African-Americans were a vital force in the operation and economy of Fort Hill, the home of John C. Calhoun from 1825 to 1850 and Thomas Green Clemson from 1872 to 1888. Like many other Southern planters, Calhoun raised cotton as a cash crop using enslaved African-Americans as labor to run his household and plantation. The Calhouns owned skilled trades’ workers including gardeners, seamstresses and carpenters, in addition to agricultural workers and field hands.
Since slaves who occupied Fort Hill left no written record, their perspective is voiceless in history. Reports of visitors and family letters provide researchers with some insight into the lives of slaves and later freedmen at Fort Hill. A limited number of oral histories supplemented by reminiscences of 20th century descendents of former slaves provide additional information.
One of the more detailed descriptions of slave life at Fort Hill comes from a New York newspaper reporter who visited in 1849. He described the Calhoun slaves as living approximately “one-eighth of a mile from the mansion. The houses are built of stone and joined together like barracks, with garden attached and a large open space in front. There are perhaps seventy or eighty Negroes on and about the place.” The reporter followed Calhoun for a tour of the slave quarters. He noted that as they walked, Calhoun stopped and inquired “in regard to some who were sick; among them, seated under a cherry tree, was a man, who was as he informed me, the oldest on the place and enjoyed particular privileges. He was allowed to cultivate some four or five acres of land for cotton and other things; the proceeds of which became his property and sometimes produced $30 to $50 a season.”
Other Calhoun slaves also were allowed to plant cotton in patches located near the quarters so they could cultivate them after their work was done. The reporter was surprised by the business savvy of the slaves, whom he described as “shrewd in getting the highest price for it [cotton] as white planters, and are as perfectly conversant with fluctuations in the cotton market in Liverpool and New York as a cotton broker.”
The Calhoun slaves also knew their own value as property or chattel, which often fluctuated with the value of cotton. As property, slaves could be assigned as collateral for mortgages and they could be sold. Family records indicate that the Calhouns did sell slaves, although rarely.
Slaves did have a family life at Fort Hill. While the New York reporter was visiting Fort Hill, he witnessed the marriage of a house servant to a female slave from a nearby plantation. He recorded that “the marriage ceremony was performed in the evening, and in the mansion of the proprietor of the plantation. The ceremony was performed by the oldest [elder] . . . who was a sort of authorized, or rather recognized, parson of the Methodist order.” After the ceremony, the newlyweds were allowed to have a reception with music, including songs accompanied by a fiddle. According to family letters, the Fort Hill slaves usually were given Sundays off to attend church services. Some might have attended services at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Pendleton where the Calhoun family worshipped. Their longest holiday occurred during the Christmas season when they were given additional provisions and a four-day holiday. Often the celebrations culminated with a gathering, which was held in the kitchen at Fort Hill Estate. Inventories of the Fort Hill slaves show that they ranged in age from infants to the elderly. Only a few are known by name, although all the slaves at Fort Hill were assigned the Calhoun last name. The oldest recorded slave was Mennemin Calhoun. Her age was reported to be 112 in 1849. Her husband, Polydore, also lived a long life, and they had numerous descendants. The oral tradition was that both Mennemin and Polydore were first-generation slaves from Africa.
Other slaves’ names are known primarily because of actions that displeased the Calhouns, which they wrote about in correspondence with family and neighbors. John C. Calhoun defended what he termed the “peculiar institution” of owning slaves in the antebellum South as “a positive good.” His paternalistic attitudes led him to believe ideas about race that supported his political ideas. However, the search for freedom led to documented accounts of Calhoun slaves who sought to free themselves from bondage. Three whose actions were recorded in Calhoun letters are Aleck, Sawney and Issey.
Aleck was often the only male house servant at Fort Hill. He “offended” Floride Calhoun and, fearing punishment, ran away. When he was captured, John C. Calhoun insisted that he be severely punished, and he was jailed for 10 days and given 30 lashes in order to “to prevent a repetition.”
Sawney was the son of Old Sawney, who had been a childhood companion of John C. Calhouns and was allowed privileged doctor’s care. On one trip to the doctor, Sawney set a fire to the white overseer’s tent, apparently attempting to kill him. He later was sent to the Calhouns’ son Andrew’s plantation Canebrake in Alabama.
Issey, another child of Old Sawney, was a strong-willed and defiant house servant who attempted to burn the house down by placing hot coals under the pillow in the room of the Calhoun’s son William. The smell of burning feathers floated throughout the house and the fire was extinguished. Although described as “dangerous,” Issey remained at Fort Hill until freed.
Other documents record the life of an African-American girl named Susan Clemson who took care of Thomas Clemson’s children at Fort Hill when he lived there for a short time in the 1840s. Susan often slept in a room adjacent to the Clemsons at Fort Hill. Susan Clemson later moved with the Clemsons to their home Canebrake in Edgefield County and eventually married Billy Richardson. Letters and other documents show that the Clemsons also took at least one slave with them to Belgium when Thomas Clemson was a diplomat from 1844-1851. It was recorded that the male slave Basel attracted much attention in that country because of his skin color. They also had a small number of slaves at their home in Maryland, including Andy Calhoun who was the son of Floride Calhoun’s cook Nelly beginning in 1848. Before moving from Maryland back to South Carolina in December 1864, Floride Clemson wrote in her diary that “Andy, who is of course free with all Md. Negroes” would not be going with them.After John C. Calhoun’s death in 1850, his wife sold the Fort Hill estate to their oldest son, Andrew, who operated the plantation from 1850 to 1865. The inventory of the Fort Hill estate in the 1854 sale included a list of the property with 50 slaves in family groups. The list began with the family of Sawney, age 59, and his wife Tilla, age 50, followed by Ned, 25, Nicholas, 18, Jonas, 16, Jim, 12, Matilda, 10, and Chapman, 8. Andrew Pickens Calhoun and his wife Margaret occupied Fort Hill during the Civil War. One account mentions a young slave boy Rasmus who hid with 8-year-old Patrick Calhoun as Union soldiers came to Fort Hill. After 1866, Floride Calhoun recovered Fort Hill through foreclosure and willed it to her daughter and remaining child, Anna Maria Calhoun Clemson, wife of Thomas Green Clemson. The Clemsons hired as wage hands many of the former Calhoun slaves who were freed during the Civil War.