The Enslaved at Belle Grove Plantation
Belle Grove Plantation began with 483 acres given to Isaac Hite Jr. by his father in 1783. By 1824, it had grown to 7,500 acres. Its products were grain, livestock, flax and hemp. Other Belle Grove enterprises included a grist mill, saw mill, distillery, store, lime kiln, quarry, and blacksmith shop. The great commercial success of these enterprises relied upon an enslaved workforce.
The Hites were involved in a national system, codified by law, that enslaved Africans and their children. Outlawed by most northern states by the late 1700s, investment in human property was so enmeshed in the entire nation’s economy that it would take a Civil War to abolish it.
Surviving records indicate that the Hites at Belle Grove owned 276 individuals between 1783 and 1851. Isaac Hite Jr. and his first wife, Nelly Madison Hite, received 15 slaves from her father James Madison Sr. in 1783. An image of that deed may be seen on the sign at the slave cemetery. The Hites acquired other slaves though purchase, inheritance and by birth. The Hite family kept a list of the enslaved individuals and some of their personal information and it may be found at the link to the right along with some family trees that we have been able to construct based on this information.
The 1810 census noted 103 enslaved people in the Hites’ ownership and 101 in the 1820 census. Isaac Hite Jr.’s holdings of slaves declined after the 1820s as he sold them or gave them to his adult children. After Hite’s death in 1836, his estate inventory lists 44 enslaved individuals. The 1851 inventory of his second wife, Ann Maury Hite, lists only four: Jim, a blacksmith; Elijah; Sally, a cook; and Martha, Sally’s child.
The 1820 census record below shows all members of the household including a total of 17 free white persons and 101 enslaved, many of whom were children:
Slaves - Males - Under 14: 25
Slaves - Males - 14 thru 25: 11
Slaves - Males - 26 thru 44: 19
Slaves - Males - 45 and over: 3
Slaves - Females - Under 14: 19
Slaves - Females - 14 thru 25: 7
Slaves - Females - 26 thru 44: 14
Slaves - Females - 45 and over: 3
Searching for Information
Sources of information on the enslaved at Belle Grove include family letters, census and tax records, and estate inventories. In addition, Isaac Hite Jr.’s personal records (two “Commonplace Books”) include a ledger of enslaved persons. This ledger includes only the first name of the enslaved. It also lists the first name of each one’s mother, if known (usually because she was also owned by the family), and each one’s date of birth. The slaves no longer owned by the Hites were noted by a mark through their name or comment in the far right column. This list has allowed us to construct family trees of the slaves that were related. It also underscores that slaves were considered to be property.
We are seeking additional records to learn more about the lives of the slaves at Belle Grove. Family letters give us limited insight on the work the enslaved did in agriculture and as blacksmiths, cooks, and wagon drivers. The lower level of the Manor House is where slaves conducted much of the domestic work of the household.
We also want to know more about what happened to the slaves at Belle Grove. One challenge in doing this research is that the Hites’ records, as was typical of slave owners, only listed the enslaved by first name. We do not know where many of them were at the time of emancipation. After emancipation, did those formerly enslaved at Belle Grove select the last name of a former owner? Or, like many, did they take the opportunity to start their future with another name?
Slave Quarters at Belle Grove
There are no buildings left at Belle Grove Plantation that served as quarters for the enslaved. However, a map of the 1864 Battle of Cedar Creek indicates a cluster of buildings in the field across from the visitor parking lot. Belle Grove is conducting archaeology in this area to learn more.
Testing conducted in the summer of 2015 confirmed a 1.42 acre site that was inhabited by members of Belle Grove’s enslaved community between 1800 and 1840. Artifacts found at this site suggest at least two houses surrounded by a yard. We anticipate learning more as archaeology continues, such as the exact number and size of the dwellings. Click here to view a report on the preliminary archaeological research (note some images and information have been redacted for this online version).
The nails found on this site are similar to those used in Belle Grove’s Manor House and may indicate that the quarters were constructed about the same time, in the 1790s.
Archaeology discovered items used by enslaved individuals in their everyday lives including ceramics, buttons, and a fragment of a tobacco pipe.
Archaeological surveys of the plantation landscape identified additional sites where slave buildings may have been. Houses may have been located near the curve in Belle Grove Road and near the mills and blacksmith complex further west along Belle Grove Road. Currently there is a replica blacksmith forge next to the smokehouse for visitors to see. However, it is not in the location of the large blacksmith shop that was in existance during the Hite era.
Slave Cemetery at Belle Grove
Another Belle Grove site undergoing further study is the slave cemetery. It is a fenced area two hundred yards north of the Manor House. No records have been found that indicate it was a slave cemetery but this plot has characteristics of slave cemeteries of the time, it is on high ground, in an area not used for agriculture, with field stones to mark the graves (rather than headstones) and the ground is slightly sunken in areas of the burials. A report on the Ground Penetrating Radar used to study this site may be found here. These readings indicated 14 possible grave shafts. Though no written burial records exists, Hite family records of the enslaved indicate 45 died while under their ownership. It is not clear whether all these individuals could be buried at this site or whether there are additional slave burial ground on the property.
(This page is under construction and additional information will be added--please check back!)