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Location: Durham, NC
Date Built: Mid-18th -- mid-19th Century
During Colonial times in Durham County, North Carolina, there was a plantation which extended from the east of the Flat River almost to West Point on the Eno, and from the vicinity of Bahama on the northwest past the Neuse River into Wake County on the southeast. The land covered 30,000 acres and more than 973 slaves worked the fertile land.
WIlliam Horton Home built before the Revolutionary War
In 1954, the lumber merchant, Liggett and Myers Tobacco Company purchased the 71 acre tract left from the original plantation. The Historic Preservation Society of Durham encouraged Liggett and Myers to turn the land over to the state of North Carolina for preservation.
Walk up and down the streets of Durham and ask if anyone has ever heard of it. Many people don't realize it existed or the importance of an old plantation that holds many artifacts. Stagville seems to be a forgotten plantation, but has been changing since 2003 when Jennifer Farley became the site manager at Stagville. She is currently Site Manager for the Duke Homestead. The Duke Homestead and Bennett place have developed interpretive centers over the years, but Stagville due to budget cuts for historic sites in 1991 took awhile to be recognized for its importance of historic sites. After all it was the biggest colonial plantation in North Carolina with the largest slave population. Frachele Scott is the current Director at Stagille.
Now this year the Stagville State Historic Site is 91 acres larger than it used to be. The land which is estimated to be worth $1.3 million was purchased for $300,000 by the Triangle Land Conservancy. North Carolina Natural Heritage Trust Fund reimbursed the purchase cost. The land was turned over to the state in a ceremony this year. The land will serve as a buffer between the historic site and any future development.
There are archaeological remains and a early wagon road on the 91 acres. On the original tract you will find the original Bennehan House, a slave house foundation, dependencies, a graveyard, the Horton Grove Slave Quarters and Horton House, the Great Barn, a Store Area, and Shop Hill.
Two of the most influential and wealthiest families of Historic Stagville were the Bennehan and Cameron families. Both families were linked by business partnership as well as marriage. Duncan Cameron who settled in North Carolina twenty years after Richard Bennehan became a lawyer and a planter. In 1803, he married Richard Bennehan's daughter, Rebecca. Fairntosh Plantation which received its name from Duncan's father's birthplace in Scotland was started with a 300 acre gift from Richard to the newly married couple.
Richard Bennehan (August 15, 1743-December 31, 1825)
Richard Bennehan who was born in 1743 in Richmond County moved from Petersburg, Virginia in 1768 to become a business partner with the merchant William Johnston, an Eighteenth Century Entrepreneur who was Treasurer of the Transylvania Company. One of Johnston's earlier investments was to purchase a large tract of country in the west from the Cherokee Indians. Daniel Boone was chosen by Lord Dunmore to guide the expedition through the Kentucky wilderness.
Bennehan was quite successful running The Little River Store at Snow Hill Plantation several miles west of Stagville where the old Trading Path crossed the Little River and buying land with his earnings. He was listed on the tax list of 1778 as owning 1213 acres, 31 slaves, and various other possessions. In 1787, he bought 66 acres from the widow Judith Stagg whose husband Thomas had run a tavern that gave its name to the place, "Stagville."
Richard began the construction of his modest 600 square foot vernacular Georgian style home built of heart pine in 1787. The home was enlarged in 1799 into a two story, three bay with nine-over-nine sash windows, moulded weatherboards, massive double-shouldered chimneys, and a heavy paneled six-entry paneled door. The glass windows were ordered from England. It would receive over the years some of North Carolina's important people such as William Hooper, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, James Iredell, a justice of the United States Supreme Court, and William Davie, primary motivator behind creation of the state university. The interior work of the house is original. There were a number of buildings such as a detached kitchen, a log smokehouse, a stable, milk house, and two slave houses built around the Bennehan house which no longer survive.
The Richard Bennehan House (built in 1787, enlarged in 1799)
Richard Bennehan became a Trustee for the University of North Carolina from 1799 to 1804 and donated 32 volumes to the library. The letter and contents were as follows:
To Richard Bennehan Esqr.
On October 24, 1823, Richard Bennehan bought land from William Horton which included not only 410 1/2 acres but also a pre-Revolutionary War home on it. The Horton family were subsistence farmers. Their colonial home was a small plank house typical of the kinds of houses many whites lived in during the antebellum period in North Carolina. It is known as the oldest house in Durham County. It consisted of one room with narrow enclosed stairway leading to a loft. The ceiling joists were beaded. The windows did not have glass panes but were covered with batten shutters. The back lean-to section which has brick nogging which began as a European method of construction was probably added when the slave houses were built. Brick nogging consists of placing courses of bricks between the timber frames of homes. The Horton Home has been partially restored in an attempt to match the original materials that would have been used during the ownership of William Horton.
The backside view of the Horton Home
Richard died in 1825 and passed the plantation and more than 3,900 acres in Granville, Wake, and Orange County down to his son, Thomas. The estate also included a city block in Raleigh.
Thomas remained a bachelor until his death in 1847. He remained at Stagville where he supervised the operations of the plantation with a mulatto slave named Virgil who secured his freedom upon the death of Thomas. The lands which were sandwiched between the Little and Flat Rivers along with the Little River Plantation and Stagville was left to his nephew Paul Cameron, Rebecca and Duncan Cameron's son. By this time the land was close to 5000 acres which made Paul the wealthiest man in North Carolina.
Paul Cameron (September 25, 1808-January 6, 1891)
The Great Barn built in 1860
Fairntosh was refurbished, the slave houses were added, and the Great Barn which was 132 feet long, 33 feet wide, on a stone foundation and housed mules and later horses was added in 1860 with the masterful techniques learned by the artisan slaves. In a letter to his father-in-law, Cameron boasted: "I have a very great wish to show you the best stables ever built in Orange, one hundred and thirty-five feet log covered with cypress shingles at at cost of $6 per thousand." All beams are hand hewn. There is a large timber beam which supports the entire barn. In the center the knowledgable slaves used a wooden queen post truss system, a technique found in shipbuilding most likely learned along the North Carolina coast. They used a beveled edged scarf joint to attach the ends of timbers. The center of the barn is two story with a smaller one story section on either end. The exterior of the barn is covered with the finest vertical board sheathing. The cypress shingle were replaced with a metal roof. The Great Barn was the last major structure built at Stagville.
Inside the Great Barn
The four slave quarter buildings at Horton Grove erected between 1850 and 1860 are of identical design and construction and stand in a single row behind an earlier house that likely served as an overseer's residence. They housed up to eighty slaves, mostly field workers. The two story frame structures are built on pilings with a wooden plank floor, and their thick exterior walls are filled with brick nogging covered by board and batten siding. The bricks in the walls and chimneys were made and fired on the plantation. In some of the bricks you can see handprints from the slaves who used the bricks when they were still soft. One of the bricks shows a child's footprint. On each floor are two rooms for each family divided by a passageway that contains a narrow flight of stairs. Each of the four chambers is approximately seventeen feet square and has two windows and one large fireplace. Dendrochronology in the early 1990's indicated the timbers were cut in 1859. A divining rod was found nailed to a wall in one of the slave quarters.
One of the slave quarters built by Paul Cameron (1850-1860). All the bricks for the chimney were fired on the plantation.
The brick nogging techniques used in all the slave quarters and a portion of the Horton Home
Paul Cameron had concerns for providing healthful living conditions for slaves at a time when crude log cabins with dirt floors were customary. Duncan Cameron proposed the design of the slave quarters; however, it was Paul who executed the plan. The brick nogging helped to insulate and keep out rodents. His building techniques for the slave quarters were innovative at the time. The slave cabins use half timber construction, mortise and tenon joints, and board-and-batten siding. All timber is hand hewn and joined with pegs. Each of the rooms in the dwellings at Horton Grove housed an entire slave family which consisted of five to seven individuals. Furnishings were sparse and consisted primarily of those items that family members could make or obtain themselves.
A typical fireplace used in the slave quarters at Horton Grove
The Civil War had little affect on Stagville until the end of the conflict when slaves were no longer considered personal property. They were free individuals. Many slaves left Stagville, but some continued to work the land as day laborers and sharecroppers. Contracts were signed to work a specific portion of the land in exchange for one-third to one-half of the crops Horton Grove was occupied by tenant farmer after emancipation and into the 1970's
The Stagville Preservation Center was dedicated in 1977. Governor Jim Hunt spoke of the importance of historic preservation:
It is an important day in North Carolina, for today we are dedicating a facility that will bring distinction to the state in the field of historic preservation. North Carolina has been a leader in historic preservation in the nation, and this first state-owned preservation center joins a distinguished list of other firsts in cultural resources: the first state-supported symphony, the first state-supported art museum, and the first state-supported zoo.
The Bennehan House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and Horton Grove was listed in 1978. In the years to follow, the emphasis on interpretation of Stagville changed from centering on the Bennehan family and the 1787 colonial home to the Horton Grove and the slavery influence on the antebellum plantation. The emphasis was more on historic interpretation than on historic preservation. The people at Stagville have worked hard to make slavery the emphasis of interpretation. The visitors increased from 6000 in 2007 to nearly 13000 in 2008. Nearly half the visitors are now black.
An Indian reenactor playing music from the Learning the Land- Native Americans at Stagville event held 8/14/2010
Stagville is rich in history in both the written and oral accounts of the slaves memories long after they were freed after the Civil War. There is a geneaology page on the Stagville website where visitors can share any information or links they have regarding the nearly 1000 slaves that once inhabited Stagville. The early trustees at UNC in Chapel Hill kept meticulous records of the plantation
The staff at Stagville is looking for names, dates, photographs, and any other information the public is willing to share. The upcoming events are also listed on the website. Lectures from Earlie E. Thorpe and Dr. Sharon Harley along with Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters will be offered until the end of the year.
Source: Research, photos & text by Bryan Wright
Historic Stagville Foundation
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