Story of Buffalo Forge reveals history of enslaved people near Glasgow

Industrial slavery reigned in Virginia’s forges and furnaces

BUFFALO FORGE, Va. – Tucked away in the rolling hills and mountains of Rockbridge County, off winding ‘Forge Road’ and along the banks of Buffalo Creek sit the remnants of what was once a huge ironmaking and farming operation called Buffalo Forge.

It is now a place Brandall Branch, his cousin Jerry Thompson, and the entire family know well. They grew up in nearby Glasgow.

“It was a village, because everybody was your mother and father, and everyone looked out for each other,” Branch said.

Branch said he heard family history passed down through generations.

“I had heard stories about different family members, grandparents and different things, as a child, but they were stories and you know, you never really connected one to the other,” Branch said.

Understanding how their family bonds were forged by fire at Buffalo Forge came into clear focus when author and historian Charles B. Dew published the book, “Bond of Iron.”

“We really found out about it in the early 70s when Dr. Dew came here to research,” Thompson said.

He details the history of Buffalo Forge beginning in the early 1800s when businessman William Weaver bought it. The ironmaking and farming enterprise made him one of the wealthiest men in the area by the 1850s, leading up to the Civil War.

“It was an amazingly lucrative business. He made a fortune,” said Tom Camden, Associate University Librarian for Special Collections and Archives at Washington and Lee University in Lexington.

It was a fortune built by slaves.

Industrial slavery reigned in Virginia’s forges and furnaces in the South where cotton was King. Weaver became the largest slaveholder in Rockbridge County, according to Dew. In “Bond of Iron,” Dew said Weaver had a “total slave force of close to 70 men, women, and children in 1858.” They were Black people purchased to work the land and serve as skilled ironworkers at the Forge.

Buffalo Forge’s dependence and connection to enslaved people is well documented. Weaver kept meticulous records as the business owner until his death in 1863. His nephew-in-law, Daniel Brady, continued the practice as the executor of Buffalo Forge.

There is a treasure trove of Buffalo Forge documents with maps and pictures kept inside Washington and Lee University’s Special Collections and Archives. They are housed in the James G. Leyburn Library on campus.

Both Weaver and Brady kept detailed house records that give insight into the way of life for slaves at Buffalo Forge. One name appears in them often.

“Garland Thompson’s family is well recorded in those, in particular in the house book and the ledgers.”

Garland Thompson, turns out, is the patriarch of cousins Jerry Thompson and Brandall Branch’s family.

“Something that struck me when I found out about Buffalo Forge was it put the stories in perspective and it made the family make sense,” Branch said.

In “Bond of Iron,” Garland Thompson is described as “an imposing figure of a man,” “courageous and unflinching,” capable of remarkable “feats of strength and workmanship,” a legacy his family holds high.

“Garland was a skilled laborer, a husband, a father, a grandfather, that’s what we remember him for, and he carried himself with dignity,” Branch said.

The present-day Thompsons believe his sense of dignity and self, even in bondage, grew from an uncommon occurrence: slaves at Buffalo Forge could get paid.

“I was surprised,” Thompson said. “They were slaves but, I guess that was like a luxury. Of course, you had to treat your workers well if you wanted them to work and that was, that forge work was something that you just couldn’t get anybody to do.”

Weaver and Brady’s papers show slaves could earn cash or credit at Buffalo Forge’s store in exchange for extra work, known as “overwork.”

“Once they finished their quota, they could work and earn money,” Branch said. “They could have gardens and sell their vegetables. That was not common throughout the United States.”

The overwork ledgers reveal how the enslaved people spent their money, perhaps a glimpse into what they held dear at a time when they had little control over their fate.

“Here at Buffalo Forge, there’s records well documented that Garland bought some silk for his wife, or went and bought some sugar. Everything was well kept of what they were able to do. So there was a sense of family,” Branch said.

The Thompson family continued to grow in number at Buffalo Forge even after Garland Thompson Sr. was sold. Dew writes Garland’s children stayed in the area, including Garland Thompson Jr. After the end of the Civil War and the arrival of emancipation, they accepted contracts from Daniel Brady to continue work at Buffalo Forge.

Buffalo Forge is a place the Thompson family stayed connected to long after their ancestors were gone, and it also created a bond of friendship between Brandall Branch and Susan Brady, a descendant of Daniel Brady, the next master of Buffalo Forge.

“When people come and visit, and I’m showing them around, and these are where slaves lived, it does not make me proud,” Brady said.

She said growing up there was little talk of the property’s past when her grandparents later lived in the main house at Buffalo Forge.

“There were two brick buildings behind the house that were referred to as the ‘slave quarters.’ And they were used as farm buildings at that point. There was no talk of it. There was no real discussion of history,” Brady said.

She said reading Dew’s “Bond of Iron” was as enlightening for her as it had been for the Thompson family.

“The book is where I learned most of the history about it, and it was eye-opening,” Brady said.

Two brick slave cabins still stand at Buffalo Forge today, along with what was once a kitchen, what is left of a mill, and a few other buildings.

It is a place Branch visits often as he gains a greater understanding of the family legacy that Garland Thompson Sr. started and the place Susan and her husband now call home.

Another item that remains is one of the ledgers of Buffalo Forge that holds the tale of Garland Thompson, William Weaver, and Daniel Brady, and how their families are forever intertwined in American history, no longer hidden in the past.

“Some people want to get angry, people scream ‘reparations’, it’s history,” Branch said. “It is history and we have to learn from it and move forward, and we have to hug each other and love each other.”

The hope is more of that can come from sharing the story of the Thompsons, Weavers, and Bradys.

“Just opening things up. A conversation. Communication. Friendships,” Brady said.

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