A Stop at Historic Stagville

Stagville_signHistoric Stagville, located in Durham County, North Carolina, was part of a massive southern plantation complex—one of the largest in the American south before the Civil War. Owned by the Bennehan-Cameron family, the grounds consisted of 30,000 acres, (that’s about 47 square miles!), maintained through the use of nearly 900 enslaved workers.

The use of slavery for colonial expansion, in my humble opinion, was not America’s finest hour. Stagville, nevertheless, is an informative glimpse into that hour. The Bennehan-Cameron family left behind an abundance of documents, (now in the archives at UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State), that paint a detailed picture of daily life on a southern plantation. Those documents, combined with archaeological finds, provide some of the most helpful resources available for understanding the cultural traditions practiced in an early Africa-American community.

Recently, I visited the plantation after exploring the nearby Horton Grove Nature Preserve. What follows is a “picture tour” of my recent stop at Stagville.


In 1787, Richard Bennehan bought 66 acres of land from Judith Stagg. In those early days, he operated a store and built the original portion of Bennehan House; (pictured here). The Staggs owned the popular Stagg’s Tavern along the Old Indian Trading Path, making the Stagg name widely known. Bennehan described his location as Stagville so that it would be easily identifiable to everyone. — Historic Stagville; Durham, NC


In 1799, Richard Bennehan added the two-story portion to the house. By this time, Bennehan was well on his way to becoming one of the wealthiest men in North Carolina. His store was thriving, as was his plantation. During his lifetime, he would serve on the committee that laid out the City of Raleigh, and he supported the establishment of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  — Benneham House at Historic Stagville; Durham, NC


The kitchen garden behind Bennehan House is a recalling of the antebellum (pre-Civil War) south. With its drying pumpkins and late October blooms, it was one of my favorite spots.– Historic Stagville; Durham, NC


Dominique chickens, America’s first chicken breed, roam free-range down by the barns near the Bennehan House. — Historic Stagville; Durham, NC


Oh, you know I did! …Set about 100 yards from the Bennehan House, atop a small ridge in the woods, the family cemetery was fun to explore on a late October morning. — Historic Stagville; Durham, NC


The cemetery’s stone wall and iron entry gate are original. The stones were quarried on Stagville land, and the wall’s design is unusual: the stones are wider at the base than the top. — Historic Stagville; Durham, NC


Richard, Mary (wife), and Thomas (son) Bennehan are buried here in the family cemetery at Stagville. Their box tombs, ordered from Philadelphia, were standard in England and preferred by the “southern elite” in America. The cemetery is large…and largely unfilled. Richard Bennehan likely expected more of his descendants to be buried there. Many, however, are buried at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Hillsborough, NC. — Historic Stagville; Durham, NC

Just a short drive down Old Oxford Road to Jock Road is Horton Grove, where the enslaved community of Stagville resided.


Tucked into one corner of Horton Grove is Horton Home. Built in the 1770’s by a yeoman farmer named William Horton, it is believed to be the oldest house on its original foundation in Durham–perhaps one of the oldest houses in all of North Carolina. Richard Bennehan purchased the house and over 410 acres of land (Horton Grove) from the Horton family in 1823. — Historic Stagville; Durham, NC


The four, two-story slave quarters at Horton Grove were built between 1851 and 1860. The timber frames on the outside and brick nogging on the inside were not typical features of enslaved homes in the south at that time. These features provided insulation from the heat and cold and also deterred rodent infestation. Records reveal that Paul Cameron, (who had inherited Stagville from his uncle Tom Bennehan), personally designed these structures, (which were built by the slaves), to provide a healthier living environment for his enslaved workers. — Horton Grove at Historic Stagville; Durham, NC


Inside one of the slave’s quarters, there is evidence of both architectural ingenuity, (that is, brick nogging for insulation), as well as the undeniably primitive nature overall of the dwelling. There were four rooms total, two upstairs and two downstairs. An entire family, (often 10 to 13 people), lived in one room of the house. The four families that lived there all entered through the front door and dispersed to their various dwelling spaces. — Historic Stagville; Durham, NC


Sunday was a slave’s day off. The families often pulled their resources together–some meat here, some vegetables there–and cooked them together on the fire in front of the quarters. — Historic Stagville; Durham, NC


The chimney on this slave shelter is original. — Horton Grove at Stagville Plantation; Durham, NC


Bricks for the chimneys were made and fired on the plantation. If the bricks were handled while still hot, fingerprints were left behind. Can you spot the indentation of a slave’s finger in the photo on the left? How about the prints in the photo on the right? These are thought to be a child’s footprint.  — Horton Grove at Historic Stagville; Durham, NC


Stagville Barn, referred to as the “Great Barn,” is a sturdy sight that once housed up to 80 mules. Built in the summer of 1860 by skilled slaves, the barn contains some unusual “nautical” features, particularly the way in which the roof trusses were constructed like an upside-down haul of a ship–referred to as queen’s trusses. Historians speculate that one or more of the slaves may have spent some time in shipyards along the coast. — Horton Grove at Historic Stagville; Durham, NC


Hope and hard work: The Hart House is a bright spot in the story of Stagville. After the emancipation, the Harts were freed slaves who worked as sharecroppers and rented this former slave quarters. (The house once looked like all the rest: simple, with natural-colored, vertical timber siding.) The Hart family not only farmed the land but also used their skills as blacksmiths in the growing Durham area. As a result, they were able to purchase the house and make the renovations pictured here. — Horton Grove at Historic Stagville; Durham, NC

For a comprehensive look at the antebellum south, consider a visit to Historic Stagville. Free guided tours as well as self-guided tours are available most days.

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