George Carter, the slave owner

The easiest place to start when researching the slave history of Oatlands is, of course, with the slave owner himself. So that’s where we started. George Carter came to the Oatlands property in 1798, and by 1800 had 10 slaves working the property. By 1860, there were 128 slaves on the property (though by this time George had died and his wife Elizabeth was in charge).

It was George Carter’s business and legal advisor, George Whitlock, who often purchased slaves for him, as well as another slave trader, William Forbes. Most of the male slaves purchased for Oatlands were bought for between $300 and $400. Although Carter did buy and sell his slaves, much of the growth of the slave population was probably due to natural increase.

As for the treatment of his slaves, George Carter described himself as a lenient master, but it was typical for slave owners to feel that their slaves appreciated them, and even loved them. It seems that George Carter, who waited until 1836 at the age 59 to marry, raised some suspicions. Carter’s sister, Sophia, even inquired as to rumors she had heard. He replied, ‘My habits like most men are vicious and corrupt. . . I comfort myself in knowing I have no mulatto children–It is a Sin, I am only answerable for, to my God.”

George Carter was firm in his belief that if a slave fled Oatlands the ties of “paternalism” were dissolved. In a letter to an Edmund McGinnis, Carter wrote in regards to his runaway slave Isaac, “As long as my slaves choose to remain with me, I feel attached to them, but as soon as they leave me, I consider myself absolved, from every type of affection. I have determined that neither of those that have run off will ever live again on my farm.” This of course meant that these slaves were usually sold to slave traders looking to send labor to the cotton plantations of the Deep South.

With the Underground Railroad running so close to Oatlands (possibly over Hogback Mountain, through Mountain Gap at the northern edge of Oatlands on the way to the Quaker village on the other side of Hogback) many of his slaves were known to make the escape attempt. George, in reference to an escaped slave named Billy, complained of “struggling with the most enthusiastic and invincible opposition in the recovery of my property, from the Quakers and others. The sneers, the contempt, and scorn of the whole mass of aiders, advisors, and accomplices of runaway slaves, who are now triumphing at my shame.”

Oddly enough George acknowledged that his life as a slaveholder brought him nothing but misery, as stated in a letter to his sister Julie in 1818, “rest assured, that if I know myself aright, I must know that I do not understand the management of slaves, neither do I think you do, or that either of us ever will.”

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About oatlandsva

Director of Development at Oatlands, a National Trust Historic Site.
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