The Peculiar Case of Negro Jack

Brett Trace / 2013 Summer E-tern / Stevenson University

While working through the folio pages from the Colchester store in 1759-1760, I came across several references to a man known as “Negro Jack.”  My interest was piqued, but I didn’t begin getting curious to the point of wanting to investigate until I came across an account dedicated to one “Negro Jack belongg [belonging] to Mr. Linton’s Estate”.  This man, who was noted as belonging to another man’s estate, had his own account with the Colchester Store.  It was at this point that the questions began to arise.  Were the money and purchases made in this account for Jack, or was this an account on behalf of his master?  How was he making the money?  And if this was his own, independent account, what does that say about the institution of slavery in colonial Virginia?

Negro Jack’s account.

This led me to focus on anything and everything I could find out about Negro Jack.  I learned by combing through Jack’s accounts over time that he was able to work outside of his master’s estate to garner his own money.  This knowledge raises the question, what was Jack doing that had him so busy?  Not only was Jack working for his owner’s estate, he was earning his own wages and was in demand.  His account crosses the ledgers of the Colchester store.  And, he has many different people paying him for his work.  So just what did Jack do?  As it turns out, Jack was quite the accomplished carpenter (or joiner).  From small wooden cribs to “1 Pine Table for the Store”, Jack seems to have been a skilled carpenter who was trusted to make furniture for the Colchester Store.  One of the more exciting discoveries was that Jack was paid in November 1764 for the repair of a bridge over a mill race.  Not only was Jack hired for this important repair, he was hired by Benjamin Grayson, who also owned a store in Colchester.  This leads one to believe that Jack was talented enough to warrant the attention of all sides.

Negro Jack’s account (bridge repair reference).

Knowing that Jack made his own money and often found work begs the question, what was Jack spending this money on?  Most of Jack’s purchases were on par with what everyone else was purchasing: bottles of rum, nails, hinges, and even bottles of Turlington’s Balsam of Life, that peculiar all-powerful elixir that many were buying.  But one purchase stands out among the rest.  In December 1760, Jack purchased “4 wt [pounds] Shott…[and] 4 flints”.  This indicates that Jack owned (or had access to) at least one firearm, which should have been highly unusual for someone belonging to another man’s estate given the 1748 Act prohibiting slaves from possessing guns:

XVIII. And be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, That no slave shall go from the plantation, or seat of land whereon he, or she, is appointed to live, without a certificate of leave, in writing, from his, or her owner, or overseer, or by their express order: And that no negroe, mulattoe, or Indian whatsoever, shall keep, or carry any gun, powder, shot, club, or other weapon, whatsoever, offensive, or defensive, but all and every gun, weapon, and ammunition, found in the custody or possession of any negroe, mulattoe, or Indian, may be seized by any person, and upon due proof thereof made before any justice of peace, of the county where such seizure shall be, shall by his order, be forfeited to the seizor, for his own use; and moreover, every such offender shall have, and receive, by order of such justice, any number of lashes, not exceeding thirty nine, on his, or her bare back, well laid on, for every such offence.[1]

However, the act did authorize for free blacks to possess one firearm.  Was Jack’s ability to purchase munitions an informal acknowledgement of his status within the community?

The more research someone does into Negro Jack’s life, the more questions that arise about him.  He was an accomplished carpenter who was in high demand for his work.  He was able to keep accounts and money separate of Mr. Linton’s estate.  And his purchases show that he was able to circumvent certain colonial regulations on slaves.  Jack raises many questions that my brief research cannot answer, but he is certainly one the store’s most intriguing patrons.

[1] Hening’s Statutes at Large. Vol. 6, pp. 109-10 (1748).  “An Act directing the trial of Slaves committing capital crimes; and for the more effectual punishing conspiracies and insurections of them; and for the better government of negroes, mulattoes, and Indians, bond or free.”

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2 Responses to The Peculiar Case of Negro Jack

  1. Martha Katz-Hyman says:

    Negro Jack was by no means the only Virginia slave who ran a credit account with a store keeper. One of the paradoxes of slavery in the 18th century was that enslaved men and women sold both their labor and the products they made or raised (e.g., baskets, stools, chickens) and then turned right around and purchased consumer goods with that money: it was not unusual and it was not seen as anything special. This kind of activity persisted into the 19th century as well, in all areas where enslaved men and women lived and worked. Ann Smart Martin’s book, “Buying into the World of Goods: Early Consumers in Backcountry Virginia,” has an excellent chapter on African Americans as consumers in the 18th century.

    You might want to look at “World of Slave: Encyclopedia of the Material Life of Slaves in the United States” under “Credit Accounts” for more examples.

  2. Gene strock says:

    Great going Bret!!!!!!! Hope to see more of the thing your working on……..

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