African slaves brought iron-making skills to Lincoln County
By Ken H. Fortenberry
Lincoln County was once one of the largest, most populous and most prosperous counties in North Carolina. Its abundance of creeks, good farmland, and the discovery of some of the nation’s richest iron ore deposits in the late 1700s contributed to its success.
Although historians have given most of the credit for the county’s early success to a handful of industrious, hard-working white pioneer families, it was the sweat of black slave labor that helped make those families wealthy and developed Lincoln County into a center of commerce and industry for the region.
While the history of Lincoln County has been chronicled by many historians, the history of the county’s black population has been largely ignored, although the contributions of the county’s earliest African-Americans were considerable.
Slaves were introduced into what is now Lincoln County very soon after the area was settled by white men in the late 1700s, and while some came from other colonies where they and their ancestors had been slaves, many were yanked from their homeland in Africa, chained side-by-side into ships and brought to North Carolina.
In 1774 the Provincial Congress of North Carolina declared that no more slaves would be imported into the colony, but that law was largely ignored, and those who didn’t want to chance it with the authorities merely traveled to Charleston, SC which had been for years the major slave-trading and sale center of the South.
Many Africans were taken straight off a ship in Charleston, cleaned up to be as marketable as possible, sold to the highest bidder, and loaded onto wagons headed for Lincoln County.
Their numbers increased as the county grew, but it wasn’t until the early 1800s that their population increased substantially as iron-making became big business, especially in east Lincoln where much of the county’s wealth was concentrated.
Cotton was still king, but the iron industry put Lincoln County on the map. But iron furnaces were labor-intensive. Not only did they require a lot of people with strong backs, they also were more profitable when they had skilled iron workers to shape the iron into marketable items such as tools, pots, stoves and bullets.
Germans who had immigrated to Pennsylvania, like famed ironmaster Mark Bird, were recruited to Lincoln County, and furnace owners began buying African slaves for the cheap, skilled labor they provided.
Many of the Africans already were skilled in making tools out of iron, and iron-making had existed in Africa for years so it was a simple business decision for Lincoln County landowners: more slaves meant more profit.
African slaves soon became the backbone of the iron industry in Lincoln County which at one time was one of the most significant areas of iron production in the nation.
It took about 60 slaves to keep an iron furnace in operation, not only working at the furnace and forge, but cutting massive amounts of timber to fire the furnace, and making clothes, shoes, cooking food and providing for the general upkeep of not only the plantation owners but themselves as well.
By 1860, there were 2,196 slaves in Lincoln County – 27 percent of the entire population of the county. Most of them lived in Lincolnton and in the eastern part of the county and worked on farms, large plantations, grist mills, and in the iron industry.
In that same year there were 34,658 slaveholders in North Carolina who owned 331,059 slaves – an average of 9.6 to each owner. In Lincoln County, the slave-to-owner ratio was much higher, and some slaveowners in East Lincoln had as many as 100 slaves.
Among the largest slaveholders in East Lincoln were the Andersons, the Brevards, the Bradshaws, the Derrs, the Forneys, the Grahams, the Hunters, the Littles, the Morrisons, the Reinhardts, the Smiths, and the Rendlemans.
As slaves took on the names of their owners, many black people in East Lincoln with those surnames today are descendants of slaves, and some probably are not even aware of their heritage because little has been written about slave life in Lincoln County.
In a history of the Forney family, an author wrote that iron-mining made rich men out of area landowners:
“It was during those years that the prosperity of the Lincoln iron-mining
district reached its highest point. The whole neighborhood was a beehive of
activity. In crop time the rolling fields were full of toiling slaves, while
at other seasons the mining industry kept everyone occupied. Scores of wagons struggled over the red clay roads, often hub-deep in mud, bearing ore,lime,
wood for charcoal, and the finished product of the furnaces and forges which
dotted all the streams, wherever a little water-power could be developed.
“A golden stream of prosperity flowed into the coffers of the fortunate owners of all this, and none prospered to a greater degree than the Forneys.”
Like the Forneys, the Grahams were huge landowners in East Lincoln and operated two plantations – Vesuvius and Elmwood. They had a number of slaves from Africa. In fact, the 1880 Census of Catawba Springs lists a number of former slaves (using the last name of Graham) who state that their parents were from Africa.
It is generally believed that slaves in western North Carolina were treated better than slaves in the eastern part of the state and in most other southern states except for Virginia. Life was not as harsh here as it was in other areas, although the slaves were still considered property to be bought and sold like cotton.
The following is from a sale document of Lincoln County slaves:
Know all men by these presents that I Thomas N Herndon for and in consideration of the sum of one thousand and sixty five dollars to me in hand paid by Lawson Henderson the receipt of which is hereby acknowledged hath bargained and sold and doth by these presents bargain and sell unto the said Lawson Henderson the following negroes: Kirby, a negro woman about thirty years old and her three children, Amanda, a girl about six years old, Elam, a boy about three years old, and Barry, a boy about a year old, the right to these negroes I do herby warrant and defend to said Lawson Henderson against the lawful claim or claims of all said persons whatsoever……this the 7th day of September AD 1842.”
Here is another document recording the sale of Lincoln County slaves:
BILL OF SALE
“Know by all men by these presents that I Jacob Summey of the county of Lincoln and state of N Carolina for and in consideration of one hundred pounds to me in hand paid by Christian Reinhardt, the receipt of which I do hereby acknowledge, hath bargained, sold and delivered unto the said Christian Reinhardt one negroe man named Prister to have and to hold the said negroe man to the said Christian Reinhardt his heirs and assigns for ever…
In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and seal this fifth day of January one thousand seven hundred and eighty four.
Sometimes, when slaves owners needed some extra money and didn’t have enough work for their slaves, they leased them to others such as what was recorded in a document dated April 1, 1792, between Mark Byrd and Archibald Graham.
Graham “hired out” a slave named Fortune for one year to Byrd, who identified himself as “Iron Master of the County of Lincoln. Fortune was hired out “for the consideration of sum of forty-eight pounds in paid lawful currency of the State of North Carolina, or in lieu thereof Eighty Pounds (unintelligible) dollars at or before the sixteenth day of January next, then to return said negro Fortune with reasonable clothing and his taxes to be paid, unto said Arch. Graham, his heirs, administrators assigns, on the said sixteenth day of January.”