The majority of slaves at Stagville were American born. In fact many came from
Wilmington, North Carolina. Despite the fact most slaves at Stagville were not native
Africans, there is evidence of the preservation of African traditions at Stagville. One of
the African traditions that was prevalent at Stagville was the use of cowry (cowrie) shells.
Cowry shells are “polished, olive-sized shells” that slaves used as a form of jewelry (The
Artistry of African Currency). INSERT COWRY SHELL PICTURE HERE. Most of
cowry shells are “fished in the lagoons of the Indian Ocean” (Hogendorn & Johnson).
Cowry shells were found in Horton Grove, the slave quarters at Stagville Plantation. The
shells were originally used in Africa as a form of money and jewelry. The shells were
believed to “possess the power of fertility” (The Artistry of African Currency). Some
individuals believed the cowry shells “may have come from Africa,” but it is uncertain
exactly “what these objects meant to their owners” (Singleton).
A divining stick was also found inside the wall at Horton Grove. Divining sticks
are common in African religious practices and are “intended to call forth good spirits to
protect the inhabitants of the house” (Historic Stagville Foundation) INSERT IMAGE
OF DIVING STICK HERE. The divining stick appears to have had a religious meaning
to the slaves at Stagville. As with many other groups, religion is a large part of culture
and the diving stick could be important evidence that shows the slaves participated in
religious practices while at the plantation.
The cowry shell and the diving stick are evidence that African traditions were
practiced at Stagville and are very important to 19th century slave culture.
Slave cultural and arts in the 19th century was not the elaborate art work and quilt
making as one might think of when discussing art. While there were craftsman and
artisans in the slave community at Stagville, their work was devoted to things the slaves
needed, such as clothing and shelter. The slaves built their own quarters, Horton Grove as
well as the Great Barn and made much of their own clothing.
Slaves used material they had to make clothing for their families. Some slaves
made rugs and quilts which were considered to be a luxury item during this time. The
making of these items is a form of 19th century slave art because it required much time
and effort by individuals who made the quilts. INSERT PICTURE OF EXAMPLE OF
BLANKET HERE. In the book Stitched from the Soul, the author realizes the importance
of the “historical and cultural contexts of quilting in the enslaved community” (Gladys).
The slaves actually sheared the sheep and turned their wool into clothing for their
families. INSERT PICTURE OF TOOL TO SHEAR WOOL HERE. This was very
important to the slaves because it gave them a means to have the proper clothing they
needed for winter.
Clothing was not the only thing slaves made. Some slave families would make
dolls for their children to play with. One doll at Stagville Historic site was found in the
Bennehan house. INSERT PICTURE OF BENNEHAN HOUSE. It was thought that the
slave children might have played with the children of the Bennehan family and that is
why the doll was found in the house instead of in Horton-Grove. INSERT PICTURE OF
DOLL HERE. The dolls the slaves made were usually filled with corn husks made with
one type of fabric with one color of thread for the eyes and nose. The dolls slaves made
gives a unique look at the “historical and social reference points on lifestyles”
(Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum). The American Girl Series, a “children‟s
publisher and experiential retailer” is dedicated to “celebrating girls” and has attempted
to make young girls aware of slavery in the South. The doll Addy of the American Girl
Series has actually been traced back to Stagville Plantation. INSERT PICTURE OF
ADDY HERE. In the first book about Addy in the American Girl Collection, the story
tells of the nine-year old and her family‟s escape from the slave plantation. Below is an
excerpt from the book:
“Just when Addy thought she could not go another step, the sky began to lighten.
She could see Momma‟s face for the first time in hours. It was streaked with dirt.
She touched her own face and felt dried blood on her cheek from a cut below her
„We better stop soon, Momma,‟ Addy said softly. “It‟s getting light out and
somebody might see us.‟
“They went a little farther and found a small cave. They crawled inside and
“‟I want you to have this,‟ Momma said. „It‟s something me and your poppa been
saving for you. This cowrie shell belonged to Poppa‟s grandma. She was stole
from Africa when she was no bigger than you‟” (American Girl Series).
The dolls at Stagville were very simplistic in nature due to the fact slaves did not have
access to elaborate material to use to make dolls for their children. Despite their
simplicity, the fact they made and the slave children played with dolls gives a glimpse as
to slave crafts at Stagville.
The culture and crafts that slaves participated in gives a unique look into slave life on the
The Artistry of African Currency. National Museum of African Art. Retrieved on
October 17, 2007 from: http://www.nmafa.si.edu/exhibits/site/cowrie.htm.
American Girl. Meet Addy. Retrieved on October 20, 2007 from
Marcia Barrid Burns. Two New Exhibits Open at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community
Museum. Retried on October 17, 2007 from
Fry, Gladys-Marie. Stitched from the Soul. The University of North Carolina Press. 2002.
Historic Stagville Plantation. Retrieved on October 17, 2007 from
Teachers and students would both benefit from using the resources presented in this
paper about slave cultural and crafts. Teachers would be able to use the information to
present it to their classes when discussing slave life in the antebellum south. Teachers
could also direct their students to the external sources used in order for them to gain more
information about slave life in the 19th century. Students would be able to use this
information in order to write or design a project around slave culture. The information
presented would be able to lead them to a much broader range of works on slave life and
the students could take this information to complete a project or present the information
to their colleagues.