An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

Seneca Quarry

Posted on January 23, 2013 by

Garrett Peck, Independent Scholar

in Re: Southern Spaces, Current Events
Posted on: 
January 23, 2013

Garrett Peck, Independent Scholar

1823 Seneca Quarry workmen payroll. 1823 payroll. National Archives & Records Administration, Records Group 42: Records of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital, 1790–1992. The ARC Identifier is 3025595, MLR Number A1 18.
1823 Seneca Quarry workmen payroll. 1823 payroll. National Archives & Records Administration, Records Group 42: Records of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital, 1790–1992. The ARC Identifier is 3025595, MLR Number A1 18.

Congratulations are in order for Professor Mark Auslander for publishing his well researched and excellent article, "Enslaved Labor and Building the Smithsonian." I've been researching and writing a broad history of Seneca quarry over the past year, a book called The Smithsonian Castle and The Seneca Quarry, which the History Press will publish in February 2013 in time for Black History Month. Prof. Auslander and I each independently came to a very similar conclusion about the likelihood of slaves working at the quarry during the construction of the Smithsonian Castle. While overt evidence confirming that slave labor was used (such as a contract between a slave owner and a contractor to lease slaves) hasn't surfaced, the evidence points in that direction. 

I might add that slaves almost certainly did work at the Seneca quarry on an earlier project in 1823, either for the US Capitol Rotunda archways and doors, or the White House porticoes, or both. We know this from a federal payroll found in the National Archives. The project lasted four months (April, May, June, July), and at its peak in May employed seventy workers at the quarry. Out of those seventy workers, thirty-one signed for their pay with an "X," which was then countersigned by the paymaster, Arch. Lee, as they were illiterate. It was illegal to educate slaves, so some (or even many) of these people may have been slaves. An additional three workers were noted as "Boy," meaning a slave servant. And thirteen workers were noted only by their first namesnames like Rezin, Salsbury, Hall, Nace, Ishmael, Luke, Frank and Martina common practice for slaves. Someone signed for these thirteen people, as none of them "marked" the payroll. It could well be that their owners collected their pay and signed for them.

1823 payroll. National Archives & Records Administration, Records Group 42: Records of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital, 1790–1992. The ARC Identifier is 3025595, MLR Number A1 18.
1823 payroll. National Archives & Records Administration, Records Group 42: Records of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital, 1790–1992. The ARC Identifier is 3025595, MLR Number A1 18.

The most remarkable part of the 1823 payroll is the annotation by Frank and Martin (see image, lines 31 and 32). Whoever signed for their pay signed their names as "Negro Martin" and "Negro Frank." These men were almost certainly slaves. Adding these two together with the three "Boys," you have at least five slaves working on the projectand possibly many more. In fact, a majority of workers for this project may have been slaves.1

In all of my research, the 1823 federal payroll from Seneca quarry was the only quarry payroll I uncovered (and I looked through a lot of archives); this was of course four decades before the Castle construction. Sadly there are no quarry company records, and most of the early Castle records were burned up in a disastrous fire at the Smithsonian in January 1865. Like assembling a puzzle that's missing a few pieces, we can see the overall picture of Seneca quarry, even while some crucial elements may be forever lost.

The quarry at the time of the 1823 federal payroll was owned by Thomas Peter, the father of John P. C. Peter. He transferred the property to John around 1828, and John began building Montevideo, a Tudor Place in miniature a mile from the quarry. It was John P. C. Peter who won the bid to supply redstone for the Smithsonian Castle.

Seneca quarry closed during the Civil War; it lay right along the C&O Canal, which was frequently targeted by Confederates. In 1866, John P. C. Peter's son Thomas sold the quarry and adjacent farm to the Seneca Sandstone Company. The new owners mismanaged the company, significantly undercapitalizing it by selling stock to senior Republican leaders at half-price (including Ulysses S. Grant), then took out several mortgages that they couldn't pay back. The quarry's bankruptcy in 1876 helped bring down the Freedman's Bank, wiping out the savings of some 400,000 freed slaves and exacerbating poverty among African Americans for decades. This early example of Gilded Age crony capitalism has the whiff of Enron, WorldCom, and the recent housing bubble all wrapped into one.

Remarkably, the Seneca quarry reopened in 1883. It went bankrupt again in 1890, reopened, then closed for good in 1901. We know that many former slaves worked at the quarry after the Civil War from newspaper advertisements, personal accounts, and above all a treasure trove of photos uncovered during my research that shows the quarry in actionalmost all of them showing black workers. The history of Seneca quarry is inextricably linked to African American history.

  • 1. National Archives & Records Administration, Records Group 42: Records of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital, 1790–1992. The ARC Identifier is 3025595, MLR Number A1 18.

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