By Daniel Lewis, ProQuest Senior Product Manager
On December 30, 1815, General John Hartwell Cocke, owner of three large plantations along the James River (Bremo Recess, Upper Bremo, and Lower Bremo), wrote down his “Standing Regulations for the Government of John H. Cocke’s Overseers.” Cocke created the pamphlet for one of his new overseers who, Cocke noted, was “young and inexperienced.”
The pamphlet Cocke created had numerous and extensive rules for the treatment of his slaves. The pamphlet started with six major rules as well as extensive additional notes and explanations regarding discipline. The first four rules covered traveling with passes, selling items from the plantation, fighting, and for the slaves to give “proper accounts” of themselves and any visitors to the plantation.
The fifth rule prohibited quarreling, and the sixth rule stipulated that every slave “shall appear with a clean shirt, and decent clothes on every Sunday morning.” After the sixth rule, Cocke provided an additional explanation about the enforcement of the first six rules.
The note begins: “For a violation of either of the first four rules, Whipping must be inflicted in such portion of the degree of the offence, and the discretion of the overseer may lead him to think necessary. For a violation of the two last rules, after once admonishing such correction by whipping, as the overseer may find necessary, or stopping the meat rations of the offender for the week & in the latter case, let the meat be kept to reward the good conduct of such as may be worthy in the course of the week.”
The note continues: “Encouragements to industry & good conduct should also be used by giving a few hours of a Saturday evening to such as had been the most faithful during the week, particularly to the women, who have families to wash for - and upon these occasions those who have behaved badly should be kept to a later than usual hour or have some additional labour assigned to them.”
Following the rules for treatment of the slaves, Cocke also included rules for the behavior of the overseer, that again related back to disciplining the slaves. He wrote: “If ever you permit a negro under your command to treat you disrespectfully, there is an end of your authority unless you inflict exemplary punishment.” Cocke goes on to write: “If you punish only according to justice and Reason, you can never be too severe and will be the more respected for it, even by those who suffer, but if you ever whip to indulge passion, or unjustly, you will certainly set your people against you, and evils will come of it, which you can never guard against.”
As this document indicates, discipline and punishment were an essential part of John Hartwell Cocke’s plantation regime. As he noted, “you can never be too severe” but yet other parts of the regulations begin to indicate another side of Cocke’s life and the complexities of plantation management. The sixth rule regarding clean shirts suggests the importance of religion in Cocke’s life and his recognition that some slaves could be “rewarded” for good behavior also suggests the complexities of the relationship between Cocke and his slaves.
In fact, John Hartwell Cocke was a rather complex figure. As a planter, Cocke was interested in improvements in agricultural practice, and he campaigned against tobacco as a cash crop. Cocke’s opposition to tobacco planting was indicative of a more general reform spirit that characterized his life. Cocke became involved in educational reform, helping to establish the University of Virginia and schools for women, and he also tried to extend the benefits of education to his slaves. He established a school on his Upper Bremo plantation and some of his slaves learned to read and write. In 1833, Cocke freed his slave Peyton Skipwith and his family so that they could start a new life in Liberia. In 1840, Cocke sent 49 slaves to work on his Hopewell and New Hope plantations in Alabama. Correspondence from the Skipwith family in Liberia and from the slaves that went to Alabama is one of the most remarkable parts of the Cocke Family Papers.
The Cocke Family Papers are of outstanding value to students of this time period because they document many different aspects of the system of American slavery. Perhaps the most unique aspect of the Cocke Family Papers is the extent to which the collection documents the lives of Cocke’s slaves and former slaves in their own words. The papers include correspondence between several members of the Skipwith family and Cocke beginning in 1833, when Cocke emancipated Peyton Skipwith and his wife, Lydia. Letters from Liberia from Peyton Skipwith, Nash Skipwith, Matilda Lomax, and James Skipwith report on conditions in Liberia, indicate the level of education attained by Cocke’s slaves and also provide insight into the relationship between the slaveowner and his former slaves. Letters from George Skipwith, the slave overseer at Cocke’s Hopewell, Alabama, plantation, and from George’s daughter, Lucy, who established a school at Hopewell, contain detailed information on the conditions, events, and problems faced on Cocke’s plantations in Alabama.
In addition to the letters from the Skipwith family, many pieces of correspondence in the Cocke Papers indicate that Cocke possessed a highly skilled workforce. Scattered throughout are letters discussing the hiring out of slaves, many of which include prices to be paid for services rendered. For example, a January 15, 1835, letter from George A. Payne proposes the rate of $10 per month for an experienced groom to attend to his horse. Documents from 1827 and 1831 record the names of and fees for slaves hired out by Cocke.
The Cocke Family Papers is just one of the extraordinary collections in History Vault’s two-part series, Southern Life and African American History, 1775-1915, Plantations Records. Taken together, Part 1 and Part 2 of the Plantations series feature collections from eight important archival institutions that hold records on Southern Plantations. Collections in Part 1 are from the holdings of South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina; Maryland Historical Society; Howard-Tilton Memorial Library at Tulane University; Louisiana State Museum; and the Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, Louisiana State University Libraries. The records presented in Part 2, including the Cocke Papers, come from the holdings of the University of Virginia and Duke University.
For more information on Southern Plantations Records, as well as the Slavery and the Law collection in History Vault, please see the brochure.
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