Slaves on the Vance homestead had some liberty
by Rob Neufeld
It had been David Vance Sr.’s “will and desire,” as he lay dying on his Reems Creek property in 1813, that his two families of slaves, headed by Richard and Aggy and Jo and Leah, be given “full liberty”
“Full liberty” meant, in that time and place, freedom to choose their households, to travel, and to not worry about losing their children. The alternative, emancipation, would have required, the state slave codes dictated, approval by a county court.
The slave codes also required African Americans to carry papers—either a ticket from their owner or freedman’s documents—when they were away from their homes. Plus, all white men were allowed to capture or shoot runaways. The Vances’ relaxed ownership may have provided their slaves their safest option.
This glimpse into African American life in antebellum Western North Carolina comes to us via the detective work of Tammy Walsh and Michael Shelton at the Vance Birthplace. The birthplace is presenting a “Behind the Big House” program for students on four Saturdays in February. (See box.)
One of the documents that Walsh has in hand is a letter that Mira Margaret Vance—David Sr.’s daughter-in-law and the mother of Zebulon (future governor)—wrote to her sister-in-law, Jane Davidson in Tennessee.
“The hills is here as thick as hops,” Mira rhapsodized, or advertised, because she wanted her nephew to come visit her. She gave over a piece of her paper for a message from Aggy.
“Old Agness sends her love to Jane and Wilson,” Mira wrote. “The black people here is all well.”
Jane and Wilson were slaves who had once been in Reems Creek, but had moved to Bedford County, Tennessee (between Nashville and Chattanooga). Other Vance slaves had moved there, too, including two young men, James and Simon, who’d accompanied David Vance Jr.’s brother, Samuel, and sister, Jane.
It is easier to get insights into slaves’ living conditions than their personalities. One jumps on the merest data. The 1870 census listed James as a blacksmith, born in1793, who could read and write.
The status of slaves in this region resulted not only from the communal attitude of landowners such as the Vances, but also from mountain economics. There wasn’t as much agricultural work to be done here as on monocultural plantations, Walsh says, and farmers learned to “maximize slave productivity” by employing slaves as skilled, manual, hotel, and domestic labor.
Zebulon Vance was raised in part by a mammy named Venus, who was a co-conspirator with as well as a guardian of the Vance kids. One time, related Zeb’s brother Robert in Clement Dowd’s 1897 biography of Zebulon, travellers stopped at the Vance home and asked little Zeb for a fill-up of their liquor bottle.
Zeb went to “Mammy Venus,” Dowd wrote, “and got a bottle of pot-liquor (liquid left behind after boiling collard greens) and gave it to the travellers. He charged them nothing, but made them promise not to open it till they got out of sight.” He then trailed behind and spied on their consternation.
In 1844, when David Vance Jr. died, putting Venus up for sale in his will, Mira and Venus went through the motions, but arranged a spectacle. Venus carried up Mira’s baby, Hannah, in her arms, saying she and the infant went together. Mira then bid one dollar, and Venus returned home.
The Vance Birthplace State Historic Site celebrates Black History Month with a “Behind the Big House Program.” On four successive Saturdays, Feb. 5 through Feb. 26, at 2 p.m., Tammy Walsh, Historic Interpreter I, will review documents and tell stories with students, fourth grade and up. Parents are welcome. To register, call 645-6706.
Mira Margaret Baird Vance died in 1878 at age 76. Her funeral was attended by former slaves.