Stagville was one of the largest plantations in North Carolina prior to the Civil War and among the largest of the entire South. By 1860, the Cameron family owned almost 30,000 acres and nearly 900 slaves. Stagville, a plantation of several thousand acres, lay at the center of this enormous estate.
The first owner of Stagville plantation was Richard Bennehan. In 1768, at the age of 25, Bennehan moved to North Carolina to seek his fortune as a partner and manager in William Johnston's Little River Store at Snow Hill Plantation, located several miles west of Stagville. The nearest town, Hillsborough, was eighteen miles away and was just beginning to attract a number of merchants, professional men, and summer gentry. Neither Raleigh nor Durham had been founded at this time.
In 1776, Bennehan invested in 1,213 acres of land, which became the core of the plantation lands his family would hold for nearly two hundred years. During a period spanning almost sixty years, Richard Bennehan's keen business sense and attention to detail at his store and on the plantation made him one of the wealthiest men in North Carolina. Also in 1776, Richard Bennehan married Mary Amis. The couple had two children, Rebecca, born in 1778, and Thomas, born in 1782. Rebecca married Duncan Cameron and moved to Farintosh Plantation, which was adjacent to her father's property. Upon his death in 1825, Richard Bennehan left all his properties to his son Thomas. These properties included the holdings of Stagville and many other plantations encompassing more than 3,900 acres in Granville, Wake, and Orange (part of which became Durham County in 1881) counties. His estate also included a city block in Raleigh.
Thomas never married, but devoted his life to his family and the operation of the plantations. He lived at Stagville his entire life. Thomas and his sister, Rebecca, maintained a very close relationship throughout their lives. Upon his death, Thomas left all of his lands between the Flat and Little Rivers, including Little River Plantation and Stagville, to his nephew Paul Cameron, Rebecca and Duncan Cameron's son. Paul Cameron became the sole heir of his father's and uncle's large estates. Of Rebecca and Duncan's eight children, Paul was the only one actively engaged in the operation of the plantation. Paul's interest in agricultural practices and personal involvement with the day-to-day operations of the plantation, ensured the continued success of the immense plantation complex.
In addition to tending to plantation operations, Paul Cameron was a North Carolina state senator from 1856-1857. He unsuccessfully ran for re-election in 1858. At the onset of the Civil War, Paul Cameron was considered the wealthiest man in North Carolina. He and his family listed their combined holdings to include over 900 slaves and 30,000 acres of land. The remote location of the Stagville plantation complex served to keep the impact of the Civil War at a safe distance. Aside from a few instances of conscription of enslaved individuals to work on the fortifications near Wilmington, life at Stagville continued with minimal impact during the war. Near the end of the war, Union troops raided the plantation for supplies and a skirmish between Union and Confederate cavalry was fought on Stagville lands. After the war, however, the lives of those living on the Cameron lands, both free and enslaved, were never the same.
When the war ended, many newly freed families left Stagville. Others chose to stay as day laborers or sharecroppers. Sharecropping was the dominant form of labor throughout the South after the Civil War. Many descendants of the Bennehan-Cameron enslaved community remain in present-day Durham County and the surrounding area.
The Bennehan and Cameron families left behind an immense amount of personal and business papers which have been collected in two local repositories: The Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the North Carolina State Archives. These surviving family letters and documents provide detailed accounts of activities on the plantation and greatly enhance our understanding of life on Stagville plantation lands in North Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama. These resources help us learn more about the operation of the Stagville plantation and help us refine the interpretation at Historic Stagville.