Skip to main content Skip to footer

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 men, women, and children 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. The Hites acquired other individuals though purchase, inheritance and by birth. The Hite family kept lists of the enslaved and some of their personal information and it may be found at the link to the right along with some family trees that have been able to be 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 the enslaved were considered to be property.

We are seeking additional records to learn more about the lives of the enslaved 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 the enslaved workforce conducted much of the domestic tasks for the household.

We also want to know more about what happened to the enslaved at Belle Grove. One challenge in doing this research is that the Hites’ records, as was typical of enslavers, 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?

Quarters of the Enslaved 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. Additional fieldwork in this area has taken place from 2016-2019 and the extensive number of artifacts confirms that this was a central quarter site. Archaeology has discovered items used by enslaved individuals in their everyday lives including ceramics, buttons and other items of personal adornment, tobacco pipes, and even pieces of writing slate and slate pencils. Animal bones, eggshells, seeds, fruit pits, and nut shells are being analyzed further and will tell us what the enslaved ate, grew, and raised. Click here to view a report on the preliminary archaeological research (note some images and information have been redacted for this online version).

Archaeological surveys of the plantation landscape identified additional buildings the enslaved may have used such as barns, equipment sheds, and a blacksmithing complex. 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 existence during the Hite era.

Enslaved Burial Ground at Belle Grove
Another Belle Grove site undergoing further study is the enslaved burial ground. It is a fenced area two hundred yards north of the Manor House. No records have been found that indicate it was a cemetery for the enslaved but this plot has characteristics of similar burial sites 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 exist, 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 burial grounds on the property, but a wayside at the Enslaved Burial Ground (seen here) lists their names to honor their lives and memory.

Enslaved Children at Belle Grove
The Hite family’s ownership of enslaved people included children. Nine children were among the first 15 enslaved that came with Nelly Madison Hite’s marriage to Isaac Hite Jr.  Eliza, age 35 had five children: Joanna (12), Diana (10), Demas (8), Pendar (6), Webster (4). Truelove, age 31 had four children: Peggy (9), Priscilla (7), Henry (5), and Katey (3). Truelove gave birth to another four children at Belle Grove. Both Eliza and Truelove’s daughters would have children of their own while at Belle Grove.

Many slave holders expected and benefitted from relationships among the enslaved. Children born to enslaved women were legally the property of the mothers’ owners. It was common practice in slaveholding America to assign adult tasks to enslaved children at age 12 or 13. Younger children might fetch firewood or water, work in gardens, tend flocks of fowl or watch other children.

There were several large families among the enslaved at Belle Grove. Emanual Jackson Jr., whose father purchased his freedom,  was one of five children of Hannah who was one of the 12 children of Abba and Frank. Emanual had 18 cousins at Belle Grove. Another large family was that of Judah, the cook (family tree below). In a letter to a friend in April 1836, Ann Maury Hite recounts that Judah just died from a lung ailment leaving children ranging in age from 21 to five weeks old. Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park has created an interpretive program about Judah's life; look for a schedule of when it will be presented in 2019 here. Judah's story has inspired a historical fiction novel, Send Judah First: The Erased Life of an Enslaved Soul by Dr. Brian C. Johnson and published by Hidden Shelf Publishing House in 2019.

April 5, 1836 Letter from Ann Maury Hite to Elizabeth Steenbergen regarding the death of Judah 
Courtesy of The Handley Regional Library

During the last two weeks my Cook was dangerously ill with a complaint one of great suffering a violent pleurisy in the first instance terminating in an inflammation of the heart which was most distressing.

She finally went under the disease on Saturday morning leaving 12 children; the youngest only five weeks old. I deplore her loss to her younger children more than my own inconvenience which is very considerable – but it is the will of him that can not err of course ‘it is wisest best.’ I shall endeavor to discharge the additional duties that devolve upon me to the best of my ability.

Freedom for the Jackson Family
A 1837 bill of sale between the executors of Major Isaac Hite Jr. and Manual Jackson for the purchase of Jackson’s son, Emanual, tells one of the few stories we know about a former Belle Grove slave. Emanual was purchased for $800, which is about $21,000 in today’s currency. It states “Isaac Hite, now (deceased), in his lifetime, agreed with Manuel Jackson, a free man of Color that he would sell to him a Negro boy, named Manuel, the son of said Manuel Jackson.” Financial records from after Isaac Hite’s death in 1836 show this large sum received in three payments:

January 20 By cash of Manuel Jackson in part purchase of his son $450.00
January 21 By cash of Manuel Jackson part purchase of his son $50.00
January 21 By cash from Bond for Manuel Jackson $300.00

The bill of sale notes that the final payment was done by a loan with “a note with Jno Scroggin as security.”

A February 2, 1841 document tells us more: “I Emanual Jackson, of the Town of Birmingham, in the County of Allegheny (Pa.), but formerly of Frederick County (Va.), from motives of parental hereby manumit and set free from slavery, my son Emanual.” This story raises many questions. How did Isaac Hite Jr. and Manual Jackson come to have this agreement? Why did the father wait four years to free his son?

Belle Grove staff found these documents through the exhibit “Free at Last: Slavery in Pittsburgh in the 18th and 19th Centuries.” It featured transcripts of legal documents in Pittsburgh from 1792 to 1857 of slaves, freed Black people, never enslaved Blacks, and indentures that were discovered in 2007 by a supervisor in the Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds. Because of their historic significance, the County gave these records to the Senator John Heinz History Center. The museum partnered with the University of Pittsburgh Library to create the exhibit.

Ann T Hite et al Bill of Sale to Manuel Jackson         
Know all men by these presents, that we Ann T Hite, J S Davidson and P Williams Jr Executors of Isaac Hite, decd and the said Ann T Hite, and J S Davidson, in their own right, and said P. Williams Jr for his two children Philip W. and Ann H Williams, Isaac F Hite, Walker M Hite, P. Elizabeth L Hite, Rebecca G Loder and said J S Davison, P Williams Jr. and Isaac F Hite, Trustees for said Rebecca G Loder, for and in consideration of the sum of Eight hundred dollars to them in hand paid by Manuel Jackson the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged, have granted, bargained, and sold, and by these presents, grant, bargain and sell, unto the said Manuel Jackson, a Negro boy named Manuel aged about 21 years, Given under our hands and seals, this 18th day of January 1837. [Note that the sale document uses the spelling “Manuel” and the manumission document uses “Manual.”]

Photograph from Allegheny County (Pa.) Recorder of Deeds Manumission and Indenture Records, 1792-1857, MSS# 494.
Courtesy of the Detre Library & Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center 

Additional archival documents in Virginia indicate that Emanuel Jackson Sr. purchased from the Hite family his son Frank and his daughter Betsy Ann. Two additional letters to the Hite's son Isaac Fontaine Hite discuss Emanuel Jackson Sr.'s purchase of his son Daniel (read the letter here) as well as Daniel's wife and their three children (read the letter here). The Jacksons settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Research on the Jackson family is ongoing, and it is a powerful story of resilience, agency, tenacity, and the enduring power of family ties despite a system that sought to destroy them.

Sixty Slaves for Sale
Isaac Hite Jr. placed the following advertisement in the September 8, 1824 issue of the Daily National Intelligencer, the largest and most read newspaper in Washington, D.C. Why would he have done this? Was he profiting from the need for enslaved labor on the cotton plantations further south? The value of the enslaved rose when the United States banned the import of slaves in 1808 and continued to rise with the growth of the cotton industry. Many Virginia planters became suppliers to an internal slave trade. It is estimated that in the fifty years before the Civil War, one million enslaved people were relocated from upper slave states, primarily Virginia, to the states in the deep South.

However, this sale also included livestock and farm implements, suggesting that Isaac Hite had financial difficulties and was downsizing his businesses. Belle Grove Plantation, with its light industries and successful farm, participated in national and international commerce. The Hites’ wealth depended on selling their goods outside the Shenandoah Valley. Buyers in Alexandria, Fredericksburg, Baltimore, Western Europe, and the Caribbean purchased Belle Grove’s flour and whiskey. The tremendous success of American agriculture spurred westward expansion in the early 19th century, fueling rampant land speculation and reckless bank lending. The bubble burst causing the “Panic of 1819.” Its ramifications lasted for years. An 1821 article about Belle Grove in The American Farmer noted “so low was the price of wheat and rye, that both were ground, and either fed to fattening cattle [sic] or distilled.”

This ad also notes slaves were to be sold “in families,” a designation which typically only referred to mothers and young children. Slave sales often separated families in order to achieve the highest total price. Isaac’s intention may have been to maintain some family integrity, but we don’t know if he was successful. After this sale, Hite’s property tax records show fewer slaves, but it is not known how many individuals were sold and to whom.