Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Barbara J. Heath

Committee Members

David G. Anderson, Elizabeth J. Kellar, Sean M. Schaeffer


This research incorporates overseers into the discussion of how constructed space and social relations informed and shaped one another on colonial and antebellum Virginia plantations. Studies of plantation space and landscape often contrast slave owners and slaves in dualistic views of plantation societies. My question is how the organization, use, and meaning of spaces at multiple scales intersected with the historical constructions of race and class. I address this question through a detailed examination of plantation layouts, quarter arrangements, outdoor spaces, and architectural spaces to identify meaningful distinctions or similarities between the spaces created for and by slaves and overseers. I compare five archaeological sites that include three overseer occupations and four slave occupations, on Virginia plantations that range from early 18th-century contexts in the Tidewater to later inland Piedmont estates dating to the later 18th and early 19th centuries.

This research has revealed that the way plantation quarters were sited and organized and the way outdoor and architectural space was appropriated not only differs between the enslaved and their overseers, but over time and across agricultural regimes as well. From the imposition of representational space by plantation owners, overseers were distinguished from and elevated above the slaves whom they managed through the placement, quality, size, and arrangement of their spaces. The spatial practices seen at overseer sites in Virginia were produced by, and in turn helped form, the social relations that defined whiteness and the intersection of class differences within the white race. In appropriating outdoor and architectural spaces, slaves forged limited and contested areas of control, economic production, and community identities through acts such yard maintenance, gardening, rearing small livestock, and carving out interior storage space on their own terms. Overseers were less invested in the appropriation and personalization of outdoor and architectural spaces. In a complex way, their inclusion in the definitions of whiteness and lower socioeconomic status placed them within a distinct set of expectations and allowances from the owner’s perspective. These differences led to the development of distinct spatialities on plantation contexts that simultaneously reflected and shaped constructions of race and class.

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