained high, because children were needed on farms. Still, a large majority of voters approved legislation to establish a public school system in 1839. Academies, forerunners of today’s high schools were founded at this time as finishing schools or college prep schools. Between 1789 and 1860 more than 300 were chartered in the state. Quality of instruction varied by instructor.
It was a peaceable life, called dull and even monotonous by one writer, punctuated by parties during the Christmas season, weddings, and eagerly awaited travelling circuses or musical revues brought by steamboats. Sale of liquor was overseen by the state, but merchants wholesaled it anyway and yeomen farmers produced liberal quantities in their private stills.
Still, people who lived on the edge and depended on gifts from land and sea could come into tough times if the environment dealt a bad hand. This was the case in 1828 after Currituck Inlet, the last of several inlets along the northerly barrier beaches, shoaled in.
Without regular exchange of ocean and sound waters, salinity decreased. Oysters and other shellfish that families depended on for food could not adapt to the change and disappeared. Mosquitos multiplied, and Malarial diseases. . . were much more general and more malignant.
Petitions to the federal government for relief from shellfish losses and disease made no headway. Dredging to reopen the inlet would have been futile in restless waters. The story of how survivors coped is not recorded.
Yellow fever and malaria were still common in coastal areas. Those who fell ill were treated in their own home by someone they knew, a family member or a neighbor, rarely a doctor. Sometimes patent medicines would be purchased from a storekeeper. Many housewives kept recipe books that included everything from baking an apple pie to making soap to remedies for croup.
Slaves: Power Without Destiny
Few people who saw Gone with the Wind ever thought much about how a plantation functioned. The grand entrance and broad staircase, the canopied bed and velvet curtains, the crested silver and globe chandeliers were delicious distractions.
Behind the elegance and the romance of a plantation were hundreds of slaves, invisible.
Planting and harvesting crops; or clearing land; or digging ditches that drained the land; or digging canals that enabled shipment of produce to market; or preparing naval stores for export — these backbreaking tasks brought in the cash that made the romance possible.
But there were also carpenters, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, coopers, cobblers, plasterers, harness makers, brick masons, butchers, tanners, teamsters, couriers, bodyguards, nurses (midwives, too), seamstresses, cooks, laundresses, cleaners, hunters, fishermen, trail guides, boatmen, river pilots, lockmasters (for canals on rice plantations).
And The Nanny who was the comfortable face of slavery to the world.
Collectively, slaves powered life on the plantation. But they owned none of it.
They were valuable commodities to the planter, each with a price on his or her head, each a number on the planter’s balance sheet when the time came to figure assets and taxes. Yes, each slave had a tax value, and the balance sheet determined whether the planter retained or sold a slave.
Slave women were valued for their ability to beget new slaves. (The Marquis de Lafayette, respected military leader in both French and American Revolutions, on a cross-country tour in 1824 at President Monroe’s invitation, remarked casually on the change in the complexion of slaves from fifty years prior.)
A later painting by Eyre Crowe depicts the transport of slaves from Richmond to Ridgeway, North Carolina and points south. While, geographically, this is not directly related to the Albemarle, we include it because these two paintings strongly influenced anti-slavery attitudes in England and America.
How was humanity stolen from slaves?
In the early 1700s, the Albemarle was a patchwork of wilderness settlements. Slaves in the North Carolina colony, still limited to the coastal plain and rolling Piedmont, numbered about 800. It was not unusual for a settler to own one or two slaves for domestic or field work.
The owner-slave divide may have been firmly etched, but it was focused more on grubbing existence from a strange land than on amassing profits. Often bondsmen (euphemism for slaves) lived in the household, sharing their culture with the family and interweaving lifestyles in a cooperative venture for survival.
For example, it is possible that eastern Carolina’s vinegar-and-pepper barbecue grew out of culinary customs in the West Indies and Africa, where cooks used lime juice and hot peppers to season meat. It’s a short step to experimenting with vinegar, more readily available than limes, for a new twist that’s become a staple today on the coastal plain of the Carolinas.
Within several decades, the owner-slave divide had deepened: the Revolutionary era became a watershed for slavery in the Albemarle. Lack of a port city precluded slave trade here, except among private individuals, so slave owners purchased slaves in Virginia and transported them to North Carolina.
This inconvenience did not slow the vast increase in slave numbers in less than a century. Slave population at the time of the Revolution: 100,000. Plantations were rising and fortunes were growing. Owning slaves became a path to wealth and would remain so until the Civil War. The relationship between master and slave was now and would continue to be based on exploitation. All men are created equal did not apply.
From a slave’s perspective, this oratory about freedom and the rights of man was simply hollow chatter, though many participated in the war, on either side, hoping for freedom from bondage somehow.
But talk of liberty stirred souls and a restlessness grew among many who were in bondage, stirrings that would lead to constant turmoil during this Era of Good Feelings and beyond.
Most slaves lived on plantations (though Albemarle plantations never reached the size of the vast plantations of the Deep South). But they also worked as domestic servants, skilled artisans, and field laborers on small farms and in towns and cities.
Treatment of slaves depended on the owner. As one traveler observed, The keep of a negro…does not come to a great figure, since the daily ration is but a quart of maize and rarely a little meat or salted fish.
Most owners realized that the value of their property could not be maintained on a poor diet, and there was always the whip to spur action. Daily allotments were supplemented with produce from slave gardens, which in turn saved money for the planter.
There was once an oft-repeated myth of the happy slave. Records of laziness, theft, arson, desertion, and murder bury that myth along with layers of passive aggression and outright anger. Newspapers frequently ran ads with descriptions of runaways.
Some sardonic observers commented that malingering slaves were only mimicking the behavior of their owners.
Planters disciplined minor transgressions; the courts meted out punishment for more severe crimes that might result in the loss of the right ear and fifty lashes. Troublesome slaves were conspicuously branded. Jittery communities felt they could keep slave society under control, but they were ignoring a deeper reality.
Religious fervor would unexpectedly become part of the stirrings. Around the turn of the century, religious revival meetings swept through the country. The movement came to be known as the Second Great Awakening, one of four great awakenings that would boost Protestantism and religious fervor over the course of three centuries.
…There had never been anything like it. Here’s a meeting of 3,000 people out in a field, blacks and whites together, listening to a preacher who says, “Here in my message is a new life for you, here’s a new chance for you. Here’s a God who had your interest at heart. Here’s a God who may deliver you.” – David Blight, historian.
Many slaves who had clung to former religions were moved to abandon them and gladly accepted these new messages of spiritual equality before God. Methodists and Baptists especially welcomed converts from the black and white working population.
But numbers of slaves tripled from 1800 to 1860 and embracing a kinder religion would not contain discontent. Slave populations in Albemarle counties were about 35 to 45 percent of total population. Further west, in some counties along the Roanoke River, numbers rose to 60 per cent.
The state of North Carolina passed several laws to protect the rights of slave owners and restrict the rights of slaves. Slave patrols were initiated, though it was difficult to round up willing participants. They were, after all, securing planters’ property, not necessarily their own.
The restrictions on slaves spilled over to freed blacks. They lost their right to vote, along with other personal freedoms. However skilled as artisans, they were considered inferior to white craftsmen and were paid and treated accordingly. General harassment and loss of dignity caused many to migrate north or west or sail for Africa and a new life.
The Panic of 1819
As euphoria faded, unrest exploded in 1819. Factories closed. Unemployment rose. Banks failed. Mortgages foreclosed. Cotton prices plummeted. Investment in land collapsed. Deflation followed soaring inflation. Debt hung over the country from the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812.
Some historians call it the first Great Depression. Like a whirlwind, it seemed to have spun itself out by 1823, but damages to the fabric of society had yet to be repaired. Low crop prices and depressed land values hit eastern North Carolina hard, and many slave owners sold their slaves and farmers abandoned their land and headed west for virgin land and a new start.
Resentment was building in the middle class against banks and corporations. They saw these institutions as privileged monopolies, and conflict between creditor and debtor was splintering the economy.
The Era of Good Feelings would never return, but there were still profits to be made from the land.
Cashing in on Natural Resources
Gifts from land and water were still largely unspent before the Revolution. The environment was full of promise and ready to be plucked by capitalists for profit and slaves for masters.
Colonial settlers had used natural resources sustainably. This was not by philosophical inclination. Even the wealthy did not yet have the manpower nor the tools to make large-scale inroads on the environment.
Remember the motto of the Lords Proprietors, the first governors of the colony back in the 1660s: The Taming Makes the Land. That idea was ingrained. After the Revolution the southeast would became the purveyor of natural resources to the world for the next two centuries.
Not until an army of slave power came on, could the land be tamed.
Fortunately, technology was not yet so efficient that wholesale destruction of resources took place during the nineteenth century. That would happen in the next century.
Logging the Forests
Shipyards from New England to Philadelphia and across the Atlantic were eager to expand their fleets. Virgin stands of North Carolina cedar, cypress, oak and pine were fed, board by board, into their ships.
Tar, pitch, and turpentine (naval stores) along with masts, staves and shingles: eastern North Carolina led the world in producing and exporting these for over a hundred years, until the great forests gave out and second-growth saplings took their place.
Pine trees were tapped for oleoresin that exuded from multiple cuts and was processed into turpentine. By 1840 eastern North Carolina produced almost all naval stores used in the United States. By 1861, 4,000,000 barrels of turpentine, worth $40,000,000 when distilled, were being processed annually by almost 5,000 laborers and 150 stills.
Slave labor was crucial to profits. Collecting and distilling the resin was long and arduous. It was solitary work done in winter. Conditions were particularly harsh and workers would run away or set fire to the forest to avoid the punishing drudgery
(Of interest: Tarheel is a moniker from this period that has stuck to the North Carolina mariner. It may have originated from workers in tar yards who often got tar on the soles of shoes.)
Farming On Grand Scale
Once cleared and drained, this was good land, wrote a colonist in 1654, with a most fertile, gallant rich soil, flourishing in all the abundance of nature…
This land would become the bedrock of fine plantations, but there were limitations to what the soils could give.
Cotton was a small-time crop until 1793. It would take one farm hand 100 days to separate seed from crop in a single cotton bale. Said Moses Brown, owner of the first powered spinning mill in Rhode Island, The unripe, short, and dusty part. . . so spoils the whole as to discourage the use of southern cotton in the machines.”
Small jenny mills run by hand, mules or oxen produced crude yarn for homespun cloth, no match for the fine cotton imported from the West Indies. (Pre-revolutionary colonists wove and wore this rough cloth as a symbol of their patriotism, sacrificing the comfort and looks of the good stuff to avoid paying unfair taxes to England.)
Eli Whitney’s cotton gin (cotton engine) changed the game. It did the work of ten men and it removed the dust that clogged milling machines. By 1840 cotton was a leading cash crop for North Carolina farmers.
Cotton grown in the Albemarle was hauled overland and on river boats to Columbia on the Sound’s south shore or to Elizabeth City on the Pasquotank River. From there it was shipped north to New England textile mills.
Eventually, to keep profits on home turf, cotton mills would open in the South. Edenton and Elizabeth City operated cotton mills in the Albemarle.
Cotton was saving the South. The world couldn’t get enough of it.
But cotton is a heavy feeder. Soil here is rich when first lumbered and replenished by regular flooding of rivers. But the environment was being altered by logging and ditching.
Let’s look beyond the grand entrance to the plantation house and focus on the fields. At any one time, only about a third of a plantation was planted in cotton. The rest was a mosaic of woodlands and disturbed patches, recently cut over, vegetable gardens and facilities for repairing harnesses or building carts or plows.
To a northern farmer who was used to tidy rows, southern farms seemed helter-skelter. This mosaic was a primitive form of crop rotation. Untidy cut-over fields would eventually be cleared for planting cotton, and the spent field would lie fallow, possibly planted with wheat or cover crop.
While the Albemarle held its own, the growth of King Cotton throughout the South came from continually opening new land to cultivation.
Cotton production increased steadily until well into the twentieth century, though the boll weevil took a toll. By then, chemical fertilizers and pesticides were on their way. By 1925, North Carolina was producing 1,102,000 bales of cotton, including farms on the coastal plain and the rolling hills of the Piedmont to the west.
Returning to Antebellum decades, records show that in 1850 Avoca Plantation, situated on a peninsula flanked by the Chowan River and Salmon Creek in western Albemarle Sound, owned about 5,000 acres valued at $49,000, and 203 slaves. The farm produced 8,500 bushels of corn and 200 bales of ginned cotton that year, with livestock worth $4,000 and profitable fisheries off Bachelor’s Bay in Albemarle Sound.
Avoca Farms today is a multi-million-dollar company specializing in botanical and medicinal products.
The Era of Good Feelings ended ominously. As class conflict sharpened, a crisis over slavery erupted like a firebell in the night, wrote Thomas Jefferson. He was referring to Missouri’s application for statehood and its implications for slavery in western territories.
Though the Missouri Compromise dampened angry spirits for the moment, John Quincy Adams predicted that it was only the title page to a great tragic volume.
Next: A War that Wasn’t Wanted and the Expedition Hurricane