Land, Labor, and Reform: Hill Carter, Slavery, and Agricultural Improvement at Shirley Plantation, 1816-1866

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Virginia Tech

As one of antebellum Tidewater's most prominent planters, Hill Carter and the world he and his slaves made at Shirley occupy an important place in Virginia history. Few scholars, however, have analyzed their roles adequately. Previous studies' overwhelming concentration on the architectural and material culture history of the plantation has left Carter's role as one of Virginia's preeminent agricultural reformers virtually unexplored. Assuming ownership of Shirley in 1816, Carter quickly established himself as a leading proponent of agricultural improvement, both embracing and building on the ideas of other reformers like John Taylor and Edmund Ruffin. He diversified his crops and changed their rotations, used new equipment and improved methods of cultivation, reclaimed poor or unproductive lands, and employed a variety of fertilizers and manures to resuscitate his soils. Significantly, Carter efforts to improve Shirley transformed not only the physical landscape of the plantation. The changes produced in the work and lives of his slaves also were considerable. This study, then, investigates the relationship between agricultural reform and slavery. Instead of looking at reform in terms of how slavery affected (or inhibited) it, this work argues that reform must also be understood in relation to how it affected slavery, for changes manifested in attempts to improve lands had important ramifications on slave work routines, which, in turn, affected slave life in important ways.

Shirley Plantation, agriculture, Hill Carter, slavery