Understanding how people came together under bondage to create communities on plantations is a challenging task. Knowing where enslaved people came from before being forcefully removed from their homelands and established in plantation quarters is a key component to thinking about the experiences and customs people brought with them as they forged new communities. The addition of Texas ports to SlaveVoyages can offer insights into community building on Texas plantations.
Many people brought to Texas by traffickers in the nineteenth century were smuggled through Cuba directly from Africa. For example, historians Sean Kelley and Henry Lovejoy estimate there were hundreds of Yoruba-speaking people living on plantations along the lower Brazos River in the 1830s (Kelley & Lovejoy 2016). Having survived the trauma of capture in West Africa, followed by the horrors of the Middle Passage, and then likely multiple sales and further violence in the Americas, what sorts of survival tactics and social approaches did these individuals bring with them to their new communities? How would they have interacted with enslaved people from other regions of Africa, the Caribbean, or across the United States?
In addition to Africans, thousands more people were brought by their enslavers from the eastern U.S. as settlers to Mexican Tejas in the 1820s and early 1830s, the Republic of Texas between 1836 and 1845, and then later into the U.S. State of Texas up until emancipation in 1865. With the new information available on SlaveVoyages, we know that people were moved individually or in groups coastwise via New Orleans, from already established communities in places like Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, and Arkansas. How did these people’s previous experiences shape the way they navigated plantation life in Texas?
For historical archaeologists, turning to the material culture remains left behind in slave quarters can offer a window into understanding the origins of people thrust together to form new communities on plantations in Texas. Material objects and the behaviors they reflect can provide clues to cultural identity and heritage traditions.
For example, Levi Jordan Plantation, one of the most heavily researched plantations in Texas, was brought to the attention of historical archaeologists for the important contributions made by Dr. Kenneth Brown. In addition, the local participants' program at the site led by Dr. Carol McDavid continues to serve as one of the earliest and important examples of community-based archaeology. Their projects, conducted in the 1990s and early 2000s through the University of Houston, brought together scholars, students, descendants, and community members in studying the remains of buildings located near the main house. These buildings were identified as slave quarters and, based on the excavated remains, Brown drew interpretations about cultural behaviors and beliefs traced to Africa. One particular cabin, II-B-1, identified by Brown as the “Curer’s Cabin,” contained several archaeological deposits interpreted as ritual in nature (Brown 2001 and 2013).
One such archaeological deposit was interpreted by Brown as a “conjurer’s kit” associated with the remains of a curing ritual in the southeast corner of the cabin. The second has been interpreted as a Yoruba amula deposit, found near the entryway to the cabin, and containing small pieces of metal, ocean shells, glass, and bone fragments, all covered with overturned iron kettles. Brown interpreted the curer’s kit and amula deposit, along with other deposits containing ritual items, to have formed a Bakongo cosmogram. Ritual items contained in the deposits include partially articulated chicken skeletons, coins wrapped in cloth, metal buttons, mirror fragments, pieces of chalk, and other objects that together suggest a ritually significant space in this cabin.
Based on their knowledge of the people living in the quarters at Jordan Plantation during this time, Brown posits that a woman named Mahala Grice Taylor may have been the curer inhabiting the cabin (2013). Only three people from this plantation are identified in historical records as having been born in Africa, and Mahala Grice Taylor is one of them. Could she have been an African-born curer living in the quarters community at Jordan Plantation? What would it have been like for a person of African origins to play an important role within her community in Texas?
The story of Mahala Grice Taylor poses a compelling picture of social roles at Jordan Plantation, contributing to how we understand the composition of enslaved communities in Brazoria County. However, more recently, research conducted by Coastal Environments, Inc. on behalf of the Texas Historical Commission has offered a reinterpretation of Brown’s work (Ryan et al 2002). This new research puts into question the identification of slave quarters at the site and challenges notions of culturally specific African behaviors reported in Brown’s interpretations.
Ryan and colleagues conducted an extensive comparison of the dimensions and configurations of the structures at Jordan Plantation to other antebellum plantation buildings across the South, and argue that they resemble barns or plantation storage structures rather than slave quarters. Furthermore, the artifacts found in these spaces reflect farm tasks such as storing farm equipment and tanning hides. These archaeologists suggest that dense deposits of domestic cultural materials found by Brown may have been secondary deposits dumped in these spaces as trash or for storage after the abandonment of parts of the plantation.
The question of what life was like in the quarters and the nature of community-building at Jordan Plantation awaits future study. Additionally, an archaeological research design is in the works at the Texas Historical Commission. Whether people came with Jordan from Arkansas and Louisiana, or were purchased in Texas from places further away in the U.S., Caribbean, or Africa, are all questions open for interpretation.
Returning to Mahala Grice Taylor, the documentary record provides us additional details about her life. As free people, Mahala Grice and George Taylor were issued a marriage license in 1867 (Brazoria County Marriage Records # 0482/01/293). Census records from 1870 record Mahala as having one child right before her marriage to George and two more within the following three years. This leads to new questions: Who was George Taylor? What were his possible roles in Brazoria County? How might this family and the relationships it forged have impacted social networks and community-building following emancipation in Texas? And how might those have built upon already established communities on plantations?
The addition of Texas to SlaveVoyages provides a new tool through which we can attempt to answer these questions. It also provides new information about individuals and the communities they forged. There are no records of a Mahala Grice being forcibly moved to Texas during the years in question, which would be expected if she were smuggled to Texas illegally from Africa. However, there are 256 entries for males with the name of George disembarking in Texas. One of these men, with a similar birth year to George Taylor, arrived in Brazoria on the schooner Nelson in 1832. This is before Levi Jordan arrived in 1848, but George could have lived on other plantations. When he arrived in Texas, Jordan brought with him between nine and twelve enslaved people, but by emancipation, 144 people were enslaved on Jordan Plantation. Clearly, he acquired more captives after arriving in Texas. Could one of these have been George Taylor? Could he be one of the men named George in the SlaveVoyages database?
As historians and archaeologists use the wealth of information available on this new component of SlaveVoyages, more information about the origins of George Taylor and the community at Jordan Plantation could be uncovered. Together with new archaeological research at the site, a better understanding of the enslaved community will surely come.
According to census data, we know that more than 5,000 enslaved people lived in Brazoria county during the 1860s. How many of them may have been smuggled from West Africa, bringing with them traditional languages, customs, and knowledge? How were they incorporated into plantation communities and later Freedmen’s Towns in Texas? Alternatively, how many people came from Virginia, the Carolinas, or neighboring Louisiana? How did norms established in previous plantation communities influence community-building in Texas? With data from SlaveVoyages, archaeologists and historians may be able to answer some of these questions and learn more about the origins of the enslaved people and how their lived experiences helped build new communities on Texas plantations.
Molly Morgan is a Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and an Affiliated Faculty with the Center for African and African American Studies at Rice University.
Shannon Smith is Site Manager at Levi Jordan Plantation, Sabine Pass Battleground, and Varner-Hogg Plantation State Historic Sites, Texas Historical Commission.
Photo courtesy from the Texas Historical Commission.
The post “Origins and Community Building” first appeared in Echoes: The SlaveVoyages Blog. It is part of a series of posts exploring the history and legacies of the slave trade to Texas.
Brown, Kenneth L. (2001). Interwoven Traditions: The Conjurer’s Cabin and African American Cemetery at the Jordan Plantation and Frogmore Plantations. In Places of Cultural Memory: African Reflections on the American Landscape, Conference Proceedings, Atlanta.
Brown, Kenneth L. (2013). Report on archaeological excavations and artifact analysis at the Levi Jordan Plantation. Report prepared for the Texas Historical Commission.
Kelley, Sean M. and Henry B. Lovejoy. (2016). The Origins of the African-Born Population of Antebellum Texas: A Research Note. Southwestern Historical Quarterly 120(2): 216-232.
Ryan, Joanne et al. (2022). “Archaeological Investigation at the Levi Jordan Plantation (41B0165) State Historic Sites, Brazoria County, Texas. Texas Antiquities Permit No. 8282. Final Report. Houston: Coastal Environments, Inc.