In 1840, Dr. John Mackall Brome returned to his home in St. Mary’s City, Maryland, to inherit his father’s plantation from his stepfather, who had recently passed away. Having spent the previous few years in medical school, Brome’s goal was to build one of the most successful plantations in St. Mary’s County. The site was one of historical and strategic significance, and he quickly began building a plantation that demonstrated economic and social power by exploiting enslaved labor, the St. Mary’s River, and the small public complex near his new home that was built around a Church, Female Seminary, and Wharf. This expansion, however, occurred during a period of agricultural instability in Maryland: the type of crop grown was in constant flux and the threat of Civil War endangered Brome’s primary labor source, slavery.
Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Brome increased the size of his plantation. The oldest of his siblings, he gradually purchased land they had inherited from their father throughout the 1840s. Brome also gained land by marriage to Susannah Bennett, and made occasional purchases of adjoining land. In 1850, he held 2,100 acres. Though he reduced his acreage to 1,800 by 1860, Brome’s plantation remained one of the largest in St. Mary’s County’s First District.
The location of Brome’s holdings served both economic and social functions, which he exploited through his land dealings. His position on the St. Mary’s River allowed him to capitalize on ferry traffic, and he constructed a wharf to do so. Additionally, he was neighbors with and a member of the vestry of the Trinity Church, and provided land for them to expand. Brome was also integral in revitalizing the St. Mary’s Female Seminary as the Treasurer on the Board of Trustees in 1858. Brome’s use of space and his association with these important institutions demonstrated how he used his land and influence to bolster power as a member of St. Mary’s County elite.
Although Brome had a medical degree, he is listed in census records as a farmer, and his vast landholdings were dedicated to the pursuit of agricultural wealth. Like other planters in St. Mary’s County, Brome played the markets to determine the best crop to produce. In the 1850 Agricultural Census, Brome grew no tobacco, along with 75 of the 82 farms in the First District. However, in 1860, Brome produced 40,000 pounds of tobacco, along with 59 other farmers. In total, Brome produced more than 10 percent of the 308,900 pounds of tobacco grown in the First District for that year, the most of any farmer.
Nonetheless, Brome employed a diverse agricultural strategy. In 1850 he produced 2,700 bushels of wheat, and in 1860 increased that number to 3,500. He also raised livestock, valued at $2,114 in 1850 and $5,000 in 1860. In fact, there is little doubt that Brome had an incredibly productive decade between 1850 and 1860: the value of his plantation more than doubled from $22,000 to $50,000, despite its small reduction in size. While the 1840s were spent laying groundwork for a successful plantation, the 1850s saw Brome’s implementation of a profitable agricultural system.
The most elemental part of this expansion, however, was Brome’s labor. Enslaved labor was a critical component of a planter’s economic and social wealth at the time. Slaves were an investment, and therefore a reflection of one’s financial power. Brome recognized this and steadily increased his slaveholdings from 1840 until the end of the Civil War.
It is unclear how many slaves Brome held in 1840, although his stepfather owned 25 at the time of his death in 1839. It is likely that, since Brome took over the operation of the plantation, the care of his mother, and his stepfather’s children, that he also gained control over the slaves. Additionally, he received 12 slaves through his marriage to Susannah in 1841. By 1850, when the Federal Census began counting the enslaved, Brome owned 41 slaves. By 1860, he increased that number to 56. By Emancipation, Brome owned 59 slaves, making him one of the largest slaveowners in St. Mary’s County. This gradual increase corresponds with the increase in the productivity of his plantation, as well as the movement from less labor intensive crops such as wheat in 1850 to the introduction of tobacco in 1860, which require considerably more labor to farm.
A deeper examination of the labor force reveals additional methods many slaveowners used during the 19th century to increase their slaveholdings. The 1850 slave census includes ages and genders of 41 slaves owned by Brome, who had developed a large group of laborers with the potential for more growth. Of the 41 slaves, 12 were 10 years old or younger. Additionally, 14 of the 22 slaves under 20 years old were female, suggesting that Brome was planning on building a larger slave force through “natural increase.” This was a common practice for many slaveowners, who recognized the benefit of “breeding” their slaves instead of engaging directly in the slave trade. This hypothesis bears out in the 1860 census, which shows a two-thirds increase in enslaved children.
This is not to say that Brome was not an active member in the domestic slave trade. While many of the infants and young children in the 1860 census are likely the product of natural increase, it does not explain all of the additional laborers. By adding 10 years to slaves’ ages in the 1850 census record and comparing them to the 1860 list, it is evident that 21 slaves no longer appear on the 1860 list. Fifteen slaves remain unaccounted for, even when ruling out the oldest as deceased. While it is possible Brome freed some slaves and hired others, it is most likely that those unaccounted for were either traded or escaped the plantation.
Brome worked to maintain a young and active slave population to address the need for a strong labor force in the tobacco fields he operated in 1860. These numbers also suggest Brome actively grew his slaveholdings, which corresponds with the increase in the size of his landholdings, the expansion of his estate, and his engagement in local building affairs during this time. Brome did everything possible to ensure that his family was one of the most successful and powerful in the county, and his growing slave population was a crucial part of that expansion.