The Enslaved at Farmington
“We are now living in our cabins and have only as much bacon as will serve us until Ned returns.” John Speed to business partner William Pope, August 13, 1809.
The earliest mention of people inhabiting Farmington includes the importance of Ned returning with bacon. Ned was an enslaved man sent by John Speed to deliver the letter and return with supplies to feed the plantation.
From 1809 until John Speed’s death in 1840, between 20 and 70 enslaved people worked on the plantation. The average Kentucky slaveholder owned fewer than five slaves, but Farmington, with its large slave population, resembled the large plantations of the state’s Bluegrass region.
Although the Speed family proclaimed an emancipationist ideology for generations, they were not abolitionists. Slavery, for most members of the Speed family, was an accepted way of life and slave labor was essential to the profitable operation of any large agricultural enterprise in the United States. Profits derived from the labor of enslaved people at Farmington, as well as income received from selling enslaved men, women, and children, paid for the Speed family’s necessities, luxury goods, and their children’s educations.
Information about the lives of the enslaved at Farmington is documented through oral histories, court records, newspapers, and family letters. Descendants of people enslaved by the Speed family have also been generous with information about their ancestors. An 1863 interview by the American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission with James Speed provided his perspective on life at Farmington.
Enslaved men and women had different responsibilities. In addition to myriad other tasks, men performed the backbreaking labor of harvesting hemp, which entailed cutting, hauling, and then pounding open hemp stalks on a hemp break. According to James Speed, each man was required to break 80 to 100 pounds of hemp per day. Speed stated men who exceeded the quota were paid for “extra work,” a common practice in Kentucky designed to encourage production.
James Speed says, “It is very unusual for Negro women to labor in the fields in KY anywhere,” but more evidence from other nearby plantations is necessary to fully support or reject his claim. Regardless, “the fields” are quite different than the gardens and outdoor areas that were the women’s domain. James Speed’s claim about women not working in the fields did not mean enslaved women at Farmington stayed inside or avoided hard work. Women milked cows, drove them to pasture, and made butter and cheeses. Records show the excess dairy products created by enslaved women brought cash to Farmington. They cared for the hogs and the fowl. Women and children carried loads of wood and water to the house. They were responsible for the house garden, as well as other tasks in the house yard. Enslaved people who worked in the house, primarily women, did the cooking and cleaning, lit fires, sewed clothes, and performed other household tasks. Enslaved women also bore children. Children born to enslaved women were also enslaved. They were owned by John Speed and only he could decide if they would stay at Farmington with their mothers or be placed on the auction block. Diana Thompson, whose mother, uncle, and grandmother were owned by John Speed, bore eleven children. By 1858, owned by Mary Speed in downtown Louisville, Diana only had two children still with her, Dinnie and Henry. The enslaved woman took her two young children and “made it to Indianapolis”, successfully self-emancipating three years before the Civil War broke out. When asked why her mother wanted to escape, Dinnie replied that her mother wanted to keep her and Henry from being severely punished, “and ‘cause she was ‘fraid they’d sell her at Arterburn’s Pen,” where Diana had already been taken and threatened with sale.
In commenting on the conditions of enslaved people at Farmington, James Speed told the interviewer that, “each man and his wife had a comfortable room, with a fire in it, a bed and bed clothes, chairs, tables, and cooking utensils.” Slave life, however, was not comfortable at Farmington, and there are several cases in addition to Diana, that document the resistance of enslaved people. In 1826, John Speed advertised for the capture of two skilled men, Harrison and Frazier, who escaped his ownership. We have not discovered any record of what happened to either man.
After John Speed’s death in 1840, change was inevitable for the enslaved at Farmington. Enslaved people would be divided as property between the Speed heirs and most would leave the plantation. Enslaved families would be broken up to achieve an equal division of property between the heirs. After Speed died, a 15-year-old enslaved boy named Bartlett was accused of setting fire to Farmington’s hemp factory. James Speed, as the administrator of his father’s estate, sold Bartlett to W.H. Pope & Co. for $575, “to be taken from the state.”
James Speed told the Freedman’s Bureau that he became an “immediate abolitionist” after a trip to Arkansas and by the early 1850s he was no longer a slave owner. Lucy Fry Speed emancipated Rose, Sally, and her son, Harrod in 1845. Most of the Speed children, including Lincoln’s closest friend, Joshua, continued to enslave people until the end of the Civil War. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation only applied to slaves in rebellious states, it did not free the people enslaved in the Commonwealth.
Because enslaved families were divided between the Speed heirs, and the 1840 inventory only listed first names, it is difficult to trace many of the formerly enslaved after the war and emancipation. Diana, Dinnie, and Henry Thompson returned to Louisville after the war. Diana worked as a laundress and purchased a house in the African-American neighborhood of Smoketown. Her daughter, Dinnie, worked as a laundress and, later, at Neighborhood House. Fortune Smith worked as a drayman. David and Martha Spencer moved to the Petersburg community of freed slaves, located near Farmington, after the Civil War. Their descendants have worked with Farmington to share and tell the stories of the enslaved ancestors’ contributions to the Commonwealth. The descendants of Abram and Rosanna Hayes have been generous with their family stories, also. After John Speed died his wife sold Farmington to their son in law, Austin Peay. In 1891, his wife Peachy Peay bequeathed a home for Abram and Rosanna to live in on Poplar Level Road until they died. After their deaths, Peay descendants reclaimed the house. Descendants of Abram and Rosanna Hayes live across the nation. The family includes teachers, doctors, nurses, and the owner of a modern hemp company.
Adapted from text by Pen Bogart, Kathy Nichols, and the Farmington Interpretations Committee with special thanks to Dr. Blaine Hudson.
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