The Enslaved at Carter House & Carnton

The Enslaved at Carter House

Fountain Branch Carter bought nineteen acres of land in 1829 from Angus McPhail and began construction on a new home for his young family.  Carter was a merchant and surveyor, but he soon began farming. The farm was initially a small operation, and its growth over time was very gradual.

The 1830 U.S. Federal Census showed that Carter owned eight slaves: five males and three females. The slave ages indicated they may have been a family unit as three males and two females were under the age of ten, two males were between the age of ten to twenty-three and one female was between thirty-six and fifty-four. The 1840 U.S. Federal Census showed a decline in slaves on the farm. By that time Carter owned six slaves: four males and two females. None of the slaves were under the age of ten. The census enumerator noted five people on the farm were engaged in agriculture and this number would have included Carter as the owner of the farm.  

There was substantial growth on the Carter farm over the next decade. According to the 1850 Agriculture schedule Carter owned 1,200 acres of land throughout Williamson County, of which 220 were improved acreage around the Carter House, or rather they were being actively farmed. The U.S. Slave Schedule taken in August 1850 showed fifteen enslaved people on the farm, and half of them (seven) were children under the age of ten. Commodity production included 2,000 bushels of corn, 1,500 bushels of oats, thirty bushels of Irish potatoes, 250 bushels of sweet potatoes, 100 pounds of butter, nine tons of hay and fifty bushels of grass seed. During this time Carter had an overseer named Wyatt Baugh. His granddaughter recalled, “Mama’s father was an overseer of a Mr. Carter and received $100 a year…Wyatt Baugh wanted to buy some corn from Mr. Carter and asked about it. Carter said he had none to sell. ‘Well I’ll buy if from Jack’ (a Negro Carter owned). So the Negro sold Carter corn to Wyatt and was paid money for the corn.”

Jack’s wife, Calfurnia Parrish Carter, was one of the slaves listed on the 1850 Slave Schedule. Carter purchased Calfurnia sometime between 1845 and 1846. Calfurnia was previously owned by a woman named Susan Parrish. In 1843 Parrish was indicted by the State of Tennessee for “unlawfully and willfully permit[ing] two slaves named Clarissa and Calfernia [sic]…to live to themselves as free persons of colour…” She had let them make their own money and keep their own home. This, according to the indictment, was against the “peace and dignity of the State.” Susan died two years later. Her estate inventory showed Calfurnia was rented out for $5.85.

Between 1850 and 1853 a large cotton gin was built southeast of the Carter House, just across Columbia Pike, and cotton production began on the farm. In a letter to his brother James, Moscow, who was the oldest son, said about their father, “He has been a good deal aggravated of late; his gin-band has been stolen, which with the loss of time and the pecuniary damage, has discommoded him not a little. He gave $30.00 for the band and finds it difficult to get another.” In 1860 the gin produced thirty bales, or 12,000 pounds of cotton.

In addition to cotton, the farm, which at that time totaled 285 acres, produced wheat, potatoes, corn, sweet potatoes, oats and a large number of livestock worth $3,000. But Carter remained unhappy with the production on his farm. In a letter to his son in law Dan McPhail in August 1860 he wrote: “….I have one hundred and ten acres in corn and I do not believe I can make more than one barrel ½ to the acre, I luckily have on hand 150 barrels of old corn or I would be in a terrible fix, we are sowing Rye and turnips and have a prospect of Irish potatoes and Peas,.. I am doing but little more than live and cannot do any better here with the family and negroes.”

By this date, Carter owned mostly women and children. The 1860 U.S. Slave Schedule taken on June 26, 1860 noted twenty-eight slaves who lived in seven dwellings on the property. Twelve of the twenty-eight slaves were under the age of ten, and only four slaves over the age of ten were males.  It is interesting that even “with family and negroes” he did not have enough labor to produce what was needed.

Beginning in 1857, Fountain Branch Carter’s medical ledgers provided an accurate and substantial accounting of the slaves on the farm. The ledgers list each time a doctor visited to perform medical procedures or prescribe medications, revealing who was being treated, what was being treated, and how much the visit cost.

As war raged throughout the country, life on the Carter farm continued although materially impacted.  On March 15, 1862 Moscow wrote, “Gen. Granger I understand has extended his lines as far as my house and will in a few more days have them beyond it.” By early 1863 at least 5,000 Federal troops were posted at Franklin and pickets found themselves posted south of town near the Carter farm.

As the world turned around them the Carters struggled with a new normal. Moscow Carter kept a journal throughout the war and toward the end of it he created a ledger of the labor being utilized on the farm in 1864 and 1865. Those who were picking cotton were listed individually, as well as those picking potatoes. He included not only names, but dates and amounts. Slaves, who were not officially emancipated until 1865, were being paid a wage for their work in late 1864. Some of the Carter slaves mentioned in the ledger were Jack, Sophia, Susan and Mary. Picking cotton alongside the enslaved were Lannie, Fount, Walter and Marc, who were also Fountain Branch Carter’s grandsons.

Not all of the slaves stayed at the farm. One of Moscow Carter’s slaves – Isaac Carter – escaped and was impressed as a laborer by the U.S. Army to help construct Fort Negley outside of Nashville.

In October 1866, Jack – one of Fountain Branch Carter’s former slaves – was found guilty of larceny, though later pardoned for this crime. Jack was in trouble with the law again in 1870 when he was charged with stealing cows. Fountain Branch Carter paid a bond of $1,000 to release Jack from jail. Fountain Branch Carter then served as a witness and most likely hired Jack a lawyer. This case was never prosecuted.

In November 1866 Fountain Branch Carter went to the Williamson County Chancery court and had a six-year-old black child named Gustavus legally bonded to him. He paid $500 (roughly equivalent to $8,000 today) to the court, and William Crouch, his brother-in-law, was his witness. Upon his death Carter bequeathed via his will to Gus a small piece of land, a pistol, and bedroom furniture. Gus Carter lived on the farm till 1872 when he ran away to Memphis. He had a troubled stint as a teenager and later spent about six months in a work house for petty larceny. He married and had three sons, two of whom fought in World War I. When Gus died in 1928 in Memphis his death certificate listed “F. B. Carter” as his father. 

When Fountain Branch Carter died in 1871, Moscow took over the farm. He grew corn, wheat, potatoes and had a large orchard which produced apples and peaches. He wrote in his journal: “Cotton seems so tedious and expensive to manage. I dread it.” But regardless, it was a money-making crop. Cotton continued to be produced, on a much smaller scale, until the 1880s. According to the Industrial Schedule of the U.S. Census, in 1880 Moscow employed 10 men to help harvest and process his cotton crop. They also ginned cotton for many other local farmers as well.

Farming was a difficult life. Moscow’s wife, America, wrote in a letter to her sister in 1869: “It is all we can do to make a living & we all work all the time. Just so we can keep what we have & live is all we are trying to do.”

The Enslaved at Carnton

The original home at Carnton was constructed around 1815, with a larger addition added about ten years later. Randal McGavock, a surveyor, State Supreme Court clerk, and mayor of Nashville, had the home built for he and his family. Three generations of the McGavock family lived at Carnton. Randal’s son, John McGavock, inherited the home upon his father’s death in 1843. From its inception Carnton was a farm built largely on slave labor. Enslaved people likely built both houses and they certainly took care of the primary farming operation. They worked the fields which produced large amounts of corn and grain and raised and tended to hundreds of head of livestock.  Through their efforts the McGavocks became very wealthy.

Although the daily life and activity of the enslaved people at Carnton is largely unknown, public records provide at least a statistical overview. In 1820 there were eleven slaves, which rose to nineteen by 1830. By 1840 there are twenty-one slaves. Of these earliest census enumerations, those in 1820 and 1840, offer another detail: the number of people engaged in agriculture. Out of the eleven slaves living and working at Carnton in 1820 six were engaged in agriculture, but while the number of slaves rose to twenty-one by 1840, only seven were engaged in agriculture. These numbers indicate that the enslaved were also laboring in the house, kitchens and barns, and such numbers grew through the years. Such tasks would have included, but not been limited to, cooking, cleaning, washing, caring for children, weaving, sewing, carpentry, blacksmithing, and hostler work.

By 1850 the slave population had grown to twenty-eight, and that is the first Census which provides a clear view of the type of labor in which the slaves were engaged. The Agriculture Census from that same year offers a comprehensive view of Carnton’s production. Of the 1,000 acres, only 400 were improved. John McGavock owned 41 horses, 3 mules, 63 head of cattle, 25 sheep and 250 pigs. Crop production totaled 200 bushels of wheat, 9,000 bushels of Indian corn, 4,000 bushels of oats, 200 bushels of Irish potatoes, 1,000 bushels of sweet potatoes and 10 tons of hay. Slaves would have produced virtually all of the commodities. As for livestock, there may well have been Ayreshire cattle at Carnton. John McGavock was on the Committee for Ayreshires at the National Exhibition of Cattle held by the U. S. Agricultural Society in Springfield, Ohio in October 1854.

Nashville Union and American , October 19, 1860.

Nashville Union and American, October 19, 1860.

In 1860, Carnton was chosen as the best farm in the county at the Williamson County Fair. A newspaper article described the fruit groves and fine fields and provided greater insight into the various aspects of the farm. By that time Carnton consisted of 450 improved acres, 500 unimproved acres and was worth $150,000.

Carnton also boasted a sawmill on Harpeth River, where modern day Carnton Lane enters Lewisburg Pike, and by 1849 it was producing 2,000 feet of lumber daily. In fact, in 1859 John McGavock purchased a slave for $2,500 to run his newly purchased circular sawmill. At the time the going rate for a male slave was $1,000. John paid two and a half this amount for a skilled sawyer, which was the second such person he had purchased for that amount. 

The earliest existing document which provides personal information about any of the enslaved at Carnton is Randal McGavock’s 1843 will. Upon his death his wife, Sarah, inherited “all my Negroes,” which numbered twenty-two.

When the will was probated an inventory of his property was taken. In this inventory twenty-two enslaved people were listed by name and age:
Sterling, 60; Richard, 45; Ben, 45; Michael, 43; Joe, 47; Henry, 21; Madison, 19; Lewis 45; Edward 11; Jack 8; David 5; George 3; Cary 17 months; Sukey 70; Mary 45; Betsy 32; Fanny 19; Johannah 15; Susanna 14; Alis 8; Eliza 7; Julia 6.

Three years later Sarah “Sallie” McGavock wrote her own will which bequeathed her slaves, which numbered at least twenty-four, to her four children. Her will was never probated upon her death in 1854, but her children honored her wishes. Also, Sallie’s will was quite different than her husband’s. Instead of listing her “servants” by value they were listed by family unit, or with a description which offers some insight into the slaves’ position on the farm.

To her daughter, Mary Southall, and her children she left “Old Sukey & Joe, Henry, Fanny & her two children [Felix and Clara,] Joannah, Eliza & Alice, they are all of one family… also Madison & Richard & their increase.” To daughter, Elizabeth Harding, she gave “my old faithful servant man Sterling.” To her granddaughter, Selina, the only grandchild to directly inherit a slave, she willed “my servant girl Susannah.” To her son, James, she left “negro girl Julia, a child of Ben and Betty.” Finally, to her son, John, she left “Michael and his wife Louisa, and Ben and Betty and all their children except Julia…also Lewis and all my household and kitchen furniture.” One of the last lines of Sallie’s will stated, “Having bequeathed my servants to my children I request them to treat them with all humanity & kindness.” That single line alone provides a very personal view into the complicated relationship between slave and master. 

Mariah, ca. 1900

Mariah, ca. 1900

Randal, Sallie, and John McGavock were not the only members of the family who owned slaves. Carrie Winder McGavock, who was John’s wife, had slaves in her own right. Upon marrying John in 1848, Carrie was gifted a young slave girl named Mariah for a personal “servant.” She served as Carrie’s personal slave at both St. Bridget, which was John McGavock’s Louisiana sugar plantation, and Carnton. During the war Mariah was sent to Alabama where she apparently worked as a cook in the household of William and Margaret Howell.  The Howells had a daughter named Varina, who in 1845 had married Jefferson Davis, who later served as President of the Confederate States of America. The Howell and the Winder families were friends.

Mariah was married twice, first to Harvey Otey and then Bolen Reddick. She had eleven children and two of them – stillborn twins named Isaiah and Winder - are buried at Carnton. For a time in the post-war years she worked for the McGavock family, and for Hattie McGavock Cowan in particular. Mariah was a nursemaid for Hattie’s children. She lived near the Bucket of Blood neighborhood, close to the railroad depot, and later on Columbia Avenue, just north of the Carter House.

Carrie McGavock’s father, Van Winder, also gave her four slaves in 1854. Two of those slaves were brought to Carnton from Ducros Plantation in Louisiana - Gabriel, 8 years old, and Mary Ellen, 13 years old. Gabriel was the child of Bill and Henny and Mary Ellen the daughter of Jacob and Judy. The 1860 Federal Mortality Schedule, as well as a local newspaper, noted that in May 1859, Gabe was thrown from a mule while riding sideways and died. Listed next to Gabe on the same mortality schedule was an unnamed 3-month old infant owned by John McGavock. The cause of death was listed as “smothered.” Tragically, this was not an uncommon mode of death among young enslaved babies. 

That same year Franky and her son, Andrew, were purchased in Franklin by Van Winder and given to Carrie. Van purchased Franky and her 4-year-old son, Andrew, from Andrew McEwen to settle a debt for her previous owner John Boyd. Franky married a man named Miles McConnico and had at least one more child, Alfred McConnico, in 1854. Franky and Miles McConnico are the only former slaves to have a labor contract with John McGavock after the Civil War:

This agreement and contract made and entered into this 6th day of January 1866 by and between John McGavock of one part and Miles McConnico colored and his wife Franky Do of the second part Witnesseth and said Jno McGavock truly promises to furnish Miles McConnico with land to cultivate quarters to live in and fuel supply for self teams & utensils and feed for teams Miles is to cultivate said land well and is to receive for compensation one third of all the crop the second party to conduct themselves in an orderly quiet and respectful manner and to require implicitly his children to do the same and Franky wife of said Miles obligates herself to perform all Kitchen Yard and household work for the coming year and to maintain a quiet orderly and respectful demeanor and to require the same implicitly of her children and the first party obligates and binds himself to pay said Franky seven dollars per month commencing the 1st day of January 1866 and ending the 1st day of January 1867.

In the years after the war the once legally separated races in the South had to figure out how to navigate one of the most difficult and incomprehensible social environments America has ever known. Defiant white Southerners and desperate black Southerners often clashed, but they also had to decide how to survive day to day.

In addition, the former States which had joined the Confederacy were under military occupation and each had to apply for re-entry into the Union. Smoldering beneath the tumultuous political struggles was a landscape of racial strife and economic instability. Progress was slow, and often restricted, but those who had once been owned by another were free, and their children and grandchildren born after 1865 were never again enslaved. Nonetheless, the struggle for basic human dignity, equality, and acceptance would go on. It continues today.