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Davison McDowell plantation journal

Davison McDowell (1783-1842), a native of Newry, Ireland, emigrated to America around 1810 and joined other members of his family in Georgetown District. Davison's father, James McDowell, who had settled in South Carolina in 1786, died there on the Pee Dee in 1787. Davison's mother, Agnes Davison McDowell, arrived shortly after her husband's death; she afterward married Robert Kirkpatrick. Young Davison McDowell remained in Ireland with relatives to complete his studies before relocating to the United States.

The enterprising planter was associated with a number of plantation properties between the time of his arrival in America and his death in 1842. He acquired Asylum plantation in 1819 and owned the property until 1836. Other tracts owned or planted by McDowell included Lucknow (the Pee Dee plantation at which he died), Rice Hope, Hoogley, Strawberry Hill, Pee Dee, Springfield, Oatlands, Sandy Island, and Woodville. McDowell was a founding member of the Planters Club on the Pee Dee in November 1839. He served as vestryman and building committee member of Prince Frederick Episcopal Church, Winyah, and represented Georgetown District at South Carolina's Union convention of 1832.

Davison McDowell first married Mary Moore, who died shortly thereafter, in 1822. In 1827, he married Catherine DuBose McCrea Witherspoon (1799-1887), widow of Robert Sidney Witherspoon. They were the parents of eight children, four of whom died in infancy or early childhood. McDowell died in 1842, at the age of fifty-eight, and was buried at All Saints Episcopal Church, Waccamaw, near Pawley's Island. After her husband's death, Catherine McDowell gave up the family's lowcountry plantation and removed to her own plantation near Sumter.

McDowell's plantation journal, 1815-1833, is a rich source of additional information on the rice planter and is particularly revealing in its documentation of life at Asylum. The volume contains a record of seasonal household moves between plantations, the sea shore, and various other properties. Other entries note the importation of wine purchased jointly with neighboring planters J.W. Allston and R.O. Anderson. Notations dated 6 October 1826 and 14 October 1830 document McDowell's involvement in local politics as supervisor of elections for Georgetown District. Further evincing his political stance, an entry from 3 December 1832 comments on the Union convention and the Palmetto state's growing preoccupation with sectionalism and states rights—"I hope the Almighty will direct our Consultation for the preservation of these U.S., the good of the State, the safety, honour & welfare of thy People." A single July 1829 entry documents McDowell's role as a bondsman in the trial of slaves accused of complicity in an abortive Georgetown insurrection.

As expected, the journal contains detailed planting and crop records indicating the date when planting began, when planting was completed, when harvesting began, and when harvesting was completed. Although rice was McDowell's cash crop, subsistence farming was necessary to feed the many hands on Asylum. The journal denotes McDowell's careful attention to the cultivation of other crops such as corn, peas, potatoes, yams, and oats. As is typical with many plantation journals, the volume contains a systematic record of weather observations. McDowell's record is particularly interesting for meteorological prognostication for the coming year based upon the weather for the twelve days of Christmas.

Substantive information on McDowell's slave holdings is to be found in the journal, including yearly lists of slaves and their allowances of clothing and food. Records of slave "crimes and misdemeanors" and other notations shed light on punishments meted out to slaves accused of stealing or attempting to run away. A journal entry dated 24 August 1831 reveals something of McDowell's unique philosophy of plantation governance—"Moses & Dowey came to me...this morn[in]g this day makes 4 weeks since the[y] went away. As they have come home themselves (agreeable to a Rule of the Plantation) they are not be whipped! But the[y] are to be deprived of all the Comforts of the Plantation: the[y] are to get no Summer cloths, Christmas: & as their offence appears to me of great enormity (my Crop being very grassy when the[y] went away) I think I will give them no winter cloths: Moses being a class leader is prohibited from Public Preaching for a year." Seemingly more vexing to McDowell was the discovery in 1830 that slave woman Sibbey had miscarried, McDowell speculated, on purpose. Prescribed punishment: the revocation of Christmas holiday privileges and confinement. A particularly intriguing journal entry, 9 December 1831, alludes to legal action brought by McDowell following the unsanctioned whipping and confinement of one of his slaves.

Davison McDowell's plantation management appears to have been under the direct supervision of drivers, two of whom, Manza and Sam, are identified in the yearly lists of plantation slaves and are named often in journal entries. An entry from February 1827 indicates that "the business of the Plantation went on under the sole direction of Manza" while McDowell was confined to his bed for more than three weeks with "a grievous sickness which the Doctor's called Epedimic." The sole reference to an overseer is an account of the discharge of Mr. McCarty in September 1830 for intoxication.

Other information relating to the enslavement of African-Americans can be gleaned from the record of tax returns found in the journal, according to which McDowell paid taxes on eighty-four slaves in 1826, one hundred ten slaves in 1829, one hundred seven slaves in 1830, one hundred eight slaves in 1831, and one hundred thirteen slaves in 1832. Additionally, the journal evidences the task system by which McDowell worked his slave laborers, with a detailed computation of approximate expenses for a cotton plantation with one hundred slaves and estimates of the daily amount of labor to be expected from slave laborers assigned various tasks. Likewise, it documents the training of slaves at different trades. On at least two occasions, McDowell sent slaves off the plantation for extended periods to apprentice—one as a millwright and one as a blacksmith (the millwright apprentice remained under tutelage for three years and four months).

The plantation journal is augmented by a group of approximately one hundred eighty-two manuscript items, 1768-1913, chiefly receipts, letters, and land and legal papers (grants, deeds, plats, wills, and probate records). Correspondents include James Louis Petigru, Adam Tunno, William J. Cowan, John Lewis, Francis G. DeLiesseline, Ann R. Miles (writing on behalf of Elizabeth Moore), Arthur Harper, and Joseph W. Allston. Charleston merchant Adam Tunno is represented by a letter of 17 August 1824 discussing plans for the advertisement and sale of two tracts of property on the Black River previously owned by Samuel Smith. John Lewis' letter of 20 February 1827 accepts McDowell's appointment to serve as co-executor of his will. Lewis' letter dates from the time of McDowell's extended illness from which attending physicians did not expect him to recover. A letter of 9 February 1826 from Will[iam] J. Cowan renews a contract by which Davison McDowell hired slaves from him.

Of particular interest are three letters written in response to questions regarding the calling of an election for sheriff of Georgetown District. Two letters from Charleston attorney J.L. Petigru, 25 and 30 December 1826, offer legal opinions. A third, written from Columbia by McDowell's neighbor planter and state legislator Joseph W. Allston, December 1826, advises that, in the absence of the Attorney General, "I have consulted my friend Col. Evans, on the subject of the duty of the managers of elections, with regard to the Sheriffs election. It is his decided opinion, that the election should not be advertised for January. He says it is the duty of the Clerk, to give due notice to the governor, of the time at which the Sheriffs term of service expires, & that the Governor will then have to issue a writ of election, to the respective managers. From an examination of the law, since we have been here, we have all come to the conclusion, that the Governors appointment of Thos. Heriot, as Clerk, is not good for more than a year, & that consequently, an election for clerk will have to be held in January. I like your proposition, to compel the Sheriffs to attend at the Court houses, at the counting of the votes, and also your other idea, with regard to the country polls: this however, is not the time, for introducing such propositions—it can be better done at the next Session, when the resolutions, for the next general election are drawn up." Allston's letter comments too on the election of John Taylor as governor.

Other documents relate to the settlement of the estate of Davison McDowell's widow, Catherine DuBose McDowell, as well as the estates of Belle M.L. McDowell and John B. Witherspoon, M.D., each of which was administered by Davison McDowell's son, the Rev. James McDowell.

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