Two Plantations

Enslaved Families in Virginia and Jamaica

This website displays research into the lives of 431 enslaved people in seven multi-generational families at Mesopotamia plantation in Jamaica and Mount Airy plantation in Virginia.

This is their story

These family histories have been gathered from two sets of slaveholders' annual inventories

Since the 1970s, Richard S. Dunn has been tracking the 1,103 slaves who lived at Mesopotamia between 1762 and 1833, and the 973 slaves who lived at Mount Airy between 1808 and 1865. And he has reconstructed the lineages of slave families from both plantations through four or five generations.

Why compare family life in Mesopotamia with family life in Mount Airy?

In Jamaica, many more slaves died than were born, and the planters imported huge numbers of new slaves from Africa to replace the dead workers. In Virginia, the slave population doubled every twenty-five years, and the planters sold huge numbers of "surplus" slaves, or moved them to distant work sites.

Because of these demographic conditions, the black families in Mesopotamia and Mount Airy suffered terribly, but in far different ways.

What was the situation like at Mesopotamia?

On this Jamaican plantation, there were 331 more slave deaths than births between 1762 and 1833. To keep sugar production going, the owners (Joseph Foster Barham I and his son Joseph Foster Barham II) acquired 415 replacements.

The three Mesopotamia families displayed on this website were continually stunted by death.

What was the situation like at Mount Airy?

On this Virginia plantation, there were 293 more slave births than deaths between 1809 and 1865. The owners (John Tayloe III and his son William Henry Tayloe) utilized this population increase to move 329 people to distant work sites, and to sell 99 unwanted slaves.

The four Mount Airy families displayed on this website were routinely broken up by movement and sale.

But these Mount Airy families were impressively resilient under duress, and some of them became very large. Richard Dunn's hand-drawn chart of the 114 members of Sally Thurston's family is more than five feet long. See it below.

Sally Thurston's Family

Mount Airy Plantation, Virginia
1800 1830 1850 1870

114 Total People

Male Female

0 Total People

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1870 Census

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Mount Airy Mesopotamia

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Date Family
1780 1790 1800 1810 1820 1830 1840 1850 1860 1870 1880
What can we learn from these slave biographies?

The people at Mesopotamia and Mount Airy suffered a terrible predicament, trapped into forced labor, with meager possibilities for personal achievement. Bare traces of their existence have been handed down to us by their captors, and represent mostly what slaveholders chose to inscribe. But by interpreting such records against the grain, these simple family diagrams and biographical sketches highlight personhood, connection, and belonging rather than proprietary accounting. Consequently, they open many fruitful lines of investigation.

What do the fortunes of children born into Jamaican and Virginian slavery tell us about enslaved motherhood? How did interracial sex affect the meaning of family? What can we learn about the impact of displacement upon forced migrants from Virginia to Alabama? Studying the freedpeople from Mount Airy who show up in the 1870 census, do we understand something new about the first five years of freedom?

Such thorny questions are more valuable than easy answers. For despite the challenges of viewing slave life through the lens of plantation data, the more we explore, the more we discover.

Richard Dunn

Principal Investigator

Richard S. Dunn, born in Minneapolis MN in 1928, received a BA from Harvard College in 1950, an MA from Princeton University in 1952, and a PhD in History in 1955 from Princeton. He taught at Princeton, at the University of Michigan, the University of Oxford, and for 39 years at the University of Pennsylvania, retiring from Penn in 1996 as the Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of American History.

Among his publications are Puritans and Yankees: The Winthrop Dynasty of New England, 1630-1717 (1962), The Age of Religious Wars, 1559-1715 (1971, 2d edition 1979), Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713 (1972), The Papers of William Penn, 1644-1718 (4 vols.), edited with Mary Maples Dunn and seven Associate Editors (1981-1987), and The Journal of John Winthrop, 1630-1649, edited with Laetitia Yeandle (1996).

In 1978 Dunn founded the Philadelphia Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (renamed the McNeil Center in 1998), which offers dissertation fellowships to graduate students from universities in the U.S. and abroad who wish to do research in Philadelphia libraries and archives. He directed this Center in most years from 1978 to 2000.

More Information

A Tale of Two Plantations

"I became interested in the history of slavery when writing Sugar and Slaves (1972), which described the rise of the slaveholding sugar planters in the British Caribbean. Convinced that Caribbean slavery was very different from U.S. slavery, I decided to compare a West Indian community of slaves with an antebellum U.S. community of slaves.

I soon found two parallel sets of records for Mesopotamia plantation in Jamaica and Mount Airy plantation in Virginia that suited my purpose. But trying to bring the 2,000 Mesopotamia and Mount Airy people alive, and shaping their experiences into a coherent narrative, has taken much longer than I expected. A Tale of Two Plantations is the long-delayed result."    -RSD

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