The hundreds of graves uncovered last month are only the most recent revelation in the lengthy record of African Americans employed on the John Dickinson Plantation. Press play to hear Gloria Henry and Annie Fenimore, the Site Supervisor and Lead Interpreter of the John Dickinson Plantation, contextualize the historical significance of this discovery.
Maddie Messer: Welcome back to the Saving Delaware History Podcast, where today we’re speaking with Gloria Henry and Annie Fenimore the Site Supervisor and Lead Interpreter of the John Dickinson Plantation. Welcome, both of you, to the podcast
Gloria Henry: Hello.
Annie Fenimore: Hi, thank you.
M: It’s good to have you. Can we just start with what is the John Dickinson Plantation and who is John Dickinson?
G: The John Dickinson Plantation is a historic site administered by Delaware’s Historical and Cultural Affairs (HCA). The plantation was the home of JD, who was known as the penman of the Revolution. He was one of America’s Founding Fathers who wrote of freedom and liberty for all while holding human beings in bondage. He abstained on the vote on independence, allowing it to move forward unanimously, and he actually fought in the Revolution during the Battle of the Brandywine. He served as Governor of both Delaware and Pennsylvania and after the Revolution he served as a Delaware delegate to the Constitutional Convention and his name is signed to the U.S. Constitution. The plantation was his boyhood home and is located south of Dover, on the banks of the Saint Jones River. During John Dickinson’s lifetime, the estate grew to almost 5,000 acres, which included six landings, marshland, wooded area, and rich farmland, one which the main crops included corn, wheat, and flax. The plantation was home to a variety of people and not just the wealthy, privileged. The site documents and tells the stories of the tenant farmers, indentured servants, and free and enslaved Black men, women, and children who lived, worked, and died here on the John Dickinson Plantation.
M: Could you provide a brief history of the plantation?
A: Yeah, I’d be happy. So Samuel Dickinson was a tobacco farmer, merchant, and slave holder who in Talbott County, Maryland. Beginning in the 1730s, he purchased several tracts of land that stretched from the Dover area to the Saint Jones River right here in Delaware. By 1740, he and his wife Mary and their two young sons, John and Philemon, had moved into their newly-built Georgian mansion, which faced the river. The plantation was nicknamed Popular Hall and enslaved men, women, and children labored to grow tobacco, and then eventually wheat and corn [there]. Now, when John Dickinson died in 1760, the Delaware lands and the enslaved men, women, and children were divided between his sons John and Philemon. John Dickinson [Junior] became the owner of the mansion, surrounding land, and many of the enslaved individuals. By 1767, the mansion had become a tenant house. John Dickinson leased the mansion, surrounding grounds, and nearby properties, as well as the enslaved men, women, and children to tenant farmers in exchange for money, crops, products, and animals. Some of the enslaved individuals were farmers themselves. Some were tailors, shoemakers, tanners and carpenters. John Dickinson leased them to others that needed the labor and that made the enslaved individuals available to his tenants to help them fulfill their lease agreements. Now, John Dickinson eventually owned more than 5,000 acres, and he engaged in tenancy practices with both white and Black men and women. Some of the farmlands were leased to tenant farmers who owned enslaved individuals. After 1786, the John Dickinson plantation was certainly home to tenant farmers, tradesmen, free Black people, indentured servants and enslaved individuals. Now, John Dickinson himself died in 1808. The plantation passed to his daughter, Sally Norris Dickinson, and remained in the Dickinson family until the 20th century, when it passed through a series of owners.
Just a point of clarification, after Sally Norris Dickinson died and it passed to other Dickinsons, their last name wasn't Dickinson. It passed through a different family because her sister had married into the Logans.
M: So, what would you say the status of Delaware African Americans was in the 18th century.
G: If you were an African American person in the 18th century here in Delaware, you could be considered free, indentured or enslaved. However, being free only meant a limited freedom. There were laws that restricted where you could go and where you couldn't go. You may or may not own a weapon. You could not gather in large groups. So there were a lot of restrictions, even if you were considered free.
If you were indentured, you signed a contract binding yourself to another person for a certain term of service. In the contract you could have negotiated and agreed to learn a skill. Or you could ask for a yearly clothing allowance, room and board, all of these were included in the contract. It could have also included restrictions such as no getting married or no visiting certain places. In either of these cases you were considered a person with legal rights, though they were limited rights.
If you were enslaved, you were viewed as property. You were listed in wills and inventories with the cattle and household goods. Your name and age may be listed. You could have been seized and sold to alleviate debts. If you were a woman, your children were considered enslaved individuals also.
M: So when did John Dickinson free the enslaved individuals he “owned?”
A: Well to tell you about let me give you a little context. When John Dickinson's father, Samuel, died in 1760, John and his brother Philemon inherited the property that included enslaved individuals and families. By that point, John Dickinson enslaved black men, women and children. He continued to do so for 26 years of his life. In 1777, John Dickinson issued a conditional manumission.
Now, manumission itself means a legal issuing of freedom to certain people. Conditional means that there were certain conditions attached to this freedom. So this conditional manumission document from 1777 stated that the enslaved individuals had to faithfully serve and obey for an additional 21 years. That's 21 years from 1777. According to that document, they had to serve Dickinson faithfully and obey him until 1798. John Dickinson also included other parts to that conditional manumission, that every child under the age of ten, had to be taught to read and write. The list of the people named in the 1777 document are recorded in family groupings.
The original document can be found online and the physical copy is located at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
In 1781, John Dickinson, unconditionally manumitted, that is, freed, six people. We do not know the motivations behind that, or why he chose those six people specifically. Then in 1786, John Dickinson manumitted everyone he held in bondage unconditionally. He did include the phrase in that document that anyone he had not named earlier, anyone that he may have forgotten, he freed them as well. So while we know that the list of names that he included of those men, women and children, numbered almost 60, there might have been more individuals that he did not name in that document and that phrase shows that. The original document for the 1786 manumission is in the Kent County deeds book, which is located at the Delaware Public Archives.
So one motivation for John Dickinson's actions regarding these manumissions was provided by Sally Norris Dickinson, his daughter. She wrote in a document that she was not sure when her father told her, but that he was aware that the recording angels stood ready to make record against him in heaven had he neglected it, it being the manumission of the people he enslaved.
Some of the formerly enslaved people agreed to continue working for John Dickinson as indentured servants, signing contracts like the ones Gloria mentioned earlier. Some children
became indentured servants working for John Dickinson for a number of years and then continued to work for him as fully free individuals after their indenture contract was completed.
M: What type of work did African Americans engage in during the 18th century and on this plantation specifically?
G: African Americans in the 18th century were skilled labor. Their occupations were varied and some required expertise and skill. This included shoe makers, tailors, carpenters, blacksmiths, spinners, tanners, laborers, farmers, coachmen, and possibly beekeepers. So there were a variety of people doing a variety of jobs, whatever needed to be done. Many people learned a skill or had at least rudimentary skills in that particular occupation.
M: Who were Peter Patten and John Furbee?
A: Peter Patten and John Furbee were two brothers who were free Black men. They lived and worked in the St. John's Neck area as tenants of Nathaniel Luff. After John Dickinson purchased the Luff property, John Furbee and Peter Patten continued on as John Dickinson's tenants. By 1787 if you were a free black individual in Delaware, you could own or rent land.
In 1801, John Furbee and Peter Patten leased land together from John Dickinson. The next year, that would be 1802, they each leased land separately, different properties from John Dickinson.
John Furbee’s tenure with the Dickinson family lasted 11 years. During that time, he rented 368 acres with a dwelling house and outbuildings. He grew corn, wheat, and rye. John Furbee was married to Tamir Furbee and they had six children named Daffiny Smith, Rachel Brian, Sarah Rodney, Sally Ann Lowber, and Clement and Edward Furbee. John Furbee died in 1815. The inventory taken after his death was valued at $1,029.82. Included in the inventory were livestock valued at $315, crops valued at $354, and furniture valued at $113.
Peter Patten's tenure with the Dickinson family lasted through 1810. During that time, he rented 642 acres with a dwellinghouse, kitchen, corn crib, cows, and milkhouse. By 1792, he had married Dinah, a formerly enslaved woman owned by John Dickinson. Peter Patten died in 1833. His inventory was valued at $185.87. Almost all of the inventory’s value was in livestock, with two pair of oxen valued at $50.
John Furbee and Peter Patten were prosperous farmers during their tenancy with John Dickinson. They lived, worked, and raised their families on the Jones’ Neck.
M: Is the John Dickinson plantation a member of any organization associated with African American history?
G: The John Dickinson Plantation is a member of the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom. The organization's mission is to honor, preserve, and promote the history of resistance to enslavement through escape and flight, which continues to inspire people worldwide. Currently, there are over 650 locations that are a part of the network and 40 states, plus Washington D.C. and the US Virgin Islands.
Here on the plantation we have documented escapes. One example of a freedom seeker was named Clem. Clem was an enslaved African American man, who was owned by one of John Dickinson's tenants, William White. In 1790, William White placed a $6 reward notice in the Delaware Gazette for the capture of Clem. In the notice, Clem was described as 35 or 40 years old, about five feet four or five inches, and somewhat hard of hearing. We have no documentation that he was ever captured, or that the reward money was ever paid. The reward notice indicates that Clem may have been aware that John Dickinson had manumitted the people he owned and used that knowledge to inform his escape.
In addition to the Network to Freedom, the John Dickinson Plantation was accepted as a member of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. A site of conscience is a place or memory, a museum, historic site, memorial, or memory initiative that confronts both the history of what happened there and the contemporary legacy of that history. In joining the coalition, the Plantation reaffirmed its commitment to engaging with visitors about the uncomfortable truths and painful narratives associated with the institution of slavery, both at this site and in the early history of the United States.
M: On that note, could you tell us about the recent discovery of burial grounds on the property?
A: Yes, on March 9th, 2021, archaeological fieldwork led to the identification of a burial ground on the site of the John Dickinson Plantation. This sacred ground likely holds enslaved individuals and other African Americans who lived, worked, and died on land owned by the Dickinson family. The burial ground is 170 feet by 160 feet; that's 27,200 square feet. The Division plans to engage with the Senate communities, academic professionals and public historians in making important decisions regarding the burial ground. There is no access to this location at the present time.
G: The John Dickinson plantation was home both voluntarily and involuntarily, to a variety of people. We share the stories of the plantation’s residents, the Dickinsons, the tenant farmers, the indentured servants, the free and enslaved Black men, women and children who lived, worked and died on this plantation.
M: Wonderful, thank you both. And I'm sure people can come check out your museum if they have more questions.
A&G: Yes, absolutely. Thank you for having us.