All content on this blog is copyright by Marci Andrews Wahlquist as of its date of publication.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Mirinda and Slavery

My great-great-great grandmother Mirinda Piper was born in July 1840 in southern Illinois and moved with her family to Kentucky and many other places around that same area. Her father was a traveling Baptist minister. She was the eldest living of the seven children her mother bore. Three children had died as infants before her birth, and the three born after Mirinda lived to adulthood.

Here is what she wrote about living in Spencer County, Kentucky, from 1846 to 1849:

“While we lived in Kentucky I used to roam about the woods alone and was very happy. Father taught school and I attended, being the first school for me, but I could not go long, as some of the scholars thought Father was partial to me, so I stayed at home and Mother taught me. She was quite competent, as she had been a teacher both before and after her marriage. We were poor, as Father was paid no fixed salary. The church members paid what they thought they could afford to give. Much of it came in the way of food, and presents of clothing. A very poor way, I think, but times were hard then, and money very scarce. But being the Preacher’s family, we always went in the best society the neighborhood afforded.”

Writing her memoirs in 1888, she used terms that were current to her time but which we would never use today. I haven’t changed her words though:

A southern mansion with slave cabins in back
“I remember one of our neighbors, a member of our church, was a wealthy man for that time: he owned a large farm and many slaves (you will understand that this was before the great Civil War, before slavery was abolished, and churches at that time considered Negro slavery a divine institution, that the Bible sanctioned it). I used often to be at Mr. Norman’s, our wealthy neighbor, with my parents. The house was a large, old-fashioned one in beautiful grounds, and some way back of the house was a row of Negro cabins. I enjoyed visiting the darkies—they always petted the white children.”
Slave cabins

What a shock to our time are the sentiments she writes of so matter-of-factly! That she liked being with the slaves better than with the white children is explained by her feeling of inferiority to the wealthy children whose families owned slaves. It is sad to think that she too felt that black people were inferior to white people, so that if she were inferior to those she was with, she felt she belonged with people who were considered still more inferior than herself.

Her inferiority feelings are plain in her description of moving from Mount Vernon, Indiana (at the very southern tip of Indiana), up the Ohio River to Hamilton, Ohio, when she was 13:

“We went as far as Louisville and stopped at an old friend of Father’s who had often urged him to visit him with his family. We stayed there one day and one night. I don’t know how the rest of the family enjoyed themselves, but I wasn’t very happy there, although the family treated us very kindly. The man was a wealthy provision dealer named A.L. Shotwell. Their house was far grander than anything I had ever seen. They had ten Negro house servants (slaves). The children had beautiful clothes, and altogether I felt very shabby and out of my element . . . .”

Illustration from the original edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin
She had written about 1852, the year before, in this entry: “This summer I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was having such a great run, and the effect of which was felt all over the United States.” She must have felt persuaded of the evils of the institution of slavery after reading this book at the impressionable age of twelve.

Of course there were a number of different causes that all fed into the inevitability of the Civil War, but Mirinda’s feelings were strongly with the North when she wrote about it twenty-some years later. 

Concerning the summer of 1861, she said:

“Father urged us to come and spend the summer with him as he had no housekeeper, and sister Anne was only twelve years old [Mirinda’s mother had died in January of that year]. I disliked exceedingly the idea of going there to stay with my family, and the result proved that my intuitions were correct. But as we were unsettled we concluded to go.
Lincoln, Illinois was close to the Indiana/Kentucky border;
John & Mirinda's land at DuBois was at the southern-
most tip of Illinois
“In March Nellie Hall, baby Charlie, and I went to Lincoln. John came several weeks later. May 30th my second child came; we named him Henry Butler, but his name was soon abbreviated to Harry and remained that ever after. My Aunt Mirinda Parker was with me for several weeks. After that summer I never saw her again. There was a great deal of hard feeling that summer between friends on account of different views of the war, and our family was not exempt.”

It is sad to read that she and her aunt, who was her mother’s only sister, were divided on the issues of the War between the States. They had been very close before this.

Her feelings were made plain again in her description of her husband’s and her stay in southern Illinois during the winter of 1863–1864: “. . . political feeling ran high on account of the war; more than half of the people down there sympathized with the South. I was uneasy whenever John was away from home.”

Her mother participated in the cursed system of slavery in a small way those few years in the 1840s when they lived in Kentucky: “Mother generally had one of the neighbors’ black women hired to do the heavy work, or it would have been very hard on her, as her health was poor.”

However, when Mirinda’s mother was able to get her own household worker, she was not a slave: “We had a hired girl whom we got for 75 cents per week. She was not very bright but was strong and willing. She did all the rough work, but when Mother wanted any fine cooking done, she had to do it herself, as the girl could never learn. Her name was Charity Lewis. She came from one of the southern states and was addicted to the habit of snuff dipping. But we children loved her, and she was always kind to us.”

Charity Lewis shows up on the 1850 Census counted in their household and is a white woman, age 23, born in North Carolina. I am glad that my ancestor did not choose to buy a black slave but instead hired a woman—but I hope the sum of $39 a year was reasonable then! They kept her in the household for a number of years, so it probably was (or she would have gone somewhere else).

All in all, it is somewhat comforting to find out that my ancestors seem to have agreed with my feelings toward the very divisive issues of the mid-nineteenth century. 
Political cartoon of the early 1860s: Abraham Lincoln as a troubled shepherd
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More posts about Mirinda Piper Andrews:

One-Room Schools, a Romance, an Earthquake

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