Early Mill History

By the time Rocky Mount Mills was founded in 1818, it had been a site of habitation and industry for hundreds of years. In addition to the Tuscarora people who had used the Falls for centuries, white settlers established grist mills on both sides of the Falls of the Tar in the late 18th century. So the new mill was far from the first time someone had used the water power of the falls. But it did inaugurate an almost unbroken two centuries of industrial production and help kick off the North Carolina textile mill industry.

The mill itself was founded in the very deepest eastern reaches of what would become the Piedmont textile belt. Situated right at the fall line between the Piedmont and coastal plain,  the mill was also an experiment in production and labor in a border region that was rapidly transitioning to the thrall of King Cotton in the eighteen-teens.[1] The mill then was a response to a growing global market for southern-grown cotton[2]. As textile mills began populating New England – unseating Great Britain as the great textile producer of the early industrial revolution – southern planters responded. This eventually led to the opening up of huge swaths of new southern territory and helped spur the migration of millions of enslaved people. Rocky Mount Mills represented a particular ingenuity and a desire to take a greater share of the profits that could be eeked out of the confluence of cotton, slaves, and water.

The mill was founded by three partners: the local planters Joel Battle and Peter Evans, and a man named Henry A. Donaldson.  At least one historian has credited Donaldson with “furnish[ing] the technical knowledge for the enterprise” because of his “practical experience in the cotton mill business” in his native New England.[3] Whatever his origins, it was Donaldson who supplied and controlled the mill’s labor force.The 1820 census shows his household at the Falls of the Tar with twenty-one people “engaged in Manufactures”:  fifteen enslaved people, and six free people of color, all the age of twenty six or younger. [4] Of the fifteen enslaved people employed by Donaldson, eight were under fourteen with the remaining seven all under twenty six. Those demographics match with the free people of color part of the census definition of household as well: four under fourteen and just two under twenty six. Besides the question of ownership, this arrangement also begs questions about the nature of the mill’s labor management. If indeed Henry Donaldson had experience in northern textile manufacturing, then we might find him more inclined to employ younger people following the New England model then being implemented. [5] But this was obviously a significant departure from early industrial labor in the rest of the country. Rocky Mount Mills became part of an emerging conversation in North Carolina and the South more broadly about slave labor and its uses in a changing economy. Reports poured out of southern legislatures in the late 1820s extolling the virtues of the intersections of slave labor and manufacturing. Their findings are best summarized in a telling statement that the great advantage of black labor [is] that you can attach it permanently to the establishment by purchase.”[6]

Henry A Donaldson in the 1820 Census

Very few archival records exist that illustrate the way either enslaved or free African American people thought of their labor at the mill. Most documents speak for or about them if they mention the enslaved workers at all. By the early 1850s, the experiment in enslaved labor at Rocky Mount Mills was coming to an end. In an unsigned letter from the mill’s last antebellum superintendent to the historian Holland Thompson, the overseer claims to have “introduced white labor in 1851.” He goes on to say that these new workers “seemed to think it humiliating to work in a cotton mill and I had much difficulty in getting them to go in.”[7] There is less clarity as to why they stopped using enslaved workers – only a short note that “the owners of the slaves began to object to their working in the mill.”[8] It’s likely that the many enslavers who were leasing enslaved workers to the mill held them back for fieldwork in the bull cotton market of the 1850s. We can see here a struggle over who this work was for that would define much of the next generation’s conversation around the mill.

This translation to a new and more expensive form of labor seemed to take its toll on the mill almost immediately. By 1856 the mill’s owner, William S. Battle, placed the first of what would be dozens of advertisements for the sale of the mill in a Wilmington newspaper. He tried to capitalize on the mill’s potential in comparison to the still-dominant New England operations.

Among the many virtues of the mill in his seller’s estimation was the “help to be had 25 to 50 per cent cheaper than in the Northern States.”[9] An 1860 advertisement in a Raleigh newspaper found Battle still more enthusiastic about the prospects of his mill —“SPLENDID WATER POWER!,” lot of exclamation points!—and also with more hints about the labor force of the mill with promise of “fourteen cottages for the operatives” on site.[10]  All his efforts failed to find a buyer. As the sectional crisis in national politics deepened, the experiment that the mill at the Falls of the Tar represented seemed to be in danger of complete failure. It would take the coming of Civil War to both give the mill new purpose and solve William Battle’s ownership crisis.

Elijah Gaddis

[1] Allen Tullos, Habits of industry: white culture and the transformation of the Carolina Piedmont UNC: 1989, 80.

[2] Sven Beckert,  Empire of Cotton : A Global History. New York: Vintage Books, 2015.

[3] Kemp Davis Battle, “A History of the Rocky Mount Mills,” Battle, Herbert Bemerton, William James Battle, and Lois Yelverton. The Battle Book : A Genealogy of the Battle Family in America, with Chapters Illustrating Certain Phases of Its History. Montgomery, Ala.: The Paragon Press, 1930, 177.

[4] 1820 U.S. Census, Edgecombe County, North Carolina, population schedule, p. 90, Henry A. Donaldson. Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.

[5] It’s fairly easy to account for Donaldson using enslaved laborers since such workers were increasingly the default labor force of the region. The use of free Black laborers is more curious. North Carolina had yet to enact the stringent Black codes of the 1830s, but there were still relatively few free African Americans in Nash and Edgecombe Counties according to a survey of the 1820 census.

[6] Report on the subject of cotton and woolen manufactories and on the growing of wool in North Carolina, Raleigh: 1828,11

[7] Holland Thompson, From the Cotton Field to the Cotton Mill: A Study of the Industrial Transition in North Carolina. New York: Macmillan Company (1906), 250. http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/thompson/thompson.html.

[8] Ibid, 251.

[9] “Rocky Mount Mills for Sale,” The Tri-Weekly Commercial (Wilmington, NC), August 19, 1856.

[10] “[To Capitalists],”The Raleigh Register, May 23, 1860, 1.