Saturday, January 16, 2016

Conecuh Resident Writes Of Plantation Life In Monroe Before Civil War

Monroe County's Turnbull Cemetery
(The following historical article, written by Elizabeth d’Autrey Riley of Evergreen, was originally published in the Jan. 12, 1961 edition of The Monroe Journal newspaper in Monroeville, Ala., under the headline “Conecuh Resident Writes of Life In Monroe Before Civil War.)

 About 1835, there came to Monroe County from South Carolina a family by the name of Riley. Two sons, Colonel Mercer Riley and Enoch Riley, homesteaded and settled in what is familiarly known as Flat Creek.

The Family of Riley was originally from Maryland. They were direct descendants of Jeremiah Riley, a personal friend of George Washington, who is recognized as the first man to advance a practical theory for coastal defense of the United States. For this aid to his country, Jeremiah Riley was given a special citation by his friend, George Washington. So it was from distinguished sources that these early Rileys of Flat Creek sprang.

The climate, fertile soil and virgin forests abounding in wild game of all kinds, attracted many families of adventurous spirits to the land of Monroe County. Enoch Riley as a boy had heard and believed the tales told by his forebears about the exploring and settling of America where the first Riley had settled in 1607 after a trying voyage from his native England. So, on coming of age, Enoch Riley realized the great possibilities for making his dreams come true which lay in the deep south. A home of his own in the virgin pine forests appealed to his creative spirit.

On a hill about 12 miles from the Alabama River, Enoch Riley pitched his tent. This, he knew, was the spot for his home. For miles in every direction he could see rolling hills, winding placidly within its shallow banks, was a beautiful creek assuring fertility and plenty in this ideal homesite. This creek, with its level surface and peaceful meanderings seemed to be the feature most prominent in the area. Mr. Riley knew that in the spring with a freshet, it would cover the valley with a layer of top soil and insure good crops at harvest time. He knew that fish would be close at hand to supplement his diet. He appreciated fully the great advantage of this ready supply of water. This “bottom land,” as the pioneers would always express it, was the best, and Mr. Riley knew how to appreciate the best. So, in recognition of the beautiful creek and its importance to him and his dreams, Mr. Riley called his plantation “Flat Creek.” The name has clung to the area which to this day is referred to as “Flat Creek,” a name synonymous with gracious living as well as with the pioneer spirit of the Old South.

Mr. Riley built a large, spacious two-story house at Flat Creek. He built it well, for it stands in perfect condition to this day. The property is now owned by the Stokes Pearson family and is located on the modern map just about four miles east of Beatrice.

Mr. Riley married Miss Sophronia Autrey, daughter of a pioneer, Alexander Autrey, of Conecuh County, who was the first white man to establish a home in that area. At his plantation, named Hampden Ridge in honor of his mother who had been a Miss Hampden of Virginia, Mr. Autrey raised a large family and taught them to assume responsibility and to take their place in the society of that day with grace and dignity. Therefore Sophronia Autrey Riley came to Flat Creek well versed in the duties which destiny dictated that she perform.

Paramount in the life of any plantation should have been the sure presence of religious spirit. Enoch Riley was well aware of the necessity for this spirit in his community and acted generously in providing a place of worship. He gave 10 acres of land on which he sponsored the building of the Flat Creek Baptist Church. A site for a cemetery was included in his plan. The old church is now gone, but the Flat Creek Baptist Church wielded a great influence in the area which is still manifested by the rich memories of the older settlers whose stories of it have been handed down through generations. The cemetery, of course, remains, and there one will find very handsome monuments. It is sad to know that no one is left to care for the old Riley cemetery at Flat Creek Baptist Church. It is a rarity now when a funeral is held in the shadows of those towering pines.

True to the custom of that great period in our history, people enjoyed the simple pleasures. It was an agrarian civilization which provided amusements of a simple nature. Horse racing was frowned on by many, but at one time, there was a racetrack at Turnbull, a neighboring plantation, owned by the McCreary family. Great enjoyment was afforded the sporting blood of the day through this track, for all the gentlemen of the area took a pride in the horses they own. The Turnbull Plantation had been settled about the same time Flat Creek had been founded. A family from Georgia had been its first proprietors but had relinquished their domain and returned to Georgia. The Turnbull name had remained connected with the plantation and post office even after the advent of the McCreary family, descendants of which still own it and call it Turnbull. The racetrack and the personalities who brought into existence are only memories.

The home in those days was the center for all social life. Far from any city or town of size, neighbors from near and far would gather at one another’s houses for social gatherings. This was not often, but it was always so welcomed. Notes or invitations were sent by a reliable slave for a dinner, a dance or a quilting. Perhaps a house warming was the occasion.

A religious service was a great event for the pioneers. Here one found the whole family gathered, even the slaves, for the master always allowed as many slaves as wished to attend to occupy the gallery of the church. In a case where people worshiped in the open, under a canopy of trees provided by nature, the “darkies,” as they were called, would have a special place, always squatting and paying close attention. They joined in the singing. On the Sabbath Day, carriages driven by the Negro coachman, buggies and horseback riders would arrive for a church service. The men would go in and sit on one side and the women occupied the other side with the children. During a revival, dinner would be served in the grove usually surrounding the church. The men would gather, their topic of conversation being mainly crops, the health of their Negro slaves, politics, of course, and a fine horse trade perhaps. The price of cotton was always debated, it being the principal crop and meaning for existence. The women would gather in their group to talk about needlework such as quilting, knitting, etc. Recipes were swapped and babies bragged on. The younger group would sit around and talk, not daring to get out of the vision of their elders or their nurses. Such discipline is hard to believe nowadays. In the afternoon, again they would assemble in the church for another long sermon or singing. Seldom was there a musical instrument, but a man or woman with a good, strong voice would hoist the hymn.

The entire family at Flat Creek Plantation was expected to attend church services. The word or wish of the father or mother was sufficient to find the Riley pew fully occupied. Only illness kept one at home. The mistress of the household with her daughters and young children would ride in the family carriage driven by a coachman and serviced by a footman. There were always a slave or two for the service of the smaller children. In the families where there was a tutor for the sons and a governess for the daughters as there was at Flat Creek, they were expected to accompany the family to the house of worship. It developed that quite a procession would form at the Riley home behind the mistress’s carriage for the trip to church. Some would go in buggies, some would go on horseback, but go they all did! It was quite a fine carriage which they followed too. The Riley family coach was the envy of all. When the ladies were seated inside, they would see their full figures in the mirrored doors.

The lot of the slave at Flat Creek Plantation was a good one. There were a good many true Africans there by the time the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, but they did not realize they were in slavery so kind was their master and so gentle was their mistress. They were well taken care of and valued both as human beings and property, a not very popular belief above the Mason-Dixon Line. Their cabins were small but well kept. Some slaves were allowed to have their own little “patch,” and they were taught industry and thrift and religion. At night they could be heard singing, laughing and dancing. Some were quick to learn to pick a banjo and often one found a slave, adept in making his own musical instrument out of cane. Often when talent was apparent, the master and mistress would encourage a slave to learn to play the violin, or fiddle as it was called. Music was so often furnished for a dance by a talented slave or a group of them. An overseer would make his rounds at a certain hour to see all slaves were in their doors and that the cabins were made secure for the night. Field hands had to be up and in the cotton fields and performing their other duties about the plantation.

In the house, there were two cooks, a dining room girl was present at every meal and a butler. A personal maid for the mistress and a nurse for the younger children shared the household burdens. There was a housekeeper and women for weaving were an integral part of the plantation. In the rear of the big house was the “back yard” and there was located the wash house, where the laundering was done. Another house contained the looms and spinning wheels. All cotton fabrics were spun and woven by slaves for use on the plantation.

Christmas was a gala occasion at Flat Creek Plantation. The sons of Enoch and Sophronia Riley were given horses, saddles, watches and fine boots. For the daughters, there were muffs, music boxes inlaid in pearl, beautiful jewelry and laces. The slaves were called out of the quarter and gathered in the front yard. Here apple cider was given to the men. The women were given materials for dresses, and the children were given fruit and candy. After the dispensing of gifts, the young people cantered off over the rolling hills on their spirited horses. They always came home with a group of companions at their heels for traditional egg nog and fruit cake and dancing. At dinner time, which was strictly at 12 noon, one found a feast. Prominently displayed at one end of the table was the huge turkey, carved and served by Master Enoch, head of the house and lord of the manor. At the other end of the table giving balance to the setting was a roast pig with an apple in his mouth which would be carved by Mistress Sophronia, the great lady of the district. Baked hen, chicken pie, smoked ham and quantities of vegetables all found their place on the table. The meal ended with cake, pie and ambrosia. In the evening there would be a dance. The large double parlors were opened and music filled the house. A gifted daughter took her place at the old rosewood piano and the fun began. Waltzes, square dances, polkas, all programs were filled and all hearts were gay. Candles burning in candaliers and candelabra with cut glass prisms on markle bases shed soft light reflected in the gold leaf mirrors and polished furniture. Sconces along the walls and great logs burning in the fireplaces gave added glow to the festive occasion.

Life was very simple but rich in love at Flat Creek Plantation. Five sons and two daughters were gently reared there among the hills and pine forests and acres of cotton. Wants were few. The necessities of life for that era were gained by work and ingenuity. Mr. Riley conducted a mercantile business as well as his plantation at Flat Creek. His brother, Colonel Mercer Riley, plantation owner and pioneer spirit in his own right, ran this business with him. They were prosperous and respected and before they died, they had accumulated a substantial amount of the world’s goods in their coffers.

Education was not so widespread in this era as it is in ours. Enoch and Sophronia Riley provided a governess and a tutor for their children. This man and woman were of the highest training and reputation. Their young charges proved the worth of this system in that they all grew to be fine men and women with great ability and knowledge. One son grew to serve as a captain in the Confederate Army during the War Between the States. He became a banker and a large landowner and financier. Another son was a Baptist minister of great repute who became President of Howard College and was author of many books. Both these men of the Old South are written up in Who’s Who. One daughter was married to Major Redden Andress who fell at the Battle of Atlanta. Another daughter received her degree in music at the famous old conservatory of music in Cincinnati, Ohio. All were accomplished, and all were true to the gentle traditions of the Old South.

This was life as it was lived on an old plantation in Monroe County, Alabama before the War Between the States. It was a life of love, beauty and devotion to principal. When the course of war fell across the land, poverty was felt, but out of the ashes of conflict there arose a character full of determination and spirit. To live again and let live was the guiding motto. From this background were produced men and women whose descendants today reach from New York City to the Golden Gate, who are proud of their heritage and who gain inspiration from the life that was lived at Old Flat Creek Plantation. 

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading your article. I am the great great (times 4) granddaughter of Enoch Riley. Currently, I reside out of Longmont, Colorado. I went to our families cemetery November 2018, on a Pilgrimage, paying tribute to all our ancestors whom came to the America's.