No figure was more indispensable to the success of plantation agriculture in Mississippi than the overseer, an individual charged with the general oversight of all operations on the plantation. Usually employed on units with twenty or more working field hands, the overseer occupied a position in the managerial hierarchy between the owner or his agent and the black drivers who directly supervised the work of their fellow slaves under the gang system that most cotton plantations utilized. Chiefly responsible for slave discipline and crop production, overseers assigned gangs to work, administered corporal punishment to those who violated plantation rules, enforced a night curfew, distributed food and clothing, treated minor medical ailments, maintained various record and account books, and executed other routine duties associated with the operation of slave plantations.
In 1860 Mississippi had nearly four thousand overseers, a number exceeded only in Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama. Each Mississippi overseer was responsible for roughly sixty to one hundred slaves, a markedly lower ratio than was found in the rice districts of South Carolina and sugar parishes of Louisiana, where in some counties one overseer had charge of as many as three hundred slaves. In contrast to their counterparts in the older Atlantic seaboard states, the overseers on Mississippi’s cotton plantations tended to be young, unmarried, relatively inexperienced, and disposed to move frequently from one plantation to another in search of more attractive conditions.
Most overseers came from yeoman farmer families and had little formal education. Although they were universally enjoined to treat their black charges with justice and humanity, the intense pressure from their employers to produce bountiful cotton crops frequently resulted in merciless exploitation of chattel laborers. When one overseer neglected stock, farm utensils, and sick workers, planter Haller Nutt observed that the man seemed to think “his whole salvation depend[ed] upon this crop alone—whatever the sacrifice to me.” On another occasion, Nutt attributed the deaths of six slaves in a single year to the “cruelty” of his overseer.
Few men aspired to enter the business of overseeing as a lifetime occupation. Rather, a man became an overseer in hopes of saving sufficient money to purchase a small parcel of land and perhaps a few slaves and thus to reenter the yeoman farmer class. Such a goal was realistic for plantation managers who lived frugally and soberly: in addition to an annual salary of between four hundred and five hundred dollars, overseers received lodging, basic provisions, and the use of one or more slaves to perform such chores as cutting wood and washing. Gulf-state planters often offered added incentives in the form of bonuses tied to production quotas, an arrangement that encouraged maximum production at the expense of slave welfare. Whatever his compensation, the overseer was an isolated figure, living a lonely and spartan existence. Viewed with a condescending and often critical eye by their employers, forbidden to fraternize with the slaves, discouraged from entertaining company, and obliged by the nature of their duties to maintain a physical presence on the plantation, overseers had little opportunity to enjoy the fruits of their managerial labors.
This isolation was exacerbated by overseers’ alienation from both slaves and slaveholders. As the most visible representatives of the authoritarian and often brutal slave regime, overseers frequently incurred the animosity of those who labored under the duress of the whip. Overseers fared little better with their employers, who constantly criticized a variety of shortcomings, both real and imagined, and who changed overseers frequently and capriciously, failed to pay adequate salaries, and expressed class biases. Even under the best of circumstances, a certain degree of conflict was inherent in the owner-manager relationship. With no direct proprietary interest in laborers, stock, or equipment and under constant pressure to maximize production, overseers had difficulty appreciating owners’ concerns regarding the property that constituted the bulk of their capital investment. Overseers also believed that they should receive greater control over plantation routines if they were to be held accountable for the results. Slaves often exploited this inherent conflict between proprietor and overseer to their advantage, in some cases undermining the overseers’ authority by going over their heads to masters.
Whatever its deficiencies, the overseer system remained an integral part of plantation management until after the Civil War. Indeed, during that conflict, the role of the overseer became even more crucial as hundreds of thousands of able-bodied whites entered military service. Overseers initially comprised one of the exempted occupational groups under the Confederate Conscription Act of 1862, though the number of exempted managers was reduced as Confederate military fortunes declined, thereby undermining slave discipline and contributing to the demoralization of the home front.
- Robert F. W. Allston, The South Carolina Rice Plantation as Revealed in the Papers of Robert F. W. Allston, ed. James H. Easterby (1945)
- John S. Bassett, The Southern Plantation Overseer as Revealed in His Letters (1925)
- Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974)
- William K. Scarborough, The Overseer: Plantation Management in the Old South (1966; reprint, 1984)
- William K. Scarborough, Agricultural History (January 1964)
- Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (1956)