Enslaved Persons and the Cabell Family

Just as the Cabells shared in the foundational chapters of eighteenth-century Virginia history–championing the cause of independence, building new churches and communities, etc.–they shared in the most shameful chapters as well. Over half of white Virginians owned enslaved persons in the first part of the eighteenth century. William Cabell and many of his descendants readily embraced the entrenched system of enslaving African Americans in order to run the estates they acquired and to achieve for themselves a higher standard of living. Virginians imported from Africa or the Caribbean an average of over 1,000 enslaved persons per year between 1700 and 1740, and for the next thirty years the numbers brought in through the trade in enslaved persons varied widely. As enslaved men and women were able to form families and raise children, their numbers grew so that, by 1740, the colony’s enslaved population was increasing even without counting the many enslaved persons brought by slave traffickers. In recognition of this reality, Virginia Burgesses shut off the international trade in the enslaved from their shores in 1772. As historian Alan Taylor has noted, Thomas Jefferson and other Virginians of his generation came to view enslaved African Americans as the “internal enemy” and feared “being trapped in a region with a restive black majority.”

Until the American Revolution, all of Britain’s colonies in North America sanctioned slavery. Inspired at least in part by the natural rights rhetoric of the movement for independence, citizens of most states north of Maryland enacted some scheme of gradual or immediate emancipation following the conclusion of the war. Virginians initially passed provisions making it easier for enslavers to manumit the enslaved but did not embrace the idea of liberation for African Americans. One Richmond-area enslavedperson, Gabriel Prosser, planned a revolt in 1800 against the hardening system of black enslavement and white control, though informants and torrential rains foiled his schemes. In the wake of Prosser’s rebellion and, especially, Nat Turner’s 1831 insurrection, Virginia whites worried more about protecting themselves from the enslaved persons they owned than about reforming the elaborate web of legal, political, economic, and social institutions that facilitated and protected the enslavement of African Americans and whites’ cruel control over every aspect of their lives. Manumission laws, for instance, were hardened to require newly freed African Americans to leave Virginia.

By the 1810s Virginia became an exporter of the enslaved, shipping men and women to new plantations in the west and lower south. The enslaved persons selected for sale or transfer were largely the younger, healthier, and more able-bodied—hence more valuable as property—or those whose resistance against their masters marked them for harsh punishment. In the process untold numbers of African American families were repeatedly broken up. Ever since, descendants of the enslaved have tried with varying success to reconstruct their families and family histories. In recent years the Cabell Family Papers have proved very helpful in this respect. Derek G. Nicholas, for example, has mined the Cabell Family Papers and other sources to reconstruct the histories of many African American families, including his own, that are descended from the enslaved persons who lived on or near the Cabell Family homes in Virginia’s Nelson County. The Corotoman Slave Histories database, based in part on the Cabell Family Papers, documents over 1,200 enslaved persons who lived from 1653 to 1862 on the Corotoman estate in Lancaster County, Va., which was in Cabell family ownership from 1807 on. The Cabell Family Papers have much more to offer researchers about the lives of the enslaved African Americans on Cabell properties, their relations with Cabell Family members, and the built environment in which they lived.

Tens of thousands of Virginians, Cabells among them, stubbornly refused to consider altering a way of life so heavily dependent upon the enslavement of African Americans. These men and women were keenly aware not only of the material benefits that could accrue from, but also of the challenges inherent in managing and disciplining the enslaved. Indeed, questions of management made up one of the primary topics of correspondence between Cabells in the nineteenth century. But one example: William H. Cabell wrote on 22 October 1820 to his brother Joseph C. Cabell about the disposition of the enslaved persons whom he inherited and who were spread out over several properties.

UVA historian Alan Taylor has written a vivid account of Joseph Carrington Cabell’s fraught relationship with the enslaved population at Corotoman plantation, of which he became part owner in 1807. Intent on introducing modern agricultural practices, and viewing the enslaved as investments to be bought and sold in pursuit of profits, Cabell quickly sold a tenth of Corotoman’s 200 enslaved persons, thereby upending what had been one of Virginia’s largest and most stable enslaved communities. This diaspora and Cabell’s harsh discipline provoked both overt and covert resistance from the enslaved, culminating in the April 1814 liberation of 69 enslaved persons by a British invasion force—the largest escape of enslaved persons from a Virginia plantation during the War of 1812. Cabell transferred more of Corotoman’s enslaved persons to his other Virginia estates and unsuccessfully pursued the escapees, who had found freedom in British colonies from Nova Scotia to Trinidad. Ironically, the $18,000 net compensation Cabell eventually received in 1826 for his lost human property helped stave off bankruptcy and the forced sale of more enslaved persons on Cabell’s estates.

During the mid-nineteenth century, the issue of slaveholding became increasingly politicized. White and black abolitionists critiqued the institution on moral grounds, and many more white Northerners protested the spread of slavery into newly opened territories. Southerners, including many Cabells, resisted the right of the federal government to legislate on the issue and became increasingly defensive in the face of abolitionist criticism. Despite the valiant efforts of men such as William Cabell Rives to hold the nation together, South Carolinians voted to secede upon the election of Abraham Lincoln, who had pledged to use the law to prevent the spread of slavery. Over one hundred Cabells served in the Confederate Army.

Other Sources Consulted:
Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone (1998)
David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (1975)
Heffernan, Patrick J. “The Corotoman Slave Histories” [online, 2014]
Walter Minchinton, Celia King, and Peter White, Virginia Slave-Trade Statistics (1984),
Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom (1975)
Nicholas, Derek G. “Descendants of Cabell family slaves” [online, 2009]
Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy (2013)
John McNish Weiss, The Merikens (2002 edition)