The Chimneys: A Damage Assessment at a Task System Slave Village

Blue skies, a gentle breeze, birds chirping and 73 degrees. Swaying Spanish moss hanging from grandmother live oak trees and towering yaupon hollies. Tuesday March 1 was a beyond beautiful day for site condition assessments on Cumberland Island National Seashore. One could almost overlook some of the negative human impacts to the cultural heritage that makes The Chimneys such an important site. So-called for the brick and tabby chimneys arranged on rectangular grid, they are all that remain above ground of a village inhabited by the enslaved African Americans that worked the wealthy planter Robert Stafford’s main Sea Island cotton plantation on Cumberland Island.

Martin Pate‘s artistic interpretation of what the Chimneys may have looked like while Robert Stafford owned the plantation


Example of completely collapsed chimney

Though the chimneys, in various states of ruin and preservation, stand as silent sentinels to enslavement on Stafford’s plantation, the stabilizing scaffolding bracing some of them attest to their slow subsidence and would-be inevitable collapse. Indeed, some chimneys have collapsed. But, while perhaps distracting from a certain structured aesthetic, their collapse does not detract from their historical and archeological significance. Some chimneys are complete and free standing while others are piles of rubble beneath living cedar trees and intruded upon by armadillo burrows. Some have been repaired though not technically restored. The chimneys were built with hand-made clay and tabby bricks held together with tabby mortar. The “repairs” employ cement.

A chimney with supportive scaffolding
Primus Mitchell was among those formerly enslaved who returned to live on Cumberland Island after the Civil War

After the Civil War, some African-Americans formerly enslaved on Cumberland Island returned. They established a community at Brickhill Bluff and may have reoccupied cabins at the Chimneys and Rayfield, another slave village farther north along the Main Road. Despite the myth that Stafford burned the village cabins to spite former slaves who refused to work for him, archeological excavations conducted in 2004, 2006 and 2008 have revealed to no such evidence.

Today, the chimneys sit a in a privately owned parcel behind a house that was the winter home of the late Lucy Sprague Foster, a Carnegie descendant and one of the island matriarchs in a line stretching back through history to Caty Greene.

Like the ruins of the Carnegie mansion, Dungeness, the Chimneys are one of many cultural resources on Cumberland Island listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Site condition assessments are an opportunity to evaluate damage to archeological sites caused by human or natural agents, and to identify possible future adverse effects to cultural resources.

Large pile debris from tree removal at The Chimneys. The large chimney in the background is interpreted as part of a hospital or communal building for the enslaved residents.

The most apparent anthropogenic adverse effect at the Chimneys was brought about through the removal of several large trees. Whether they had fallen before they were cut up and moved by means of heavy machinery is not clear but the places where they stood are heavily disturbed. Historic building debris and artifacts are visible on the surface, some of it apparently moved to help fill the holes.

A view of some of the recent ground disturbance at the Chimneys

Documenting this disturbance was our primary motivation for returning to the site after a preliminary and opportune condition assessment was conducted on a rain day during our fieldwork in February. On that trip, principal investigator Robert Hellmann noted that one of the chimneys closest to the entrance road from the Main Road has collapsed since his last visit. One chimney closest to the Foster house has been rigged as a barbecue grill.

Chimney used a grill

The archeology of enslavement at Cumberland Island is unique among the national parks of the Southeast. Slave labor on the rice and Sea Island cotton plantations of the barrier island and coastal districts of Georgia and the Carolinas was organized differently than other plantations in the Deep South. The quintessential image of the toiling mob of enslaved African Americans dressed in rags and doubled over in cotton fields from sunrise to sunset all the while closely monitored by an armed, horse-mounted and whip-wielding white overseer. Though certainly this narrative captures part of the day-to-day antebellum experience of many of the millions of enslaved workers in the southern United States, it does not depict what life was like for so many others. In contrast to this monotonous and closely supervised system of labor organization, called the Gang System, enslaved laborers at plantations along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts and Sea Islands were organized in a different way: the Task System.

Morgan 1982 tasking table
Part of a table showing tasking requirements produced by Philip Morgan (1982:570)

Briefly, the task system required each individual to  complete a certain amount of work each day dictated by that person’s age, gender, and ability. Once the task was completed, that individual was free to engage in their own pursuits. Industrious persons used their time after tasks to assist others in their work, to hunt, fish, and tend personal gardens and livestock, to produce crafts, and to rest and visit. Though tasks were difficult and a challenge to complete with time to spare, there are accounts of enslaved individuals accumulating enough money through their own ingenuity to purchase their freedom. It was not uncommon for planters themselves to purchase goods from their slaves!

Learn more about The Task System here!



Ammunition found during excavations at the Chimneys.

Ammunition was found in many of the units associated with the chimneys as well as a few gun flints. Contrary to more provocative hypotheses that envisioned stockpiling for a slave revolt that never materialized, these weapons were likely used for hunting to supplement rations. Wild animals made up a considerable proportion of the faunal remains found at the site.


Other artifacts reflect crafts that enslaved African-Americans produced for personal consumption, trade, and sale at markets. The proceeds from these exchanges could have been used to acquire other resources or social influence.

Excavations revealed different assemblages associated with different cabins that may reflect the relative self-determination of the enslaved families that lived in them. One chimney facade sports a whelk shell set into the mortar centered above the preserved wooden lintel; a personal touch of the presumably enslaved former inhabitants

Maintaining families on plantations served many practical purposes of a planter including natural increase of the enslaved population and likely promoted a sense of place, stability, and responsibility that might curb attempts to run away.That there were enslaved families at Robert Stafford’s plantations is suggested by an 1864 census of Fernandina, Florida.The document includes the names, ages, status (i.e. “Contraband”), last residence, date of arrival, and former owner (if enslaved) of the individuals in the town. Groups of 3 to 5 persons with the same last name, residence, date of arrival, and owner (i.e. “R. Stafford”) including a man and woman in their 20s to 40s and children seem to describe nuclear families.

1864 fernandina census excerpt
Excerpt from the 1864 military census of Fernandina Beach, Florida. Not the names, ages, dates of arrival, and former owner shared by some of the individuals.
Photo Credit: Chris Viola

In 2004, former SEAC archeologist Steven Kidd organized a presentation and tour of the Chimneys for descendants of African-Americans enslaved on Stafford’s plantations. The event was a successful and rare opportunity for archeologists to help living relatives connect directly with the places their ancestors lived. Read a bit about that project here! 

Check out two other blog posts on African-American history: 

Blacks in Grey: Confederates on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Fort McPherson Meets the Forks of the Road: The Nexus of Slavery, Freedom, and Resistance In Civil War-era Natchez, Mississippi.

Our assessment complete, we returned to the dock in St. Mary’s and drove back to Tallahassee to anoint our unexpected sunburns and process the data we collected. Looking forward to more work at Cumberland Island though hopefully under more auspicious circumstances!


Don’t forget to check out some other SEAC posts on Cumberland Island National Seashore here!




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