* “We raise the wheat, they give us the corn” : a reflection on life in antebellum Virginia

Reynolds tobacco drying shed
Tobacco drying shed – reconstructed (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Not too long ago, before the snow fell and kept falling, I drove down to Critz, Virginia, the homeplace of Virginia tobacco baron, J. R. Reynolds. Reynolds’s parents, Hardin Reynolds and Nancy Jane Cox Reynolds, owned  several hundred slaves, who worked the 717-acre Rock Spring plantation. One of these slaves went by the name of “Kitty,” a cook so celebrated that her picture now hangs in the restored cookhouse. Nancy Jane – who could apparently write a fine hand – counted among her belongings a pewter tea service and used a dining room table at a time when many farmers in the area still lived in two-room cabins. Nancy’s family, the Coxes, came from England, while the Scots-Irish Reynolds family moved to Virginia from Pennsylvania. When she married in 1843, she might have had access to cookbooks like Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-wife. Or perhaps she found Lydia Maria Child’s The American Frugal Housewife (1830) of use. But, a little later on, someone might have shared Mrs. Mary L. Edgeworth’s The Southern Gardener and Recipe Book (1845). And of course there’s Sarah Rutledge’s The Carolina Housewife from 1847.

But if I had to bet my money, I might inch toward Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell’s A New System of Domestic Cookery… Many New Receipts from 1842.

Sweet potatoes cropped colorefex
Sweet Potatoes (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

One thing is for certain, though, and that is that the slaves and the Reynolds probably ate a lot of sweet potatoes, cooked in the embers of the hearth. Testimony from the Virginia Slave Narratives attests to that.

The cookhouse, as was so often the case in those days, stood a good deal away from the main house, keeping down the risk of fire damage to the main dwelling, as well as reducing the heat during hot summers. And to keep the slaves out of the main house as much as possible. Visitors couldn’t enter the kitchen on the day I visited, but the brick floor and large hearth filled with “spiders” or three-legged cast-iron pots and a long-handled skillet testify to the type of cooking done there.

Cookhouse Reynolds homestead
Cookhouse (foreground) flanked by herb garden and icehouse (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Perhaps nothing illustrates more poignantly the differences between the lives (and deaths) of these slaves and those of their white owners than the graveyards on the place. Both visible from the big house, the sixty-one slave graves stand in stark contrast to the graves of the white Reynolds family.

Better educated and more accomplished than her illiterate husband Hardin, Nancy Jane bore sixteen children, of which eight survived to adulthood.

Reynolds homeplace 2
Reynolds homeplace (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Although a few graves sported headstones in the slave cemetery, most do not.

Slave graveyard Reynolds homeplace edited
Five graves have headstones in the slave cemetery (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Small brass circles mark the slave graves, each numbered.

Grave 13 at Reynolds homestead
Grave markers, slave cemetery (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

The slave graveyard sits on a gently sloping knoll and if I didn’t notice the few gravestones in place, I would have walked right by.

Reynolds homestead slave graveyard
Slave cemetery (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

In contrast, stately headstones fill up the Reynolds family cemetery. Every time Nancy Jane Cox Reynolds looked out the window of that large red-brick house, she could see the graves of her children.

Graveyard Reynolds homestead
Reynolds family cemetery (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)


**The title of this post comes from a slave song titled “Old Lem,” associated with the Underground Railroad.

© 2013 C. Bertelsen