Thomas Plantation Life


The Beginning of the state of Georgia

The Georgia colony was the last of the 13 original colonies to be settled. This occurred in 1732. The trustees yielded to the general demands of the public, and in 1747 they allowed slaves into the Georgia colony.

How the Thomas Name Arrived

The Thomas names came out of the Welsh stock out of England. The plantation owners were descendants of John Thomas, captain of the first vessel that brought colonists to Georgia. The first plantation owner was Jonathan A. Thomas. He is listed in the 1820, 1830 and 1840 federal census as living in McIntosh, Georgia. At Jonathan Thomas’ death in the late 1840s, he left his many plantations – Peru, Belvidere, Baker and Stark, comprising some 15,000 acres and about 125 slaves, to his son, John A. Thomas. According to the writing by Edward J. Thomas, there were approximately 125 slaves on the plantation during this period. However, according to the 1850 U.S. Federal Census – Slave Schedule, there were exactly 150 slaves on the plantation and all of them were listed as being Black. However, reviewing the census report, there was probably between 250- 300 slaves on the plantation. The census report listed 26 female slaves between the ages of 17 – 37 and the youngest slave listed in the census in 5 years old. Maybe the slave master was not required to report slaves younger than 5 years old. Normally, female slaves who were in the childbearing years gave birth to a child yearly. For the slave report to be authentic, a person would have to accept that these female slaves in the childbearing age had no births for a period of five years.  

Another interesting thing concerning the 1850 Slave Schedule is that 50 of the slaves are listed as being owned by John A. Thomas, who lived at District 22, McIntosh, Georgia. One hundred of the slaves were listed as being owned by Mary A. Thomas, who also lived at District 22, McIntosh, Georgia. John A. Thomas and Malvinia H. Huguenin had been married on March 20, 1838 in Chatham, Georgia. It appears that the slave master’s wife filed owning slaves using a fictitious name, or the owner of the slaves was reported as being owned by her daughter, who was about 3 years old at the time, and her name was Mary Jane Thomas. Since these reports were done by hand, maybe the Mary J. was mistaken for Mary A. If this is not the case, this probably is a case of slave masters hiding their wealth.

The Only Mulatto Born on the Plantation

Of the 250 plus slaves on the plantation, there was only one mulatto slave born there. In 1848, the slave master’s wife became ill and it was necessary for her colored maid, Fanny, to accompany her to Massachusetts because of her health. When they returned from the north, Fanny gave birth to a mulatto son, named Ned. He lived to about age two and died. Fanny told everybody that the red clay hills of the northern states did it to her. It was a law that prevented slave women from revealing the name of the father of their child. However, on the Thomas plantation, this was never a problem, and for generation after generation, the slaves there maintained their African bloodlines.  

In the memoirs of Edward J. Thomas, his writing reflects a life in the South just before the Civil War and his life afterwards. Near the end of his life he states that he had found happiness and contentment. One of the proudest things which he reflects in his writing is that they were southern gentleman and they did not sexually abuse their slaves.

Required Work on the Plantation

In information that has been passed down through the family, the fields were all staked off in tasks, a quarter of an acre, and each slave was required to cultivate with hoe or plow a certain amount of these staked fields, and as near as possible the same area cultivated in the early Spring would be constantly worked by the same person that he or she might be rewarded for doing the work well in to beginning, as it would be less labor the second hoeing if it was done at first. In this way the industrious and diligent slave seldom worked after the noon hour. However, you must remember that the day began around 4 a.m. in the morning.

Defining the Slave House

According to other information passed down in the family, the slaves were housed in two-room cabins with a dirt floor, a chimney to each house, and were allowed a garden. The above picture illustrates a slave quarter. However, the slave garden usually had some type of wooden fence, similar to what the slave ancestors had in their homes in Africa, to keep out feral pigs and other animals.  

According to some information that has been passed down through the family, the slave’s only private life was in the slave quarters. The slave master tried to establish a set of rules about everything, but he found them difficult to enforce. Sometimes the slave might simply wait until the slave master had gone to bed before they would start their activities. In the slave quarters, the slaves courted and married, bore babies and raised children, all the actions that imparted meaning to their lives.  

How Edward J. Thomas Recalls Sunday Church Services

No work was permitted on Sundays and the slaves usually attended church services. According to Edward J. Thomas, on Sundays there was no strange sight to see many ponies and wagons on route to church. Wherever the white folks attended church, the slaves were also welcome, and on communion Sunday, they all, master and slave, took wine from the same silver cup – the white folks, of course, first. The slaves had their own meeting and prayer-house on the plantation built by the master. The master had orders that no service could be held after 12 o’clock at night.

The Older Slaves Were Allowed to Keep Guns

According to Edward J. Thomas, the older slaves were allowed to keep guns in the slave quarters, which were supplied by the slave master. Many of the slaves had horses and cows that were permitted to run in a large free pasture. These pastures extended over thousands of acres of salt marsh.

In the slave quarters, the slaves could raise as many chickens as they pleased. The women usually sold their chickens to the master’s wife for a price of eight for a dollar. They could also have boats and go anywhere fishing, as long as they came back home by daylight to resume work.

The Harvesting of the Cotton

The cotton would not open until October and the fields would still be white until after Christmas. The slave master usually had a cotton-picking contest every week to see who could pick the most cotton and get the prize. The prize was usually a calico dress or a hat or a pair of Sunday shoes. Outside of the cotton-picking contest, each slave was required to pick a certain amount of cotton each day, and if this amount was not met, the slave would likely receive some type of discipline.

Distribution of Yearly Clothing Allowance

Further information passed down through the family is that the slaves were given two suits of clothes per year, one of wool, and the other of cotton, two shirts, a pair of blankets and a pair of heavy shoes. The clothes were given to them twice a year, in the early spring and in winter. The shoes were also given to them in the winter. During the summer the slaves usually went barefoot. The owner provided the children, boys and girls alike, with a one-piece garment, called a shirttail, in the case of boys, and a shift in the case of girls. Also, the children that did not have an assigned job went barefoot all year long. The children usually became capable for field work about the ages of 10-12. At that time they received the same clothing as the adults. 
Slave families continuously gathered old worn out clothes and blankets, and they cut into geometric pieces, where the mother would sew the bits of material together and made a very respectable quilt. This added to the comfort of the slaves.

There was a specific process in which the slaves’ shoes were obtained:  Their foot was measured with a stick and his or her name was written on the stick showing the length of their feet. These sticks were then bundled and sent to the merchant furnishing the shoes. The shoes would come back to the plantation with the sticks inside of them. The slave master would then take up the shoes, pull out the stick, and call the name of the slave who would receive the shoes.

Distribution of Weekly Food Rations

According to Edward J. Thomas, the food ration on a cotton plantation was:  cornmeal and grits, potatoes, peas, and a little bacon or Louisiana molasses. On rice plantations, rice was given out instead of meal. The ration was distributed weekly. The slaves came with the proper utensils to receive them. The slave master was of the position that the food ration was sufficient. From the slaves’ perspective, and from information that has been passed down in the family, the food rations were considered insufficient to keep them healthy enough to perform the heavy labor demanded of them. By the slaves having their own boats, they could always have fish and oysters. In their garden, they raised their own vegetables, such as corn, greens, potatoes, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, okra, etc. They also kept bees and harvested the honey, hunted and trapped small animals, such as rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, possum and various birds. They also raised their own chickens for meat and eggs. The majority of the slaves’ food was really provided for by themselves.

During the 1840s and 1850s it cost a slave master on the average $40 per year for the maintenance of a slave. Normally, the average skilled slave during this period was valued at approximately $2000.

 The White People Who Lived on the Plantation

About 1850, the Thomas Plantation consisted of John A. Thomas, his wife, Malvinia H. Thomas, and their children, Edward J. Thomas, Elizabeth Thomas, Mary Jane Thomas, and Malvinia A. Thomas. In 1851 another child was born into the family, named Mattie Thomas. And in 1857, Marion Thomas was born. There is no evidence that at any time the slave master ever used any outside white help in operating the plantation, such as an overseer, manager or work leader. The slaves on the plantation performed these types of duties. By the plantation being operated in this manner, it eliminated the possibility of the slaves being abused by economically poor white employees.

The Beginning of Our Family

Our 5th generation grandfather, Benjamin Thomas, was born in 1810 and his wife was named Aggie, and she was born in 1820. Benjamin’s mother was from Nigeria and also his father. She and her sister were captured in West Africa in late 1802 and began their slave journey to America. Because of the hardship during the voyage, one of the sisters apparently became overwhelmed and committed suicide by jumping overboard. The other sister continued the journey, arriving at Skida Island, just south of Savannah, Georgia in mid-May 1803. The names of the two sisters that left Africa have been lost. I recall that I was given their names when I was about 8 or 9 years old, during a family discussion, where my grandfather recited their names while passing down oral history of the family. At that point I did not have the maturity to document anything.

One of the biggest morality issues on the plantation was whether the theft of property owned by the slave master was actually wrong. The majority of the slaves felt that there was nothing wrong with stealing food, etc., that belonged to the slave master. Their reasoning was this: It was absurd to define theft as the consumption of the slave master’s property by the slave master’s property. The majority of the enslaved parents taught their children that the slave master was the real thief, because the slave master stole people, which no one had the right to do. Some slaves would tell the slave master on anything that you did wrong.

The control of the young slave children’s mind was always a struggle. The slave master would always tell them that they were a part of his family, and he would also pry them for information about activities in the slave quarters. Little children at times would be tattletales and give out information that the slave parents would not want to be passed on. The slave parents made it one of their specific duties to educate the children that he was the slave master and they were slaves, and to make no misunderstanding about the status of each. The parents were determined that their children would not grow up thinking that slavery was morally acceptable.

Our Family Work on the Plantation

Information that has been passed down in our family, and for what we now know, they had lived all of their lives on the Thomas plantation. As we examine the operation of the plantation, we do not find any of our ancestors holding any key positions on the plantation. In other words, they were not “house-negroes”, but “field-negroes”. They lived in the slave quarters with the rest of the Igbo slaves. In 1856, the couple had a son named Moses.

According to Edward J. Thomas, it was a rare thing to sell one of the slaves from the plantation. He further stated that the Negroes on the plantation had been reared along with their young masters and mistress and the interest of each was the concern of all. However, in the nearest town, which was Savannah, Georgia, the largest auction of slaves in America took place in March of 1857. 

The Slave Auction of 1857 in Savannah, Georgia

On March 1 and 2, 1857, a total of 436 slaves, belonging to Pierce Butler, were sold. The two-day sale netted $303,850, approximately $6.7 million in today’s dollars. The highest price paid for one family – a mother and her five grown children – was $6,180. The highest price for one slave was $250. The slaves were from the Butler plantation, and they had been there all their lives. None of the slaves had ever been sold before. This auction became known as “The Weeping Time”.  No words can adequately describe what occurred during the auction. Please read the various comments. One reason that this slave auction is mentioned is that some Thomas descendants married descendant of persons who were sold in the slave auction at Savannah. (These recently sold slaves afterwards walked some 855 miles to a place called Natchitoches, Louisiana. Imagine this 855-mile walk in turn with the Japan Bataan Death March (60 miles) of American soldiers during WW II. The only thing in the cradle of American history comparable to the 855-mile March is the removal of Native Americans during such atrocities as the “Trail of Tears”.)

In 1859 the Slave Master Died

In 1859 John A.Thomas died at the age of 43. As was customary when the slave master dies, the slaves have a day off from work and, at the funeral; all the slaves would march around and view the remains. Mostly all the time the slaves would be crying, whether the slave master were good or bad. Sometimes the crying was caused because the slaves were fearful of their future. The family buried him besides his grandfather in the old graveyard by the South Newport River. Edward J. Thomas, at the age of 16, became the responsible white male in charge of the plantation.

The Names of Some of the Slaves and Their Jobs

In about 1860, the following slaves have been identified as being part of the 125 slaves on the plantation. Slaves that had the name of “Old Daddy…” or “Old Mamma…” were responsible for the rearing and caring of the plantation owner’s children and other family members. For a slave to disobey a slave that was in charge of this function, was just as serious as disobeying the slave owners themselves. The slaves with these titles normally had longevity with the family and had shown their dedication generation after generation. There were slaves with the title of “Daddy” and “Mamma” and they were in their 30s. Other slaves earned titles as “Uncle…” or “Aunt…” and the slave master’s children addressed them with these titles.

Some of the slaves that have been identified who were employed in and about the big house:  Old Mamma Chaney, who cared for all the master’s children, which included breast-feeding(wet nursing) them;  Old Mamma Martha, the head servant, to whom the keys were entrusted and who looked after the family comfort in the absence of the slave master’s wife; Fanny, maid to the master’s wife; Ann and Lizzie, seamstresses at the big house; Nancy, the washwoman; Phyllis, the cook at the big house; Old Lucy, who cared for the chickens; Little Lucy and Zelleau, who were in training to become maids to the master’s daughters; Phil, the coachman; William, the hostler; Daniel, the butler; Bony, the fisherman; Henry, the gardener; and Joe, the body servant to Edward J. Thomas.

The plantation had a trusted and intelligent slave, as identified by the slave master, by the name of Driver, who was directly in charge of all field work, Sea-Island cotton, corn, peas, sweet potatoes, cane, melons and all garden stuff. Another slave was in charge of the horses, cattle, etc.; and a third one was in charge of the plows.

Information heard in the Big House concerning slaves was normally passed on to the slaves in the quarters by the slaves assigned to the Big House. These slaves would also pass on information heard in the slave quarters to the slave master.

This 1852 oil painting depicting the scene of a slave market was created 5 years before the Savannah auction of 1857.

Record of a Slave Wedding







One recorded slave wedding was that of Landcaster Harris from the Peggy Harris plantation to Nancy of the Thomas plantation, who was the washwoman in the big house. The slave master, John A. Thomas, had previously denied these slave’s request to get married, because Landcaster Harris was a slave on another plantation. The birth of a child born in such a situation would create a problem concerning ownership. However, on the return from a hunting trip, the slave master’s gun fell out of the boat in some 10 feet of water. The slave master immediately cried out: “Landcaster, get that gun and I’ll give you Nelly.”  Landcaster immediately jumped into the water and came up with the gun in his hand and a grin on his face.

According to Edward J. Thomas, the bride was decked out in one of his mother’s white dresses, ribbons and libitum floated from her head, waist and arms; the groom in the tallest white collar the community could furnish, and big yellow cravat. The slave preacher on the plantation usually performed slave weddings. The marriage ceremony for the slaves involved a simple exchange of vows.  His vows were very simple. The preacher would say to the man: “Do you want this woman?” And he would say to the woman:  “Do you want this man?” The preacher would close the vows by saying, “till death or distance do you part.” Then the slave master and his wife would participate by each one holding an end of the broom. The preacher would tell the couple to jump the broom and he would say: “That’s your wife.” Jumping over the broom symbolized two things, first was the wife’s commitment to clean the courtyard of the new home she had joined. Furthermore, it expressed her overall commitment to the house. The second thing was the determination of who ran the household. Whoever jumped highest over the broom was the decisionmaker of the household (usually the man).  Afterwards, the large piazza was turned into a dance hall, and with fiddle and banjo, everybody usually enjoyed the wedding, while a barbecue awaited them on the lawn. (After the Civil War was over, for a slave wedding to be recognized, the parties had to appear before the Clerk of the Courthouse or a Justice of the Peace to have their wedding recorded.The wedding was usually recorded as Negro Cohabitation Certificates, Records of Marriage and Cohabitation and Records of Marriage by Freedmen.)

To finish the story, Landcaster, according to Edward J. Thomas, stated that, as soon as the federal gunboats in 1862 made their appearance off the coast and in sight of our place, took his wife and babes in a boat to find freedom. After the war, he told me, he soon found freedom with a wife and six children very different from having a master to provide for them. Like the man he was, he did the best he could. When the war was over, he came back and lived on the old plantation until he died. Thomas also stated that he obtained a widow’s pension from the U.S. Government for his wife, Nelly, because her husband had been on the government payroll during the Civil War.

A Slave is Put in Total Charge of the Plantation

In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, generally antebellum southern slaves about half of all slaves were younger than 16 years old. Nearly 1/3 was under the age of 10.  Edward J. Thomas was called into service for the Confederacy about 1862. He stated the following:  “Knowing that I would be obliged to leave my mother, sisters and little brothers at home, without a male protector – for every white man was in the army – I call “Daddy Henry”, one of our trusted slaves, to my room before departing, and told him that I left everything in his care. He must see that the many house servants were obedient to mother; he must take care of the old slaves and many young ones, keep mother well provisioned from plantation and garden; that, in fact, he must stand right square up, as he knew I wished. He was standing, hat in hand, and said, “Mas’Ed, “fore God I won’t betray you.” I left with every confidence in the world. He proved faithful to the trust imposed, and when it became necessary for mother to take refuge in Savannah, on account of the raiding parties from Sherman’s army, he did all in his power to aid her.

Many slaves from the plantation ran away and some served in the Union army. In May 1862 General David Hunter began enlisting black soldiers in the occupied districts of South Carolina. Slaves from the area of the plantation were recruited in this effort. These ex-slaves served in the South Carolina Volunteers, 1st Regiment Infantry (African Descent) and 33 Regiment, United States Colored Infantry. For the services they performed please view:  Harriet Tubman served as a spy for these units during the Civil War.

One problem that offended the black soldiers was the federal government’s issuing of unequal pay to the black soldiers. The White soldiers in the Union Army were paid $13 per month, and the black soldiers were paid $10. From the black soldier’s pay the federal government deducted $3.50 per month as a clothing allowance. The white soldiers did not have to pay a clothing allowance. The black soldier netted about $6.50 per month. Information that has been passed down in the family is that the black soldiers from the plantation refused to accept any pay. Some of them served more than two years without ever accepting their discriminatory pay. On June 15, 1864 Congress passed a law granting equal pay for all black soldiers. It was at this time that  these soldiers began to accept pay for their service.

According to Edward J. Thomas, when he met “Daddy Henry” at the old plantation after the war, he gave him a verbal accounting of his conduct, and seemed perfectly happy when he shook his hand and said, “Daddy Henry, I knew you would be true.” Before his visit at the plantation ended, he deeded him his home and ten acres of land, as a home for him and his good wife, “Mamma Nancy,” who had been their washerwoman as far back as he could remember. He further stated, “The South should never forget the loyal conduct of our slaves during the war of Secession; they not only took care of our families, but made bread for the soldiers at the front, and never a single instance occurred of improper conduct to any of these families.”

The 1870 census listed Henry Thomas (Daddy Thomas) and his wife, Nancy, and five children, Floyd Thomas, age 14; Anna Thomas, age 10;  Marshal Thomas, age 7; Edward Thomas, age 5 and Corah Thomas, age 3. Edward Thomas, who was born in 1865, apparently was named after the slave master. These are black descendants from the Thomas plantation.

The 1870 census lists our 5th generation grandfather, Benjamin Thomas, age 60, his wife, Aggie, age 50 and their child, Moses Thomas, age 15. These are black descendants from the Thomas plantation who are our immediate familyA great source of information in putting our plantation life together was the Memoirs of a Southerner, by Edward J. Thomas and personal recollection by my grandfather, William Manning Thomas.

















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