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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Enslavement


George Skipwith signature
- George Skipwith, Alabama, letters to his master, 1847-1848 (PDF)
- Moses and Henry [Pettigrew], North Carolina, letters to and from their master, 1856-1857 (PDF)

On large plantations, the person who directed the daily work of the slaves was the overseer, usually a white man but occasionally an enslaved black man—a "driver"—promoted to the position by his master. Some plantations had both a white overseer and a black driver, especially in the deep South or on plantations where the master was often absent. Of white overseers, former slaves relate harsh memories (see the narratives in #1: An Enslaved Person's Life). Of black drivers their memories are more varied, reflecting the ambiguous state between power and impotence inhabited by the black slave driver. How did black drivers relate to their masters, and to their fellow slaves over whom they held authority? How did they adapt to the vulnerable (and perhaps empowering) position between master and slave? Consider these questions as you read two sets of letters.
  1. George Skipwith was the overseer/driver in the 1840s of an Alabama plantation owned by John Hartwell Cocke, who remained in Virginia on his family plantations. Skipwith had a stormy tenure as overseer and in 1848 was demoted to driver. In these seven letters from May 1847 to October 1849, we follow George's reports on the cotton crop (dismal), building construction (steady), health and behavior of the slaves (worrisome), his battle with alcohol (unsuccessful), and his competition with the white overseer who finally replaced him in 1848.

  2. Moses and Henry [Pettigrew] were drivers for William Pettigrew, owner of two plantations in eastern North Carolina, each with about forty slaves. During the summer months when Pettigrew vacationed in Virginia, Moses and Henry exercised almost sole management of the plantations. Here we read the letters of two summers, 1856 and 1857, between Pettigrew and his drivers (whose letters were dictated to and written by a white neighbor). The drivers' letters, although laced with the mandatory phrases of deference and filtered through a white man's hand, reveal much about these men's conception of themselves in servitude. Pettigrew's letters reveal his discomfort with being a slaveowner required to depend on the initiative and forthrightness of men whose enslaved status requires them to sequester the very same traits.

In addition to comparing the letters of these drivers, be sure to compare George Skipwith's letters with those written to Cocke by George's brother Peyton, who had been freed and sent to Liberia over a decade earlier (see Theme V: EMANCIPATION, #4: Liberia). (16 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. What news items, forms of respect, requests and questions, etc., occur repeatedly in the drivers' letters?
  2. What tone do you identify in the slaves' letters to their masters? in Pettigrew's letters to his drivers?
  3. What construction of reality—information and impressions—do the drivers relate directly in their letters?
  4. What information and impressions do they convey "between the lines"?
  5. What information and impressions do they convey without their awareness?
  6. How would a distant master read and interpret these letters? What would he learn?
  7. How do the masters exercise control from afar? How effective are they as absent masters?
  8. What forms of initiative and power are the drivers allowed to exercise?
  9. How do the drivers differ in using or displacing this power?
  10. What words do the letter writers, slave and master, use in place of "slave"? Why?
  11. How do the black drivers relate to their fellow slaves over whom they hold authority?
  12. How do they adapt to their vulnerable (or empowering) position between master and slave?
  13. What impressions do you get of George, Moses, and Henry? Of which man do you have the most accurate impression, would you say? Why?
  14. What differences are most noticeable between Skipwith's letters and the Pettigrew drivers' letters? What might account for these differences?
  15. Why does the driver Henry tell his master that he must wait to tell him "some secrets" in person? What might be the nature of the secrets?
  16. In the slave narratives in this Toolbox, how do former slaves judge their white overseers and their black drivers? How do their criteria differ from those they apply to their masters?

Framing Questions
  •  How did enslavement in America affect Africans and their descendants?
  •  How did enslaved peoples maintain selfhood in the slave-master relationship?
  •  What aspects of slavery did freed men and women emphasize when relating their experiences?
  •  How did a person respond to being the slave of another?
  •  What impact did slavery have on white people?

George Skipwith:   8
Moses & Henry [Pettigrew]:   8
TOTAL 16 pages
Supplemental Sites
Driver and overseer, brief overview, in online Encyclopedia of American History, from

Letter of a black overseer/driver to his master, 1840, in Slavery and the Making of America (PBS)

Peter, A slave on the plantation of Charles Pettigrew (brother of William), North Carolina, from the North Carolina Museum of History

General Resources in African American History & Literature, 1500-1865

Image: Signature of George Skipwith reproduced by permission of the University of Virginia Library, Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. An Enslaved Person's Life   2. Sale   3. Plantation   4. Driver
  5. Labor   6. Master/Slave   7. Resistance   8. Runaways

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

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