Perhaps dozens of men and women suffered enslavement under my ancestors. I know only four of their names from two ancestors’ wills, in which they were conveyed as property: Dick, Plato, Samm, and John. Many more are and will remain anonymous. I know nothing of any of their lives, other than in a broad way the condition they were forced to live in. But for me it is important to make concrete this expected truth about my ancestors. And that is what drove me to do this research.
I am a white person with a genealogy that goes back, in some lines, to Colonial America. I had long wondered if my ancestors owned slaves. In truth, I figured the only thing keeping many of them from doing so would be if they couldn’t afford to.
So I went looking. This was not so much hoping to clear myself of guilt for slavery. I would have been happy to find that there was no slaveholding in my family’s past. But it’s not possible to side-step that guilt. Whether slave owners or not, my ancestors benefited from the enslavement of others. Still, the fact of actual slave ownership is was something to for me to know, accept, lament, and most of all, learn about.
At the dawn of the Civil War, almost a third of households in what became the Confederate states owned at least one slave. Some of my ancestors lived in Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, along with other states with large slave populations.
And those ancestral lines include families that my research showed owned slaves, bought and sold them, and left them in their wills to their spouses and children. In fact, the only reason I know the names of four of the people enslaved by my ancestors is that those names appear in the ancestors’ wills.
I delved into sources digital and readily available, especially drawing on genealogical sources, and the U.S. Census. It was not hard to find these conclusive results.
Examples from my ancestry
For some of my ancestors, I found specific reference to slave ownership. Where there are wills available, we know certain details, and they can bring the situation to life.
George Bain of Woodford County, Kentucky
The will of George Bain offers the most vivid example. George Wesley Bain, who farmed in Woodford County, Kentucky, was one of my 4th great grandfathers. The 1810 Census of the county showed his household of 5 people owning 6 slaves. The 1820 Census showed Bain owning 4 slaves. His 1824 will sheds just a little light on this.
Text of George Bain’s 1824 will
I, George Bain, of Woodford County, Ky. being weak of body but of sound and disposing mind and memory, realizing the certainty of death and having divided among my first wife’s children at their marriages the greater part of the property I possessed at the death of their mother, and each of them having received legacies from their grandfather, the property I am at present blessed with I am about the dispose in the following manner.
First, my will and desire is that all my debts be paid and my Negro man Dick be reserved for the payment of a security debt of Solomon Mitchell’s due George Woolfolk lately replevied for two years.
Second, I will give and bequeath unto my beloved wife, Elizabeth Bain, the plantation whereon I now live, with the Negroes and all the stock, farming utensils, together with all the household and kitchen furniture, to enjoy and possess during her widow hood and in case of her marriage, that she is to have only her choice of a horse and saddle and the choice of a feather bed and furniture.
Third, at my wife’s death or marriage, the plantation is to be divided between my two sons, George and Joseph Bain by a line beginning on Buck Run and running with the line passing the gate, the same course to the Kentucky River, George to have the upper part, including the dwelling house, etc., where I now live and Joseph the lower part down to the mouth of the Buck Run and also to have the privilege of a passway through Georges part and the right of getting firewood from off his land to have rail timber to keep up and supply his farm.
Fourth, at my wife’s death or marriage, I give unto my son George my Negro boy John and to my son Joseph my Negro man Plato and all my personal estate of every kind to be sold on a credit of twelve months and the money arising there from to be equally divided between my two sons.
Fifth, I give unto my two daughters, Sally Mitchell and Gincy Peacock, the sum of one hundred dollars each to be paid out of the monies arising from the sale of my personal property.
Sixth I give unto my grandson, Greenberry Peyton ten dollars to be paid by my two sons, George and Joseph Bain.
Seventh, I give unto my son, Joseph my tract of 200 acres of land in Washington County on Glenn’s Creek and waters of Chaplin.
Lastly I do hereby appoint my wife, Elizabeth Bain, and my son George Bain my executrix and executor of this my last will and testament hereby revoking and disannuling all wills or testaments by mere hereto made.
In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and seal this 21st day of April 1824.
Signed and acknowledge in presence. G. Bain1
Slavery in Kentucky and Woodford County
The farms in Woodford County were small, distinct from the large-scale cotton and other plantation operations further south, such as in Mississippi. As agriculture evolved, the Woodford County slaveholders found they needed less labor from enslaved people and often they sold off people they enslaved to Mississippi plantations. They didn’t so often need the children of their slaves, and families were routinely split by the sale of what were seen as excess labor with a cash value. They literally sold people down the river.
The settlers of the county in the late 1700s came mainly from Virginia, but also from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and North Carolina. Seventy percent brought slaves with them to the new territory, which was being stripped of its Native American population and its dense woodlands, to make it ready for white settlers. The enslaved brought there cleared land and built fences and then took up the work of farming and trades as the new white settlements grew.
A historian of the county, William Railey, writing in 19202, claimed that, essentially, that the county’s enslaved people were contented, well-fed, loyal, and happy. He alleges that the native peoples encouraged the slaves to join in an uprising against their masters, but that the Negroes of the county were “loyal to the master, and he not only warned him of danger, but stood ready at all times, and under all circumstances, to help protect his interests at any sacrifice.”
He continues, “that spirit of loyalty characterized the slaves until a few itinerant Baptist preachers from Ohio sowed tares in the settlers’ field, made some of them restless, others a little reckless, but the average remained quiescent and faithful until Mr. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. In short, the ante-bellum Negro in Woodford was a happy, well-fed, well treated slave, and at no time since the Civil War has any county in the state had a better behaved colored citizenship than has this one. Much of this is due to the training they received from their several God-fearing masters.”
That line of thought, of course, is self-justifying nonsense. The people involved were held in slavery against their wills.
The county centered on the town Versailles. As of the 1810 Census, the vast majority of whites in the town owned slaves. Three fifths of the white population outside Versailles owned slaves. The town and county had a scattering of free people of color, but most of the people of color were enslaved. Of the total county population of 9,411, 3,179 were enslaved.
Captain William Barton of Southern Maryland (1634 to 1717)
William Barton was my 8th Great Grandfather. At about age 20, he emigrated from England with his family. They settled in Southern Maryland in 1654. His family bought plantation land in Maryland. He lived and farmed in Southern Maryland until his death in 1717.
Barton’s 1717 will directed that his slave Samm go to his grandson, Barton Smoot, noting, “if the Laws would have permitted, I would have given Samm his freedom”. His estate appraisal appears to show only one slave (Samm), but he may, through control of inherited property, had slaves who were, in effect, owned by an estate, rather than working directly in his household and thus considered personal property.3
From William Barton’s 1717 Will:
“I Give & bequeath unto my Grandson Barton Smoott My Negro Man Samm & do hereby Desire him to use him Kindly during his Natural Life knowing it was My Intent if the Laws would have permitted to have given him his freedome.”
This bequest made the top of William Barton’s list. He followed it with other specific bequests of his furniture, land, and other wealth, all was property entirely in his control, including Samm:
“… as for what Worldly Estate God hath been pleased to bless me with I Dispose of the Same as Followeth.
Item. I give & bequeath unto my Grandson Barton Smoott My Negro Man Samm & do hereby Desire him to use him Kindly during his Natural Life knowing it was My Intent if the Laws would have permitted to have given him his freedome.
Item. I give & bequeath unto My Grand Daughter Rachell Stone the Wife of Matthew Stone the feather bed & furniture that I now Lye on.
Item. I Give & Bequeath unto my Grand Daughter Ann Smoot two Cowes with Calves by theirs Sides to be Delivered after my Decease by My Executor.
Item. I Give & Bequeath unto my Grand Daughter Mary Hungerford two Young Cowes or Yearling Heifers to be Delivered as afsd.
Item. I Give & Bequeath unto My Grand Daughter Eliza: Philpott the Wife of Charles Philpott the feather bed & furniture belonging to the Same which is in the Great house Room to be delivered as afsd.
Item. I Give & bequeath unto my Grand Son Barton Warren Two Young Cows or heifers of Two Years old also one full share of my present Crop of Tobacco.
Item. I Give & Bequeath unto My Grand Son William Smoot one full share of my present Crop of Tobacco.
Item. I Give & Bequeath unto my Grand Daughter Eliza: Neale the Wife of John Neale one Cow & Calfe & forty Ells of Linnen.
Item. The full half of all the Remaining part of my Estate of what Nature Kind Soever it be or wheresoever the Same Shall or May be found I doe Give Bequeath unto My Daughter Margarett Miller & her three Youngest Children, the other halfe I doe give bequeath unto Thomas Smoot & Barton Smoot the Two Sons of My Grand Son Barton Smoot.
John Obadiah Cooper of New York (1755 – 1838)
Slaveholding was not just a thing of the American south. John Obadiah Cooper, another of my 4th great grandfathers, in the late 1700s, was a hatter in Fishkill, NY. He operated his manufactory and “owned a few slaves”.4 His was a line that descended to ever-more-prosperous families who built up wealth as manufacturers and merchants drawing on the labor of enslaved people.
There were no doubt other slaveholders among my ancestors for whom there are no surviving records or for whom I could not find records.
Finding this out was certainly inevitable. And I have to reflect that whether or not I had found specific evidence, my ancestors were white people, colonizers, and, in some cases, well-off landholders. That they would be a part of this system is inevitable. And they, whether slaveholders or not, benefited from the system that enslaved people.
Genealogical records and DNA analysis also show that I don’t have any African ancestry, so my ancestors were unlikely to have suffered from themselves being enslaved.
It is up to each of us to decide what this means. For me, it’s a reminder and deepening understanding of what privileges I have and how deeply rooted in history they are. It’s my obligation to know this and think of this, and to work where I can for social justice that can at least faintly begin to address the deep historical wrong that I am a part of. And if only to honor the many others, I will try at least to remember and think of Samm, Plato, John, and Dick.
1 Woodford County, Ky. will Book G., pages 148-149, cited in http://kansashealys.weebly.com/genealogy-wherritt.html
2 William E. Railey, “Woodford County Kentucky,” Register of Kentucky State Historical Society, Vol. 18, No. 52 (JANUARY, 1920),pp. 51, 53-70. Published by: Kentucky Historical Society. Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/23368492