A Brief History of Stagville Plantation
Stagville was part of an extensive plantation complex owned by the Bennehan and Cameron families from the end of the eighteenth through the middle of the twenthieth century. Richard Bennehan began assembling what would become one of the largest and wealthiest plantations in North Carolina in Orange County at the confluence of the Little, Eno, and Flat Rivers in 1776.
Bennehan built his house on land acquired from Judith Stagg in 1787, taking up residence sometime between 1788 and 1791. Undated carpenter’s notes contain details about a Dwelling House accompanied by a Kitchen, Smoke House, Milk House, a Lumber House and two Cabins (Cameron Family Papers 1757-1978:Folder 3552). Richard, his wife Mary Amis and children Rebecca and Thomas Dudley lived there, along with the enslaved members of the household, a group that had included 31 people in 1778 (Anderson 1977:42).
Bennehan’s fortune had its origins in his mercantile activities, beginning with a partnership in a nearby store. Eventually, the family’s wealth was more a product of their extensive land holdings—of the growing Piedmont plantation complex, the Stagville and Little River portions alone contained an estimated 5,000 acres in 1847—as well as their ownership of (at peak population) approximately 900 men women and children (Anderson 1977:12; Anderson 1985:93).
Slavery was essential to the family’s enterprises. Enslaved workers labored at crafts such as coopering, milling, and ironworking, but primarily agriculture—producing corn, wheat and other grains, hogs, tobacco, and some cotton, flax, and wool.
Thomas Bennehan inherited the farm after his father died in 1825 and lived there until his own death in 1847. He never married, which is how Stagville came into the hands of Duncan Cameron, husband of Rebecca. Three generations of Cameron men—Duncan, Paul Carrington, and brothers Duncan III and Bennehan continued to develop the family’s holdings.
Throughout the nineteenth century, members of the Cameron line split their time between Fairntosh (which Duncan Cameron had developed as a new home farm in the early 1810s), Hillsborough (the Orange County seat), and the state capital in Raleigh.
Of all the Camerons, Paul had perhaps the greatest impact on the development of the plantation and the lives of its inhabitants. He not only held his own share of the family estate, but managed property for his brother and sister as well. He exiled over 100 men and women from the family’s North Carolina farms to new cotton plantations that he purchased in Mississippi and Alabama. He initiated a major building campaign at the family’s nearby Horton Grove farm on the eve of the Civil War. And he was at the helm when Emancipation came.
After the Civil War, farming continued on Cameron family lands, though on much different terms. Paul Cameron’s first attempt at a share-cropping contract was rejected by the workers, who demanded better working conditions and more of the proceeds than the ¼ wheat, ¼ sweet potatoes, and 1/3 molasses in the initial draft. In 1866, he rented Stagville to a group of men who agreed to work the land with their own equipment and labor force, maintaining the farm’s infrastructure, in exchange for one-third of the crop. One of the men involved was Philip Southerland, a former overseer for the Camerons (Anderson 1985:118).
At Paul Cameron’s death in 1891, the family holdings were broken up. Bennehan Cameron received Stagville and Fairntosh, both at that point located within the newly-formed Durham County. Bennehan had already managed Stagville through much of the 1880s, using it to raise stock: dairy cattle; mules; hogs; and later horses. Periodically, he had the assistance of overseers James Smith, W. P. Durham, Philip Southerland, W. D. Turrentine, and W. F. Black (Anderson 1985:139-141, 169-170).
In 1947, several decades after he died intestate, Bennehan Cameron’s daughter Isabel M. Cameron Van Lennep inherited Stagville. The property passed through a rapid succession of private hands, finally ending up in 1954 as a several thousand acre farm owned and operated by Liggett and Meyers Tobacco Company. In 1976, Liggett and Meyers donated the 71-acre plantation core that included Richard Bennehan’s dwelling house, to the state of North Carolina, which now operates it as a State Historic Site (Garlid 1979:5).
Archaeology at Stagville
The first archaeological explorations of Stagville took place around the time that the property was donated to the state. The first reported survey emphasized the precontact period, highlighting the significance of three middle to late Archaic campsites in the vicinity of the Bennehan house (31DH89, 31DH108, and 31DH150) (McLearen 1977:47-48).
Alterations to the Bennehan house, including the addition of septic and a water line—as well as plans for a parking area, access road, and classroom building prompted a second campaign of archaeology. A pedestrian survey over much of the 71-acre property, including some probing and surface troweling, allowed the archaeological team to identify significant eighteenth- and nineteenth-century features and structures. It also revealed the extent of modern disturbance in the areas closest to the Bennehan house (McLearen 1977).
Other early archaeological efforts focused on the Horton Grove tract. The nearby farm was often treated as a part of “Stagville” (Anderson 1977:58); indeed, the two farms seem to have been considered a single entity by many who lived there in the twentieth century (Lounsbury and McDaniel 1980:9-10). Four dwellings built on the eve of the Civil War are still standing. One summer, students participated in a field school in remote sensing and paleoethnobotany. Archaeologists also excavated under the floor of one of the houses and conducted a probe and auger survey of the area surrounding the standing structures (Clauser and Bollinger n.d.; Erlandson 1978).
Excavation at the “Slave Cabin” took place as part of an archaeological field school in 1979. The main focus of the field school was instruction in archaeological methods. At the time, “Stagville Center” was a training facility for historic preservation. The research aim of the excavation was to discover whether or not the extant foundation was one of the two “Cabins” built during the initial phase of construction at Stagville (Garlid 1979:2).
The last major excavation effort at Stagville examined the kitchen behind the Bennehan house, and took place in 1980. Subsequent research has focused on existing collections and archival material (e.g.: Hughes 1991).