Slaves did virtually all the work that kept Chatham worthy of its widespread reputation for productivity, elegance, and hospitality. Before the Civil War, it's unlikely that white residents ever amounted to more than 20 percent of Chatham's population. At times as many as 100 slaves lived here. They worked fields, cooked meals, ran the mill, seined for shad and sturgeon, shod horses, slaughtered livestock, made barrels, did the laundry, picked fruit, and did a thousand other things that generated income, luxuries, and status for Chatham's owners.
Those slaves formed a vibrant community beyond the "big house." Some lived in the laundry or kitchen, but most lived in cabins removed from the owner's view. There they sustained family units and cultural traditions as best they could, asserting at least some measure of control over their non-work hours. When not in their living quarters, slaves at Chatham functioned under the gaze of an overseer. He controlled their daily schedule, whom they could visit, and when they could rest.