By 1850, about one in five Tennesseans was held against their will, forced to live as a slave.
For many years, history books didn’t talk much about these enslaved people. Books didn’t say much about what their lives were like, how they lived, how they worked and how they were sometimes forced to leave their families.
A few years ago, John Baker of Robertson County began researching his family. In doing so, he did a lot to change how much people know about slavery.
It all started when Baker was a seventh grader. While flipping through his social studies book, he was drawn to a photograph from 1891. The photograph showed four older people in front of the Wessyngton Mansion in Robertson County.
A few months later, Baker’s grandmother told him that he was related to all four of the people in the photo. “That’s my grandmother and grandfather,” she told him, pointing to the seated couple (which meant that they were his great-great grandparents!).
This revelation inspired the teenage Baker to interview older family members and family friends. One of them was Mattie Terry, an elderly lady who lived down the street. Like Baker, Mattie Terry had family connections to the Wessyngton Plantation.
Terry told Baker stories that her great grandmother Sarah (who had been a slave at Wessyngton) had told her years before. These included stories about what the slaves did, how hard they worked and even about how they got in trouble for praying.
“Grandma Sarah told us that prayer meetings had to be held in secret on the plantation,” she said. “Slaves put overturned kettles and pots at their doors to muffle the sound of praying and singing.”
The more Baker learned, the more he wanted to know. His interest was fueled by the fact that the Wessyngton mansion was still standing. In fact, the house and much of the ground around it was still owned by the descendants of its original owners.
Baker learned that Wessyngton wasn’t just any plantation. Consisting of three parts and more than 13,000 acres, it was the largest tobacco plantation in American on the eve of the Civil War. At that time, the owner of Wessyngton, whose named was George A. Washington, had 274 slaves.
Baker took a tour of the Wessygnton Plantation and its grounds, which included former slave cabins and a slave cemetery with unmarked graves. He read every book he could find about Robertson County history and about slavery. He started visiting the Tennessee State Library and Archives to study its immense collection of Wessyngton Plantation papers.
You see, in the 1960s, the Washington family donated to the library all of the historic records connected to the history of the house and family. Consisting of 11,200 items, the papers included letters, photographs, newspaper articles, journals, diaries, bills of sale, doctor’s bills and more.
Baker has since spent much of his life researching his family, Wessyngton, the history of Robertson County and slavery. In 2009 Simon & Schuster published his book, The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation: Stories of my Family’s Journey to Freedom. This book received national publicity and resulted in news coverage, documentaries and even an exhibit at the Tennessee State Museum.
This is certainly of interest to the people who happen to be related to folks who lived at Wessyngton (and there are tens of thousands of them). But Baker’s research has also revealed a lot about what slavery was like at Wessyngton:
* When plantation founder Joseph Washington migrated west from Virginia in 1796, he had two slaves. He added to that number over the years through purchase, inheritance and by birth over the years. One of his first slave purchases was in 1802, when he acquired two girls named Sarah and Jenny.
The bill of sale for the two girls is still in existence and is part of the Tennessee State Library and Archives collection!
* Slaves at Wessyngton worked in the house and the grounds. They did most of the construction on the main Wessyngton mansion, including making the bricks from clay. They took care of farm animals. They smoked hams and distilled whiskey (both of which the plantation became famous for.) But mostly, they did the planting, caring and harvesting of tobacco.
* Male slaves outnumbered female slaves at Wessyngton. Because of this, many of the slaves at Wessyngton had wives that lived in other places and who they probably visited on weekends and holidays. By law, children born from such unions became the property of the mother’s owner.
* One of the crueler aspects of slavery is how slaves were forced to live with the possibility that other members of their family might be sold and forced to move away from them at any time. Baker only found two instances when slaves were sold away from Wessyngton–once in 1805 and once in 1855.
* Baker documented 88 instances over the years of what he describes as slave “rebellion” — including quarrelling, theft, disturbances, refusal to work and runaways. In fact, the book lists 11 times between 1838 and 1860 when slaves tried to escape. Not one of these slaves made it to free territory. Every single one was captured, returned to Wessyngton and punished.
* In Middle Tennessee, there were instances where slave owners granted freedom to some of their slaves. However, “there is no record that the Washingtons ever granted any slave their freedom,” the book says. For slaves at Wessyngton, emancipation came during the Civil War. At that time many of the former slaves left the area. But according to Baker’s research, nearly a hundred of the former slaves remained in Robertson County to work as sharecroppers.
In the process of his research, Baker learned the names, birth dates and death dates of 445 people who were enslaved at Wessynton. About 200 of them are buried there–the vast majority of them without marked graves.
With the help of ground-penetrating rada, the remains of more than 200 people in the ground at the Wessyngton cemetery were verified. And in October 2015, a new monument with the names of all the people who were enslaved there, who are known to be buried there and who are assumed to be buried there was unveiled.
It is a remarkable tribute to 40 years of work by John Baker–work that began when he saw a photograph in a social studies textbook.
To learn more about John Baker, his years of research and his book, and to read his blog, click here.
Also, be aware that the Wessyngton mansion and surrounding grounds are private property. You can read Baker’s book, and we hope that he inspires you to research your own family. However, you can’t go visit Wessyngton like you can other historic mansion such as Belle Meade, Oaklands and The Hermitage.