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Unearthing Secret America

 
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Changing Landscapes: Slave Housing at Monticello 4 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |

What Were Sub-Floor Pits?

The first school of thought is that sub-floor pits are a west-African tradition. However, there is little evidence that sub-floor pits were characteristic of 17th and 18th-century houses in West Africa. This hypothesis also fails to explain why these pits do not occur in South Carolina, where the proportion of enslaved Africans exceeded that in the Chesapeake throughout the 18th century.
Image of Sub-Floor Pit
Sub-floor pits have become a classic sign of slave housing. They may have been used as root cellars or, more likely, places to store personal items.
 

Another hypothesis is that sub-floor pits served as "root cellars" - winter storage of root crops. Booker T. Washington documents a sub-floor pit in the plantation kitchen of his youth in Virginia from the 1850s as "a large deep opening, covered with boards, used as a place to store sweet potatoes during the winter." So, at least some pits were likely used as root storage; however, this usage alone cannot account for the change in pit size and frequency over time observed in the 18th and 19th-century Chesapeake.

Many archaeologists think that sub-floor pits were used to conceal items taken from their owners by slaves resisting enslavement. Consider the following entry made by Landon Carter, a wealthy Virginia slave owner, in his diary in 1770:

This morning I had a complaint about a butter pot's being taken from the dairy door where it was put to sweeten last night.... I sent Billy Beale to search all their holes and boxes; And in their loft it was found, but both of them solemnly denying that they knew anything of it.

Far from documenting the use of sub-floor pits for concealment, Carter's account actually explains why these pits were not used for concealment. Carter knew about the sub-floor pits. Pits covered with boards are glaringly obvious, and it's the first place the overseer Beale looks.

The key to understanding sub-floor pits is the hypothesis that enslaved people used them as "safe-deposit boxes," to increase the security of personal belongings. Sub-floor pits were not used to hide valuables, but to make access to them public. Sub-floor pits achieve security by making their contents less accessible, thereby increasing the chances that thievery is observed and punished. In theory, individuals who could choose to live only with trusted kin and close friends would have less need for such devices.
Photo of Bowl
The contents of sub-floor pits, such as these beads, have revealed intriguing details about the lives of slaves.
 

Sub-floor pit frequency, then allows us to evaluate the two contradictory interpretations of decreased room size. If smaller rooms represent more control for slaves over whom they lived with and a modal choice to live in smaller, family-based groups, we should expect that sub-floor pits became less important to Mulberry Row's residents from the 1790s on.

The importance of sub-floor pits can be measured in two ways: their frequency of occurrence and their size. At Monticello the frequency of sub-floor pits declines over time. Two excavated structures from the 1770s have two pits under each room; structures built in the 1790s each had a single pit, and there is no evidence that any structure built after 1800 had a sub-floor pit. The change in pit size tells a complementary story. Average pit size is large in the 1770s and declines in the 1790s before sub-floor pits disappear entirely from Monticello around 1800. This evidence supports the argument that the 1790s witnessed a housing revolution of sorts on Mulberry Row, in which slaves were able to live in smaller, probably family-based, groups over whose membership they had greater control. Data now being collected by the Monticello Plantation Archaeological Survey on the placement of slave houses in the agricultural landscape reveals a similar change in the living conditions of enslaved farm laborers.
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4 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |

Photos: Thomas Jefferson Foudation , Inc.

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