A Kentucky Cotton Planter, Part Four

Pb 1852 first page

This is taken from Rob Morris’s fictitious story about a the plight of a slave girl that defended her mistresses honor. These type of stories helped contribute to the growing resistance of enslaved laborers.

By 1850 the perfect storm came together for those in the bondage of slavery. The demand for cotton produced more than 60 percent of total exports in the United States. The invention of the cotton gin, the new cultivars of cotton that allowed greater harvest per slave, the internal slave labor laws, and cheap southern lands were some of the factors that contributed to the explosion of the cotton industry. By going internal, documentation of the slave trade was somewhat opaque. Tax reports only required a slave owner to list ages and genders of slaves. Slave names were not required and documents regarding slave sales and transactions are rare in historic records.

These past few columns have focused on family of John and Mary Taylor who owned between 1840s through the Civil War, a palatial mansion, “Mauvilla”, at Westport, Ky. on 600 acres and a large frame home, “Hollywood”, on an 11,000 acre cotton plantation in Arkansas. The Taylors had ten children and reported over 200 slaves on tax records between their two estates in Kentucky and Arkansas. They travelled extensively between their two homes by steamboat on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

The Taylors came to their estates through a long line of family relationships. Mary’s stepfather, Peter Rives, was a land surveyor who took advantage of cheap land in Arkansas when the government offered large parcels derived from the forced removal of Native Americans. John Taylor’s kinfolk had settled in Oldham County, some receiving large parcels of land from military service. (According to a Taylor descendant, Benjamin Taylor, John’s sister, Hetty Hawes Taylor Gibson and her husband, William Mallory Gibson, lived nearby at Sligo.) Both John and Mary were from families that had held enslaved laborers throughout generations and were “accustomed” to having servants and field hands at their disposal.

This perfect storm created an irresistible economic opportunity. Large plantations operated by family’s like the Taylors, could expect annual incomes of a $250,000 (estimated at today’s inflated value) not to mention the values of their enslaved laborers (top dollar for “prime field hands” in 1850 was $1,600). Costal ports such as New Orleans had nearly quadrupled in population with the increased cotton production. By 1860 two billion pounds of cotton were produced in the United States. This industry reached far beyond the southern states by fueling the warehouse suppliers, markets and investors from the north. But once the cotton left the field it became “sanitized”, the cruel and unjust system of slavery that produced the cotton was ignored.
The prospect that a family operated a large cotton plantation in Arkansas by replenishing enslaved laborers from their farm and connections in Kentucky is understated. The family could cut out the middle man in the slave trade and rely upon family connections to replenish needed workers. This allowed for more control of the laborers by becoming more aware of the relationships between the slaves. Since these laborers were “undocumented” between the two states and only counted as numbers on tax records, accountability became seamless.

This Taylor story includes an association of connections between family Taylor members, their slaves and the descendants of all, cast within the web of this family’s enterprise. It serves as an example of the culture of the United States at a time when economics and social justice struggled under the umbrella of a new democracy. It took the personal suffering and sacrifices of the enslaved laborers, freedom seekers and abolitionists to question the exploitation of humans under the guise of democracy. From this exploitation emerge the stories of two individuals, Robin Loucke, a great granddaughter and direct descendant of the Taylors, and Rev. W. H. Craighead, a man whose parents were enslaved by the Taylors at Westport. Both demonstrate how the shackles from their past did not deter their efforts to strive for a just world where all people are valued.
The Rev. W. H. Craighead and the Zion Baptist Church

W.H. Craighead was born into slavery in 1861. His mother and father were enslaved laborers of John Martin and Mary Taylor at Mauvilla outside of Westport. In an article from the Courier Journal (1937) he stated the following: “My mother told me I was born in 1861 on the Taylor plantation in Westport. I have only a very faint memory of the days of the War Between the States. I do recall, however, an older brother, who became a drummer in the army, rattling on the bottom of a tin bucket that we children might march in step. When it comes to my mother, my recollections are most vivid. She never had any schooling and could neither read nor write; but she was a rather remarkable woman. As an expert housemaid in the Taylor home, she was at all times in close contact with the white people. There she absorbed all of the better things which the leisurely life in a cultured home could give. She was really well educated in many of the little niceties of life.”

Note: These series of columns are written as a tribute to the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture which recently opened.
You can contact Nancy: nancystheiss@gmail.com