Some of my ancestors fall under the definition of enslavers. Not all of them and not only the southern ones, either. Many people think slavery was endemic only to the southern United States, as far as U.S. history, but that’s not correct. There were enslaved people in the northern states, and I found at least one in my family in the federal census in Rhode Island. At the time, I didn’t pay as much attention as I do now, but I never forgot the surprise of seeing a tick mark in the box indicating my family had an enslaved person.
When I discovered my southern ancestors and found documents naming the people they kept enslaved, I decided to explore further and look into the names and histories of these people. Some people don’t understand why I would do that, let alone care. Maybe some people find it distasteful to address these aspects of our country’s history. Others, I know, say they would never admit to having ancestors who were enslavers. However, I think it’s important to address this, because it’s a fact of my family history. Rather than bury our heads in the sand, we need to say this was wrong and amoral, and learn from history.
However, the main reason I choose to talk or write about this is also because the enslaved people were people. They had their own personalities, thoughts, feelings, and hopes. Being enslaved is not and should not be all that defines them. So I would like to talk about the enslaved people in my family history. Furthermore, I would like to learn more about each and every one of them, if at all possible. Did they go on to have descendants? What were their experiences? What were their descendants’ experiences? Do they have living descendants today who are aware of their ancestors’ past as enslaved people? What are their thoughts and feelings about their ancestors’ experiences?
The Enslaved People
My nearest ancestor I can pinpoint as keeping enslaved people in his home is my 5th great-grandfather, Richard Howett, born about 1755 and died between 13 May 1805 (date of his Will) and 8 Feb 1806 (date his Will was probated) in Tyrrell County, North Carolina. His Will was the first document I ever found that named people who had been enslaved and also a sobering reality check. These people truly were treated as things, bequeathed in a Will with all other belongings, as if they were nothing more than livestock or furniture. Here are excerpts from Richard’s Will referring specifically to enslaved people:
I give unto my well beloved wife Lydia Howett one negro woman called Genea… I also lend the use of the following negroes one negro woman called Chloe one negro by called Washington on conditions that my wife raises the increase of these two negro women lent during her life, also I lend to my wife one negro man called Squire during her natural life… I leave to my son Richad Howett one still it is my will and desire that negro woman Tamer and negro woman Silve be sold by my executors at six months credit to the highest bidder at public auction the purchaser giving bond with good security and the money arising from said sail shall be equally divided between Charlotte Windsor and Patsey Windsor as their full share of my estate, I give my son Silvenus Howett a negro boy called Washington that I have lent to my wife at her death…
In addition to Richard’s Will, the fourth document in his probate file shows that Joshua Skinner filed a petition in 1822 for the sale and division of negroes, stating Lydia, Richard’s wife, did not adhere to the terms of the Will, to “raise the increase” of the negro women Chloe (Cloe) and Moll. Chloe had 4 children: Nancy, Mary, Samuel and Patience, and the petition asked that they be sold and the funds divided among the Howett heirs entitled to them.
Another document from 1821 shows the following enslaved people sold as part of the estate (their ages were listed in the document, and I added estimated dates of birth): Jim (23 – b. 1798), Aggy (20 – b. 1801), Jimmy (5 – b. 1816), Cooper (3 – b. 1818) (Jimmy and Cooper were Aggy’s sons), and Mariah (15 – b. 1806). Others named in the estate were a boy, Spinner/Spencer, and an old woman, Doll (or possibly Moll).
Seeing the actual document with your own eyes is very different than seeing it typed out, but no matter how we come across such records, acknowledging our history is important. Even more important is not letting the history of these people end up buried and forgotten. My ancestors enslaved them, but I promise to honor their lives.