Between Two Worlds
As was common at large plantations, Jackson hired a white overseer on an annual contract to supervise farm operations, particularly the lives and work of the enslaved. The overseer's contract began on January 1, after the previous year's crop had been picked and baled, and ran until the end of December so that he could supervise the complete growing cycle from plowing to baling. Jackson's overseers seldom stayed more two or three years. Since Jackson likely had little routine personal interaction with the slaves who worked his fields, it fell to the overseer to carry out his orders. Essentially caught between worlds, the overseer was looked down upon by the elite of society, as well as the enslaved who were well aware of his station in the white world. Jackson expected the overseer to force the enslaved to achieve his goals, but if the overseer punished them too severely for doing so, Jackson often castigated the overseer for abusing his property.Hermitage archaeologists consider this area a likely location for the overseer's dwelling, based on recovered household debris and its central location between two of the three slave quarters at The Hermitage.
I am pleased that you found all well at The Hermitage and that Mr. Steel has done his duty and has treated my negroes humanely. So long as he treats my negroes well, I have no wish to remove him. I have confidence in his honesty, and industry, and I well know negroes, will complain often, without cause. The death of Jim was a mortifying circumstance to me, and if it had proceeded from the cruel treatment of the overseer he must have been discharged. It gives me pleasure to learn from you, that Dr. Hogg and Mr. Conkle have said, that Jims death was occasioned by poison, and in no wise, by the chastisement given him by the overseer.
- Andrew Jackson to Andrew Jackson Jr., August 19, 1829
Hiring the overseer
When Andrew Jackson and Andrew Jackson Donelson left for Washington in January 1829, they contracted with Graves Steele to be the overseer for both The Hermitage and Donelson's plantation for the next year. For managing both plantations, they would pay him $600.00 in a lump sum at the end of the year.
...Andrew Jackson and Andrew J. Donelson have employed the said [Graves] Steele to oversee their negroes and manage the affairs of their plantations during the year 1829, and a such have placed him in possession of the working tools, the horses & stock of ever description, and whatsoever else appertains to the land as necessary to its cultivation and protection, with obligations to bestow upon them the attention & care usually expected from the most faithful, diligent and industrious overseers. And further the said Steele is left in charge of their dwelling houses and the buildings attached to them, and is obligated to devote to them the care necessary to their preservation, and the furniture within them...
In November, Jackson wrote an angry letter to Steele berating him for his bad management: ...an overseer is accountable to his employer for all losses sustained through his neglect...Therefore you see the necessity of forwarding to me...a full account of your guardianship with the loss of my property, & with the cause that has lead to it.
Despite his distress, Jackson rehired Steele for another three years.
This map of the northern half of the Hermitage property was filed with the deed when the property was sold in 1870. It uses the mansion, the cotton gin, and a "dwelling" that may have been the overseer's home as reference points.
The people below are standing on the porch of a building we call the "North Cabin" which fell to ruins before the Ladies' Hermitage Association acquired this part of Jackson's farm. Located just north of the First Hermitage, it was a log building covered in clapboards. It is the same house as noted on the map.We have no image of any of the Hermitage overseers. This photo from an unidentified plantation shows an overseer on horseback watching the work of the slaves.