Slave Overseers

In 1860 it was calculated that about 88 per cent of America's slave-owners owned twenty slaves or less. However, large landowners would usually own well over 100 slaves and relied heavily on overseers to run their plantations. These overseers were under considerable pressure from the plantation owners to maximize profits. They did this by bullying the slaves into increasing productivity. The punishments used against slaves judged to be under-performing included the use of the cart-whip. Not surprisingly the mortality-rate amongst the slaves was high. Studies have shown that over a four-year period, up to 30 per cent of the slave population in America died.

John Newton was a slave-captain between 1747 and 1754. He wrote in Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1787): "He later recalled a conversation with a man who purchased slaves from Newton: "He said, that calculations had been made, with all possible exactness, to determine which was the preferable, that is, the most saving method of managing slaves". He went onto say that they needed to decided: "Whether, to appoint them moderate work, plenty of provision, and such treatment, as might enable them to protract their lives to old age? Or, by rigorously straining their strength to the utmost, with little relaxation, hard fare, and hard usage, to wear them out before they became useless, and unable to do service; and then, to buy new ones, to fill up their places?"

Francis Fredric has argued that some plantation owners employed slaves as overseers. He pointed out in his autobiography: "My grandmother's master was one of the hard kind. He had made her son an overseer. Consequently, my grandmother having committed the crime of attending a prayer-meeting, was ordered to be flogged by her own son. This was done by tying her hands before her with a rope, and then fastening the rope to a peach tree, and laying bare the back. Her own son was then made to give her forty lashes with a thong of a raw cow's-hide, her master standing over her the whole time blaspheming and threatening what he would do if her son did not lay it on."

Slaves were in the fields from sunrise to sunset and at harvest time they did an eighteen hour day. Moses Grandy later wrote that his overseer "MacPherson gave the same task to each slave; of course the weak ones often failed to do it. I have often seen him tie up persons and flog them in the morning, only because they were unable to get the previous day's task done: after they were flogged, pork or beef brine was put on their bleeding backs, to increase the pain; he sitting by resting himself, and seeing it done. After being thus flogged and pickled, the sufferers often remained tied up all day, the feet just touching the ground, the legs tied, and pieces of wood put between the legs. All the motion allowed was a slight turn of the neck. Thus exposed and helpless, the yellow flies and mosquitoes in great numbers would settle on the bleeding and smarting back, and put the sufferer to extreme torture. This continued all day, for they were not taken down till night."

Women worked the same hours as the men and pregnant women were expected to continue until their child was born. Only a month's rest was allowed for recovery from child-bearing. The women then carried the child on their backs while they worked in the fields. Around the age of five, slave children would also be expected to work on the plantation.

Austin Steward pointed out in Twenty-Two Years a Slave (1857): "It was usual for men and women to work side by side on our plantation; and in many kinds of work, the women were compelled to do as much as the men. Captain William Helm employed an overseer, whose business it was to look after each slave in the field, and see that he performed his task. The overseer always went around with a whip, about nine feet long, made of the toughest kind of cowhide, the but-end of which was loaded with lead, and was about four or five inches in circumference, running to a point at the opposite extremity. This made a dreadful instrument of torture, and, when in the hands of a cruel overseer, it was truly fearful. With it, the skin of an ox or a horse could be cut through. Hence, it was no uncommon thing to see the poor slaves with their backs mangled in a most horrible manner."

Primary Sources

(1) Moses Grandy, wrote about his overseer in his autobiography, Life of a Slave (1843)

MacPherson gave the same task to each slave; of course the weak ones often failed to do it. I have often seen him tie up persons and flog them in the morning, only because they were unable to get the previous day's task done: after they were flogged, pork or beef brine was put on their bleeding backs, to increase the pain; he sitting by resting himself, and seeing it done. After being thus flogged and pickled, the sufferers often remained tied up all day, the feet just touching the ground, the legs tied, and pieces of wood put between the legs. All the motion allowed was a slight turn of the neck. Thus exposed and helpless, the yellow flies and mosquitoes in great numbers would settle on the bleeding and smarting back, and put the sufferer to extreme torture. This continued all day, for they were not taken down till night.

In flogging, MacPherson would sometimes tie the slave's shirt over his head, that he might not flinch when the blow was coming: sometimes he would increase his misery, by blustering and calling out that he was coming to flog again, which he did or did not, as happened. I have seen him flog slaves with his own hands, till their entrails were visible; and I have seen the sufferers dead when they were taken down. He never was called to account in any way for it.

It is not uncommon for flies to blow the sores made by flogging. In that case, we get a strong weed growing in those parts, called the Oak of Jerusalem; we boil it at night, and wash the sores with the liquor, which is extremely bitter: on this, the creepers or maggots come out. To relieve them in some degree after severe flogging, their fellow-slaves rub their backs with part of their little allowance of fat meat.

(2) Francis Fredric, Fifty Years of Slavery (1863)

Many masters possessing large plantations, and some hundreds of slaves, being desirous to divest themselves as much as possible of the cares of managing the estate, hire white men, at a salary of from 1,200 to 1,400 dollars per annum, to look after the whole property. These are the best and most humane overseers. But other slave proprietors, in order to save the cost of an overseer, but chiefly to exact as much work as possible out of the niggers, make a nigger an overseer, who if he does not cruelly work the slaves is threatened with a flogging, which the master cannot give to a white man. In order to save his own back the slave overseer very often behaves in the most brutal manner to the niggers under him.

My grandmother's master was one of the hard kind. He had made her son an overseer. Consequently, my grandmother having committed the crime of attending a prayer-meeting, was ordered to be flogged by her own son. This was done by tying her hands before her with a rope, and then fastening the rope to a peach tree, and laying bare the back. Her own son was then made to give her forty lashes with a thong of a raw cow's-hide, her master standing over her the whole time blaspheming and threatening what he would do if her son did not lay it on.

(3) William Box Brown, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown (1851)

My master's son Charles, at one time, became impressed with the evils of slavery, and put his notion into practical effect by emancipating about forty of his slaves, and paying their expenses to a free state. Our old master, about this time, being unable to attend to all his affairs himself, employed an overseer whose, disposition was so cruel as to make many of the slaves run away. The change in our treatment was so great, and so much for the worse, that we could not help lamenting that the master had adopted such a change. There is no telling what might have been the result of this new method amongst slaves, so unused to the lash as we were, if in the midst of the experiment our old master had not been called upon to go the way of all the earth. As he was about to expire he sent for my mother and me to come to his bedside; we ran with beating hearts and highly elated feelings, not doubting, in the, least, but that he was about to confer upon us the boon of freedom - for we had both expected that we should be set free when master died - but imagine our deep disappointment when the old man called me to his side and said, Henry yon, will make a good plough-boy, or a good gardener, now you must be an honest boy and never tell an untruth.

(4) Jacob Stroyer, My Life in the South (1898)

Gilbert was a cruel overseer. He used to strip his fellow Negroes while in the woods, and whip them two or three times a week, so that their backs were all scarred, and threatened them with severer punishments if they told; this state of things had been going on for quite a while. As I was a favorite with Gilbert, I always managed to escape a whipping. But finally, one day, Gilbert said to me, "Jake," as he used to call me, "you am a good boy, but I'm going to whip you some today, as I whip the other boys." Of course I was required to strip off my only garment, which was an Osnaburg linen shirt, worn by both sexes of the Negro children in the summer. As I stood trembling before my merciless superior, who had a switch in his hand, thousands of thoughts went through my little mind as to how to get rid of the whipping. I finally fell upon a plan which I hoped would save me from a punishment that was near at hand. I commenced reluctantly to take off my shirt, at the same time pleading with Gilbert, who paid no attention to my prayer.

(5) Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)

There was a planter in the country, not far from us, who had six hundred slaves, many of whom he did not know by sight. His extensive plantation was managed by well-paid overseers. There was a jail and a whipping post on his grounds; and whatever cruelties were perpetrated there, they passed without comment. He was so effectively screened by his great wealth that he was called to no account for his crimes, not even for murder.

Various were the punishments resorted to. A favorite one was to tie a rope round a man's body, and suspend him from the ground. A fire was kindled over him, from which was suspended a piece of fat pork. As this cooked, the scalding drops of fat continually fell on the bare flesh. On his own plantation, he required very strict obedience to the eighth commandment. But depredations on the neighbors were allowable, provided the culprit managed to evade detection or suspicion. If a neighbor brought a charge of theft against any of his slaves, he was browbeaten by the master, who assured him that his slaves had enough of every thing at home, and had no inducement to steal. No sooner was the neighbor's back turned, than the accused was sought out, and whipped.

His brother, if not equal in wealth, was at least equal in cruelty. His bloodhounds were well trained. Their pen was spacious, and a terror to the slaves. They were let loose on a runaway, and, if they tracked him, they literally tore the flesh from his bones. When this slaveholder died, his shrieks and groans were so frightful that they appalled his own friends. His last words were, "I am going to hell; bury my money with me."

(6) Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)

My first master's name was Captain Anthony - a title which, I presume, he acquired by sailing a craft on the Chesapeake Bay. He was not considered a rich slaveholder. He owned two or three farms, and about thirty slaves. His farms and slaves were under the care of an overseer. The overseer's name was Plummer. Mr. Plummer was a miserable drunkard, a profane swearer, and a savage monster. He always went armed with a cowskin and a heavy cudgel. I have known him to cut and slash the women's heads so horribly, that even master would be enraged at his cruelty, and would threaten to whip him if he did not mind himself. Master, however, was not a humane slaveholder. It required extraordinary barbarity on the part of an overseer to affect him. He was a cruel man, hardened by a long life of slaveholding. He would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a slave. I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest.

(7) Austin Steward, Twenty-Two Years a Slave (1857)

It was usual for men and women to work side by side on our plantation; and in many kinds of work, the women were compelled to do as much as the men. Captain William Helm employed an overseer, whose business it was to look after each slave in the field, and see that he performed his task. The overseer always went around with a whip, about nine feet long, made of the toughest kind of cowhide, the but-end of which was loaded with lead, and was about four or five inches in circumference, running to a point at the opposite extremity. This made a dreadful instrument of torture, and, when in the hands of a cruel overseer, it was truly fearful. With it, the skin of an ox or a horse could be cut through. Hence, it was no uncommon thing to see the poor slaves with their backs mangled in a most horrible manner. Our overseer, thus armed with his cowhide, and with a large bull-dog behind him, followed the slaves all day; and, if one of them fell in the rear from any cause, this cruel weapon was plied with terrible force. He would strike the dog one blow and the slave another, in order to keep the former from tearing the delinquent slave in pieces, - such was the ferocity of his canine attendant.

(8) James Pennington, The Fugitive Blacksmith (1859)

We had an overseer named Blackstone; he was an extremely cruel man to the working hands. He always carried a long hickory whip - a kind of pole. He kept three or four of these, in order that he might not at any time be without one.

I once found one of these hickories lying in the yard, and supposing that he had thrown it away, I picked it up, and boy-like, was using it for a horse; he came along from the field, and seeing me with it, fell upon me with the one he then had in his hand, and flogged me most cruelly. From that, I lived in constant dread of that man; and he would show how much he delighted in cruelty by chasing me from my play with threats and imprecations. I have lain for hours in a wood, or behind a fence, to hide from his eye.