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African American Labor in the 18th Century - Woven With Words


Mary Domsciz


According to African American historian Richard G. Johnson, evidence and reason suggest that the Dutch, who brought the first cargo of enslaved Africans to the colonies at Jamestown in 1619, probably brought slaves to Berks County in the early years of settlement (1972, I: 16-17).  Until the closing years of the eighteenth century, the majority of African Americans in Pennsylvania were either slaves or indentured servants.


As slaves were only affordable and useful to those in Pennsylvania with money, “most of the names listed in the Berks County Record of Slaves for 1780 and the Census of 1790 are familiar and celebrated names in the annals of Reading and Berks County” (Johnson 1971-72, 8).  By taking advantage of slave labor and indentured servitude, these well-to-do men became key players in the Pennsylvania plantation iron industry, for slavery was primarily a function of the furnaces and forges.  While slavery was never practiced in the area on a large scale, without the iron industry in Berks County, African American servitude would have been limited to relatively few farm laborers and house servants.  Whether as slaves, indentured servants, or free laborers, one thing is clear: African Americans in Berks County played a key role in developing and sustaining one of Pennsylvania's most essential industries of the 1700s—iron.


Many of the most prominent citizens of Berks at the time were well-known slave owners, including Heister, Mifflin, Potts, Bird, Nagel, Reiff, Lesher, Rutter, Ege, Morgan, Biddle, Udree, Spyker, Douglas, and Penn (Johnson 1971-72, 8).  Many of these names hark back to the dominant ironworks found in Berks at the time. Biddle was the owner of Biddle Furnace and Iron Works, Bird was the owner of Hopewell Furnace, and Potts was the owner of Warwick Furnace.  Penn was an even more prominent figure, a founder of the city of Reading.


The labor demand in these sites was met through slavery and an indentured workforce (Bining 1973, 93).  All of the supplies and fuel necessary to run a furnace or forge could be found on the same property; these nearly self-contained systems were a great distance from the cities, and urban areas appear to have been the more preferable place for white laborers to live and work (Walker 1969, 467).  In 1727, the search for workers was so desperate that Pennsylvania asked the Assembly to approve Negro shipments free from duty.  Their argument was that finding laborers and paying their extreme wage rates was halting the growth of the iron business.  Although the proposed bill did not pass, within two years time the import tax went down from £5 to £ 2 to pacify the ironmasters (Bining 1973, 100-101).


The labor force within the iron industry was diverse.  In addition to African Americans (both enslaved and free) there were paid workers, indentured servants, and skilled travelers and apprentices (Bining 1973, 96). Most of the African Americans who worked in the iron industry around that time were slaves (Walker 1969, 467).


According to iron industry historian Joseph Walker, the belief that runaway slaves from the South found work in the furnaces and forges “is perhaps based more upon a feeling one gets from what the records say, and do not say, than documentable historical facts” (1969, 483-84).  Records cannot prove this point, for records are non-existent; it was too risky to document fugitives. T he furnace day books suggest, however, that this hypothesis is not just possible, but probable.  African American laborers would begin work, continue for days or weeks, and then disappear from the record—presumably because they had moved on.  There are no records regarding where these individuals came from or where they were headed (Lewis 1979, 136-37).  Some ironmasters were also participants in the Underground Railroad, which suggests that they may have temporarily employed these runaways as a means of protecting them.  Thomas Rutter's manor house, for example, was referred to as Pine Forge station.  Underneath the home were tunnels to house the runaways, originally built “for use during Indian attacks” (Blockson 1981, 85).


The slaves were often given the basic and unskilled jobs.  According to Harker A. Long, a past Hopewell Furnace manager, “the truth is that the most of all this pick and shovel labor was done by slaves” (Walker 1969, 469).  In 1780, the 24 slaves at Cornwall's Furnace mostly cut the wood, gathered and relocated the coal, and worked as furnace men (Walker 1967, 305).


Some African Americans, especially after 1780, were part of the indentured service system.  Most of these men performed the same physically demanding work as slaves did, which was dull and required little skill: gathering and transporting the ore, repairing damaged property, and working in or around the plantation itself (Bining 1973, 100).  Although these men were not actually slaves, they still owed their required service for a specified amount of time.  The length of service varied according to the initial agreement.  Many owners educated their indentured servants in language skills and through various apprenticeships.  Skilled workers were more profitable, and they often appeared for sale in the papers (Johnson 1971-72, 10).  Despite the act of educating their servants, the owners continued to treat these workers as property, training them to work proficiently.  Just like any property, the servants were often borrowed and sold between different owners.

African Americans who became skilled laborers gained knowledge and practice in the detailed phases of the iron industry (Bining 1973, 99).  The skilled African American workers were usually found around the forges, where the metal is heated and hammered into its intended shape, rather than the blast furnaces, where the iron ore is separated from the impurities through the use of excessive heat.  Cuff Dix, whose name appeared numerous times as a runaway in the Pennsylvania Gazette, was sought after by his owner, Mark Bird of Birdsborough Forge: “He is an active well made fellow, and a most excellent hammerman” (17 July 1776). These skilled workers were cost-effective; they weren't paid wages, only given food and clothes.  They were often respected and well-treated; records show that they were sometimes given gifts and small amounts of money (Bining 1973, 102).


After Pennsylvania's “Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” of 1780 was passed, the population of slaves decreased at a faster rate than was expected.  In 1780, records in Berks County show 119 slaves (the act also declared that all slaves had to be listed in official documentation); the 1790 U.S. Census included only 65. Many African Americans started working for wages and were often involved in apprenticeship agreements with the manager.  As a result of the 1780 Act, slaves under the age of twenty-eight automatically became indentured servants.  Children who had to serve until they reached this age were often taken away from their mothers at a young age and, as seen in a variety of documentation, were often indentured to numerous owners throughout their time of service (Walker, 1969, 474-5).  From 1780 to 1825, the Record of Slaves in Berks County lists 138 slaves, owned by 46 slaveholders.  Nineteen of these slaves were documented as being born after the 1780 Act (Schaffer 1941, 112).


Slave ownership was not just restricted to the iron industry.  A variety of people owned slaves; Successful farmers and prosperous home owners also utilized their labor, and “all nationalities then present were represented, and all religious groups” (Schaeffer 1941, 114), including Daniel Boone and Christopher Stumpf (Stumpf 1997).  In November 1786, an ad was put in the Pennsylvania Gazette by a Bern township resident selling “a healthy Negro wench… was brought up in a town, has lived for seven years past in the country, and understands both town and country work” ( 22 Nov. 1786 ).  To understand “both town and country work” could have been a profitable feature; the servant could have worked around the house and/or in the fields depending upon what was deemed most necessary.


Household records and newspaper accounts written in the 1700s suggest that servants were greatly valued for their farming abilities.  One indenture of an African American boy declared that he was “to be taught the art and mastery of a Farmer” (Johnson 1971-72, 10).  A man in Carnarvon Township advertised for sale, in May 1774, “two strong healthy Negroe men, being used to farming Business” ( Pennsylvania Gazette 25 May 1774 ).


The forges and furnaces were surrounded by a large property, and quite often the home of the ironmaster was situated nearby.  This little plantation system called for a variety of demands and assigned duties.  In addition to the iron labor, it can be assumed that slaves farmed the fields for the plantation's food or served the ironmaster and his family in their home.  An African American man who had run away from Pine Forge, was described as “a Negroe man, called Wetheridge, but generally calls himself Jack… has been brought up to cooking and waiting in a gentleman family, which business he understands very well, as a gentleman in Philadelphia…brought him up to that business only” ( Pennsylvania Gazette 11 Oct. 1770).  The Pennsylvania Gazette also advertised a “Negroe Wench” who could “do all manner of Housework” ( 25 May 1774 ).


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