Although slavery was an important part of antebellum North Carolina life, it was not as prominent here as in other Southern states. According to the 1860 census, there were 661,563 whites and 331,059 enslaved persons in North Carolina. Only a quarter of the white population owned slaves, and only a small portion of those slave owners had the distinction of “planter” for owning 20 or more people.
Most of the large plantations were in the eastern part of the state, where the land is more fertile, but the Triangle had its share of prominent families that owned slaves.
By far the most prominent slave-owning family in the Triangle were the Camerons. Paul Cameron owned a number of plantations across the state, including Stagville and Fairntosh, which are northeast of Durham, as well as plantations in Mississippi and Alabama. The Camerons owned more than 900 humans, about 200 of whom worked at Stagville and Fairntosh.
Another powerful landowner was Josiah Ogden Watson. He owned Sharon plantation in Wake County as well as Pineville plantation in Clayton and The Islands in Smithfield. All told, he owned about 350 people. Watson died in 1852, and his nephew J. W. B. Watson inherited most of his property.
Also in Wake County was the Dunn family, owners of the Purefoy-Dunn plantation and Midway plantation in Wake Forest, and about 150 enslaved people. The Hinton family owned Midway plantation in Knightdale and about 125 slaves (the legacy of this plantation was the subject of Moving Midway, a documentary by former Indy film reviewer Godfrey Cheshire; read our feature story and our review of the film).
In Chatham County, the Alstons were the largest slave owners. Among them, they owned about 350 people (the legacy of this plantation, and its black and white descendants, was the subject of another excellent documentary, Macky Alston’s Family Name). Other major slave-owning families in Chatham County were the Harrises, the Haughtons and the Headens, who owned about 125 humans each.
Near Raleigh there was a concentration of prominent families that didn’t own large plantations but rather owned people more as a symbol of their wealth and status. Such families that owned from 50 to 100 slaves were the Haywoods, the Joneses, the Perrys, the Mordecais, the Rogerses, the Smiths and the Manlys, which included Gov. Charles Manly, who owned Ingleside plantation east of Raleigh. This last plantation was heavily plundered by Gen. Sherman’s men during the weeks of Raleigh’s occupation.
- The Historic Stagville Foundation, www.stagville.org
- 1860 Census and Slave Schedules for Chatham, Orange and Wake Counties
- Alston Family Papers and Dunn Family Papers at Wilson Library at UNC
- Dictionary of North Carolina Biography by William S. Powell
- “Slavery and the African American Experience,” North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources