Great Hopes Plantation
Representing a middling plantation
- Interactive, living history site
- African American enslaved life presented
- Historic farmers work the land
- Carpenters build structures
Great Hopes Plantation did exist in the 18th century, but not where it is now on the edge of Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area. The original Great Hopes was in York County, Va., so the one in Williamsburg is a representation of the middling plantations that existed around the colonial capital. Those plantations were the homes of most of the rural middle class, the ones who weren’t shop and tavern keepers or trades people in town.
Patrick Henry divided colonial society into three parts – well-born, middle, and lower. From other sources we know that only five percent of the population was considered well-born, and about a third or more were lower class, or “lesser sort,” depending on where you lived. The rest of the people were “middling;” that is, hard-working, honest people who owned one hundred acres or more, and ten or so slaves.
Slave interpretation, carpenters and historic farming
A Colonial Williamsburg interpreter works in the tobacco fields.
The Historic Trades Carpenters use 18th-century tools and techniques to build structures.
Interpreters portray the enslaved workers at an 18th-century plantation.
Typical colonial farming is presented at Great Hopes Plantation.
Great Hopes Plantation represents African American slave interpretation, carpenters, and working farmers who were not part of huge tobacco plantations, showing what they did and how they lived. Their lives were more typical of colonial Virginians in general than the lives of the well-born plantation owners, their families and slaves.
Middling farmers and slaves generally grew tobacco, corn, wheat, and some cotton. They tended livestock, including cattle, pigs, sheep and goats, plus a few oxen, and surprisingly few horses. Inventories of 25 farms in three counties did not list any fowl – hens, ducks, geese – although it’s difficult to imagine a farm with none. It may be that the birds were too difficult to count with any accuracy, or they weren’t worth enough to matter.
Middling farmers owned property, the value of which did matter if they wanted to borrow money, and they all had to borrow to get started. The property they owned was mostly their slaves. On average, slaves accounted for roughly 75 percent of a middling farmer’s worth, and that might go as high as 92 percent.
Slaves lived different lives on the farms than in the towns. Slave houses at Great Hopes are much rougher than house-servant quarters in Williamsburg, but the trade off was that rural slaves generally had more freedom of movement and control over their own lives than did town slaves, but no slave, rural or town, was free in any meaningful sense.
Working farmers also lived different lives. In addition to farming, they were the reason country government worked even during the American Revolution. They served as jurors, tobacco inspectors, church wardens, under sheriffs, militia officers, estate appraisers, and other types of government functionary. Without them, county government would have been crippled and without the pay for those services, farmers would have been even poorer than most of them were.
Farming was not a way to get rich in the 18th century, not for the middling farmer and certainly not for the slave, but it was a way to live, and that’s what the people at Great Hopes did.