Slavery at Farmington

Farmington’s Beginnings

John Speed (1772-1840) migrated from Virginia in 1782 with his parents, brothers, sisters and family slaves. In the late 1790s he operated the salt works at Mann’s Lick in southern Jefferson County. Many of the laborers there were enslaved African Americans whom Speed hired from other slave owners. The income derived from his successful operation of the salt works enabled Speed to purchase land on Beargrass Creek, including the present site of Farmington, around 1809.

In 1808 Speed, a widower with two daughters, married Lucy Gilmer Fry (1788-1874), a Virginian who had come to Kentucky with her family in 1798. A letter written by John Speed in 1809 mentions that the family was then living in cabins on what would become the 550-acre Farmington property.

Tax lists and census records, beginning in 1800, show that John Speed owned varying numbers of enslaved African Americans. The 1810 census lists Speed as owning 10 slaves, and family information suggests that two of these persons were Phyllis Thurston and her brother, Morocco – both of whom had been owned by the Fry family and given to John and Lucy Speed

According to tax lists, John Speed owned 12 enslaved African Americans in 1811, 39 in 1812 and 43 in 1813. This rapid increase in slave ownership reflects the establishment and development of Speed’s plantation at Farmington. The main cash crop was hemp, which was used to make rope and bagging for the cotton trade. The farm also produced corn, hay, apples, pork, vegetables, wheat, tobacco and dairy products. The tasks of planting, harvesting and shipping products to market were performed primarily by enslaved African Americans who worked in the fields, labored at the ropewalk and drove the wagons.

The house at Farmington was begun in 1815 and completed in late 1816, according to a proposal and contract with master carpenter Robert Nicholson. Construction of the house would have involved large numbers of enslaved African Americans, some of whom may have been skilled artisans such as blacksmiths, carpenters, sawyers and masons.

Slavery at Farmington

Slave life at Farmington was representative of slave life at other large Kentucky plantations. From the time Farmington was built in 1816 until John Speed’s death in 1840, between 45 and 64 enslaved African Americans worked on the plantation. The average Kentucky slaveholder owned fewer than 5 slaves, but Farmington, with its large slave population, resembled the large plantations of the state’s Bluegrass region.

Although the family was strongly pro-Union, slavery for most Speed family members was an accepted way of life, as it was in the community in which they lived. Slave labor was essential to the profitable operation of the plantation, just as it had been for Speed’s salt works at Mann’s Lick. The profits derived from the labor of enslaved African Americans at Farmington, as well as income received from hiring out slaves, helped to pay for luxury goods and education for the children in addition to family necessities.

There is a limited amount of information about slave life at Farmington and the different attitudes of various members of the Speed family toward slavery. Much of this information is found in oral histories, court records, newspapers, interviews and family letters. An 1863 interview with James Speed conducted by the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission provided his perspective on life at Farmington.

African American men and women had very different responsibilities. One of the main activities of men was the back-breaking task of harvesting hemp, which entailed cutting, hauling and pounding open the hemp stalks on a hemp break. Each man was required to break 80-100 pounds of hemp per day. James Speed stated that men who exceeded this quota were paid for their “extra work.”

According to Speed, women labored outside of the house milking cows and driving them to pasture and carrying heavy loads of wood and water a considerable distance to the house. Enslaved African Americans who worked in the house, primarily women, did the cooking and cleaning, lit the fires, sewed the clothes, churned butter and performed myriad other household tasks. While letters reveal that the Speed women did sometimes work with their hands, James Speed apparently believed that Kentucky women tended toward idleness. He wrote that “they do not even get up to go across the room to get a drink of water; a Negro brings it to them.”

In commenting on slave family life and slavery in general at Farmington, both James Speed and Thomas Speed (John Speed’s great-nephew and author of Records and Memorials of the Speed Family, 1892) said that John Speed provided adequate surroundings for enslaved African Americans at Farmington. James Speed stated that “each man and his wife had a comfortable room, with a fire in it, a bed and bed clothes, chairs, tables, and cooking utensils.” He also observed that slaves were encouraged to cultivate patches of land for themselves, using the profits to improve their clothing. Family letters indicate that several enslaved African Americans, such as Morocco and Rose were “favorites” and were trusted to carry letters back and forth, sell produce in the Louisville markets, transport the children and carry out responsibilities not given to other slaves.

Slave life at Farmington, however, was not “comfortable” and there are a number of cases where enslaved African Americans resisted slavery at Farmington. In 1823, William C. Bullitt of the Oxmoor plantation placed an ad in the local newspaper for the capture of the runaway Ben Johnston, hired from John Speed. In 1826 Speed advertised for the capture of two skilled men, Charles Harrison and Frazier, who had escaped from Farmington. Although further attempted escapes from Farmington in the early 19th century and additional runaway slave ads placed by John Speed have not been documented, there are some accounts from the period following his death. Phillip Speed placed a similar advertisement in 1851. Dinnie Thompson (c. 1857-1939), granddaughter of Phyllis Thurston, often told the story about how she and her mother, Diana Thompson, escaped from Mary and Eliza Speed, only to be captured in a skiff as they were about to cross the Ohio River to freedom.

After 1840

John Speed died in 1840, and change came to Farmington. Austin Peay, husband of Speed’s daughter, Peachy, bought the house and some acreage in 1846. The property passed out of the family’s hands in 1865. The year Speed died, a 15-year-old slave named Bartlett was suspected of setting fire to Farmington’s hemp factory. James Speed, acting as administrator of his father’s estate, sold Bartlett to W.H. Pope & Co. for $575.00, a considerable sum in those days, “to be taken from the state.” Speed testified that it was “his duty to dispose of Bartlett.” After John Speed’s death, Farmington’s 57 slaves were divided among his wife and children. Because each Speed child was to receive an equal share in the estate, some families of Farmington’s enslaved African Americans were separated in order to achieve financial equity for the heirs.


James Speed is well known in Kentucky history as a strong emancipationist, and he expressed his anti-slavery feelings frequently during his interview in 1863 and at many public occasions. Although he inherited four “men” and “girls” in 1840, he was no longer a slave owner by the early 1850s. Lucy Fry Speed and her daughter, Lucy Speed Breckinridge, emancipated Rose, Sally and her son, Harrod, in 1845. Some family members, including Peachy Speed Peay, Joshua Speed, Mary Speed and Phillip Speed, continued to own slaves until the end of the Civil War. John Smith Speed and Joshua Speed, partners in the real estate and commission firms of Davis & Speed and Henning & Speed, respectively, engaged in brokering, selling and hiring enslaved African Americans.

Because families were divided, and because the 1840 slave inventory only lists first names, it is difficult to trace many of the enslaved African Americans after they were emancipated. We do know that Diana Thompson worked in Louisville until her death in 1895. Her daughter, Dinnie, later moved to the African-American neighborhood of Smoketown and worked at Neighborhood House. Fortune Smith moved to Louisville and worked as a laborer and drayman. Others, such as David and Martha Spencer, moved to the Petersburg community near Farmington, founded by freed slaves.

Archaeology at Farmington

Slave research at Farmington continues with an archaeological dig. The dig, in the area where slave cabins may once have stood, has uncovered many artifacts from the mid-1800s that were possibly slave possessions. Of particular note is a pierced coin marked with an “X”, a sign frequently used by enslaved African Americans. Although this research is still in the preliminary stages, it should provide clues to the lives of enslaved African Americans at Farmington. Similar digs at other historic properties have yielded information about slave activities, diet and religion. Most written documentation does not include the slaves’ point of view, but the artifacts found at Farmington may help to illuminate their experience.