Letter from Elias Horry Deas, a plantation owner, to his daughter regarding sharecropping contracts, 20 October 1866
Elias Horry Deas (1803-1867) was a physician who married Ann Ball on February 22, 1838. Dr. Deas practiced medicine in Charleston while also having a deep interest with owning a rice plantation. He was able to obtain a plantation from his wife’s deceased mother’s plantation (from her former husband) after suing his wife’s brother for redistribution of the Ball inheritance. Most of the property in question consisted of people on the family owned, Comingtee plantation. The result of the lawsuit was a partition of land issued by the court, which divided the slaves of the deceased Ann Ball between Ann’s brother, Keating, and both Elias and Ann Deas.
Elias Deas would eventually grow tired of being a physician and turned all of his attention to a new acquisition on the banks of the Cooper River, Buck Hall plantation. The records of Buck Hall, a 635-acre plantation, have not survived, but the slave population probably numbered about seventy-five. There is evidence that Dr. Deas, a first-time slave owner, was detested by the field hands. Some years later his own daughter would write of her father, timidly, “He could not get along with” the black people.
In March of 1865 a raiding party of Federal soldiers came to Buck Hall and headed for the slave street. According to a writer by Elias Deas, the Yankees recruited newly freed slaves to their side and soon, with the column of freedpeople, made their way to the house. The raiders stripped the house of furniture, curtains, and silver, carried some of the loot to the cabins, and loaded other pieces onto a boat sent in the direction of Charleston. When the house was bare, the former slaves burned it to the ground. Next the raiders torched the barns, stables, and other work buildings.
“Not a solitary chair, table, or pillow left,” wrote Elias Deas to his daughter. “I have saved a few blankets and a mattress…The servants about the house have taken themselves off and are wandering about the city.”
In this letter to his daughter, Deas expresses his concerns with sharecropping and the freedman. In this detailed letter he explains how sharecropping is a bad principle:
“…feed them and pay them wages, and you can dismiss them whenever you please, and not let them suppose that a portion of the crop is theirs and that they can work when they please, and do as they please.”
Deas also expresses his concerns about looting and how it is in his “best interest” to be on his property while the freedmen harvest, to “prevent stealing.”
Deas, Elias Horry to his daughter, 20 October, 1866. Elias Horry Deas Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina.
[?] Oct 20th 1866
A short & hurried letter, my dear darling daughter, to acknowledge your very affectionate one of 10th [wish], & to assure you that I am quite well, in fact, as well as I have were been, is all that time will allow of my [doing] at present, [for] as the harvesting & bringing in the rice, is now going on I think is my [duty] to be on the place as much as I can to prevent stealing, & get the rice in the barn yard as soon as I can but it is mighty slow work you cannot [?] the freedmen to so one portion work more than they have [?] for, altho I have [done] & said all that I possibly could [do] to try & explain to them that it is as much to their interest as mine you may as well preach to a bunch of idiots, as to them, & one of them had the [?] to tell me the other day, that she did not know if she [would] [?] to take her shares, & could not work herself before her time came” & this is just the character of nearly the whole [race] of them I would rather give up planting than again plant on shares, as we have all been obliged to [do] this year, it is a bad principle—feed them and pay them wages, & you can [dismiss] them whenever you please, & not let them [?] that a portion of the crop is theirs & that they can work when they please, & [do] as they please.