Climate Change and the Collapse of Slavery at the Stratford Hall Plantation in Late 1700s Westmoreland County, Virginia

By Eden Rakes

Faculty Mentor: Professor Pamela Grothe

Models used in climate predictions today are dependent on paleoclimate proxies, or recorders of past climate conditions. Eastern oyster shells contain oxygen isotopes that have the potential to be valuable paleoclimate proxies of seasonal changes in the Chesapeake Bay. Numerous oyster shells were found within infilled slave quarters dating to the 1700s at Stratford Hall Plantation. The fact that these slave quarters were backfilled when slavery was still prevalent in nearby regions is surprising. It is hypothesized that localized climate perturbations may have played a role in the abandonment of these slave quarters, as the 1700s took place during the Little Ice Age (LIA), a time when Europe and North America endured cold winters and only mild summers. Oxygen isotopes within the Stratford Hall fossil oyster shells were compared with oyster shells collected in 2019 to test their suitability as paleoclimate proxies and better understand the decline in slave quarters at Stratford Hall. Although the oxygen isotopes were lighter in the fossil oysters, further analysis must be conducted to better understand how differences in salinity between the collection sites of the fossil and modern oysters are affecting the results.

3 Replies to “Climate Change and the Collapse of Slavery at the Stratford Hall Plantation in Late 1700s Westmoreland County, Virginia”

  1. Eden (and Pam),

    Great presentation; the data are surprising though! One would expect oxygen isotopes to be heavier in oysters if the waters were colder, correct? Does salinity play a role in the fractionation of oxygen isotopes? Were there no modern oysters from the Potomac River to collect for comparison (I’m just wondering why the Rappahannock oysters were used for modern).

    1. Yes, salinity plays a large role in the oxygen isotopes (we would need to quantify it for this system with independent temperature proxies) so we can’t use it as an absolute value of warmer vs. colder. We more want to look at the seasonal changes. The add on the Potomac fossil oysters was after we started looking at the moderns (we used Rappahannock River because ease of access and our collaborators at VIMS don’t go to the Potomac). Neil had started with the fossils at Stratford Hall so we’ve added that part on as of recent cool little story of Little Ice Age climate/seasonal variability and its connection to the local slave plantation. I’m hoping to get a modern study in the Potomac set up this summer but I think the proof of concept is there, that the oysters do a good job recording seasonal variability.

      To answer your question more directly – Stratford Hall is slightly more fresh than where the Rappahannock River oysters were taken, which would account the the “lighter” value.

  2. Fascinating! I love this combination of science and history.
    We just talked about oxygen isotopes and climate change in environmental geochemistry today and this poster makes me want to learn more.

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