The People

            Iron plantations were integrated communities, peopled by different races and cultures.  The ironmaster, who in modern terms would be termed the Chief Executive Officer and was also often the owner, was at the top of the company pyramid.  Early Tennessee ironmasters include Robert Baxter, Montgomery Bell, Wallace Dixon, William Ewing, Rogal Fergusson, Epps Jackson, Richard C. Napier, James Robertson, Samuel Stacker, Robert Steele, and Anthony and Samuel Vanleer.

Montgomery Bell
John Bell

 Montgomery Bell (left) and John Bell (courtesy of Tennessee State Library and Archives)

Many ironmasters were either from or only one or two generations removed from Scotland and England where the process and business of making iron were well established.  A number of Tennessee ironmasters came from Pennsylvania, the most prolific state for iron production in the nineteenth century.  These men and their families early on formed alliances in their businesses as well as their social life.  Marriages among members of the wealthy industrial families solidified and benefited this close-knit society.  For example, two of James and Charlotte Robertson’s daughters married iron masters. James Napier married Isaac Vanleer’s daughter, Hannah.  Wallace Dixon was married to Anthony Vanleer’s sister, Elizabeth.  One of the most famous women connected with the iron industry was,  Jane Irwin Yeatman Bell,  wife of iron industry financier Thomas Yeatman.  At his death, she became one of the richest women in the south and later married John Bell, presidential candidate in 1860, who became ironmaster at Bellwood Furnace. 

            Next to the ironmaster in authority and skill was the founder, a highly trained man responsible for the production and quality of the iron.  The clerk, as the name implies, was the business manager for the plantation. The workers were in various classes of descending rank including keepers, fillers, molders, guttermen, colliers, miners, laborers, teamsters, and woodcutters.  These men included whites, free and enslaved blacks, and sometimes women and children who all worked directly in and around the furnace operations. Other men, women, and children were responsible for growing and preparing food, and providing clothing and housing for the workers.  Carpenters, blacksmiths, stonecutters, and usually a doctor also resided on the plantation.

The African-American contribution was especially significant and striking; well over half of the furnace and forge hands in Middle Tennessee during the antebellum period were black, and they performed every type of industrial task.  Iron furnaces are known to have existed in both Egypt and West Africa since about 600 B.C, so it is likely that some slaves brought to the New World from West Africa were already acquainted with the process of making iron.  From records and oral traditions, it is known that slaves were an essential part of the iron plantations and worked as both unskilled laborers and at skilled trades including stonemasonry, blacksmithing, and carpentry. 

Promise Land Robertson Family

Jerry and Mae Jane Robertson Family, 1880 (courtesy of Promise Land Association)

Slaves were hired from their masters to work in various jobs at the furnaces.  Some were engaged in “overwork.”  That is, the slaves were paid directly for extra work at the furnace, perhaps seasonally, beyond what they were required by their master on his property.  The ironmaster was required to keep medical help available for the slaves and other workers for many of the jobs were extremely dangerous, and almost all were hard labor. Notices of slaves running away were not uncommon.  After emancipation, many continued to work in occupations learned in and around the industrial plantation.   Census records are filled with the names of slaves who worked at furnaces, and descendants often live the counties today.  For example, the Promise Land community in Dickson County was settled by iron furnace workers after emancipation.

Promise Land

In addition to slaves and free blacks, Irish, Welsh, Scottish, English, and Germans are represented in the census records as furnace workers.  Some cemeteries associated with the iron plantations have markers noting the country of origin of the deceased.  Family and county histories and oral traditions  recount stories telling where and how families came to be in the area, and their part in the diverse and fascinating history of Tennessee’s iron industry.