Abigail Spanier / Wheaton College / Summer 2014 E-Tern
While working on the Glassford & Henderson Transcription Project, I sometimes came across a slave purchase in an account, among the purchases of household items and tobacco sales. A noticeable trend was the way slaves were almost always sold or allotted (essentially rented out by their owners) by themselves. Examples of families moved together, like the image below of two parents and a child sold together, were few and far in between in the ledgers.
It’s worth remembering that even families sold together would still likely experience separation from other family members such as siblings, grandparents, and cousins. I wanted to explore the more typical experience of family separation, and the particular toll it took on slaves’ lives. The family above was sold as part of Edward Conner’s estate (deceased) in 1768 and 1769; however, two slaves were sold individually. Below are the slaves sold to others. I thought they could possibly be related to Peter and Nan.
Though we do not know the stories of the specific slaves mentioned in the ledgers, we can infer the struggles they would’ve experienced related to family separation, by observing accounts of other slaves’ lives, and their stories of separation. While 18th-century accounts are rare, we can find accounts written after emancipation of what it was like to be separated from one’s family by slavery.
In 1937, an 87 year old former slave named Sarah Frances Shaw Graves, known personally as Aunt Sally, was interviewed for a project called Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938. A large part of Aunt Sally’s interview consisted of the story of how she and her mother were permanently separated from Sally’s father. Sally said the following about the separation:
“ ‘Allotments made a lot of grief for the slaves…we left my papa in Kentucky, ‘cause he was allotted to another man. My papa never knew where my mama went, an’ my mama never knew where papa went’. Aunt Sally paused a moment, then went on bitterly. ‘They never wanted mama to know, ‘cause they knowed she would never marry so long she knew where he was. Our master wanted her to marry again and raise more children to be slaves. They never wanted mama to know where papa was, an’ she never did…’”.
Tempie Cummins, another former slave interviewed in 1937, also experienced family separation during her childhood. Tempie was initially owned by William Neyland, along with her parents and five siblings. At the age of eight, Tempie was forced to leave her family, as she was given to Neyland’s daughter, Fannie, and her husband Phil Scarborough, possibly as a wedding gift. Tempie also recalls that she never knew her grandparents, either, because “my mother she sold in Alabama when she’s 17 and they brung her to Texas and treat her rough”.
These accounts by Sally and Tempie emphasize the difficulties faced by families in slavery, with the separation of husbands and wives, and children being taken from their parents. We should consider the profound effect that this separation would have on children especially. Sally grew up knowing that her father existed, was quite possibly still alive somewhere, but that she would never see him again, and nothing could change that.
What actions might a family separated by sale take in order to be together again? When researching runaway slaves in the 18th century, there is a strong pattern of individuals running away not only to escape slavery, but with the intention of reuniting with family members. The Geography of Slavery has a compilation of advertisements in Virginia newspapers in which slave holders were advertising rewards for runaway slaves.
There are hundreds of advertisements that describe runaway slaves, single or in couples, looking to reunite with family members who were separated. This action is indicative of the risk that they were willing to take, in order to be together with their families again. Running away from a plantation was in itself an enormous risk to a person’s life, and they likely risked even more in attempting to reunite with family members, especially as the slave owners might expect them to go to those places, thus they risked capture by returning there. This risk shows the dedication to one’s family, and the desperation that many felt to reunite.
Separation from one’s family as a result of an owner’s death, like the slaves identified in the ledger from Edward Conner’s estate, was one of many reasons sales of slaves occurred. When faced with separation, the options available to slaves was limited; running away in search of those family members became the only way to be reunited and it was a risk many were willing to take.
Sarah Frances Shaw Graves. Digital image. Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938. American Memory, n.d. Web. 24 Aug. 2014.
Tempie Cummins. Digital image. Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938. American Memory, n.d. Web. 24 Aug. 2014.
Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Co.), Williamsburg, June 13, 1766. Digital image. The Geography of Slavery. The Geography of Slavery, n.d. Web. 23 Aug. 2014.
Virginia Gazette (Rind), Williamsburg, November 8, 1770. Digital image. The Geography of Slavery. The Geography of Slavery, n.d. Web. 23 Aug. 2014.