"I have yet much to say about the Negroes": Catharine Flood McCall's Slave Enterprises in Early Republican Virginia

Garrett, Alexandra, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Taylor, Alan, Department of History, University of Virginia

Popular historians of slavery in early national Virginia depict a society composed of large plantations as places of work and residence over which wealthy men presided as planters, masters, and patriarchs. But in the first two decades of the nineteenth century in Virginia, an especially well-documented slave-based business departs from this normative historical image. As the richest woman and largest female slave-owner in Essex County between 1800 and 1820, the unmarried Catharine Flood McCall owned twenty-nine slaves. These slaves did not toil in any field; instead, they labored as blacksmiths in McCall’s nail-making factories located in the bustling cities of Richmond and Alexandria. McCall also profited from hiring out her blacksmiths to white men who rented rather than purchased forced labor.

While historians have studied manufacturing and slave renting in rapidly industrializing urban settings during these decades, few have examined women’s roles in these enterprises. As a master who was the ninth largest slave-owner in a county where over 92 percent of female taxpayers owned slaves in 1800, who owned two nail manufactories in two different cities, and who profited by renting her slaves’ skills to white men, McCall reveals the role of women as urban slave masters. Her extraordinary cache of legal documents demonstrates that female urban slaveholders did not always retreat behind the cover of male managers. They depended on middling men as managers, merchants, agents, and overseers, but they closely supervised those intermediaries. McCall made the key decisions that affected her human property.

My paper argues that the myth of the rural plantation owner, accompanied by a mistress who governed the interior spaces of the “big house,” does not fully reflect the different kinds of masteries that emerged in light of a growing market economy in urban centers like Richmond and Alexandria. I contend that women like McCall could serve as masters over their urban slaves, even when living far from the sites of slave labor. Her experiences offer a test case for analyzing female mastery during a period of expanding urban enterprise in early national Virginia.

MA (Master of Arts)
slavery, gender, urban American South, women, Virginia, history, Nineteenth Century, early American history, early American Republic
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