The Work of Others

Bunn will extract

Extract from will of Jacob Bunn, Northampton County, NC, 1790

Most American genealogies justifiably celebrate the accomplishments and deeds of ancestors, recalling how they experienced or participated in the historical events of their times. However, genealogies of white southerners often omit reference to a group of household members that contributed significantly to their family enterprises: that is, those household members held in slavery prior to the Civil War. Yet much as slavery was impossible to ignore in antebellum southern society, it is impossible to ignore within the primary documents of the era. Particularly disturbing is reading wills, where “Negroes” are parceled out to heirs along with livestock and household furnishings. One common formulation reads like that in the 1790 will of Nelson ancestor Jacob Bunn, of Northampton County, NC: “I give unto my grandson Elias Lewter one Negro woman by the name of Edy and all her issue to him and his heirs forever.” Thus does one man expect to condemn a woman and all her descendants to slavery in perpetuity.

No one in the family handed down stories of slavery, but a few, usually tragic glimpses remain in the historical record. Uncle Tom's Cabin CoverFor instance, in the 1856 proceedings regarding the estate of John Nelson of Madison County, TN – who died intestate – the court orders the sale of his land and a Negro man named George in order to pay off the debts of the estate. According to census records, George was over 55 years old in 1850, and was the only slave in the household. The unplanned sale of George inevitably leads to questions. How long had George been held as a slave in the Nelson household? Had this been his only home? What was the character of the relationship between the family and George? Would John Nelson have wished George to remain with the family if he anticipated his death and thus resolved his debts and written a will? Would he have wanted George freed? What happened to George, suddenly put into someone else’s power as an elderly man? The sad fate of the famous fictional Uncle Tom who was destined for freedom until his master died unexpectedly casts a shadow over any interpretation. Unfortunately, these questions are – in all likelihood – unanswerable.

There is an occasional uplifting story. An uncle Charles Moorman (also of the Nelson family) of Campbell County, Virginia was early among southern Quakers in taking action on his belief slavery was immoral. In 1778 he wrote out deeds of manumission for all of them, complete with thoughtful and idealistic sentiment. Here is one example:

I, Charles Moorman, from mature consideration and the conviction of my own mind, being fully persuaded that freedom is the natural right of all mankind, and that no law, moral or divine, has given me a right to or property in the persons of any of my fellow creatures, and being desirous to fulfill the injunction of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, but doing to others as I would be done by, do therefore declare that having under my care a negro man named Jack aged fifty years, I do for myself, my heirs, executors, and administrators hereby release unto him, the said Jack, all my right, interest, claim, or pretension of claim whatsoever to his person or any estate he may acquire, without any interruption from me or any person claiming for, by, from, or under me.

Unfortunately, Virginia law of the time did not allow such freedom and Moorman soon died, but he included instructions in his will for his executors to pursue legislation that would realize his intentions. That legislative process took nine years by which time his heirs had sold many of the slaves, and they had been moved as far away as Georgia and South Carolina. To carry out the terms of the will and the deeds, one of Moorman’s executors named Christopher Johnson (likely another uncle but not one of the direct ancestors by this name) allegedly traveled more than 10,000 miles to locate, repurchase, and free the slaves.

Besides the few stories, there is good data on the family’s involvement with slavery thanks to decennial census records. The information gets more specific over time, with the best records found in the 1860 census just before the Civil War and emancipation. Click here to download an Excel spreadsheet showing each direct ancestor who is a head of household and the number of slaves each listed in the 1840, 1850, and 1860 censuses. Here is summary information for each of the eight reference families and the family as a whole.

Slaves in Census summaryOf the eight families, the Fohls lived in the northern free states of Indiana and Pennsylvania, and thus had no slaves. The Loebs were in Louisville, Kentucky on the Ohio River, which was the dividing line between free-state Ohio and slave-state Kentucky. Not only were the Loebs on the edge of the region where slavery was legal, they were also urban, immigrant, and poor – all of which made them unlikely candidates to be slaveholders and they held none.

The Ragland family reported no slaves during any of these censuses, although the Byrd Farmer portion of their family is unaccounted for. The Paysingers and Tenerys had virtually no slaves by the time of the Civil War (1 each), although the senior Robert Browning in Caswell County, NC, and Samuel Gilliam in Giles County, TN, had previously reported 10-16 slaves in the 1840 or 1850 censuses.

It was the Thompson, Nelson, and Blakemore families which were particularly invested in the slave economy at the start of the Civil War, though even there most of the slaves were concentrated in just four households. William H. Thompson had up to 20 slaves working for him, although in an unusual way: he used the labor (at least in part) at cotton yarn and chewing tobacco factories in Mansfield, TN, rather than in agriculture. Nelson family member Henry Holt of Limestone County, Alabama, held the most slaves, reporting 41 in the 1860 census. Daniel and Mary Crafton and James Hicks were responsible for most of the slaves in the Blakemore family, listing 15-17 apiece in the 1850 and 1860 censuses.

With exception of William Thompson’s employment of slaves in an industrial enterprise, the type and scale of slaveholding was fairly typical for Tennessee, where the median number of slaves in a household that had slaves (ignoring households that did not have slaves) was only 15 in 1850 and 1860. For the family, the number of slaves ranged from 1 to 41 per slave-holding household in these two census periods, with a median less than 10. The family did have somewhat more slaveholding households than in the population of Tennessee as a whole: almost half of the family households had slaves, which was true for only about a quarter of Tennessee households overall.

In these modest, mostly farming enterprises the members of the white family would have worked closely with slaves in agricultural production, and there would have been a great deal of familiarity and interaction between the two groups as opposed to the large-scale plantation operations in the deep South and Caribbean, where owners lived remotely and slaves were managed by paid overseers. In the family census records, the slaves appeared to have multi-generational families living together – in both 1840 and 1860 about half of their numbers were either 10 years of age and younger or 55 years and older. In 1850 the ages of the slaves were shifted more toward the middle bracket between 11 and 54, but even that year almost 40% were in the age brackets of the very young and very old.

The language in wills and court documents of the era only hint at the daily moral hazards and injustices embodied in the system of American slavery. The close integration of slaves within the households of family members would no doubt have required frequent strained rationalizations in order to justify continued participation in the South’s “peculiar institution.” It is unfortunate that more family members – and southerners in general – didn’t resolve that moral tension in the same early and enlightened way as Charles Moorman. Perhaps then the shadow of slavery would not have stretched so perniciously into the 21st century.


General information and data about slavery is from Peter Kolchin, American Slavery 1619-1877, copyright 1993.

Information about Charles Moorman is from “The Moorman Family of Virginia” by Charles O. Paullin, William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 3, July 1932.

Excel spreadsheet with data on number of slaves by household of the eight reference families for 1840, 1850, and 1860 censuses.

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