Those Who Labored
Like all other Delta plantations, Lakeport was physically created through the labor of enslaved laborers brought into Arkansas specifically for this purpose. Tax records indicate that when Joel Johnson first began to acquire the lands in Chicot County that were to form the basis of his agricultural fortune, he was already the owner of at least 23 slaves which made him the largest single slave-holder in the county. Likewise his brother Benjamin, then residing in Pulaski County, owned 21 slaves, making him the second largest single slave owner in that county. By 1833, tax records indicate that Joel’s slaveholdings had increased significantly to 50.
Unlike the owners of Lakeport and their landed neighbors, we know very little about the lives of the individuals who made up the vast slave workforce. Occasionally, however, past records and documents give us tantalizingly brief glimpses. Often such opportunities occur at the time in which slaves were bought and sold. Such is the case of a complicated bill of sale recorded in Chicot County in 1832 which, in addition to describing land purchased by Joel Johnson from Fielder Offutt, gives the names of some 24 slaves purchased by Joel Johnson in the same transaction. These individuals are “Jacob, Sarah, Holman, Mayete, Yellow George, Bill a brick mason, Thomas a Carpenter, Louis a Blacksmith, Stephen, Charlotte, Mark, Mary, Louisa, Hiram, Patrick, Mary Green, and Bob.” It is far more usual for information about a plantation’s slave population to be discovered in a generalized way among various tax and census records such as the Federal Slave Schedules for 1850 which lists the slaves belonging to the heirs of Joel Johnson and those of 1860 which list the slaveholdings of Lycurgus Johnson.
Slave duties were many and varied; most of the time supervised by an overseer. Many spent their lives devoted to difficult manual labor associated with the various demands of the agricultural cycle. Others, like those mentioned above, were skilled craftspersons. who were often hired out to others because of their specialized abilities. Still others performed household duties. Nancy Sherrard of Steubenville Ohio who had been hired by Lycurgus as a tutor for his children, wrote in a letter in 1860 that, “In the family of Mr. Johnson there were seven or eight house servants. He had a well-trained dining room servant, whom he had bought a year before, who was valued at $1,700. Mr. Johnson had bought him, his wife, and a child three years old, for the sum of $3,000.”
The living accommodations for plantation slaves seemed generally to have varied from terrible to very poor. Doubtless there were many “quarters” present on the Lakeport Plantation but we have no direct information about their quality, number or locations. However, as late as the mid-20th Century some such structures were still standing as part of the region’s built environment, like those located near Yellow Bayou in Chicot County. Not all slaves were content to live out their lives in servitude. By the late 1850s newspapers had become filled with advertisements offering rewards for runaway slaves as well as notices of captured slaves.
The institution of slavery was ended by the Civil War and it took several decades for the Plantation South to develop alternative labor arrangements to replace it. Sharecropping and employment for wages were early experiments, supported and, to some extent, managed by the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly called the Freedmen’s Bureau.
Because of the difficulties of adjusting to a new system of labor (which also required a restructuring of social and other economic relationships), many of the region’s large landowners turned to immigration. Many of the families who later settled in Tonitown first came to Arkansas through the plantations of Chicot County.
For a large portion of his professional life, Dr. Victor Johnson served as a traveling physician to the newcomers laboring on the nearby Sunnyside Plantation.
Now, at the beginning of the 21th century, much of the energy needed to carry out the agricultural practices is supplied by machinery.