John N. Benners’ Journal: A Saltwater Farmer & His Slaves

A memory. I am at the State Archives in Raleigh, N.C., and the legendary archivist George Stevenson hands me an antebellum diary from the North Carolina coast. He had just acquired the diary for the archive’s collections.

The diarist is John N. Benners. The location is Rosedale, a poor and lamentable Neuse River plantation where Benners and a handful of enslaved men and women scratch out a living as best they can.

Rosedale was located at Wilkinson Point in what’s now Pamlico County, N.C. At that time, that area was still part of Craven County. A YMCA summer camp—Camp Seagull—occupies the site now.

The diary is an almost daily account of the years 1857 to 1860. I open the old volume to the first page and I am immediately swept up: Jan. 24. 1857. The river still frozen, navigation entirely impeded. A large sea vessel frozen up at Wilkinson’s Point. The weather was so very cold this week no work could be done outdoors.

It is a place I have known all my life, but I have never seen the river like Benners is describing it.

The “large sea vessel” was the schooner Isaac W. Hughes. Benners was witnessing the great freeze of ’57, of which there are many accounts, though few so poignantly rendered.

At Wilkinson Point , the Neuse is opening into the Pamlico Sound and is miles wide. Benner had never seen the river freeze from shore to shore before, and I have not heard of it doing so since.

19th century woodcut showing 1833 Leonid meteor shower.

Woodcut of the 1833 Leonid meteor shower, courtesy, Seventh Day Adventist Church. For decades, eyewitnesses used the meteor shower as a benchmark in time,  recalling a baby’s birth or an especially good or bad crop harvest by its proximity– in months, years or even decades– to the  “year the stars fell.” In eastern N.C., people recalled the great freeze of 1857 in much the same way. For more on the Leonids throughout history, see NASA’s website.

The freeze of 1857 became an enduring benchmark in the passage of time on the North Carolina coast, like the great meteor shower of 1833 or hurricane Hazel in 1954.

The cold spell stirred Benners to do something he had probably wanted to do for a long time. His wife had died three years earlier, and his young children, James and Elissa, were away at boarding school. (His father-in-law paid their tuition, as he certainly didn’t have that kind of money).

He and his slaves—really his children’s slaves, as he had none of his own—had little to do in that kind of cold. It’s hard not to think that the freeze may have given him the time and melancholy to begin his diary.

He seems at sea. A former schoolteacher, he had either little talent or little inclination for running a plantation, or both. He was also ill a good bit. He often could not work outside because of sickness. That was especially true in the winters of 1857 and ’59.

Perhaps he was still overwhelmed by grief at the loss of his wife. Maybe loneliness weighed on him. Maybe he felt oppressed by his dim prospects at Rosedale, which, like the slaves, didn’t belong to him, but to his father-in-law. I can’t tell from his diary.

His diary is nonetheless a rare and extraordinary journal of daily life on a coastal plantation before the Civil War.

When he takes up his diary, he records the smallest details of the work: planting seed, spreading manure, hauling fish nets, harvesting turpentine, building a slave cabin, floating lumber to New Bern.

The entries are brief. Oct. 12, 1857. Eliza cutting bushes around the fence. Dec. 9, 1857. Killed a hog. Dec. 11, 1857. Eliza grubbing [potatoes] Will cutting wood, Willis scraping turpent[ine].

He goes on: March 1, 1858. Will grinding at hand mill, Sarah & Charity shelling corn. March 2, 1858. Michael, Charity & Sarah working on my main road. August 9, 1858. I, Will, Eliza & Charity logging up the landing.

Jan. 3, 1859. Charity helping Willis scraping Turpentine. March 17, 1859. I and Michael sick—Elvira grubbing. March 30, 1859. I and Elvira finished carting out manure.

As is obvious even in that short list of Benners’ diary entries, the enslaved women did not just do the cooking and cleaning at Rosedale. They also worked in the fields, the woods and on the shore.

Not infrequently, Benners worked alongside them and the enslaved men. This was not Tara. While Benners often stayed home due to illness, the enslaved laborers rarely stopped.

One of them, Charity, was still working when she was 8 months pregnant. She did not merely do light chores, either. In a diary entry dated March 2, 1858, Benners indicates that she was “working on my main road.” Charity gave birth to her daughter Fanny on April 11.

For all the diary’s details, Benners revealed almost nothing about his inner life or private thoughts. The one day he does put them on paper, the only time in the entire 3 years, he leaves us to believe that we know very little at all about what’s really happening at Rosedale.

The date for that entry was July 20, 1858.

Having lived for some time a backsliden life[,] this morning I took a retrospective view of the past, and looking forward to the future[,] I saw darkness and despair before me, I made earnest supplication to Heaven and God for Christ sake pardoned mine iniquities. May God in mercy protect my children from walking in the forbidden paths I have.

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