Slaves/slavery

“fix an innoculating hospital in their metropolis”

Continuing with posts about epidemics in America during the colonial and early national periods in the age of the coronavirus.

Some parents today do not want their children to receive certain vaccinations fearing they may cause conditions like autism. In eighteenth-century America there was controversy over smallpox inoculations. It’s true that there were at times debilitating effects. ABIGAIL ADAMS explained the lapse in correspondence with her friend MERCY OTIS WARREN in 1777: “My eyes ever since the smallpox have been great sufferers. Writing puts them to great pain.” Warren replied that she too had problems: “weakness … feebleness of my limbs, and pains … sufficient to damp the vigor of thought and check … literary employments.”

Attitudes toward inoculation were mixed: some religious leaders considered it “a distrust of God’s overruling care;” some communities supported it, others passed laws against it. MARY BARTLETT reported to her husband (a doctor who was in Philadelphia having just signed the Declaration of Independence) that hospitals were being set up in New Hampshire to inoculate people.

Kingstown July 13th 1776P. S. I fear the Small Pox will Spread universilly as boston is Shut up with it & People flocking in for innoculation; the Select men of portsmouth have Petitiond to the Committy of Safty now Setting in Exeter; for leave to fix an innoculating hospital in their metropolis for the Small Pox and liberty is accordingly granted and the inhabitance of Exeter intend to Petition for the Same libirty.

MARY SILLIMAN described to her parents how her husband dealt with people intent upon preventing inoculation.

[Fairfield, Connecticut] April 11, 1777You know Mr. [Gold Selleck] Silliman is state attorney … he has frequently pressing desires sent him from the neighbouring Towns that he should do something about stoping Inoculation. Then he has to send Guards to collect the infected to one place and order to let none come in or go out with out liberty. But at Stratford they have been so unruly and dispers’d the Guard, he has been oblig’d at the desire of about 80 respectable inhabitants to issue out positive orders to desist and as the civil law could have no affect they should be punnish’d by Martial. This has had its desired effect. None that we know of has transgress’d since.

As the War shifted to the South, British promises of freedom attracted thousands of runaway slaves, both male and female, who performed many useful services. This population, however, soon became a liability to the British because of their susceptibility to smallpox. Thousands contracted the disease and were cruelly quarantined and left to die. Thomas Jefferson believed that of the 30,000 Virginia slaves that had joined the British “about 27,000 died of the small pox and camp fever.”

For comments and letters by women, see In the Words of Women, pages 177 and 179. The religious objection to inoculation and Jefferson’s estimate can be found on pages 36 and 133 respectively in Pox Americana, the Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 by Elizabeth A Fenn (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), an excellent book on the subject.

“We had a lovely passage in a beautiful new ship. . . .”

MARTHA “PATSY” JEFFERSON accompanied her father to Paris in 1785 when he was appointed minister to France. She was enrolled for her schooling at the prestigious Abbaye Royale de Panthemont convent. There she penned a letter to Elizabeth House Trist whose mother kept a boarding house in Philadelphia where Thomas Jefferson regularly stayed. Patsy, too, had lived there where she received some schooling. In her letter she describes her sea voyage; it is a nice follow-up to Abigail Adams’s account. The passage across the English Channel was typically difficult as Patsy’s letter attests. The rest of the letter is charming, Patsy describing all of the confusion of setting up house in a new and foreign city, being groomed to appear in French society, getting adjusted to life in the convent school. Although Martha devoted part of her letter to the voyage and early days in France, it is certain that a year at least had elapsed before she wrote it. (I have created paragraphs to make for easier reading.)

de l’abbey royale de Panthemont a Paris
[after 24 Aug. 1785]
My dearest friend
Your letter put an end to the inquietude that your silence had caused us. Be assured that I will remember you as long as I live. I am very happy in the convent and it is with reason for there wants nothing but the presence of my friends of America to render my situation worthy to be envied by the happiest. I do not say kings, for far from it. They are often more unfortunate than the lowest of their subjects. I have seen the king and the queen but at too great a distance to judge if they are like their pictures in Philadelphia. We had a lovely passage in a beautiful new ship that had only made one voyage before. There were only six passengers, all of whom papa knew, and a fine sun shine all the way, with the sea which was as calm as a river. I should have no objection at making an other voyage if I could be sure it would be as agreable as the first. We landed in England where we made a very short stay.
The day we left it we set off at six a clock the evening, and arived in France at 7 the next morning. I can not say that this voyage was as agreable as the first, tho it was much shorter. It rained violently and the sea was exceedingly rough all the time, and I was allmost as sick as the first time, when I was sick two days. The cabane was not more than three feet wide and about four long. There was no other furniture than an old bench which was fast to the wall. The door by which we came in at was so little that one was obliged to enter on all four. There were two little doors at the side of the cabane was the way to our beds, which were composed of two boxxes and a couplle of blankets with out eather bed or matras, so that I was obliged to sleep in my cloathes. There being no winder in the cabane, we were obliged to stay in the dark for fear of the rains coming in if we opended the door.
I fear we should have fared as badly at our arival for papa spoke very little french and me not a word, if an Irish gentleman, an entire stranger to us, who seeing our embarrassment, had not been so good as to conduct us to a house and was of great service to us. It is amazing to see how they cheat the strangers. It cost papa as much to have the bagadge brought from the shore to the house, which was about a half a square apart, as the bringing it from Philadelphia to Boston. From there we should have had a very agreable voyage to Paris, for havre de grace is built at the mouth of the seine, and we follow the river all the way thro the most beautiful country I ever saw in my life, it is a perfect garden if the singularity of our cariage had not atracted us the attention of all we met, and when ever we stopped we were surounded by the beggars. One day I counted no less than nine while we stopped to change horses. We saw a great number of chalk hills near Rouen, where we saw allso a church built by William the conqueror, and another at Ment which had as many steps to go to the top as there are days in the year. There are many pretty statues in it. The architectures is beautiful. All the winders are died glass of the most beautiful colours that form all kinds of figures.
I wish you could have been with us when we arrived. I am sure you would have laughfed, for we were obliged to send imediately for the stay maker, the mantumaker, the milliner and even a shoe maker, before I could go out. I have never had the friseur but once, but I soon got rid of him and turned down my hair in spite of all they could say, and I differ it now as much as possible, for I think it allways too soon to suffer.
I have seen two nuns take the veil. I’ll tell you about that when I come to see you. I was placed in a convent at my arival and I leave you to judge of my situation. I did not speak a word of french, and no one here knew english but a little girl of 2 years old that could hardly speak french. There are about fifty or sixty pensioners in the house, so that speaking as much as I could with them I learnt the langauge very soon. At present I am charmed with my situation. I am afraid that you will be very much disapointed if you expect to see me perfect, for I have made very little progres. Give my love to Mrs. House. . . .
Tho you have a great deal of patience I am afraid that this scrawl will tire it. But if you knew the pleasure I take in writing to you and receiving letters from you, you would pardon me. Pray write me very long letters by evry occassion. I should be very glad to write for papa, but I am sure that he could not have an occupation which gives him more pleasure than that. How ever when he cant leave his business I will do it with pleasure. I do not know when we shall come. Pardon this letter, being so badly written for I have not the time at present. There comes in some new pensionars evry day. The classe is four rooms excedingly large for the pensionars to sleep in, and there is a fith and sixth one for them to stay in in the day and the other in which they take their lessens. We were the uniform which is crimson made like a frock laced behind with the tail like a robe de cour hoocked on muslin cufs and tuckers. The masters are all very good except that for the drawing. I end here for I am sure my letter must tire you. Papa sends his most affectionate compliments to you and Mrs. House and begs you not to forget that you are indebted a letter to him. . . . Adieu my dear freind, be assured that I am and ever will be yours affectionately,
Martha Jefferson

“Martha Jefferson to Eliza House Trist, [after 24 August 1785],” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 8, 25 February–31 October 1785, ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953, pp. 436–439.] The illustration is from the Library Company: Rufus W. Griswold, The Republican Court, or, American Society in the Days of Washington. New and rev. ed. (New York, 1856), plate opposite 219. First ed., 1855.

posted November 11th, 2019 by Louise, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Americans Abroad,English Channel,Fashion,Jefferson, Martha "Patsy",Ocean Voyages,Paris,Travel,Trist, Elizabeth House

Hercules Revisited

Back in January of 2016 I posted two pieces about a slave named Hercules who was George Washington’s cook for many years both in Mount Vernon and Philadelphia. See them here and here. There was an additional post about Hercules in 2017. Hercules “absconded” in 1797 and could not be located although Washington made attempts to recover him, as did his widow.

This portrait, supposedly of Hercules, appeared in the post. Thought to be by Gilbert Stuart it is in the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, a strange place for an artifact associated with George Washington. Who commissioned it is a mystery. Would Washington have wanted a portrait of the enslaved man who was his chef? Slaves had appeared in other paintings of Washington and his family but they were always subordinate characters. Could Hercules himself have commissioned it? He was quite the dandy and made a fair amount of money by selling leftovers from Washington meals.

A recent post by J.L. Bell brought new information about the portrait to my attention. Experts have come to the conclusion that both the subject and the artist have been misrepresented. Although the painting definitely dates to the 1700s, on careful examination the technique and details are not typical of Gilbert Stuart. As for the hat in the portrait, it was assumed to be the toque that chefs wore, but the toque in fact did not appear until the 1820s. The hat in the portrait is now thought to resemble the kind of headdress worn by men on certain islands in the West Indies, as seen in paintings by Agostino Brunias of Dominican Creoles in that era.

This article by Craig LeBan provides more information on Hercules. It turns out that Hercules as a teenager was sold to George Washington by a neighbor who owed him money. The neighbor’s name was John Posey. It was common for enslaved workers to take the last name of their owners, so Hercules’ last name was likely Posey. Since the last known location for Hercules was New York City, researchers checked death notices there and found a Hercules Posey, formerly of Virginia, who lived on Orange Street and died in 1812 at the age of 64.

It seems fair to conclude that the man whose death is recorded above is Washington’s cook. But the mystery surrounding the portrait still remains. Who is the man in the famous portrait and who painted it?

posted April 29th, 2019 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Art,Hercules,New York,Stuart, Gilbert,Washington, George

“sort of a little biography”

A couple of months ago there was an article in my local paper that described a situation in a nearby middle school. The social studies teacher had included creating a newspaper advertisement for a runaway slave as one of the independent activities available to students for extra credit. Several parents objected and the principal ordered the teacher to remove the project from the list. As a former high school teacher of social studies (not in the district referred to) I found myself conflicted. I would really appreciate comments from readers about whether you think such a project is appropriate and acceptable.

SOME CONTEXT: From a historian’s point of view it has been very difficult to find primary sources in connection with the slave population. Clothing is not likely to exist as it was usually worn out and discarded. Written accounts by enslaved workers in colonial America and later in the United States are rare. Few slaves could read or write; teaching them to do so was a crime in several states. References in plantation account books were usually limited to the sex and age of the slave, perhaps the name, date of acquisition, and the purchase or sale price. Census listings were equally limited. There are precious few details about how enslaved workers looked and dressed, what their lives were like, what skills they possessed.
Ironically ads for runaway slaves often provide answers to these questions because owners not only posted a reward for the return of the “absconded,” a word that was commonly used, but often provided a description of the runaway: color, height and stature, clothing worn and other information. Historians have been working to create archives of advertisements for runaway slaves. Joshua Rothman, a historian at the University of Alabama has said: “They [owners] wanted to provide as much detail about their appearance, their life story, how they carried themselves, what they were wearing . . . Each one of these things [ads for runaway slaves] is sort of a little biography.”

Transcription of the ad: New London, May 16, 1768. Stolen or Run-away from the subscriber, on the 14th Instant (of May), a Negro Woman named SOBINER, between 30 and 40 Years of Age, of a slender Body, and middling Stature, talks good English, and can read well; carried off with her one homespun check’d Woolen Gown, one blue and white striped Linen Ditto, two Linen Shirts, and one Woolen Ditto, three check’d Aprons, two or three pair Woolen Stockings, one quilted Coat, one Side brown, the other striped, a red short Cloak, a chipt Hatt, a Pair white Woolen Mittins, a Cambric Handkerchief, several Caps, and sundry other Articles. Whoever takes up and secures said Negro, so that her Mistress may have her again, shall receive FOUR DOLLARS Reward, if found within twenty Miles of this Place, and FIVE DOLLARS if further, and all necessary Charges paid by LUCRETIA PROCTER. N.B. All Persons are forbid entertaining or concealing said Negro under Penalty of the Law.

I chose the ad above because it was placed in a Connecticut newspaper and shows that slavery was more common in the North than we are likely to admit. And I believe that the list of particular clothing in the ad for Sobiner is due to the fact that the slave owner was a woman.

Back to the use of runaway ads in the social studies curriculum. While readers may have mixed feelings about a student-created ad as a project, I hope that there would be little objection to a teacher’s using several ads as a topic for discussion and critical evaluation in class. Students could look up the numbers of runaways, discuss motives, the risks involved, destinations, penalties for those who helped them, the likelihood of capture, etc. And they could evaluate the ads as primary sources of information: are they accurate, representative, useful, historically significant?

This SITE is the source for the quotation and provides information on this subject as does this SITE. The above ad is one of the many compiled for a PROJECT by students at Wesleyan.

posted August 27th, 2018 by Janet, comments (5), CATEGORIES: Clothes,Connecticut,Lesson plans,Research,Runaway slaves

“Sing another,” he said . . . “but something jolly.”

Baroness von Riedesel continues to describe their stay in Virginia to which the Convention Army, as prisoners of war, had been relocated. Her husband paid to have a house built for the family and they planted a garden which the Baron enjoyed. But he could not tolerate the heat. She describes what happened to him on one hot day.

I was busy setting our new home to rights and putting my husband’s things in his room when I heard a commotion outdoors. I ran to the window and saw some men carrying my husband into the house. His face was blue, his hands white, his eyes rigid, and beads of perspiration covered his forehead. He had had a sunstroke. I was more dead than alive myself, and the children uttered penetrating screams. We laid him down at once, tore off his clothes, and fortunately the surgeon of the regiment, who lived with us, was at home at the moment, so that he could bleed him immediately. He began to gain speech again and told us that while walking through the garden he had felt the sun burning hot on his head. He had hardly been able to reach the house, when his aides arrived, without whose help he would have been lost. Good Lord, what would have become of me and my little children among the captives so far from home in the enemy’s country!

The von Riedesels went to a spa the doctor had recommended for the Baron’s health. He did recover although he suffered from the ill effects of the incident for the rest of his life. The Baroness tells a charming story of a bargain she made with a local farmer. At the spa she made friends with Mrs. Charles Carroll who visited every morning to enjoy a musical treat. A Captain Geismar played the violin for the Baroness who sang Italian arias.

On day a farmer came to our house, whom we had frequently asked with many kind words to bring us fresh butter. As most Americans love music, he listened attentively, and when I had finished, he told me I would have to sing again. I asked him jestingly what he would give me for my singing, as I did nothing without being paid. He immediately replied, “Two pounds of butter.” That amused me very much, and I sang another song. “Sing another,” he said when I had finished, “but something jolly.” In the end I had sung so much, that the next day he brought me four or five pounds of butter. He had brought his wife with him and begged me to sing again. I won their affection, and after that I always had everything I needed. The best of it was that he really thought I wanted to be paid for my singing and was very much astonished when I paid them for the butter before they left.

The Baroness developed critical views of Southerners and their plantations cultivated by slaves.

The Virginians are mostly indolent, which is ascribed to their hot climate . . . . The plantation-owners . . . have numerous Negro slaves and do not treat them well. Many of them let the slaves walk about stark naked until they are between fifteen and sixteen years old, and the clothes which they give them afterward are not worth wearing. The slaves are in the charge of an overseer who leads them out into the fields at daybreak, where they have to work like cattle or suffer beating; and when they come home completely tired out and sunburnt they are given some Indian meal called hominy, which they make into baked stuff. Often, however, they are too exhausted to eat and prefer sleeping a couple of hours, because they must go back to work. They look upon it as a misfortune to have children, because these, in turn, will also be slaves and unhappy men. . . . But there are, of course, good masters too.

In the next post: the possibility of an exchange.

Marvin L. Brown, Jr. A Revised Translation and Introduction and Notes, Baroness von Riedesel and the American Revolution: Journal and Correspondence of a Tour of Duty 1776-1783 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of NC Press, 1965), 83-86. The portrait appears HERE.

posted May 22nd, 2018 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Convention Army,Hessians,Illness,Slaves/slavery,Virginia,von Riedesel, Baroness Frederika,von Riedesel, Lieutenant General Friedrich

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