Documenting the American South Logo
Collections >> First-Person Narratives >> Document Menu >> Summary

John Blackford, 1771-1839
Ferry Hill Plantation Journal: January 4, 1838 - January 15, 1839
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961.


The manuscript that would become John Blackford's Ferry Hill Plantation Journal: January 4, 1838-January 15, 1839, was discovered by this edition's editor, Fletcher M. Green, while he was searching the attic of the Ferry Hill plantation house for a different project. Green (July 12, 1895-February 27, 1978) was an eminent scholar of Southern American history, and according to The Journal of Southern History, was often labeled "the dean of southern historians" (p. 348). He earned his Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina in 1927 and was invited to remain there as a professor. He left UNC in 1933 to teach at Emory University, his undergraduate alma mater, but returned in 1936. He retired from the faculty in 1966 after earning a distinguished professorship and serving as chair of the History department. A prolific scholar and educator, Green edited a number of volumes, including a 1965 edition of Susan Dabney Smedes's Memorials of a Southern Planter. Green also served as president of the Southern Historical Association and the Historical Society of North Carolina, among other organizations. Green's papers are held at the University of North Carolina Libraries Southern Historical Collection.

Green's 1961 edition of Blackford's journal, published by the University of North Carolina Press, begins with a critical introduction that includes biographical information about the Blackford family and describes the social and geographical background of the plantation. At the time of its discovery, this segment of Blackford's journal was the only one thought to have survived. A small earlier segment of the journal has since resurfaced, and the full known text, along with Blackford's family papers, is held in the Virginia Historical Society archives.

The text of Green's edition covers just over a year of Blackford's observations about events at Ferry Hill Plantation, a 700-acre farm on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. Blackford's text is primarily a log of daily activities and financial transactions. He rarely discusses personal issues, and generally keeps his remarks focused on his plantation and factors that affect its business.

Weather, for example, is mentioned in almost every entry, for it influenced not only planting and harvesting, but also the ferry business. Blackford's ferry, which shuttled animals, goods, and travelers across the Potomac, is manned most often by Ned and Jupe, two of Blackford's enslaved workers. The journal meticulously tracks ferry staffing and details any changes, such as when Ned pilots the ferry himself for a few weeks in the summer. In the June 27 entry, Blackford writes that Ned complains about this "harculin [sic] job" (p. 63). Blackford also often includes a short note about the level of ferry business each day. For instance, on April 4th, he writes "Ned & Jupe in the Boat. Have done a tolerable business" (p. 35), and on November 8th, he writes, "Ned & Jupe in the Boat. Small Business" (p. 107). While the ferry was important to Blackford's business, it was only one element of his diverse income, which also included profits from loans, rents, and lumber in addition to the money he raised from farm products.

To work his land and ferry, Blackford owned at least twenty-five slaves and hired countless other laborers, and even when Ned, Jupe, and the other workers are not on the boat, Blackford carefully records their employment, or lack thereof. On June 26th, for example, Ned complains about working the ferry alone while Jupe helps other workers hoe and unload hay. Later, on July 1st, Jupe and a co-worker are simply "drunk" (p. 65). Such comments about his workers' attitudes and actions paint Blackford as paternalistic; yet he did not closely supervise their labors, work alongside them, or hire an overseer, and he rarely writes of any punishment for indolence or disobedience. Instead, this nearly unwavering attention to the division of labor on his plantation reflects his commitment to recording all aspects of his business.

The only days that Blackford does not write of plantation work are October 7th, the day his wife dies, and the day after, which he dedicates to descriptions of the visitors who have come to pay their respects. But even here, Blackford does not describe his feelings for his wife nor his reaction to her death in-depth, but merely reports, "has been a melancholy day for me and my family. my dear wife Expired in the afternoon about half after 4 Oclock" (p. 96). This solemn moment is foreshadowed by small notes about his wife's health throughout the preceding entries. Combined with remarks about his own health and other brief anecdotes about politics, his son's marital problems, friends' visits, and a cat eating a canary, these notes seem all the more candid when juxtaposed with the ledger-like tone of the other entries. In his journal, Blackford is first and foremost a successful businessman—a planter, investor, and manager—but the journal nevertheless also humanizes him by portraying at least some elements of his day-to-day life in his own voice.

Works Consulted: Green, Fletcher M., ed. Ferry Hill Plantation Journal: January 4, 1838-January 15, 1839, by John Blackford, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961; Rice, Otis K., "Review: Ferry Hill Plantation Journal: January 4, 1838-January 15, 1839, The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 8.4 (1962): 698-99; "Historical News and Notices," The Journal of Southern History, 44.2 (1978): 343-53; "Historical News and Notices," The Journal of Southern History, 59.4 (1993): 800-808.

Jennifer L. Larson

Document menu