Historic Stagville sits outside of Durham, North Carolina. I toured this fascinating site with Rose Hammitt while in Chapel Hill for the North American Travel Journalist Conference. This historic site shares the story of a pre-Civil War farm. I think for those of us that grew up in the north, the plantation and slavery times are hard to comprehend, this visit is fascinating an eye opening look into our past.
The brochure about Historic Stagville states, “Stagville was part of a plantation complex once the largest in North Carolina. At its height in 1860, the land holdings of the Bennehan-Cameron family totaled 30,000 acres-approximately 47 square miles. Over 900 enslaved men, women and children also lived and worked on the plantations in 1860, the largest enslaved community in North Carolina.”
The tour offers a look at the Visitor’s Center, the Bennehan home, slave quarters at Horton Grove, and the beautiful Great Barn that was built over a five month period during 1860. The barn measures 133 feet by 32 feet and was originally used as a stable for mules, which operated the farming equipment and wagons. There is a loft area where the guide suggested one of the overseers lived.
The story of Stagville begins with Richard Bennehan, his wife and two children. The family purchased the property in 1787 and ran a store. The Bennehan home started out as a two- room house in the vernacular Georgian style. The Bennehan family expanded the home in 1799. While it appears simple, the large rooms, decorative woodwork and glass windows showcased the family’s wealth. On the dining room table is a Rose Medallion bowl which was interesting to me because my parents collected Chinese antiques like this lovely bowl.
While there is a lot to see, a lot of buildings, are not in existence anymore, the brochure states, “Around the house were many outbuildings-smokehouse, milk house, chicken coop, barns, stables, buggy shed, lumber houses, kitchen, domestic slave dwellings, and more.”
The house was the center of the plantation and it sits on a hill so the owner could view his fields. The Bennehan family lived in the home until 1847, after that, it served as a home for the overseer and later as a sharecropper house. The house was occupied until the 1950’s when the Liggett and Myers Tobacco company purchased the home and remaining acreage of Stagville Plantation.
The Cameron connection comes in from the man Richard Bennehan’s daughter Rebecca would marry. The Bennehans had two children, Rebecca and Thomas and Rebecca married Duncan Cameron in 1803. He later established a partnership with his son Thomas and his son-in-law, Duncan.
Duncan and Rebecca went on to have 8 children, and her brother Thomas never married. When he passed away, he left the Stagville holdings to his nephew Paul Cameron. A historical article claims that Paul Cameron was the sole heir of both his father Duncan and his Uncle Thomas’s estates. He was actively engaged in the operation of the plantation and the plantation thrived under his watch. He also became a state senator from 1856-1857. At the beginning of the Civil War, Paul Cameron was considered the wealthiest man in North Carolina. The isolated location of the plantation helped keep the Civil War from affecting the day to day operations of the plantation, except for some raids and small fights at the end of the War.
One story our guide shared about a slave named Mary was that Paul Cameron’s daughter was ill and Mary took care of her. They took a trip to New York to see her doctor and while there, Mary was able to escape. She tried for years to free her children, but it wasn’t until the Emancipation Proclamation that she was reunited with them.
Stories like this cement the lives of those that lived on the property. Seeing the slave cabins at Horton Grove brings slavery into perspective. Horton Grove is the site of four original slave cabins/ The website adds, “These (enslaved) carpenters and artisans were responsible for the erection of the Horton Grove slave quarters, the Great Barn and all of the other buildings on the plantation except for the Bennehan House.”
The slave quarters were built at Horton Grove in 1851. Each dwelling contains four rooms and around 80 to 100 slaves lived in the homes. They were well designed and they are off the ground. The guide contended this was to ensure the slaves stayed healthy. In the bricks of the chimney, you can actually see fingerprints and in one case, the toe prints of an enslaved child.
Those that worked on the plantation worked from dawn to dusk, six days a week, planting and harvesting crops. The brochure states, “…When returning after dusk, slaves tended gardens, fruit trees, and livestock to supplement their meager rations of cornmeal, molasses, and salted pork. Hunting and fishing helped in supplementing their diets. Slaves prepared meals over an outdoor fire pit; a West African tradition brought by ancestors to the New World then passed down. Communal cooking provided slaves with necessary nutrients and an expression of community.”
Paul Cameron didn’t grow cotton and the guide thought that was part of the reason he was able to obtain his wealth that so many lost after the Civil War. He did try to sell his land, but at the time there were no buyers. After the Civil War, many newly freed families left Stagville. Some chose to stay, however, as day laborers or sharecroppers. Sharecropping was the dominant form of labor throughout the South after the Civil War. It would be interesting to speak with some of the descendants of the Bennehan-Cameron community that remain in the surrounding area and hear their stories.
In 1976 the tobacco company donated some of the acreage to the state of North Carolina. Historic Stagville State Historic Site is located at 5828 Old Oxford Highway in Durham. It is part of the Division of State Historic Sites in the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Stagville is open Tuesday to Saturday from 9-5. Check out the website at www.stagville.org for more information.