By Patrick Farris
African American history in the Shenandoah Valley is as old as the history of any of the other early settlers to the area: the Germans, Dutch, English, French Huguenots and Scots-Irish. Many of these European settlers arrived as indentured servants to the British colonies, as did many early Africans, but by the mid-18th century Africans were being brought to Virginia as slaves intended to serve the duration of their lives to their masters, unless emancipated.
Africans were increasingly brought by their owners - mainly English Virginians from Tidewater - to work on the eastern Shenandoah Valley plantations such as existed around Front Royal. Over time, individuals and sometimes entire households of slaves would be emancipated, so that by 1860 in Front Royal there existed close to 100 free blacks, or emancipated Africans, residing for the most part in a neighborhood known as Freetown or Southtown.
Who were the landowners capable of importing or purchasing large numbers of slaves to work farms around Front Royal? What would motivate a master to emancipate slaves? What was the system of slave hire in Front Royal and other valley communities? The answers to these questions paint a picture of slavery in Front Royal and the Shenandoah Valley which portray the institution in some fundamental ways as being practiced very differently than in Tidewater and Piedmont Virginia.
The landowners who first brought or acquired slaves in the area around Front Royal included many families, the majority of whom came from eastern Virginia, were English, and were buying farmland for use in cash-cropping. Examples of these settlers were the Richardson and Buck families, which came in the late 1740s and took up land along the North and South Forks of the Shenandoah River west and south of Front Royal, and the Marshall family, which acquired a large tract of land east of Front Royal in the first decade of the 19th century. These and other similar families brought slaves from back east, or acquired slaves once here.
Also aiding this growth was Thomas, Lord Fairfax's land agent and former acting governor of Virginia, Robert "King" Carter. By 1732, Carter had acquired 50,000 acres of land north of Front Royal in what is now Clarke County, and some of his children then moved to the area with hundreds of Carter slaves. The large number of Africans descending from the Carter slaves north of Front Royal would contribute to the growing interrelationships Africans would create among their own communities in Front Royal and Warren County. By the late 1700s, the children and grandchildren of the initial waves of European immigrants would come to see slave labor as a means to advance economically. As a result, the descendants of Germans were more likely than their ancestors to use slaves, although usually in smaller numbers and sometimes through renting as opposed to the purchase of slaves.
What, then, would motivate a master to emancipate a slave? Religious belief could be a powerful motivator. During the early 1800s, Methodism and other like-minded Protestant faiths were gaining in popularity in Virginia, especially in the Shenandoah Valley. In Front Royal, multiple congregations came into existence at nearly the same time, to the point that they shared buildings until they could construct their own houses of worship.
Although the congregations of these faiths in the valley often represented the broader tolerance of slavery as an institution, the theologies of these faiths and their operational doctrines were opposed to slavery to varying degrees. The Mennonite and Dunker faiths were passionately opposed to slavery, but they were not present in Front Royal, and the Quaker faith also ws opposed, although Quaker meetings were in the decline in this period in Cedarville, north of Front Royal. Some owners, never-the-less, were motivated by creed or on moral standing to end their ownership of slaves, and emancipated them.
One of Robert "King" Carter's own grandsons, for example, emancipated 500 slaves beginning in 1791. But in addition to these higher motives, slave owners often saw an economic benefit to emancipating elderly and infirm slaves, as this absolved them as former masters of any responsibility for the care and sheltering of such individuals. For this variety of reasons, then, Front Royal and towns like it in the Shenandoah Valley, continued to attract emancipated free blacks, who would then need the support network available from their community as well as the job opportunities to be had in towns.
Finally, what of slave hire? A number of studies of Shenandoah Valley communities over the years have shown that it was all too easy for slave owners in the valley to possess too much slave labor for the amount of work available on their farms. As a result, owners needed to emancipate slaves or sell them in order to prevent financial losses. In the Shenandoah Valley, a third way to make money off of excess slave labor developed: the system of slave hire. Masters would rent out slaves, usually for terms of one year, and usually to families living in towns who needed additional help with cooking, housework and child care. Front Royal had many such arrangements, which were made, canceled or renewed every year on Christmas Day at the Town Square, an event sometimes known as 'hiring day."
Renters usually were responsible for feeding slaves and getting them medical attention, and owners were usually responsible for providing changes of clothes and blankets, although anything could be negotiated in a contract. Through this means masters could keep from having to sell a slave - which was an action often looked down upon as it invariably resulted in dividing families - and also facilitated the interaction between enslaved and emancipated Africans in the town of Front Royal.
Interested in local history? Come visit the Warren Heritage Society in Front Royal. Refer to warrenheritagesociety.org for contact information, hours and location.
Patrick Farris is executive director of the Warren Heritage Society.