Enslaved labor played a very important role at Shirley Plantation as well as other large farms throughout the South. Slaves were essential to the plantation system. They tended the fields, harvested the crops, maintained the house, cooked the meals, and provided the majority of skilled labor, including carpentry, masonry, and blacksmithing.
The European demand for tobacco was driving the competitive economic market. Plantations in the New World supplied the English empire with an abundance of tobacco. Cultivation of tobacco was labor intensive and cost prohibitive unless produced in large quantities. In order to keep the cost down and the production quantity up, indentured servants and slaves provided an economical labor force. With indentured servants and slaves, the plantations became the economic backbone of the English empire.
The first record of servants at Shirley Plantation dates to 1616 when John Rolfe documented that Captain Isaac Madison commanded 25 men in planting and curing tobacco. These men were all white and indentured servants, also called indentures. Indentured servants were the original labor force at Shirley as well as in the rest of the English colonies. Indentured servants were people of various races who were contractually obligated to become laborers for a specified period of time in exchange for debt repayment, food, lodging, transportation to the colonies, and the teaching of a trade. Indentured servants were brought from Africa, the Caribbean islands, Scotland, Ireland, and England.
Africans first arrived in Virginia in 1619. The majority of these Africans likely became indentured servants though records from this era were unclear regarding their fates. The first documented African slave in Virginia came in 1640. Until Virginians committed to slave labor, indentured servants comprised the majority of the workforce. Bacon’s Rebellion in 1675 was a major contributing factor to the demise of the indentured servant system. Former and current indentured servants supported Nathaniel Bacon in his uprising. Colonial elite no longer favored the indentured servants after their collaboration with Bacon. Still in need of inexpensive labor, the importation of slaves to the colonies increased.
While slaves were on the property, they were provided housing. Slave dwellings differed according to the slaves’ primary responsibility. House servants lived on the upper floors of the Kitchen and Laundry buildings as did the staff of those dependencies. Field hands lived in the “Great Quarters” up to a mile away from the Great House. The “Great Quarters,” as they were called, were documented as a result of an archaeological field school held at Shirley from 1979 to 1980, as well as a 2005 archaeological excavation and artifact recovery. Both archaeological and documentary records reveal that the 19th century slaves at Shirley lived primarily within family households. Their dwellings were wood frame cabins, 20 by 40 feet, with a double chimney that provided the interior space to serve two households.
Discoveries about slave life are still being made at Shirley. A vast collection of family documents are still being transcribed today and reveal more and more of the 19th century slaveholdings at Shirley. Excavations from 2004 and 2005 yielded vast amounts of artifacts and information about Shirley’s slaves. An excavation of the North Yard revealed new evidence of African servants or slaves as early as the late 17th century including such items as cowrie shells, clay pipes, and glass bottles. This dig also uncovered what was recorded as a spirit protection bowl believed to be of African origin. The archaeological research, along with the study of the family archives, provide an interesting look at the life of the people here at Shirley, free, indentured, and enslaved.
A new slavery exhibit can be seen in the courtyard Kitchen building, an original early 18th-century outbuilding.