Over the course of the past few semesters, I have had students work in the Auburn University archives. As they did this, they discovered various items that may be of interest to my readers. One such item comes from the John Horry Dent collection. Dent was a wealthy plantation owner in Barbour County, AL, owing up to five plantations at one point. During his lifetime, he kept meticulous journals detailing all of the happenings on his plantations. In the 1841 journal, Dent writes a letter to a young overseer describing the duties that he wants the overseer to perform. A transcript of the letter is below. Where I could not determine the word, I write [illegible]. If you would like to see what Auburn University has in its collection, please go to their website.
To [illegible] Brown,
As by your acknowledgement to me you have selected the occupation of an overseer as your future choice for a livelihood until circumstances may cause a change in your business. I shall take this method of giving you some admonitory hints, which my experience
just and as your employer, justifies in my so doing. And I trust the advice I give you may be correct and prudent, altho by yourself, may be considered, binding rigid and unnecessarily rigid. But believe me, in the end, if you are governed by [illegible]; discipline, and requisite rigour, and at the same time my example to you corresponding with such instructions, adds discipline, as I set forth, you must will receive much knowledge. Your course and duty, is plain and unchangeable before you. My advice on the first place shall be explicite [sic] and plain, so there can be no misunderstanding. Regularity and punctuality to be first and most important styles, be candid and have the instructions of your employer enforced from [illegible], and as nearly as compatible with his views, and orders, as possible. Never be idle in the field before you labourors, for by so doing, the example you set them, causes an indolent habit among them, and they soon believe, that you are yourself careless and negligent to the business of your employer, consequently they feel themselves, at liberty to be indolent. If you give and order, see that it is promptly, and properly obeyed, not left to their judgement, whether your order has been been half executed or done to suit his their convenience. Also in giveing [sic] and order, let it be well understood, by the one or they, who have to execute it. So if it be improperly done, they can have no reasonable excuse, to deter you from causing such punishment as the case may require or deserve. Be careful to review yourself any work or order executed before you say any thing to those engaged in executing it. By such a course, you will always feel assurance in yourself and avoid the disagreeable feelings must prevail between yourself and employer, when he has detected you in error. I do [illegible], or negligence for one of the above faults must exist, where any occur [illegible] of the kind takes place. The same persevere since and attention is requisite with you in all work done on the plantation.
Next deserving your special care and attention to your mules and the job. Method is indispensable in the performance of this particular duty, as by negligence you not only break down and kill up stock, but it is encouraging boastful habits & cruelty in your Lot Boys, and unknown amity to animals whose values and services to a plantation cannot be too highly appreciated. Every ear of corn fed away should be given under your own eyes. Divide allowance every mule or horse with so man ears and so many bundles of fodder, by so doing you can form a correct idea, what it requires to keep your animals in good order, for over feeding is not only distasteful, but by gorging animals, you destroy the appetite, and poor animals is the consequence, when you have a plenty, & the most wasteful way of destroying provisions. Regular salting must be attended to every Sunday, and your troughs cleansed. Twice a week if the weather is favourable [sic] before day of a measuring your live hands as well as the Lot Boys should scrape up the manure and collect it on a pile, which will be of vast importance for two reasons, the first the value of the manure, the second, a clean lot keeps your mules clean of scratches, and other diseases produced by filth and negligence. Also make each plough hand, attend regularly to the mule he ploughs. Never let them change a mule with each other, unless it be done for some necessary reason given by yourself, for if they are allowed to plough and work each others mules, abuse and negligence will be the result, and it will be difficult to ascertain correctly from who the animal is ilreated [sic]. Each ploughing & attending to his own constantly, can be made responsible for the condition of his animal, the same exacting and system must be adpted with the gear; and ploughs. Next your crib lots and cribs. Your lot be kept clean all shucks places in flattened pens, and cobs thrown in the horse lot for manure. The keys of your cribs to be kept constantly by you, and the door never to be locked or unlocked except by yourself or employer. What corn is taken out should be used only by your own knowledge. By trusting Negores with the keys to give out or take [illegible] corn is only leading them into temptation, and by so doing, they will soon pilfer, waste and make use of corn, in a way [they] wish/
Next to be attended to, is lots made for different stock & kinds, hog lots, cows & pigs & pigs. Each should have separate lots, suitable to theur respective size & ages, for if they be fed in one lot, the larger hogs would consume all from the smaller sizes. Range hogs should be never enticed more that twice a week to the pew, if possible, for if they are accustomed and to be fed regularly, they would soon be made lazy, and dependent on what you would give them, an never
search go in quest of food in their usual range.
Lots must also be appropriated for sheep, and so constructed, as a division can be easily made, when the ewes, are about haveing [sic] their lamb, for it is necessary, the ewes & lambs should be separated from the wethers[sic] & rams, at that period. As in fondness, for the young lamb by the wether[sic], they are apt to paw them in token of affection, which the delicate habits of the young, cannot stand. Also have shelters & troughs in each lot for feeding and salting, the last should be done regularly once a week. Some pains should be taken; so save the manure from a sheep lot, which is among the richest of manures for gardens.
Next are the cow pens, which must be attended to from the plans of your employer. As circumstances occur, relative, manuring fields or lots transpires. Gouse [?] quently I will not note down this department,
which is with the others, that must be constant and regularly attended to.
Such as the regular system, and mode of working, in preparing lands for crops designed, or working the crop, harvesting, and housing it, I cannot in this place, give you my ideas or views in part or full, as it must be taught you practically, and in the field. But if you pay attention to orders and have them promptly and punctually fulfilled, as recommended to you, in the field part of this letter, you will soon become, expert and fully acquainted with the duties requisite to one, in the occupation of an overseer.
In conclusion let me give you some advice, relative a young man, pursuing steadily and soberly to our business, and do not pretend annually to change your occupation, believing or risking that another kind of business is preferable or money can be more easily obtained, than the one you have now selected, and engaged in, for by so doing, if you cannot be well assured of the success, to attend your new occupation, you may be again displeased, and desire another change, so many successive changes is apt to result, in loss of time and money-and the most to be feared, is producing a vassalating [sic] mind, a restless disposition, and finally, suit you for no occupation or business-as some will loose confidence in your stability, believing you to be a “jack of all trades and master of none.” Therefore pursue steadily, the business,you are now engaged in, with pride, energy, perseverance, and determination to obey the orders or your employer, and have your orders to the Negroes properly and punctually obeyed and executed, making them fear you and respect you, and depend upon it, your future success, is in your own hands–and with ease to yourself–for so soon as you have enforced among your Negroes, discipline, and system, all business will be conducted with ease & pleasure. Without discipline and system, every thing will be attended with uncertainty, trouble and great confusion, illsuccess and ruin the result. John H Dent
Good Hope, March 15th 1841
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