Slave Cabin

Saddlebag double quarter cabin similar to those at Ashland (example from Welham Plantation,
St. James Parish, ca. 1835)
Daily Life in the Quarters
In contrast to the harsh working conditions in the fields and in the sugarhouse, slaves and freedmen did enjoy a limited social life. Because their mobility was limited, social interaction and family life was more, rather than less important to slaves and freedmen. The quarters and the relative privacy they provided from the direct supervision of the master and overseer was vital to their sense of family and provided them with a small measure of independence. The cabins were also the place where traditional beliefs were practiced and passed on from parents to children. There are virtually no objective written accounts of the daily life of slaves and freedmen. By determining the kinds of food they ate, the things they owned, and the games they played, archaeology can give a better understanding of the life of African-Americans in the nineteenth century.

Woman with Child Woman with child in a quarters setting

By the 1830s, slave owners with large plantations had become more concerned with the design and uniformity of their quarters housing. The cabins, which were probably built by the slaves, were constructed according to a strict European-American style. The cabins often conformed to a conventional range of size and design and showed little evidence of direct African influence. After 1825, typical slave housing on large Louisiana sugar plantations was the single- or double-family frame cabin. This was the type of cabin used at Ashland.

No documents report exactly when the quarters at Ashland Plantation were built. Artifacts found during excavation suggest that the cabins were probably built when construction began on the great house. In Louisiana, the quarters complexes of large plantations were generally arranged in the linear plan or the block plan. Ashland followed the linear model, with the great house located close to the Mississippi River and the quarters cabins running in two rows toward the sugarhouse, which was located approximately 3,772 ft. from the mansion. An 1884 map of the plantation shows that the Ashland quarters consisted of about 30 cabins in two parallel rows separated by a road. The quarters were located between the great house and the sugarhouse.

The layout of the cabins was confirmed during archaeological field work. It was observed that the cabins were very similar in size, averaging 20 ft. x 40 ft. Fifteen chimney bases with double fireplaces were found, and these were also very similar in construction. This suggests that the cabins were built according to a single plan. Most of the cabins were spaced fairly regularly, with approximately 72 ft. between their chimney centers, so that the cabins stood about 32 ft. apart.


Map Layout of Ashland

Map of the layout of Ashland Plantation

Two cabin sites in the northern row were selected for extensive non-mechanical excavations. Both sites had ceramics that dated both before and after the Civil War, and both sites had a central mound, which was assumed to mark the location of the chimney base. An area surrounding each mound was fenced to protect the site during construction to expand the adjacent chemical manufacturing site. This fence encompassed both the cabin area and the surrounding yard. A total of 89 1 x 1 meter units, or 958 sq. ft. of area, were excavated at each of the cabin sites. While excavations were taking place at the two cabin sites, archaeological monitoring was performed in the construction area. As areas were cleared and stripped of vegetation, archaeologists watched to see if artifacts or foundations were being uncovered. When features or artifacts were found, construction stopped until the archaeologists documented the area and collected the artifacts.

The cabins sites selected for excavation were designated Cabin 1 and Cabin 2. Based on the location of the remains of the brick support piers found during excavation, Cabin 1 measured approximately 40 by 20 ft., or 800 sq. ft. Cabin 2 also measured 20 ft. wide north/south, but its east/west dimensions were uncertain because the remains of piers were not found on the east and west sides. Both cabins had central chimneys with double fireplaces that would have served two rooms. Thus, the cabins likely had at least two rooms, each measuring 20 ft. x 20 ft. At most plantations, each half of the cabin would house one family.


Chimney Foundation excavating ashland cabin

Double chimney foundation discovered during excavation in the quarters area; Archaeological crew excavating Ashland quarters Cabin 2


In some cases, the locations of former piers could only be determined by depressions and/or concentrations of architectural debris. Evidence of brick rubble landings, or "mud steps," were found in front of the doors of both cabins. This means that the cabins were probably constructed without porches, possibly with overhanging eaves. Not only were the cabins at Ashland large relative to cabins found at other southeastern Louisiana plantations, but flat glass collected at both cabins indicate that the cabins had glass windows even before the Civil War. The cabins were evidently whitewashed, because fragments of dried whitewash were recovered at Cabin 2.

The United States census reported that Kenner had 117 slaves in 1840 and 169 slaves in 1850. This suggests that Kenner only had four to six slaves living in each cabin. Historians have noted that five or six was the average size of a slave household, so the double cabins may have been used by single families.

Artifacts found at the cabin sites indicate how long the quarters were occupied. Based on the objects that were found at the different cabin sites, the quarters began to be abandoned in about 1885, and probably all the cabins were unoccupied by the 1920s. The north row of cabins was deserted more rapidly than the south row. Bricks from the abandoned cabins were removed from their piers and chimneys, probably for reuse in the cabins that continued to be occupied.

The distribution of artifacts found during monitoring indicated changes in the use of different areas over time. For example, domestic trash such as ceramics, glass, and animal bone found in combination with structural remains in the vicinity of the sugarhouse showed that a few households lived outside of the quarters during the late-nineteenth century. It is unlikely that these new living areas were established merely because all habitable cabins within the quarters were occupied. Additional cabins could have just as easily been built within the quarters complex. Instead, these residential areas near the sugarhouse may be evidence of African-Americans who resisted living in the quarters as they had as slaves.


Hoe Blade bottles1 bottles2

Hoe blade from Ashland; Examples of bottles found during excavation of the quarters

Excavation of the cabin sites and their surrounding yards provided a unique view of the lives of the people who kept the plantation alive. Historical records indicate that most slave holders, including Duncan Kenner, allowed their slaves to have gardens. Vegetable gardens were generally located inside fenced yards. Archaeological evidence of a fence that may have encircled a garden was found at Cabin 1. The fence may have also been a pen for animals. In addition to growing such vegetables as black-eyed peas, collards, cabbages, and turnips, slaves often raised poultry, rabbits, and hogs. They occasionally sold the surplus to their own masters, providing the slaves with much-needed cash.

In addition to the monetary incentive of having a garden, it also allowed the slaves to vary their diet. Information is limited on the diet of African-Americans living on plantations, because most excavations have focused on great houses rather than on the quarters. Historical records state that the foundation of the slave diet was cornmeal and salt pork, issued by the slave owner. The average ration was about three and one-half pounds of pork and eight quarts of cornmeal per week for each slave. Slaves at Ashland were also regularly provided with molasses. Obviously, without the addition of vegetables, this diet would be far from nutritious.


Mud Step Mud step during excavation of the Ashland cabins

Without supplemental meat, their diet would have also become monotonous. At Ashland, most of the animal bone found in the quarters was pig and cattle, which was likely supplied by the planter. Cuts of meat from both cows and pigs were primarily from the head, or in the case of cows, from less meaty parts of the body. The types and cuts of meat used at Ashland were typical of those consumed at other southeastern Louisiana plantation quarters sites, such as Elmwood, Destrehan, and Beka plantations. This may indicate that the diet of slaves was fairly standardized in this region. However, the archaeological evidence demonstrates that slaves added significantly to their diet by fishing, trapping, and hunting. The bones of raccoon, opossum, rabbit, and wild birds were also recovered. Fish bone found during excavation in the cabins included freshwater drum, gar, catfish, sunfish, and mackerel. These wild species made up almost half of the animal remains found at Cabin 1 and Cabin 2.

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