Apprenticeship in Slavery

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Blacksmith: Thomas

The children of enslaved field workers on a sugar plantation often followed a patterned upbringing: looking after chickens transitioned to weeding vegetable gardens, and the job of minding animals evolved into carrying food and water for their parents in the fields. By the time they were 14, most field slave children were laboring in the cane fields themselves and the cycle repeated. However, for Thomas, son of an Oak Alley laborer named Flore, this would not be the case. 

Thomas was born in July of 1846. While his mother worked from sunup to sun down his oldest brother Vincent was left to care for Thomas and his siblings, Manette, Fine and Marie. Their early years were not so different from other enslaved children, and when they were old enough, Vincent, Manette, Fine and Marie were sent to work with their mother, Flore.  

Thomas, however, did not join them. Instead, he was assigned to become a blacksmith apprentice. Perhaps Thomas showed an interest or talent for the job, or perhaps he was related to the blacksmith himself. Iram was the enslaved blacksmith at Oak Alley and it is possible was connected in some familial way to the young man, potentially his father. We don’t know for certain--slavery was passed from mother to child making it difficult to identify enslaved fathers. However, what is definite is that at a very young age, Thomas was working in a very grown up, and dangerous, environment under the guidance of Iram. 

Over the next few years, Iram and Thomas spent the majority of their time with each other.  As an apprentice Thomas worked the forge’s bellows, bringing the fire up to a staggering 3,000F degree flame so that Iram could shape iron. Under Iram’s guidance Thomas learned how to make and repair many metal objects on the plantation, including latches, hinges, pitchforks, hoes, cane knives, and chains. He even learned how to repair parts for the sugar mill.  

Blacksmiths were not just ironworkers, but also farriers too, workers who shod the plantation horses. It was not enough for young Thomas to learn how to make horseshoes, he also needed to learn how to trim, file, and fit carriage and riding horses, in addition to the working mules. Mules were critical on a sugar plantation, bringing in cane for   the mill. Iram and Thomas’s work, therefore, was critical. While some mules were shod and others not, any lameness could cause delay during the urgency of “grinding” and blame could quickly be assigned to the farriers. 

Thomas disappeared from the Oak Alley forge during the Civil War, around the age of 16. Many slaves at the time were self-emancipating, so his absence isn’t unusual. Men and women headed for the cities or contraband camps while others were conscripted by the Union, who used former slaves to work on levees and other projects. As a young man and a craftsman with a specific skill-set, Thomas is a likely candidate for either scenario--work or conscription--and it was very possible that he left the plantation with his family’s knowledge, even encouragement. By 1864, Iram was the only enslaved person once connected to Thomas working at Oak Alley. 

 

 

Contributed by Charlotte Brooks