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.