Not all enslaved individuals in the antebellum South labored on the sprawling Gone With the Wind-type agricultural plantations. Erin Schwartz is investigating a group that’s been mostly overlooked by scholars and historians.
Schwartz, a Ph.D. candidate in William & Mary’s Department of Anthropology, is studying enslaved women of the community of Buffalo Forge, a 19th century ironworks in Glasgow, Virginia. She was awarded a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship through the American Council of Learned Societies in support of her study.
The fellowship carries a $35,000 stipend, plus other support for a year to allow Schwartz to complete her doctoral dissertation on the women of Buffalo Forge.
Buffalo Forge was in operation from 1814 to 1867-68. Schwartz said the facility occupied an intermediate position in the ironmaking process.
“Buffalo Forge would be the place that would be responsible for taking smelted iron and turning it into pig iron,” she explained. “It would be shipped down to places like Richmond and Lynchburg and sold for use in those areas.”
Ironworks in the northern states were fired by coal, giving them a built-in competitive advantage over the operations that were far from anthracite country. Schwartz said that the workers of Buffalo Forge used charcoal.
“They would have a collier go out and chop down a bunch of wood, and then make charcoal,” she said. “It’s a really inefficient process.”
Forge operators relied on their unpaid workforce to try to stay competitive against the coal-fired ironworks, Schwartz added. At its peak, the Buffalo Forge community totaled around 70 people, she said.
Much like the tobacco and cotton plantations, she said that Buffalo Forge was a largely self-contained community and that the enslaved women — the focus of her research — were very much involved.
“They weren’t in the forge itself, as far as I’ve seen,” Schwartz said. “That was all men, but they did do some support work, like raking charcoal.”
Enslaved women mostly worked in the ancillary aspects — kitchen, dairy and domestic work in the manor house, she said. And some of these women joined the men raising food for the forge community in the fields, gardens and orchards.
Numerous records from the Buffalo Forge community survive, even if they are scattered from Charlottesville to Wisconsin. Schwartz was able to get glimpses of some of the women at Buffalo Forge, notably a woman named Amy.
“She got married to a young man who was enslaved at a cement works nearby,” Schwartz said. The marriage was an example of the connections between Buffalo Forge and the surrounding communities of Rockbridge County.
Details about the day-to-day life of Amy and the other women of Buffalo Forge are few, and Schwartz said she believes she could connect a lot of dots through examining a record known as the “house book.” She said the house book contains detailed records of the domestic life of the Buffalo Forge manor house.
“Unfortunately, that book is missing,” Schwartz said. “It’s mentioned so many times in other documents, but I’ve never heard of a historian researching Buffalo Forge who has found it, either. It’s annoying.”
It’s especially annoying, as the title of Schwartz’s dissertation is “(Home)making: Black Women and the Transformation of Industrial Virginia.” She explains that the contents of the house book would render insight not only about the manor house, but also details about the domestic lives of women such as Amy.
For instance, Schwartz said she would like to see how much the Buffalo Forge women benefited from a concept called “overwork,” in which enslaved individuals could earn money by doing work above and beyond what was required of them.
“The overwork system was generally geared toward men,” she said. “They could produce tonnage over quota out at the forge. But the women’s overwork ledger would be in the house book.”
Typical overwork opportunities for enslaved women would be sewing, laundry, baking for the main house, possibly for outside customers, but Schwartz said she can’t say with certainty who did what in terms of overwork; those details are logged in that missing house book.
Schwartz turned to archaeology to learn more about the women of the forge community. She was the first researcher to do excavations at Buffalo Forge, beginning in 2016: “And I found a ton of interesting stuff out there.”
She was joined by two archaeologists from Washington and Lee University, excavating 54 two-and-a-half-foot units around the two quarters areas where Amy and other members of the enslaved community made their homes.
“It was just a very interesting —and weird —array of things,” she said. “The quarters were used in the mid 20th century as storage and even one as a chicken coop, but really other than that, they didn’t touch anything, which is super good, because a lot of stuff in the Virginia Tidewater area has been plowed and all the artifacts have been churned to bits.”
The excavations turned up a variety of artifacts related to food preparation, including animal bones. And Schwartz said some of the artifacts seemed oddly out of place. For one thing, there were a lot of oyster shells.
“Which is very weird for being out in Rockbridge County,” she said. There is evidence for some shells being used to make buttons out behind the quarters, but Schwartz said that the level of button-making activity would not explain the quantity of shells.
“It’s interesting, because at plantations like Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, they don’t find a ton of oyster shell, if any at all,” she said. “People who have worked in archaeology in the area for a long time have told me that it’s almost impossible to find oyster shell out here. So, the fact that it’s there is super unusual.”
And then there are the dishes.
“I specialize in ceramics,” Schwartz said. “And I found a whole range of material. Different ceramics. Lots of really refined porcelain. Really highly decorated earthenware.”
There also was plenty of low-end ceramics, such as locally produced plain stoneware crocks, she said. The general rule for ceramics, she explained, is “If it’s undecorated, it’s cheaper.
“And it kind of scales up, with the most expensive being what’s called transfer-printed,” she said. “And I’m asking: where are they getting it?”
Schwartz said there are too many styles and patterns of decorated ceramics coming out of the ground for them to be remnants of hand-me-downs from the main house. Plus, she said that the ceramics from the quarter don’t match the ware being used in the big house.
“It just seems like out in the quarters, they cobbled pieces together,” she said. “It’s a lot of ware. And it’s a lot of different patterns.”
The ceramics and the oyster shells are among the questions that Schwartz hopes to resolve — or at least get closer to — as she completes her dissertation under her Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship. She says she has ideas, though.
“Part of my hypothesis is that these people had connections, maybe as far out as Richmond, that would enable them to bring back certain things,” Schwartz said.