Archive for the ‘Slaves/slavery’ Category

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

Postilions

Pondering George Washington’s letter (previous post) to ELIZABETH WILLING POWEL in regard to the sale of his coach horses to her, one wonders what Washington’s coach was like, who drove it, rode the horses or accompanied it. And so this digression.

It is known that while in Philadelphia Washington kept fourteen horses, twelve in a stable behind the mansion of Robert Morris that he occupied, and two at a nearby livery stable. A coachman and two grooms cared for the horses. There were three carriages for his use. On state occasions the President rode in a large, cream-colored, richly decorated London-made coach drawn by six matched horses “brilliantly caparisoned,” attended by coachmen and footmen who wore livery in Washington’s colors of white and red-orange. The carriage no longer exists but a commemorative print made of a procession in New York City in 1872 shows this equipage.

In Philadelphia there was also a lighter carriage made by David and F. Clark that Washington used for traveling. In addition there was a phaeton for his wife.

Two postilions, slaves Giles and Paris, wore the Washington livery. Enclosed in a letter the President penned from Mount Vernon to his secretary Tobias Lear in 1790 was a thin strip of paper described thus: “The whole length of this paper is the circumference of Giles cap measured at the bottom and on the inside . . . being the exact Band of the head. . . . To the black line drawn across the paper is the size of Paris’s cap.” Washington instructed Lear to commission two “handsome” new caps, “with fuller and richer tassels at top than the old ones have.”

In a letter to Lear dated June, 1791, Washington complained about Paris who

“has become so lazy, self willed & impudent, that John [the Coachman] had no sort of government of him; on the contrary, J[un]no. say’s it was a maxim with Paris to do nothing he was ordered, and every thing he was forbid. This conduct, added to the incapacity of Giles for a Pistilion, who I believe will never be able to mount a horse again for that purpose, has induced me to find Paris some other employment than in the Stable—of course I shall leave him at home. A boy, or two may be necessary there, to assist about the horses—Carriages—& harness. but these (dutch ones) it is possible may be had for their victuals & cloaths; especially if there are large importations from Germany (as some articles in the papers say there will be)—I mention the matter now, that in case arrivals should happen before I get back, of these kind of People, you may be apprised of my wishes—low & squat (well made) boys, would suit best. If emigrants are not to be had, there can be no doubt, but that some of the Dutch Servants in the family could easily procure such as are wanted from among the Citizens—& perhaps none readier, or better than by John himself when he arrives.

Giles had had an accident which incapacitated him. Washington was considering indentured servants to help out in the stables.

“From George Washington to Tobias Lear, 19 June 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-08-02-0193. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 8, 22 March 1791 – 22 September 1791, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999, pp. 275–278.] Other sources and further information HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.

posted September 18th, 2017 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Giles,Indentured Servants,Lear, Tobias,Paris,Powel, Elizabeth Willing,Washington, George

“And breathing figures learnt from thee to live”

Another item of interest about SARAH MOORHEAD (see previous posts) is her connection to a slave of the family called Scipio who is thought to have been a talented working artist around 1773. Sarah was a teacher of drawing and painting so it is possible, even likely, that she recognized his talent and was his teacher. But the only piece of art ascribed to Scipio Moorhead that has survived is the portrait of Phillis Wheatley, on the frontispiece of her published book of poetry: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). (See posts on Wheatley here, here, here, here. here, and here.) A poem, “To S.M., A Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works,” written by this enslaved African-American poet has been cited as evidence that the engraving was made from a painting by Moorhead. (A note by a white reader in an early copy of the book mentions Scipio by name.)

When first thy pencil did those beauties give,
And breathing figures learnt from thee to live,
How did those prospects give my soul delight,
A new creation rushing on my sight!

It is true that the Moorheads and the Wheatleys were neighbors and that the two slaves knew each other. However, the assumption that Scipio is the artist of the frontispiece has been challenged by Eric Slauter, author of the article “Looking for Scipio Moorhead” in Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World. He presents evidence based on the Scipio’s age, his contact with other painters, the current styles in portraiture, and his appearance in ads for the auctioning of the estate of John Moorhead and that of his daughter Mary. The historian J.L. Bell, in his blog Boston 1775, is quite persuaded that Slauter is right. He suggests that an another black artist working at the time with several works attributed to him, Prince Demah, may have been the actual artist of the Wheatley portrait. See two posts by my colleague Louise North on Prince Demah here and here.

Eric Slauter’s article appears in Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World, edited by Agnes Lugo-Ortiz, Angela Rosenthal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 89. Read the complete poem HERE.

posted August 17th, 2017 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Art,Moorhead, Scipio,Poetry,Prince Demah,Wheatley, Phillis

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