SLAVES in the FAMILY

The ancestors who gave me my name hacked farmsteads from the Virginia pinelands when John Smith and Pocahontas still lived. They settled on the fingertip of Delmarva, and over the generations they worked their way up that sandy, flat neck of land, into what is now Dorchester County, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore. There, by the time of the Revolution, they owned large plantations of nearly 1,000 acres.

They acquired other things as well. Beauchampe Harper (his name was pronounced “Beecham” and occasionally spelled that way in old records) was my great-great-great-great-grandfather. He was born the same year as George Washington. If you open up the 1790 census, you'll see his name, and under "no. of slaves," the figure 7.

Beauchampe married twice and had eight children. Among them was William Smith "Col. Bill" Harper, a justice of the peace and a captain in the 11th Maryland Regiment in the War of 1812.

Beauchampe died in September 1795. He had valuable property, including land and slaves, and he had two families to distribute it among — his older children by his first wife, and his second wife, Ann, and some young children that probably were hers.

To Ann, Beauchampe left “my bed and furniture, one gray mare called Liberty, one mare colt called Spring, one cow and calf,” and “her choice of all that I have,” presumably from among the personal property that was not otherwise distributed in the will.

Col. Bill got “all my wearing apparel excepting one fine hat,” though who got the hat he never stipulated. Other children got various sums. The two youngest sons, Beauchampe and Edward, were the main beneficiaries. The family lands were to be rented out by his executors until Edward came of age (21), then the land was to be divided equally between the two boys.

The will also distributed the human property. “One negro boy called Jacob” was given to Beauchampe’s youngest daughter, Sarah, for life, although Jacob was to be set free if Sarah died. If Jacob died, Edward and Beauchampe Jr. were to give Sarah £10 a year for the rest of her life.

Beauchampe's other slaves were set free, though not at once. “One negro woman called Liddy, one negro man called David and one negro woman called Tagmar” were to be freed as of Jan. 1, 1799. A boy named Thomas was to be freed on Jan. 1, 1815; a boy named Stephen was set free as of Jan. 1, 1817; and a boy named Jonathan was to be set free on Jan. 1, 1820.

Probably this progression of emancipations followed the ages of the slaves; the older slaves would have been set free first, the younger ones as they reached a certain age, possibly 28, which was a common age for a slave to be set free.

Slavery everywhere in America was in decline. The cotton industry had not yet risen in the Deep South, and while the economics in favor of slavery were weak, the moral considerations against it weighed heavily. Manumissions rose sharply across the Upper South, though this fact seems to escape modern histories. The free black population of Maryland was 1,817 in 1755 and 8,000 in 1790. By 1800, it stood at nearly 20,000, and a decade later nearly a quarter of the state's black population was free.

Beauchampe's wife made some trouble about the will, but I have no evidence that the manumissions were not carried out according to Beauchampe's plan.

But when Col. Bill Harper tried something similar 40 years later, the results were tragically different. Bill and his wife, Nancy, lived in the old Harper Mansion, known up and down the Marshyhope Creek as “Red House.” The building stood in a bend of the river, and it was a well-known navigation landmark. When I went down there to do genealogical research in 1988, I found their gravestones, badly deteriorated but still readable, on the grounds of a state police barracks a mile south of Eldorado on the eastern bank of the river.

Having no children of his own, Col. Bill took the extraordinary step of leaving all his property to his slaves.

Bill owned no slaves in 1800 and 1810, according to the censuses of those years. He may have used hired hands or tenants to work his property. By 1820, however, he owned five slaves: a boy and two girls under age 14, and one man and one woman between 26 and 45. It is possible this group of slaves was a family. By 1830, Col. Bill owned nine slaves. In 1840, the year before his death, Col. Bill owned 10 slaves who took care of his house and worked his plantation. He had a boy and two girls under 10, two males and three females between 10 and 24, one man over 55 and one woman between 24 and 36.

When Col. Bill died, he directed that his slaves be freed and given certain grants of land. [One slave was not freed, however, and Col. Bill’s will reads, “I hereby give my colored boy, William, if he can be apprehended, to my good friend William Rea, and I hereby set aside $100.00 to be spent in apprehending him.”]

Among Col. Bill's slaves, Harper’s Henry was given a farm to live on. He married after receiving his freedom, and he bought his wife a sewing machine as a present. It was one of the first such devices on the entire Eastern Shore, but apparently Henry pledged his farm as surety for the machine, and somehow in the transaction he lost his land.

Harper's Pauline must have been a favorite, since she was given Red House in Col. Bill’s will. Pauline married Samuel, a slave owned by Benjamin Rhodes. Rhodes immediately claimed Pauline's land on the premise that what she owned belonged to her husband, and her husband belonged to Benjamin Rhodes. Shortly after this coup, Rhodes encountered Samuel in a store and taunted him over this maneuver. A fight broke out, and Samuel killed his master. He was hanged for the crime.

Richard Rhodes, Benjamin's brother, then claimed the Harper property. He immediately cropped the land (moved the crops off to his own farm, which stood nearby), then returned and took everything off the land, including Red House. His claim to the land was sketchy, so he acted on the assumption that the best way to get clear title to the improvements on the farm was to move them to his own property.

The land that Col. Bill willed to his other slaves likewise passed quickly into other hands.

Among Col. Bill's siblings, the younger Beauchampe seems to have abandoned, renounced, or sold his interest in the inheritance and gone to Ohio. His sister Sarah followed him, settling in Ross County, where the family became noted for anti-slavery activity. Edward sold his inheritance as soon as he hit 21, never saw the money, married poorly, took to drink, and lived in poverty.

One of his sons, William, went to live with his Ohio relatives, and apparently imbued their abolitionism. He settled in Chester County, Pennsylvania, where he married into the Quaker gentry and took part in Underground Railroad activities. But his connection with the Eastern Shore was broken clean. We have no pictures of them, no letters, not so much as a crested tarnished teaspoon.

My ancestors built up wealth, in part with their sweat, in part with the bought labor of African slaves. In a bid to free their human chattels and set things right, they lost everything. The next generation of Harpers started over, and we've been modest and middle-class, at best, ever since. Whose side were we on, in the saga of that old America, the one that blew apart in 1861 and never returned? When I stood on the land my ancestors -- and their slaves -- once owned, breathing the tang of pine pitch beside a shattered gravestone, beside a tidal river too slow to sound, no breath of an answer came up.

Did they do right, or do wrong? When I hear people ask why Washington, Jefferson, and Madison didn't live up to their principles and free their slaves, I think of Henry and Pauline. And when I read proposals for reparations, I wonder if I'm in line to pay, to receive, or whether I get a by on the whole thing.

INDEX - AUTHOR



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© February 23, 2005 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"