During the mid-nineteenth century North Carolina was the global supplier of naval stores. The “Turpentine State” lay in the long-leaf pine belt–a region of dry sandy clay subsoil that ran from North Carolina, south to Florida, and as far west as southern Alabama and Mississippi.
The sap of turpentine orchards was harvested and distilled into spirits of turpentine and rosin; pine trunks were burned in earthen kilns to produce tar. These naval stores rendered ship hulls watertight and preserved hemp rigging. Camphene, a mixture of turpentine and alcohol, was a widely used illuminant until the development of Pennsylvania kerosene in 1860. By the late 1850s, naval stores were the South’s 3rd largest global export crop, exceeded only by cotton and tobacco.
My 2x-great-granduncle, William Gray Strickland, owned several tracts of land in the pine belt, and put one 760 acre parcel up for sale in 1855. Its proximity to the North Carolina Railroad, which ran from the Neuse River town of Goldsboro through Raleigh, the state capital, and ultimately inland to Charlotte, was a major selling point, as was its piney woods, portions of which he had “boxed and attended to for one year.”
The land lay 12 miles north of Raleigh and the previous year, Gray Strickland had sent enslaved turpentine hands to tend portions of the piney forest. They would have cut a hole or box near the base of trees 8-15 inches wide and 3-4 inches deep, with a highly skilled boxer cutting up to 75-80 boxes a day from November until March. As the sap began to rise–peaking in July and August–“dippers” had harvested the resin from the bottom of each box and stored it in barrels shipped by river or rail to distilleries.
Turpentine operations were distant from the main Strickland lands; the isolation of the orchards made for hard, solitary work in insufferably hot conditions. And perhaps that distance created an opportunity for one enslaved man to seek freedom.
Dennis was about 21 years old, a sturdy five foot three, 150 pound man who sought freedom in December of 1853. As James G. Williams, Dennis found work in pine belt counties to the south and east of Strickland’s Wake County plantations, relocating as necessary from river towns to turpentine orchards. For almost two years the young man labored as a ditcher, a striker, a turpentine hand, a maker of barrels. Making his way as a free man.
Then in late August of 1855, Gray Strickland began to track Dennis in earnest, running an advertisement in several Raleigh papers, including the Spirit of the Age, The Semi-Weekly Standard and The Weekly Standard.
The enslaver offered a reward worth $3000 in today’s currency to any North Carolinian who could catch and confine Dennis, and he offered to cover expenses of the collaborator who delivered the young man to Gray.
I couldn’t find an earlier advertisement for Dennis, which makes me wonder about the timing of this reward offer. Was Gray Strickland needing a strong, highly skilled worker?
Or did he need to capture this young man to prove to Dennis, to the rest of the black community enslaved on Strickland land, and to the larger community that he had the money and the power to catch, confine, and control.
In this “status update” Gray Strickland tells people to cease the hunt for a fugitive, and indicates what he thinks should happen to any enslaved person who seeks freedom. Unwritten is the warning otherwise transmitted to any enslaved person thinking of seeking asylum among abolitionists or creating freedom with new identities: “You will be caught. You will be punished. You will be separated from everything you know. I have that power.”
Cecelski, David, “The Turpentine State,” from the blog David Celeski: New Writing, Collected Essays, Latest Discoveries, https://davidcecelski.com/2017/12/17/the-turpentine-state/.
Outland, Robert B. “Slavery, Work, and the Geography of the North Carolina Naval Stores Industry, 1835-1860.” The Journal of Southern History 62, no. 1 (1996): 27-56. Accessed June 18, 2021. doi:10.2307/2211205.
Advertisement by Gray Strickland, The Spirit of the Age,Raleigh, North Carolina17 Oct 1855, Wed • Page 4; digitally accessed on Newspapers.com. Transcription below.
Since Dennis has been a runaway, I have heard of his being in Johnston county as a turpentine hand and ditcher; I have heard of his being about Averasboro’ as a maker of turpentine barrels and striker in a blacksmith shop; perhaps in Fayetteville [a prominent town on Cape Fear River] or its vicinity, and about Goldsboro'[a Neuse River town]. I cannot say whether these representations are true, but I have no doubt he is in Johnston, Harnett, Cumberland or some of the adjacent counties [all part of the turpentine belt], working about as a free man. I learn he passed in some places by the name of “John G. Williams;” he doubtless has other names by which he has passed during his long absence.
I will give the above reward for the apprehension and confinement of my Negro Man DENNIS, if taken in this State, or $200 if taken out of the State. Said Dennis has now been run-away about twenty months, viz: since December, 1853. He is slightly bow-legged, toes turning out a little, rather round shouldered and stoops slightly in walking; has a scar on one of his thighs caused by a snag, of dark complexion, 5 feet 3 or 4 inches high, aged about 21 years, and weighing when he left about 150 pounds.
I will give the above Reward of $100 for his apprehension and confinement in this State, or $200 if taken out of the State, so that I get him again. If delivered to me in Raleigh, I will pay all additional expenses beside the above Reward. Letters concerning said Runaway, to be addressed to me at Raleigh.
W. GRAY STRICKLAND
Raleigh, August 25, 1855