Popular Science Monthly/Volume 81/November 1912/Negroes Who Owned Slaves
|NEGROES WHO OWNED SLAVES|
THE story, in its completeness, of the existence previous to the civil war, of a large number of free negro slaveholders in America has become for our generation practically a lost chapter. The fact has been almost forgotten. The full data have never been collected, and probably never will be in an exhaustive way. Much material on this subject has perished through the burning of court houses, state houses and similar depositories of documents. The generations that were familiar with this condition have gone. More than forty daily newspapers passed around from one to another during the summer of 1907 a few crumbs of information on this matter as items of curious news. Editorial comment was tinctured with surprise and in some cases with incredulity. The facts have not only their own kind of interest, but they throw light upon the economic and industrial condition of the free negroes before the emancipation proclamation.
When President Lincoln signed that paper he by the same pen reduced to comparative poverty many colored people who thus lost possession of their bondsmen. Some of these were pure blacks; some were mulattoes; while still others had in them only enough African to class them with that race, according to the social decree that a drop of African blood makes a negro, or as President Booker Washington phrases it, "makes him fall to their pile." Certain of these blacks owned from one to a dozen slaves, while others had in servitude from sixty to a hundred or two hundred men, women and children. These were to be found, at one period or another, in nearly all, if not quite all, the colonies or states where slaves were held. In some counties they were numerous, while in others they were unknown. In certain of the states this condition was at times forbidden by law, but often continued in spite of the law, tolerated or ignored; the laws upon the subject also varied from time to time. In other states, free negroes were given the privilege of being masters by special statute or this liberty was covered by general laws.
Certain of these slaveholders became such by inheritance through white relatives; others by gift; and still others by purchase after the manner of their Caucasian neighbors. In some instances they owned members of their families, as husbands their wives and children, and in other cases the wives owned husbands and children, and again children owned their parents, in order to protect them or ultimately to set them free; the complicated legislation in regard to free negroes at various times and in various places often made it difficult for a free member of a family to manumit the others; sometimes when so liberated they had to be sent out of their state. A large number were owners of slaves without regard to relationships and held them for service and bought and sold them just as did the white people.
The negroes brought with them from their native land African ideas and customs. They were used from immemorial times to slavery. Many of those brought thence to America had been slaves in their own land. Others had been owners of slaves in Africa. In both cases they were used to slavery. It did not therefore seem to them unnatural for a negro in America to hold his brethren in bondage, when he had become free and able to buy his fellows. William Pitt, the younger, in a speech, April 2, 1792, in the British Parliament, on the abolition of the slave trade, said, "Some evidences say that the Africans are addicted to the practise of gambling; that they even sell their wives and children and ultimately themselves." The black man in America has always been imitative, and his desire to do what the white man did doubtless also influenced him in this matter. Moreover, there were in his country tribal differences and antagonisms which continued to obtain in America; the "Guinea nigger" was looked down on by members of superior tribes, and one of a higher race often felt that a Guinea negro was fit only to serve him.
Free negroes in this country began to own other blacks at a very early period in the history of slavery. As illustrating this fact, there is in the possession of the Connecticut Historical Society at Hartford, Conn., a bill of sale from Samuel Stanton, Stonington, Conn., dated October 6, 1783, to Prince, a free negro, of a slave woman named Binar; on the reverse is a bill of sale from Prince to Isaac Denison, Stonington, August 28, 1785, of the same Binar, a slave. One of the first records in the deed books of St. Augustine, Fla., is that of Joseph Sanchez, a colored carpenter, who sold to Francisco P. Sachez a negro slave for three hundred dollars. Such a servant was sold to a negro in Boston, Mass., November 28, 1724. This bill of sale from Dorcas Marshall to Scipio, free negro man and laborer of Boston, of her servant Margaret is given in full in "The New England Historical and Genealogical Register," in the eighteenth volume, on the seventy-eighth page. Early records of Mobile, Ala., reveal the same state of things in that region. Juan Batista Lusser, in 1797, was one of these negro slave-holders, as were also Julia Vilard, Simon Andry and the house of Forbes.
There is a good deal of human interest to be found in many of the experiences of these colored slaveholders and in their relations with those whom they held in bondage. Rose Petepher, of the neighborhood of New Bern, N. C, was a free colored woman who was married to a slave named Richard Gasken, who had taken the name of his master. He ran away and was in the woods for years, when his wife finally bought him to take possession when she could find him; this change of owners brought him in at once. They lived together for many years afterward, raising many children whom they hired out just as slaves were hired out. Thus they all prospered. Near the town mentioned above, on their own land, some of the grandchildren are now living and doing well.
Judge William Gasken, who owned the man of whom we have just told, was thrice married, one of his wives being a daughter of Colonel McClure, of New Bern. After his death, one of the slaves, Jacob, became the property of Mrs. Gasken. This Jacob's wife was a free woman, and they had a son Jacob, then a young man and free, of course, as the child of a free woman. Aided by his mother's efforts, he managed to purchase his father at a very reasonable price as negroes were then held. All went smoothly for awhile, when young Jacob did not act as his father thought he should and his parent reproved him with fatherly love. Young Jacob was so disgruntled that he went off to a negro speculator named John Gildersleeve, who was from Long Island and was then in New Bern. This trader bought the father at a high price and at once sent him off south. Young Jacob afterward boasted that "the old man had gone to the corn fields about New Orleans where they might learn him some manners."
There was, about 1840, in the county of Mecklenburg, Va., a family of free negroes who owned slaves. Mr. George W. Brooks, of Atlanta, recalls them when he was a youth in North Carolina in the county of Person, which lay immediately on the Virginia line. There was there quite a colony of free negroes, many of them named Epps, and supposed to be descendants of the slaves set free by Mr. Epps, the brother-in-law of Thomas Jefferson. In Person County there was a free negro named Billy Mitchell, an honest man of genial disposition, who being without means, often hired himself to work for Mr. Brook's father on his tobacco farm. Mr. Brooks remembers hearing Mitchell telling his father of his trip to Mecklenburg, about thirty miles away, when and where he went courting, and told of the lands and slaves which were owned by his girl's father. He told with much humor of an incident which occurred while he was there. He went out one morning with the girl's brother to the pig pen to look at the fattening swine. He said that one of the slave boys came and got upon the pen with them; that soon he heard the girl calling her mother to "look at Jim perched up on the hog pen with the white folks." Billy said that he looked at them all and he could not see but Jim was about as white as any of them. Billy went back and married the girl, took up his abode with them, became interested in the estate and became a slave owner himself.
One John Carruthers Stanley, negro, was born in Craven County, N. C, in 1772. His father was a white man and his mother was an African woman purchased from a northern slave trader in the West Indies, where the woman with other negroes had been carried direct from Africa. Captain Stewart was at the time sailing one of John Wright Stanley's vessels, running between New Bern and the West Indies. In his boyhood the young negro John was apprenticed to a barber, at that time in New Bern, named John Carruthers; J. C. Stanley was generally known as "Barber Jack" toward the end of his life. He married a woman with more negro blood than he possessed, hence she was darker in color than her husband, though he was not light. In the year 1808 his mistress, Mrs. Lydea Stewart, the captain being then dead, had him emancipated by the North Carolina legislature. Then he advanced rapidly in property until he was the owner of sixty-four slaves, and at the same time there were forty-two negroes of both sexes bound to him by law for service. At that time he owned two large plantations a few miles distant from New Bern, one on Trent River called Lion Pasture, one on or near Bachelor's Creek called Hope; on these his negroes were employed. He resided in New Bern and owned houses there. But finally after so much success, he engaged in speculations and went down hill even faster than he had gone up. In the meantime he had reared sons and daughters and had educated them. Some of these children owned slaves up to the civil war, and they held them rigidly to account. Stanley died some years previous to the war. This family had necesarily to move in a circle of their own; yet now and then the women would be invited to dinner by a few of the best citizens. One of the Stanley boys, John Stewart, taught free school in a small way and occasionally clerked in a store. He held slaves, as did his sisters, who never married, up to the emancipation proclamation.
There was a colored brick mason in New Bern named Doncan Montford, who owned slaves; he was a dark mulatto. One of his slaves, Isaac Rue, was also a mason; he sold him to a lawyer, George S. Altmore. Isaac's wife was a free woman, a pure-blooded negress. They had children, who under North Carolina laws were free. One of their grandsons, Edward Richardson, was at one time postmaster of New Bern, appointed to the office by a Republican president.
There was in Columbus, Ga., a free negress named Dilsey Pope who owned a house and lot and also her husband, whom she hired out. He offended her in some way and she sold him to the late Colonel Seaborn Jones; then she repented and tried to repurchase him, but his white owner now turned the tables by refusing to sell him.
A free negro named Charley Cobb, a carpenter by trade, lived in Montgomery, Ala. Mr. S. Q. Hale, of Birmingham, remembers this man when he was himself at home on his father's plantation on the Carter Hill road, now the property of the descendants of Colonel Arrington. Charley owned a negro named George; he was also owner of a horse. How to make George and the horse self-supporting was the problem that confronted Charley. In attempting to solve this question, Charley rented of Mr. Hale, senior, a field containing fifteen or twenty acres; the rent note was for a money consideration. About nine o'clock on the morning when George began to pitch his crop, he, jug in hand, appeared at the well in Mr. Hale's yard. Here he met one of Mr. Hale's servants, Maum Flora, and it seemed to be a case of love at first sight. Each morning and afternoon throughout the cropping season, George would appear at the well, ostensibly to quench his thirst, and on each of these occasions he and Maum would flirt for an hour or so under the big oak by the well. Meantime Charley was plying his trade in Montgomery, and when the note fell due he asked Mr. Hale, "how much money in addition to all of George's crop would satisfy the claim?" Charley the master had worked for the support of George the slave.
There was a negro named Nat Butler who lived near Aberdeen, Harford County, Md., who owned a small farm and bought and sold negroes for the southern trade. This sharp and noted fellow would persuade a slave to run off and hide for a few days at a place prepared by Butler, who would in the meantime see the master of the runaway and learn the price he would take for him. If the owner had little hope of recovering his slave and so placed the price low, Nat would buy him and resell him to slave dealers who knew Butler's rendezvous for hidden negroes. His conduct became so notorious that he lost the confidence of slave owners and respect of negroes, who several times tried to murder him.
Jim Scott, a worthy colored man of the same county, was a local preacher and an industrious servant. He bought himself, wife and children from his master, Mr. George Amos, giving his own note, endorsed by his white neighbors. He hired out his wife and larger children and himself for ten years and paid off his indebtedness. He offered his son Henry to Mr. Henry Webster of "Webster's Forest" for three hundred dollars for five years, or until he was twenty-five years of age. Another negro in the same region sold his children in order to purchase his wife and set her free.
Dick Hunter, of Laurens County, S. C, was the slave of his wife, and he finished paying for himself long after the civil war. He died in 1902. Dick was first owned by Mr. James Hunter. The master entered into an arrangement with the boy, an intelligent youth, by which the latter was permitted to work for others for wages and reserve a part of his earnings to be applied to the purchase of his freedom, one thousand dollars being the stipulated price. Dick married a woman of color, and had paid six hundred dollars of his purchase money when his master died intestate, leaving no record of his private arrangement with the slave boy. Thereupon Dick was sold as one of the properties of the estate and was bought by a bachelor named Nugent. Meanwhile Dick's wife had died and he married another free woman of color. This woman purchased her husband from Nugent, agreeing to pay for him on the installment plan. During four or five years the installments were paid, amounting to several hundred dollars. Then the civil war broke out, and in a little while Nugent died. His estate was claimed by relatives who lived in the west, and contracts between masters and slaves for the manumission of the latter were at that time frowned upon by the law. Dick was put upon the block and sold for the second time, bringing fifteen hundred dollars. The buyer was again his wife and she was enabled to make the purchase through the generosity and compassion of a white neighbor, Mr. Clark Templeton, who provided the money. When the war ended this debt was still due Templeton's estate, and Dick did not repudiate it, though doubtless under the law he might have done so. On the other hand, he continued to work and save, and in the course of six or eight years after emancipation he paid the last dollar with interest.
Aunt Fanny Canady was a colored woman of Louisville, Ky., who bought herself and several members of her family. She also owned her husband, named Jim, a little drunken cobbler. One day Fanny went into her husband's shop with fire in her eyes and finger pointed at her husband. She said, "Jim, if you don't 'have yourself, I'm gwine sell you down river." Jim sat mute and trembling, as to send down the river meant to sell to a negro trader and to be taken to the cotton fields of the far south.
At the outbreak of the civil war there was in Norfolk, Va., an industrious negress who was a huckstress in the market and owned her husband. He was an ardent secessionist and was in full sympathy with the firing on Fort Sumter. After Norfolk was evacuated and was occupied by the federal forces, he was loud in his expression of southern views and was at one time in the chain gang because of opinions obnoxious to the military. No slave trader was ever more convinced that the negroes were made for slavery.
A colored man named Dubroca, who lived until 1906 near Mobile, Ala., had been the owner of numerous slaves. Not long before his death a white acquaintance met him on the streets and asked him how he felt. He replied: "O, I am feeling poorly. I am getting old. They all tell me it was a good thing to free the negroes, but I wish I had my 'niggers' back once more."
There were instances in which free negroes became the purchasers and masters of transported white people, redemptioners. An example of the purchase by free negroes of two families of Germans who had not been able to pay their passage from Amsterdam to Baltimore and were sold for their passage money to a term of labor, is given in a volume issued in 1818 in Stuttgart. It contains letters written in 1817 addressed from Baltimore to the Baron von Gagern, Minister Plenipotentiary to the diet in Frankfort-on-the-Main. The Germans of Baltimore were so outraged by this action that they immediately got together a purse and bought the freedom of these immigrants. An early law of Virginia is aimed at the same thing, and forbids negroes or Indians to buy "Christian servants," but permits them to purchase those of their own "nation."
A colored man now living in Pensacola, Fla., by name John Pous, is the son of a white father and a negro mother. They owned many slaves. When the father died the family continued to own them until the civil war. John fought in the union army. Some of his slaves are with him yet—to be supported by him.
One free negro in North Carolina became the purchaser though not the owner of his family. The circumstances were touching. He was a blacksmith and had married a slave woman, by whom he had several children. His shop was on his former master's farm, where he was liked and kindly treated. But finally this man got involved in debt and all his slaves, among them the blacksmith's family, were seized by the creditors and sold to a speculator, who resold them in Mississippi. The husband went desperately to work and in a few years got together sufficient money, placed it in their first owner's hand and got him to repurchase and bring back from the terrible south the loved ones; he was content that they should remain slaves—for the temper of the neighborhood was at the time hostile to manumission—so that he need not be separated from them.
There are other sources of information on this theme than personal reminiscences, though certain of these are difficult of access. If, for instance, all of the census of the United States for 1790 were in print, doubtless a very large number of data of this kind could be obtained. The census of only three states, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maryland, has been printed. That of Maryland furnishes interesting facts concerning negro slaveholders. In the volume called "Heads of Families, First Census of the United States; 1790; State of Maryland," issued by the government in 1907, the white and black population is given by counties. The report indicates in different columns free white males of sixteen and upward, including heads of families; free white males under sixteen; free white females who are heads of families; all other free persons; and slaves. In the lists of names, the free negroes and mulattoes are always distinguished from white persons. Therefore in studying this census it is a simple matter to ascertain the number of free negro slaveholders reported and the number of their slaves.
In this census we find that there were in Maryland in 1790 forty-eight free negro slaveholders, owning one hundred and forty-three slaves. It is probable that the number of slaves was somewhat larger, since in several instances the figures in the slave column are illegible in the original manuscripts of the census; in the printed volume these illegible figures are marked as such by a star; when a star is found in a column set apart for slaves, this must mean that there was at least one slave held by the person whose name is opposite the star; we have in such cases counted one slave. In passing, it is curious to note that in this first census we find in Charles County, Md., in 1790, one Eleanor Linkin, mulatto, had in her household three free persons and two slaves; if this Eleanor were not dated 1790, or some other early year, she would certainly have been thought one of the many namesakes of the great emancipator.
The "List of the Taxpayers of the City of Charleston, S. C, 1860," names one hundred and thirty-two colored people who paid taxes on three hundred and ninety slaves in Charleston. In this class were included eleven Indian families who had consorted with the negroes. In or near Charleston "free colored people," as they were there known, were generally of mixed blood, sometimes of Caucasian and African and sometimes of Caucasian and Indian. They obtained slaves by inheritance, by gift and by purchase. Some of these slaveholders were children of rich planters; they were not considered illegitimate or slaves, but as children and were educated and bore the name of the father. Upon the death of the father, these children would come into possession of his estate, including slaves.
There was a rich planter in Charleston named Fowler who took a woman of African descent and established her in his home. It is not recorded whether or not he married her, but be had no other family. There was a daughter born, who was called Isabella; the planter insisted that she should be known as Miss Fowler. She grew to womanhood and was married to Richard De Reef, a young man of Caucasian Indian blood. Her father gave her a wedding gift of a plantation and enough slaves to work it. At emancipation Mrs. De Reef had forty slaves liberated. In Charleston in 1846 there was a free woman of color whose father had been her master and who manumitted all of his children. She bought a slave for several hundreds of dollars; she was satisfied with her bargain and in a short time they were married.
We have found a large number of individual instances of negro slaveholders in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, both the Carolinas, Missouri, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, the District of Columbia, Delaware, Mississippi and Louisiana, but have not space for all of these in this paper. We will, however, give a few of these.
Mr. Thomas Blackwell, who lived in Vance County, N. C, owned a favorite negro named Tom, who was a fine blacksmith. He was allowed to hire his own time and was finally permitted to buy his freedom at a price far below his worth; he was a very valuable man. This was about 1820. Tom prospered and bought two or three slaves. William Chavers was a well-educated negro who bought a good deal of land in Vance County, from 1750 to 1780, and he owned a good many slaves; his descendants also for several generations were slaveholders. John Sampson, of Wilmington, was a slaveholder in 1855.
Robert Gunnell, a free-born, full-blooded African Virginian, married a slave wife, but bought her of her master before their first child was born, so becoming the legal owner of her and all her children and of their daughter's children. He, with all his family, was a resident of the District of Columbia, during the civil war, when slavery in the district was abolished. All slave owners there received compensation for each slave. Gunnell received three hundred dollars each for his wife, for each of his children and for all the living children of his daughter—eighteen in all. Except for a short time during the civil war he lived at Langley, Fairfax County, Va., and died there in 1874. Also, in the District of Columbia, Sophia Browning bought her husband's freedom for four hundred dollars, from the proceeds of her market garden, and she was in turn purchased by him. Alethia Tanner purchased her own freedom in 1818, for fourteen hundred dollars and that of her sister Laurena Cook and five children, in 1826. At the emancipation in the district, April 16, 1862, one negro received $2,168 for ten slaves; another $832 for two; another $13.80 for one, and another $517.50 for one, while from the $4,073 placed to the credit of the Sisters of the Visitation of Georgetown, $298.75 was deducted by Ignatius Tighlman toward the purchase of the freedom of his family.
Among the people with negro blood in the Indian Territory there were slaveholders. It is well known that the Five Civilized Tribes of the Indian Territory—Creeks, Cherokees, Chickasaws, Seminoles and Choctaws—had slaves both before and after establishing their new nations in the west. Among the Creeks and Seminoles the lines between masters and slaves were less rigid. There has been a good deal of intermarrying between these tribes and negroes. There three-quarter blood makes an Indian, though the other quarter is negro; in recent allotments, the United States government adopted this per cent, in determining who were freedmen and who were Indians. Three of the tribes never recognized the right of intermarriage with the negro. The present chief or governor of the Creeks held slaves and is part negro. One official of the Creek tribe, who had sufficient negro in his family to exclude his children from the public schools of the nation under its laws and sent his children abroad to be educated, held slaves.
In "A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States," by the same writer, he says:
The following paragraphs are copied from a footnote to an article on "Condition of the Free Colored People in the United States" in the Christian Examiner for March, 1859:
We shall now attempt to make an estimate of the number of negro slaveholders throughout the period of the existence of slavery in America, and the number of slaves held by them. We shall proceed upon the basis of certain data already ascertained and set forth in this paper.
Let us take first the date 1790. In that year there were in Maryland forty-eight negro slaveholders, owning one hundred and forty-three slaves.
There were then in that state free negroes, 8,043. The ratio of negro slaveholders there and then to other free negroes in 1790 in Maryland was 1 in 167. The average of slaves per owner was 3.
There were in 1836 in New Orleans 610 slaves owned by free negroes. The average of slaves per negro owner in Maryland was, as we have shown, 3. Taking the same average as holding in New Orleans in relation to these 640 slaves, we have 213 colored slave owners in New Orleans in 1836. We may safely assume that there were as many more in the whole state of Louisiana, or 426 in all, at that date.
There were in Louisiana in 1830 (we have the census by decades, and not for the years between), free negroes, 16,710. The ratio of the 426 colored slave owners to other free negroes would be 1 in 39.
Again, in Charleston, S. C, there were in 1860 colored slave owners, 132. We may safely assume that there were as many more in the whole state of South Carolina, or 264 in all.
In 1860 there were in South Carolina free colored people, 9,914. The ratio is 1 to every 37 other free colored people in that state at that time.
There were in the slaveholding states during the whole period of slavery at least 500,000 free negroes. This can be estimated by taking the total census of free negroes, by decades, from 1790 to 1860, dividing in half to avoid counting any one twice, and dividing again in half to exclude the free states.
Taking the ratio 1 in 167 in 1790 in Maryland, and 1 in 39 in Louisiana in 1836, and 1 in 37 in South Carolina in 1860, and taking their sum and dividing by 3, we have the ratio of 1 in 80 as a slave owner. Applying this ratio to the 500,000 free negroes, we have 6,200 negro slave owners.
Accepting the proportion of slaves to each owner, as found already, 3 each, we have more than 18,000 slaves held by negroes in the course of slavery in this country.
We believe this to be a very moderate estimate. We are of the opinion that these figures are much below the fact. Yet they may be suggestive as a conservative estimate on a matter concerning which no estimate has ever been made before, so far as we know.
This puzzling subject has interested me for a number of years. Several years ago, I gathered such data as I could at the time and prepared a paper on "Black Masters," which appeared in the North American Review, November, 1905. Later, I undertook a further search. I searched as much of the literature of slavery as was accessible to me, and this was done to a major extent with only negative results. I carried on a wide correspondence with state librarians, public librarians, historians, historical societies and a host of individuals who might probably be possessed of some of the knowledge I was seeking. I sent cards to twenty newspapers asking for correspondence on the subject. These letters in two conspicuous instances came to the notice of leading newspapers, which took up the subject and printed letters, quoted documents and brought out a good deal of illuminating information. During the summer of 1907 more than forty newspapers quoted these data or commented on them, in the main giving the few facts over again as they had appeared in the two or three papers that opened up the discussion. This was spoken of as "the new phase of slavery," and was discussed editorially in several instances. Certain editors frankly acknowledge previous ignorance of such a condition. Others lifted their eyebrows and suggested a degree of incredulity, perhaps scenting a fake. A number of journals, however, brought some grist of desired information to the mill.
The bibliography of this subject is exceedingly sparse. There is no treatise specifically on the theme, except my own paper in the North American Review. There is no reference to it in any encyclopedia, as far as I can learn. There are only scattered references to it in a few books and in files of newspapers. The bulk of the facts is still buried in unpublished documents in court houses, historical societies and libraries. There are probably a few hundreds of people still living who have recollections of this phase of slavery. So we are justified in calling this subject, in its completeness, a lost chapter.
- Extract from the Plaquemine, La., Sentinel, 1859.
- The facts for this essay were gathered by me for Mr. A. H. Stone, representing the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and are here used by his consent.