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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Whittington's Slaves

I wrote once before on the subject of our slave-owning ancestor James Whittington of Johnston and Wake Counties, North Carolina, and Madison County, Tennessee, but I want to focus a little closer on the descriptions of the people he held as slaves to speculate upon their roles in the Whittington family, their relationships with each other, continuity with the Whittingtons, and other implications.

Caveat: I cannot state how strongly I abhor the idea that anybody “owned” anybody. This is utterly and implacably wrong. However, it happened in my ancestry and I want to examine the facts more closely.

The census records show that James, who married Frances Maynard in 1798, had no slaves in 1800 or 1810. However, her father had seven in 1790, and when he died in 1817, it apparently took years to settle his estate as the children were filing petition after petition for at least two years. It looks as if James Whittington acquired two slaves from his father-in-law’s estate.

Here is a table showing the people James held as slaves at the time of each census, with their ages. He died in 1853 and his son Othnell inherited the bulk of his estate; the 1860 list is for Othnell.

1820
1830
1840
1850
1860
Female 26-45
Female 24-35
Female 24-36
Female  60
Female 38
Male 14-25
Female 10-23
Female 20-24
Female 25
Male 6


Male 10-24
Male 23
Male 3



Male 9


Working Roles

In 1820 the census reveals that James had two slaves, along with himself, his wife, two teenage daughters and eight sons, with one other boy 10–16 years old who could have been a cousin or other relative. Of these people, seven were agricultural workers. If the slaves were working in the fields, who were the others working with them? We can definitely include James and his two elder sons, and to make up the seven we must include either the sons ages 10–16 or the girls, ages 17 and 15. Four of the sons were under ten, probably too young to work in the fields. At this time Frances was about 40 years old and had ten children, so she would have had her hands very full in the house. Her daughters were probably helping her; it seems reasonable to assume she had the woman slave helping her with the household tasks and that the seventh agricultural worker was the extra young man in the household.

Frances would have had to supervise or do these chores herself: chopping wood for the fire, preparing and cooking food three times a day, cleaning, washing, weaving, sewing and mending, making candles and soap, rugs and quilts, and other household necessities, teaching and watching the little children, carrying water, emptying chamber pots, and so on. Some of these things even the little boys could do and probably did, but it is likely that one of the slaves did the heavy household work.

The 1830 census reveals the growing household with James and Frances at 54 and 50 years old; the boys at home ages 19, 17, 15, 12, 8, 6, and 4; the daughters ages 1 and 25. The two female slaves could have been household workers, though it is equally likely at least one of them was working in the fields alongside the men. The 1830 census form does not include tick marks for what work the people were doing.

The 1840 census shows the family had moved from Johnston County, North Carolina, to Madison County, Tennessee.  James was now 64 and Frances had died. The sons at home were 29, 25, 22, and 18; the daughters were 35 and 11. With all those sons and with three other grown sons living very close and also engaged in agriculture, James must have had plenty of help with the farm work; the male slave age 10–24 could have been working with James outdoors even if he were young. Probably the two slave women did the bulk of the household work, although one of them could have been working in the fields and one in the house.

In 1850 the census does not tell what work slaves did, but it does tell what the members of James’s family were doing. James and the two sons living with him were farmers. Another son next door had no land but was a farmer, so he probably worked for his father too. The young male slave was probably helping them, while at least one of the two slave women probably worked in the house with James’s second wife and the middle-aged daughter who is listed as “illiterate” on this census, the only one of the family to be so. Perhaps she was mentally disabled in some way, in which case it would make sense that in the earlier censuses help would have been needed in the house rather than out in the fields.

It strikes me that because the Whittington men were reared to do hard physical labor, and because only one of the nine sons of James Whittington grew up to eventually have slaves, the probability is high that the Whittington sons worked alongside the slaves and just maybe had enough respect for their workers that most declined to become slave owners. It is, of course, impossible to say this with certainty, but if that were the case, good for them.

Relationships among Slaves

It is hard to tell from the ages of the slaves whether they could have been related or not in the 1820 listing, where the woman is 26–45 and the male 14–25. They may have been a mother and son, or if they were nearly the same age, they could have been spouses or siblings. In 1830 where the females are 24–35 and 10–23 the younger female could just have been the daughter of the older woman, supposing that the younger one was 10 or close to it rather than close to 24. Otherwise they could have been sisters or cousins if related at all. In 1840 there is again the possibility of mother-child relationships, where the women are 24–36 and 20–24 and the male is 10–24. If the eldest slave is at the upper end of the scale, she could have been the mother of both the others if they were at the lower ends of their respective scales. Another mother-child possibility exists in 1850 where the eldest woman is 60, the other woman is 25, and the males 23 and 9. The eldest woman could have been the mother of all of them; or the woman age 25 and the man age 23 were spouses, although if so, it becomes harder to imagine that the 9-year-old boy is theirs. Certainly in 1860 the probability is high that the little boys ages 6 and 3 are sons of the woman, who is 38. In all these possibilities, only the 1860 census listing has a very high probability of a familial relationship.

Studies lately have suggested that family life among slaves was much more common than not. Even monogamous conjugal relationships were maintained through years under incredibly hard conditions. However, the reality still is that spouses were separated, children taken from at least one of their parents and sometimes from both, and siblings could not stay together. This is evident in the Whittington’s slaves.

Continuity with the Whittingtons

In 1830 the woman may have been the same one as in 1820; if she had been 26 in 1820, she could have been 35 in the first part of the year of 1830. Obviously in 1830 the man who was there in 1820 had been sold, or had died, possibly was set free (unlikely though), or even escaped.

The older woman in 1840 (age 24–36) could not have continued to be the same woman as in 1820 and 1830 if the first two censuses show the same woman. To be the same woman, she would need to be 45 or more in 1840. However, if they are different women, then the 1830 woman could have been 24–26 and in 1840 she could have been 34–36. The younger woman could be her daughter if the daughter were age 10 in 1830 and 20 in 1840. In any case, the 1840 women could easily be the same women as were there in 1830, but if so, then in 1820 the woman was probably someone different.

In 1850 the census began to list every person by age, if not by name. In the case of slaves, the owner’s name appeared with a listing by description of each person he or she owned. Thus James Whittington had a 60-year-old black woman in his household, and a black woman who is 25 with a black man who is 23, and a 9-year-old black boy.

Slave woman of the 1850s with white children
There is one possibility for a continuous scenario: that is if the older woman was the same one through all four decades. If she were in her early 20s when she came to the family from the Maynard family, she could have had her age reported a few years over or under through the years. One supporting detail in favor of this idea is that the Whittington’s middle daughter, Talitha (the one who never married) was shown on the 1850 census to be illiterate and her age decreases by ten to fifteen years over the course of three decades, suggesting that she was not careful about her own age and she could similarly have reported the slave woman’s age as whatever she desired as she talked to the census taker. The mother, Frances, died in the 1830s, and if Talitha were the one to report the ages and got them very wrong, then it makes sense that the Whittingtons kept one woman in their household until James died. Perhaps this elder slave died too; there is no guarantee if her age had been stretched or shrunk in previous censuses that she was not much older than 60 in 1850.

The woman Othnell owned in 1860 could easily be the same as the younger woman in 1850—she was reported to be 25 in 1850 and 38 in 1860, and the discrepancy of three years is not much when Othnell’s sister Talitha’s age changed by a good fifteen years. The two little boys, ages 6 and 3, are undoubtedly her sons.

Whether the Whittingtons kept the older woman all those years or not, they definitely changed the other slaves over the years. It is just barely possible that some of the others were her children and were kept until they were grown up enough to sell for a good price. There is of course no “good” scenario for the changes that are evident in the listings in each census.

Other Implications

One thing that I saw with definite relief is that while the slaves of other families in the same neighborhood included mulattos (the term used back then for mixed-race people), the Whittingtons’ slaves were always labeled black. The implication is of course that if the younger slaves were children of the older slaves, none of the Whittington men were their fathers. I definitely did not want to see any evidence of my ancestor or his sons sexually abusing slaves.

The final point is that in 1870 there were no black Whittenton families in any locality where our Whittenton or Whittington relatives lived. Likely none of the James Whittington family’s former slaves took the Whittington name. Often people took the surname of their former masters as their own. If the women who had been Whittenton slaves were married to men on neighboring farms, that would explain the lack of those surnames among recently freed people. The implication is that this is additional evidence that these Whittingtons were not fathers of slave children.


In a look at history’s bleak realities, it is small comfort.



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