Slaveholder ancestor
August 29, 2017 2:17 PM   Subscribe

Help me understand this 1799 will, written by a Virginia slaveholder. TW: Slavery, racism.

This question is anonymous because it is about part of my (probably) family history that is new to me, is uncomfortable for me to deal with and that I am still trying to get my head around. I've tried to keep my framing simple and not loaded with white guilt. It seems important to me to dig in and try to understand this better rather than sweep it under the rug.

In doing some research I ran across this will. It references humans "owned" by the writer of the will. I'm not an expert in wills from this time period. It's disturbing but I also want to understand it better:

* The wages of certain enslaved people are stipulated in the will
* Certain enslaved people were allowed to decide which of the will-writer's children they preferred to work for
* One sentence calls for enslaved people to be "valued" - I assume this means appraised - ugh - the rest of the sentence makes absolutely no sense to me.

Are these things common to the time period? Do they point to other information about the writer? If you happen to be an expert on wills written in this time period, is there anything else you can tell me?
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The sentence is a little obscure, but the appraisal procedure was probably required to even out the value given to each child. So if Slave A is worth $50 and Slave B worth $30, the child inheriting Slave A must give up a corresponding portion of property to the child inheriting Slave B to make the shares "equal," or as equal as they can be when they include human beings, not actually reducible to commercial value.

There's no reason why a slave-owner couldn't choose to pay a slave or to let the slave choose which master he would have. There were sometimes business dealings between master and slave in colonial America and the early Republic. In this case, the pay/choice of master was probably perceived as some kind of "reward" to these older slaves for faithful service. Of course, if the heir failed in his payment, it would be quite difficult for a slave to enforce the will...
posted by praemunire at 2:50 PM on August 29, 2017

I can't speak to the rest of it, but for your third question,the sentence just plain doesn't make sense with the unreadable parts omitted. My guess at the language is that, after the owned people have been valued, the children who receive the most valuable of those people will even it out amongst themselves by giving the other children property. I have no clue what goes in the space between "properties in" and "to the Negroes." I suppose it's possible he was willing properties to the people he owned - some slaveowners would, if they freed their people in their wills - but this does not look like the case.

I haven't read too many American wills of the period, but if you're interested you can see several incomplete wills here and here, with lots more archival material in the Race and Slavery Petition archive, which might give you a better idea of what was common.

I've gone through similar feelings, though in my case mitigated by having grown up with the fact that I had ancestors who owned slaves. Still, looking up something for work and realizing I was reading the minutes of the state "Senate Subcommittee on Trade and Slavery" was a shock. It's an evil past, but turning a blind eye isn't going to change it. Good for you that you started looking!
posted by theweasel at 2:54 PM on August 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've read a few old documents like this, I've never seen anyone request that slaves get paid but like praemunire mentions above it could have been something that was not uncommon. What strikes me as odd is that there is no mention of any female slaves.
posted by mareli at 2:56 PM on August 29, 2017

Providing in some (thought to be) beneficent way for one's slaves was very common in wills in the antebellum South. (And in ancient Rome, too, another well-documented slave-holding society.)

This will, by allowing two old slaves to choose their master from among the family and be guaranteed a wage, was sort of half-way between manumission (grant of freedom) and a some kind of semi-retirement pension. I don't know how it would have been handled legally if none of the children would pay the wages provided for or wanted the services to be rendered.

A slave having a guaranteed base wage from his or her owner was certainly unusual, but it wasn't especially unusual for slaves to be able to earn money for extra work, hire out to other people, or trade-craft.
posted by MattD at 3:10 PM on August 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Agree with MattD that this was a retirement issue. I had a NC ancestor who left his "trusty slave Milly" to whichever of his children she chose. Maybe it was a way to provide for a slave in their later years.

I think the practice was common among families who owned small numbers of slaves as opposed to those who had large plantation operations.
posted by mulcahy at 4:19 PM on August 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

You should look into the legality of manumission in North Carolina during the time period. Some states prohibited manumission, especially after a slave had reached a certain age. This might shed more light on the older people being given a choice and salary.
posted by Hypatia at 6:26 PM on August 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

I discovered my ancestors were slaveholders through reading their wills, as well. Surprise!

This was in Colonial New York rather than Federal North Carolina, but some of my ancestors left similar provisions regarding the people they held. None of them had more than one or two, but the allowing them to choose which heir to go to is something I also ran across.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:59 PM on August 29, 2017

Also note that his wife, Nancy, has been lent certain properties, to be given to another family member upon her death. Apparently she was competent to manage, but not to own properties. I hope this peek into the 18th Century suggests a useful context.
posted by mule98J at 9:47 AM on August 30, 2017

Also note that his wife, Nancy, has been lent certain properties, to be given to another family member upon her death. Apparently she was competent to manage, but not to own properties.

I'm not 100% sure, but I think this is just a way of describing a life estate in a property, which it would be common to grant a widow in a system where you want to ensure that your children will ultimately inherit. (Otherwise, the widow might remarry and some or all of the property pass into the new husband's family.) Usually femmes soles, including widows, could own real property even under regimes where married women couldn't.
posted by praemunire at 1:45 PM on August 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

To add to Hypatia's comment, I'm also not sure of the specifics of the law in North Carolina at this particular time, but often enslaved people who were manumitted were required to leave the state. This may have been an attempt at a defacto manumission that wouldn't result in two elderly people having to leave their families.
posted by Preserver at 10:03 AM on August 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

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