Were Sub-Floor Pits?
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
contents of sub-floor pits, such as these beads, have
revealed intriguing details about the lives of slaves.
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.
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
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