Work on slave women at Buffalo Forge wins Erin Schwartz Mellon / ACLS scholarship


  • Buffalo Forge:

    Erin Schwartz received support to continue her work on her doctoral dissertation through a Mellon / ACLS Thesis Completion Scholarship awarded by the American Council of Learned Societies. She is a doctoral student. candidate in the anthropology department of William & Mary.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

by Joseph McClain


June 22, 2021

Not all of the enslaved individuals in the prewar south worked the sprawling Gone with the Wind farm plantations. Erin Schwartz investigates a group that has been largely overlooked by academics and historians.

Schwartz, a doctorate. A candidate in William & Mary’s Department of Anthropology, studies slave women in the community of Buffalo Forge, a 19th-century steelworks in Glasgow, Virginia. She received a Mellon / ACLS Thesis Completion Fellowship through the American Council of Learned Societies in support of her study.

The scholarship includes a stipend of $ 35,000, along with other support for one year to enable Schwartz to complete her doctoral thesis on the women of Buffalo Forge.

Buffalo Forge operated from 1814 to 1867-1868. Schwartz said the facility was in an intermediate position in the iron-making process.

“Buffalo Forge would be the place that would be responsible for taking the molten iron and turning it into pig iron,” she explained. “It would be shipped to places like Richmond and Lynchburg and sold for use in those areas.”

The steel plants in the northern states were powered by coal, giving them an inherent competitive advantage over operations that were far from the anthracite country. Schwartz said workers at Buffalo Forge used charcoal.

“They would bring out a coalman and cut down a pile of wood, then make charcoal,” she said. “It’s a really inefficient process.

Blacksmiths have relied on their unpaid labor to try to stay competitive with coal-fired steel plants, Schwartz added. At its peak, the community of Buffalo Forge numbered around 70 people, she said.

Much like the tobacco and cotton plantations, she said Buffalo Forge was a largely self-sustaining community, and female slaves – at the center of her research – were heavily involved.

“They weren’t in the forge itself, from what I saw,” Schwartz said. “They were all men, but they did supportive work, like collecting charcoal.”

The female slaves mainly worked in the ancillary aspects – cooking, dairy and domestic work in the mansion, she said. And some of these women joined with the men in raising food for the smithy community in the fields, gardens and orchards.

Many records of the Buffalo Forge community survive, even though they are scattered around Charlottesville, Wisconsin. Schwartz was able to spot some of the women of Buffalo Forge, including a woman named Amy.

“She got married to a young man who was enslaved at a nearby cement factory,” Schwartz said. The marriage was an example of the bonds between Buffalo Forge and the surrounding communities of Rockbridge County.

Details about the day-to-day lives of Amy and the other Buffalo Forge women are few, and Schwartz said she believes she can connect a lot of dots by examining a file known as the “House Book.” She said the house book contained detailed records of domestic life at the Buffalo Forge mansion.

“Unfortunately, this book is missing,” Schwartz said. “It’s mentioned so many times in other documents, but I’ve never heard of a historian researching Buffalo Forge who found it either. It’s boring.”

This is particularly annoying, as the title of Schwartz’s thesis is “(Home) making: Black Women and the Transformation of Industrial Virginia.” She explains that the contents of the house book would provide insight not only into the mansion, but also details of the domestic life of women like Amy.

For example, Schwartz said she would like to see how the women of Buffalo Forge have benefited from a concept called “overwork,” in which enslaved people could earn money by doing work beyond that. that was asked of them.

“The overdrive system was generally aimed at men,” she said. “They could produce a tonnage exceeding the quota at the forge. But the record of female overwork would be in the house book.

Typical overwork opportunities for female slaves would be tailoring, laundry, cooking for the main house, perhaps for outside clients, but Schwartz said she couldn’t say for sure who did what in terms overwork; these details are recorded in this missing house book.

Schwartz turned to archeology to learn more about the women of the blacksmith community. She was the first researcher to dig at Buffalo Forge, starting in 2016: “And I found a ton of interesting things there. “

She was joined by two archaeologists from Washington University and Lee, excavating 54 two-and-a-half-foot units around the two neighborhoods where Amy and other members of the enslaved community made their home.

“It was just a very interesting – and weird – set of things,” she said. “The quarters were used in the mid-20th century as storage and even as a chicken coop, but really other than that they didn’t touch anything, which is great, as a lot of things in the Virginia Tidewater area have been plowed. and all the artifacts were smashed to pieces.

Excavations have revealed a variety of artifacts related to food preparation, including animal bones. And Schwartz said some of the artifacts look oddly out of place. On the one hand, there were a lot of oyster shells.

“Which is very strange to be in Rockbridge County,” she said. There is some evidence that certain seashells are used to make buttons behind quarters, but Schwartz said the level of button-making activity would not explain the amount of seashells.

“It’s interesting, because in plantations like Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, they don’t find a ton of oyster shells, if any,” she said. “People who have long worked in archeology in the area have told me that it is almost impossible to find oyster shells here. So the fact that he’s there is super unusual.

And then there are the dishes.

“I specialize in ceramics,” Schwartz said. “And I found a whole range of material. Different ceramics. Lots of really fine porcelain. Really very decorated earthenware.

There were also a lot of low-end ceramics, such as locally produced raw stoneware pots, she said. The general rule for ceramics, she explained, is “If it’s not decorated, it’s cheaper.

“And it’s kind of increasing, the most expensive being what’s called transfer printing,” she said. “And I ask: where do they get it?

Schwartz said there were too many styles and patterns of decorated ceramics sticking out of the floor for them to be remnants of the main house. In addition, she said that the ceramics in the neighborhood do not match the dishes used in the big house.

“It just looks like in the neighborhoods they’ve tinkered with bits and pieces,” she said. “It’s a lot of dishes. And there are a lot of different models.

Ceramics and oyster shells are among the questions Schwartz hopes to resolve – or at least get closer to – as she completes her dissertation on her Mellon / ACLS thesis completion scholarship. She says she has some ideas, however.

“Part of my guess is that these people had connections, maybe as far away as Richmond, that would allow them to bring some things back,” Schwartz said.

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