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Supervisors of Small Worlds: The Role of Overseers on Colonial South Carolina Slave Plantations

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image of Journal of Early American History

The established historiography of slavery includes a substantial body of work on the colonial period, with particular emphasis upon the Atlantic slave trade and the development of the plantation system and the slave community embedded within it. However, one key element in the organization of plantations has received little attention: the overseers. Slave owners and slaves are well represented in documentary sources, yet overseers, despite their importance in the plantation system, remain shadowy figures in the story of slavery in the colonial era. Overseers were charged with the responsibility of supervising slave labor and maintaining the plantation owners’ human property. With a particular focus on the slave plantations of Henry Laurens, one of South Carolina's most successful and influential slave-owning entrepreneurs, this work explores the precise function of overseers within the colonial slave society of South Carolina. It will challenge the conventional image of overseers as poor, white, brutish task-masters, and show that in fact, only some of those in the occupation conformed to this crude stereotype. The role of overseer was vital to the day-to-day operation of slavery but it entailed neither absolute authority nor social standing. Analyzing recruitment patterns, overseers’ backgrounds, their daily role and activities, payment methods and rewards, their personal ambitions, employer-overseer-slave relations, and the prejudices men in this role faced, reveals much about those from the lower stratum of white society in colonial South Carolina. Using the often fragmentary evidence the overseer emerges from the shadows as a far more rounded and human figure than in the established historiography or popular culture. Many overseers proved hardworking, effective and prospered from their role on the plantation. This work not only reveals why many men became overseers despite the stigma attached to the job, but also sheds light on the complexities involved in slave ownership and ordering multi-racial plantation communities in the early American South.

Affiliations: 1: Keele University, E-mail:


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