SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) — Robert, Nelly and Phillis are names etched into the history of Spartanburg County.
Details are sketchy about their lives. No stories were written about them. No landmarks are dedicated in their honor. They could be the missing keys to local family trees, but their memories are lost with time.
Robert, Nelly and Phillis were slaves owned by Charles Moore, who built Walnut Grove Plantation in 1765. He listed them and several other slaves in his will in 1798. Moore died in 1805.
During their lives, these slaves’ importance was limited to working in the fields and households. But their significance goes beyond labor: They are part of the earliest documentation of black people in the area.
“It’s important to know about these early people because you are looking at the development of the society and culture in Spartanburg,” said Daniel Littlefield, a University of South Carolina professor of history and director of the Institute for African American Research. “As far as European settlements are concerned, Africans were part of the first settlements in South Carolina.”
Research shows the first black people settled in South Carolina in the 1600s. They were slaves brought with white settlers.
When the first black people came to what would become Spartanburg, the county was still part of the old Ninety-Six District. Native Americans had been forced farther back to the mountains, and there were a few white settlements. The Moore family was among those pioneers arriving in the 1760s.
“The family slowly acquired slaves once they got here,” said Tom Moore Craig, a Moore descendant. “A misconception is people believe they brought the slaves with them. Charles and Mary came from Pennsylvania, where Quakers opposed slavery.”
Census information shows about 10 percent of Spartanburg’s population was made up of slaves in 1790. The census also lists 27 free people. Some historians think the free people were former slaves freed by their owners.
“J.B.O. Landrum writes in one of his books that Thomas Williamson had a plantation in the area of Morgan Square,” said Nannie Jefferies, administrator at the Regional History Museum. “Landrum said Williamson freed his slaves. His family went to Philadelphia and freed the slaves there. Once they were freed, they moved on because they would have become slaves again if they returned to South Carolina.”
The number of free people matches the number of slaves owned by a landowner on the 1790 census, but information shows Williamson was a slave owner several years later. In his will filed in 1813, he divided his slaves among family members.
Across the state in 1790, the census indicates almost half of the population was made up of slaves. Of the local families owning slaves, most had five to 12, while some had only one.
“Few people in Spartanburg owned slaves because the Lowcountry had the big plantations,” said Philip N. Racine, Wofford College professor emeritus of history. “This area had mostly small farms, but white people here still believed the way to climb up in society was to own slaves, so they would try to buy one slave.”
Racine said families with one slave usually bought a man to be used as an extra farmhand. He said some landowners eventually bought a woman slave, hoping the two would have children. It was a way to increase the number of slaves they owned without having to buy more.
“The farmers were building a fortune for their children and their children’s children,” he said. “They were trying to create a legacy, and they would have the labor of those people for their entire lives.”
Wills filed by prominent property owners showed they usually divided up their slaves among family members. Some also requested the slave families remain together.
William Turner requested that his slave women and their children remain together in a will filed in 1807. Samuel Morrow’s will, filed in 1796, mandated his slaves be sold together.
Other early prominent families owning slaves include Lipscomb, Foster, Jordeen and Golightley. The number of slaves these families owned are listed on census information and in wills on file in the Spartanburg County Headquarters Library.
Slave trading wasn’t a big business in the Upstate during the 1790s because the demand wasn’t high. Racine said there was some trafficking between the Upstate and Lowcountry, but it was difficult navigating the rivers to get here. He thinks many of the early families purchased slaves in other places, such as North Carolina and Virginia, because the Appalachian area was better developed.
Life for slaves in the backcountry involved working on rustic farms, hunting and raising crops to provide for their owner’s family. Corn was the biggest crop, and the larger farms sometimes sold some of their produce to neighbors.
“During the early days of South Carolina, people were trying to get the region settled,” Littlefield said. “Slaves were growing food, hunting and building houses for settlement. The first order of business when English settlers arrived was to support themselves by growing food. After that was established, they tried to develop something to export for money.”
No one knows what these slaves’ lives were like, but it is doubtful they would have seen any free black people. The only free black people recorded in Spartanburg at the time were soldiers fighting at the Battle of Cowpens in 1781.
“We know some officers brought their slaves with them to the battle, but there were some free black men fighting with the militia,” said Michael C. Scoggins, historian at the Culture & Heritage Museums of York County. “The free men left Cowpens and continued fighting in other battles.”
Robert, Nelly and Phillis could have known about the battle and wondered whether the independence they heard about would have any effect on their lives. They would have learned eventually that they weren’t included in the new Constitution granting people life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It would take another 65 years before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, freeing slaves in states including South Carolina.
It’s unknown what happened to them, but their graves are believed among those of slaves buried in front of the Moore Family Cemetery at Walnut Grove. They are in an area marked by field stones along with other early settlers.
Not far from Walnut Grove Plantation is a chimney from the last standing slave cabin. It was built years after Robert, Nelly, Phillis and their children lived there, but it could be evidence of later descendants whose children and grandchildren went on to help form today’s black community in Spartanburg.
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