Bennet Barrow’s Diary

By Jonathan Wingerter

Within the LSU Special Archives lie the diary and comprised business documents of plantation owner Bennet Barrow. He inherited 1,400 arpents (roughly 1,176-1,792 acres) of land from his father. His father’s assets were split up as 5 plots of land to give to his children that collectively was worth $214,930 and included 348 slaves. Bennet was the youngest of six to William Barrow and was given the plot known as Locust Grove, later renamed Highland Plantation by him.

Locust Grove (Highland) Plantation, Saint Francisville. Picture taken 1970

These records contain not only his diary entries from 1836-1845, but a comprehensive collection of business papers listing his assets, including his slaves, and an official outline of his plantation’s rules for his slaves. The book itself was published in 1943 and contains a supplementary introduction by Edwin Adams Davis. However, his analysis is outdated and even downplays the cruelty of Barrow’s practice of slavery.

Who was Bennet Barrow?

According to Edwin’s analysis, Bennet Barrow is described as being a typical plantation owner who treated his slaves better than most. In Barrow’s own words, he considered most punishments and treatments of slaves to be unnecessary, mostly because some slaves would be beaten to death. Barrows also prided himself on how he treated his slaves better than most by giving them medical care and paying them on holidays. Barrow often found himself in debt but owed it to having to take care of his slave laborers. His colleagues would note how generous of a man he was, citing his philanthropic nature and making it seem that he was an exception to the brutality of other slave owners.

According to Edwin’s analysis, Bennet Barrow is described as being a typical plantation owner who treated his slaves better than most. In Barrow’s own words, he considered most punishments and treatments of slaves to be unnecessary, mostly because some slaves would be beaten to death. Barrows also prided himself on how he treated his slaves better than most by giving them medical care and paying them on holidays. Barrow often found himself in debt but owed it to having to take care of his slave laborers. His colleagues would note how generous of a man he was, citing his philanthropic nature a, 18nd making it seem that he was an exception to the brutality of other slave owners.

Portrait of Bennet Barrow, 1850

Obviously, slaves – no matter whose care they were under – were still slaves and given virtually no rights under the law. Every law regarding slaves and freemen were made for the specific purpose of restricting their freedoms in every facet of their daily lives. Bennet Barrow himself had enforced rules regarding slaves on his plantation that the book has documented. These rules are fairly common amongst most plantations and cities within the South. These rules forbid slaves to leave the plantation, marry, or sell anything unless given written permission. Barrows himself tries justifying these rules extensively saying, “The very security of the plantation requires that a general and uniform control over the people of it should be exercised. Who are to protect the plantation from the intrusions of ill-designed persons when every body is abroad? Who can tell the moment when a plantation might be threatened with the destruction of fire?” His long tirade regarding the importance of these laws went on in a similar manner, claiming that it is for the betterment and duty of slaves to stay where they are for emergency purposes. The reality was that these rules were widely in place to limit the freedoms and autonomy of Black people, under suspicion that a vengeful slave revolt could happen if the slaves were left to their own devices.

Possession and Ownership

Slaves often worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset, forced to toil away and harvest crops for the purpose of sustaining the system that profited from their bondage. The common practice to slave labor was a gang system, in which the slaves working in the fields were under constant surveillance from overseers and enslaved drivers. Enslaved women in particular would have the most work to accomplish, as not only where they expected to do the jobs assigned to them all day but also did most of the work needed to maintain their slave households after sunset: cleaning, cooking, and nursing of their own children.

Knowing the reality of what Antebellum enslavement entails, it is clear that this perception of Barrow being a “better slave owner” is a false one. Even exceptions were still compliant to the system of slavery and ignorant to the true needs of the people they had ownership over. The diary entries themselves revealed as much when read within the context of the common practices of plantation slavery.

Barrow wrote about his slaves in the same way he writes about the rest of his finances: as objects he had possession over. Even though he boasted about the well-treatment of his slaves, runaways were a common occurrence on his estate, punishable by the lashing of the whip. If his treatment of them were as positive as he claims, then there would seemingly be no reason for them to resist in such a blatant and obvious manner.

Barrow’s Response to Resistance

Resistance was ever-present in the lives of plantation slaves, whether obvious or subtle. Everyday resistances were the ways that slaves would find ways to fight back against their oppressors without outright starting a slave rebellion. Sabotage of the labor would be both common and easy to pull off, along with finding loopholes to get away with doing less work – such as taking advantage of blind spots within the fields. Running away for a few days was a more direct method of resisting, but effective in slowing down the process by being absent and requiring more overseers to search for them. Feigning sickness or purposely slowing down their work to hinder the financial gain of their oppressors was yet another form of more subtle, everyday resistance. From what can be seen in these records, Barrow’s slaves not only ran away frequently, but in one year alone, he had a long list of punishments directed to his slaves for neglecting their work.

The entry on October 7, 1837, shows Barrow mourning the loss of one of his slaves, George, regarding him as “a very great loss. One of the best negros I ever saw. Or knew. To his family as a White person.” This can be interpreted by Edwin as an example of his care for his slaves, but really only feeds into the paternalistic mindset of Antebellum planters that had fueled the continued persecution of Black men, women, and children. From a more modern lens and seeing how Barrow would only write of his slaves as property, he could really just be sad that he lost the worker that had produced the most cotton for him or had been completely subservient to his orders.

Very frequently in his diary entries, Barrow mentioned casually how he had to whip his slaves, usually for doing what was vaguely described as “poor work.” It was common for a slave to receive lashes for a variety of reasons, from refusing work to running away. Barrows said that he never punished his slaves as such, reserving it only for runaways. Barrows did not rely on overseers, but instead relied on drivers – slaves given the position of an overseer – to keep his workers in line and to enact punishments. He claimed to usually punish them by giving them longer hours, but the diary entries are too numerous for it to be an uncommon occurrence. Receiving lashes was no light punishment either since whips had the power to cut into human flesh and were often given multiple lashes into the hundreds. Even if he did just punish his slaves with longer hours, the labor itself was grueling, painful, and left little time for slaves to recuperate and rest before the next sunrise.

Despite the claims of giving his slaves proper medical treatment and a decent standard of living, his slaves would become sick every week as he would note in his diary entries. Some illnesses are implied to be fake, as told on the entry of a few of them being caught faking illness. Clothing was also limited, as he admitted to only giving his slaves articles of clothing twice a year and their housing being repaired rarely if ever. The standard food rations slaves would usually get consisted of cornmeal that was grown on the plantation, meat rations, molasses, and vegetables that they would have grown in their own gardens. The level of control a planter had on their slaves is merely a projection of paternalism: an ideology that gave them a sense of mutual obligation to keep them enslaved under their control.

Slavery and Society

Other entries of the diary are telling of how Barrow viewed Black people and their place within American society. His entries spoke of abolition as a threat to American society and how he was staunchly against both races mixing. He disapproved of religion being involved in his slaves’ lives, asking “how to expect to preach morality among a set of ignorant beings- proper discipline would do them good.” Religion was out of the question for Barrow as he considered discipline to be the only thing his slaves needed to be good people. Religion was a touchy issue on plantations since the Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831, out of fear that slaves could be inspired by faith to start another rebellion. In Barrow’s cause, he seems to be of the opinion that slaves should not have any access to religious material which they can draw strength from.

Regularly, Bennet Barrow would express his opinion on slavery, Black people, and how they should fit into society. An entry on July 4, 1840, is an example of him boasting his better treatment of slaves by comparing himself to an A.G. Howells – someone who killed his slaves. Yet, on occasion, he would speak of killing off one of his slaves if they ever ran away again in his journal. Not to mention the numerous entries where he openly considered some of his slaves to be inhuman and treated them as such.

On August 3, 1840, he encountered the abolitionist group of Jois Grey and his mulatto sons when they were in the county to talk about abolition. They had then attempted to visit Barrow’s property and he then threatened the group to leave. He would later see them again in 1842 and he again threatened them to leave. He spoke more about his views on abolition and race relations in other entries. An entry on October 24, 1841, mentioned a riot in Cincinnati where a Black man attacked a white boy for no reason, according to Barrow. He hoped that the attack and subsequent riot would convince people in the North to stop pursuing abolitionist practices. Clearly, he showed no intentions of freeing his slaves and instead wanted to keep them under his control to work on his plantation.

Barrow and Enslaved Women

The treatment of Black women in the Antebellum South can be argued to be even rougher than that of Black men. Not only were they subjected to toiling in the fields and receiving the same punishments as any other male slave, but were also subjected to sexual harassment and violence. Those who worked as house slaves would gain the advantage of being better fed, housed, and clothed in comparison to field slaves. Yet, they still faced levels of physical and verbal threats from their masters – usually without warning since it was up to the whim of the master to decide what warranted punishment against them behind closed doors. Women were also statistically less likely to run away due to a lack of familiarity with the local geography, since it was often men who would run errands outside the plantation on their masters’ behalf.

A few times in his diary, Barrow singled out one slave woman in particular by the name of Lucy, who according to the editor, could be considered a woman who would constantly butt heads with Barrow. An elderly woman in her seventies, Lucy was nicknamed by him “Big Lucy the Leader” who “[corrupted] every young negro in her power.” In an entry from April 18, 1840, when expressing his distaste for her and other slaves, Barrow declared “never was there a more rascally set of old negros about any lot than this,” as two of his younger slaves resisted and beating from a driver, for not giving information regarding who slacked off in the fields. During one of his excursions to capture runaways on October 15, 1844, he had no problem writing down that he used ice-cold water on a woman’s genitals as a form of punishment. It can only be imagined what acts he might have performed that he left out of his memoirs.

Dual Illustration of the Harsh, Henry Bibb

During one instance of his neighbor’s slave running away, he kept track of the excursion in great detail over the course of several days. Similar to how he would refer to his slaves in the same way of keeping track of his business, here he wrote that the search for a runaway in the same as his other hunting trips and seemed just excited.  On June 15, 1842, he told of two runaways that took a family hostage were later caught and burned to death in front of a crowd with hundreds of slaves being forced to watch, claiming that “burning was too good for them.”  In July of 1841, slaves belonging to him and his brother were suspected of being complicit in a possible slave rebellion. He became an active force in the interrogation of his and his neighbors’ slaves and commented that “they pretended ignorance more than any other negros I’ve met” after visiting the plantation of  Ruffin.


For a person who regarded himself as a benevolent owner, he was shown again and again to have been cruel in his treatment of enslaved individuals. To say Barrow embellished himself would be a disservice to the truth, because even he did a poor job trying to make himself look good, judging by his diary entries full of the degradation of Black people. It was not uncommon for slave owners to see the relationship between them and slaves as paternalistic. They believed that they were providing for people they saw as too biologically inferior to care for and govern themselves and used it to justify putting them to work under horrid conditions. The editor/publishers of the book did so during the early 20th century before the Civil Rights Movement and it shows the bias that these Southern White academics had towards Antebellum history by making excuses for Barrow and misrepresenting history.

Graves at Locust Grove state historic site near St. Francisville, Louisiana.
Photo by Marika Christian, 2009


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