A Past Uncovered
John Overton acquired the land that would become Travellers Rest in 1796, the same year that Tennessee became a state. In addition to owning land, he also owned enslaved individuals who were the workforce behind his agricultural pursuits of tilling the land for cash crops and providing food for all the residents. However, they were also instrumental as skilled workers who helped build the house and other structures on the property. Mary, a widow who became Overton’s wife in 1820, brought not only her children from that marriage but enslaved individuals who were purchased from her first husband’s estate by Overton.
Trying to document the experiences and stories of the enslaved individuals and families who lived here both before the Civil War and after their emancipation is a very difficult task. Primary sources like letters, account books, census records, bills of sale, and inventories are difficult to find. Overton’s death inventory records his assets by first listing his books, household furnishings, horses, mules, cattle, and lastly, 53 human beings listed by name and age. <Click to see names of enslaved individuals from 1835 death inventory>Daily life of the enslaved individuals on the Overton property would vary according to either their sex or what type of work they were required to perform such as a house servant, a field worker, or a skilled worker. These sources also show how Overton took an economic approach to managing his labor force – if an enslaved individual became a liability then they were sold while others were purchased because of a specific skill, such as a weaver.
Addressing their experiences and accomplishments as enslaved individuals is vital to understanding the history of their time and place in the social and physical landscape of the Overton property during the 19th century and the communal ties to their descendants.
Education is a key part of the mission of Historic Travellers Rest and is a path to facilitate an understanding of the hardships that enslaved persons endured until their emancipation. Telling the complete story of all the inhabitants respectfully is the goal we strive to attain for our visitors as they participate in the historic house and grounds tours, specifically the A Past Uncovered exhibit. Housed in one of the site’s historic structures where they worked and lived as enslaved and emancipated individuals, the exhibit provides the opportunity to educate the public on this part of our shared history.