Wessyngton Plantation

Located near Cedar Hill, Robertson County, Wessyngton Plantation specialized in dark-fired tobacco from the early nineteenth to the late twentieth century. Joseph Washington, a native of Virginia, established Wessyngton in 1796, the year of statehood, when he acquired property along Sulphur Fork Creek; his subsequent marriage to Mary Cheatham significantly expanded his property. In 1819 Joseph and Mary Washington built the manor house, a distinguished two-story, five-bay red brick example of the Federal style. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The cultivation and curing of dark-fired tobacco took skill, hard work, and time; hundreds of African American slaves produced the annual crop. Washington initially relied on overland transportation to the Clarksville tobacco markets; later he turned to small steamers which traveled the local rivers.

In 1848 Wessyngton was inherited by son George A. Washington, who took advantage in the next decade of the emerging rail system, the high price commanded for African American slaves, and the growing dark-fired tobacco market to become one of the richest men in late antebellum Tennessee. In 1860 Washington owned over 13,000 acres and his 274 slaves raised 250,000 pounds of tobacco. His real and personal estate was valued at $519,000, a property value that was seventy-eight times the average of all property holders in Robertson County.

As with all slave owners, the emancipation of slaves as a result of the Civil War cost Washington a large portion of his wealth, but, compared to his neighbors, Washington emerged from the 1860s as one of the region's most powerful planters. Washington maintained control over his vital African American labor force by negotiating stringent sharecropper arrangements with his former slaves. Driving a hard bargain, Washington forced his croppers to turn over half their crop while also pledging to work for him at sixty-five cents a day when he needed their labor. Croppers also agreed not to work for anyone else unless they had Washington's permission, and they agreed to tend the stables, feed the livestock, keep all fences in repair, and to donate three days of labor for every male member of the family. The market for dark-fired tobacco continued to grow in the late nineteenth century, and Wessyngton continued to prosper. In 1892 the plantation passed to son Joseph E. Washington, who managed the property during the heated tobacco wars of the early twentieth century. At his death in 1915, he left the plantation to his wife Mary Bolling Kearns Washington, who owned the property until 1938.

At this time, the estate was inherited by three children of Joseph E. and Mary Washington. They managed the property until forming the Wessyngton Company in 1956 to administer the estate. It stayed in family hands through the 1970s and was designated a Tennessee Century Farm in 1976. But when a new survey of the state's historic family farms was completed in 1986, Wessyngton had passed from the control of the Washington family. The historic estate continues to operate as a private farm.

Suggested Reading

Carroll Van West, Tennessee's Historic Landscapes: A Traveler's Guide (1995).

Published » December 25, 2009 | Last Updated » January 01, 2010