I have a fair number books on South Carolina and slavery for the period I’m interested in, but what a boon the internet is! I’ve found: the wills of some of my characters; botanical treatises compiled in the exact decade of interest; recipes for syllabub, jumbles, and terrapin soup; slave inventories, descriptions of what Oglethorpe was up to in 1735, and all kinds of historic maps of Charleston. It’s an amazing resource.
Yesterday, I needed help imagining how to butcher and skin an alligator and instantly found a YouTube video showing exactly that. I enjoyed fourteen minutes of some guy in Florida doing the job with a humorous and precise narration. “Here’s the best meat, the tenderloin, or ‘jelly role’. … “here’s the second best, under the jaw… ” “you can’t rip alligator skin off like deer skin — you have to cut every inch away.”
Learn something new every day: the erect flanges running down the reptile’s body are called “scoots” and are designed to maximize heat absorption. They’re also the hardest part of an alligator’s body.
Also, this: never, ever cut open an alligator’s stomach. Hmm, why? In my attempt to find out, I came across gruesome stories about the bones of children and large deer being discovered in various alligator guts. Maybe it has to do with potent acids?
In a subsequent google wander, I came across a great book about the fishing practices of bondmen in coastal communities [“The Waterman’s Song: Slavery & Freedom in Maritime North Carolina” by David S. Cecelski]. I couldn’t access all of the text, of course, but I could read a fair amount. Again: what an amazing resource!
There was a description of “gigging flounder and sturgeon by moonlight”. Don’t you love that? I’ll admit to not even really needing to know precisely what it means. I just want to keep saying it: “gigging flounder and sturgeon by moonlight.” [Cecelski].
Several things to note in brief: fish was very plentiful in the Lowlands in the mid-eighteenth century. Oysters, for example, could be gathered by the basketful without much trouble or a boat. Slave owners were ambivalent about the resourcefulness of their bondmen and women. On the one hand, such industry in supplementing meager rations saved planters a lot of money. On the other hand, it afforded the enslaved both tools and autonomy that made white people nervous, especially after the Stono Uprising in 1739. The slave code enacted subsequent to the rebellion was draconian (as all slave codes enacted subsequent to uprisings are), placing prohibitions on literacy, gardening (gardening!), hunting, and more understandably, perhaps, the possession of weapons. Because the economic advantages of the enslaved providing some of their own food held, however, many plantation owners turned a blind eye to the continued practices.
And then there’s the racial animus that has poisoned our country from its inception. Cecelski relates a story about an overseer who found a hidden fish trap and in his outrage destroyed the trap, stole the capture for himself, and pronounced fish “too good for niggers.”
According to Cecelski, slaves fashioned floats out of gourds, hooks out of fish bones, and nets out of hemp. Illicit traps and trot lines were camouflaged along the marsh edges and some slaves built cypress log rafts and hid those, too. So they could “gig flounder and sturgeon by moonlight” perhaps.
A large alligator would produce about 65 pounds of meat. Smoking and salting were the only methods of preservation back then and so it was customary among white elites to share cuts with neighbors.
I was doing this research because I want my mustee character to capture a notorious alligator and cut it up (‘mustee” = half Native American / half African). This character’s named Indian Peter and comes from the Lucas family inventory, but I’ve based him in large measure on another real person — a legendary hunter named Prince Alston. Mr. Alston worked up on the Santee River at Hampton Plantation for Archibald Rutledge many generations later. Rutledge wrote a beautiful memoir — “Home by the River” — in which he describes the man (emphasis mine):
Prince expressed a “kinship with nature as unfeigned as it was intimate” and although “untouched by any human school of philosophy, was deeply read in the oracles of God.” He could handle a cart with four vicious mules and once plowed a field with a bull so terrifying that other field workers routinely walked a mile out of their way so as not to go near him.
(Eliza Lucas Pinckney would spend her last years at Hampton Plantation with her daughter, Harriott).
What would a bondman have done with 65 pounds of meat if he killed the reptile on the sly? On the other hand, if the kill was done openly, say on a Sunday, would the meat have been apportioned between the enslaved and their owners?
After the rebellion of ’39, would Indian Pete still have been in possession of knives? It was controversial then to ‘allow’ such a state of affairs, even if the knives had been previously employed solely for the provision of food.
In other news, a novel about Eliza Lucas Pinckney was published last week. It’s called “Indigo Girl” and covers five of the six years that I cover. The author read Eliza’s letters, etc. If anyone wants to read it and report to me — go for it. I’ll even buy it for you — but I can’t look at it until I’m finished. The author, Natasha Boyd, is a romance writer from Denmark. I’m hoping that her book does very well and that it’s strikingly different from mine.
As far as keepin’ on keepin’ on, my writing instructor quipped, “Do people ever think we have too many books about Lincoln — or Jefferson?” Good point.
All photos from Feb ’17 trip to South Carolina and taken by me. They include shots from the Caw Caw Conservation property, the Ashley River near Drayton Hall, Wappoo Creek, and the water near Boone Hall Plantation, Mt. Pleasant.