Tenant Farmers and Hired Hands

By Jane Hennedy, Site Manager for Historic New England at Casey Farm, and Hannah Francis, PhD candidate in history at Rice University

Even after emancipation, formerly enslaved people and their descendants contended with continued oppression, racism, and economic disparity. It is documented that Casey Farm was mainly worked by tenants, some African American, some Native American, some of European descent, throughout its history. In addition, Silas Casey’s records show payments to twenty-seven men (nine of whom were identified as people of color) working as hired hands in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These farmers produced corn, wheat, rye, barley, apples, raised sheep, dairy cows, and made famous Narragansett cheese.

One person of color that appears often in the account books over a span of fifteen years is Cuff Gardner. He did a variety of work on the farm, from killing hogs and butchering, to carting wood, setting apple trees and trimming the orchard, and building the orchard wall. He was paid in cash as well as salt, corn, and potatoes. Prof. Clark-Pujara gives us insight into life in Rhode Island as a free person of color like Cuff Gardner.

In 1804 Silas Casey noted Cuff’s “lost days,” which included “Negro Election” and “Negro Town Meeting,” and a half day lost to being unwell. By reading deeper, we see glimpses of personal time and social life, particularly the regular participation in Negro Election festivities.

Silas Casey entered into agreements with two men of color who worked as tenant farmers and were housed in a small dwelling about a half-mile from the Casey farmhouse. First, he engaged Henry Niles in 1802-1803, a free Indigenous person. Next, he engaged Henry Carr, a free African American. Each of the men and their families lived in a small house, rent-free in return for working for Casey a specific number of days per week. They had the use of a separate plot of land, likely for their own vegetable garden, and Carr was paid yearly the sum of about $80 plus in corn. Archaeological evidence from Henry Carr’s house site tell us something of how he and his wife and possibly children lived circa 1804 – 1814 as analyzed by Ann-Eliza Lewis, PhD. She proposed that small items such as hair combs, thimbles and sewing implements, a tea pot and cups, a piece of chalk for marking slate, and a variety of contemporary ceramic and glasswares showed that the Carrs had the ability to purchase some unnecessary items and engage in leisure activities like taking tea. Henry Carr’s noted participation in Negro Election Day, like Cuff’s, show engagement in African American culture despite his white employer’s control and oversight as recorded in account books and the physical isolation from both the owner’s residence and from other neighbors.

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Casey Farm House in 1940

"The vast majority of black and mixed-race Rhode Islanders…were free by the turn of the nineteenth century; however, free was a terribly relative term. People of color still had to contend with slavery on multiple levels. The practice of slavery still continued, as did statutory slavery. Free blacks also had to cope with the legacies of slavery—most urgently the poverty that came with nothing but freedom. Moreover, being free did not mean having rights. Free blacks had ambiguous legal protections because they were not universally recognized as citizens…Interracial marriages were banned in 1789, and African American men were barred from voting in 1822."

- Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island by Christy Clark-Pujara