Thursday, December 29, 2011

'White Slavery' in the ante-Bellum South and Civil War Era: A Little Known Phenomenon'

When one researches primary source material for the 19th-century American South, occasionally one finds enigmatic references to 'white slaves,' or individuals who were in reality Caucasians, but were sold or held in bondage, by crooked masters or slave-dealers, for a variety of reasons. A number of publications exist on the subject today, but one wonders exactly how many whites were in reality enslaved, since cases or accounts of such incidents are numerically significant.

For example, the abolitionist newspaper, the National Anti-Slavery Standard, published in New York City, for March 9, 1861, printed an incident of a slave being sent back to Tippah County, Mississippi, from Illinois, who according to the Cairo (IL) Gazette, "claimed he was actually white, and had every appearance of being so." The individual's name, was Henry Lee, alias Henry Jones, the property of a Mr. W.C. Faulkner.  The above article declares:

"Mr. Lee...thinks he is a white man, and if the matter were to be determined wholly by color and appearance, some folks might join him in the conclusion. He says that his parents were white, that they dying, when he was very young, left him in the charge of a slaveholder in Alabama, who raised him in slavery, and taught him to believe that he was a mulatto. He further claims that his name was changed so that his relatives might never seek to reclaim him from bondage." 

Such assertions as above may seem to be distortions of the truth, but it was the case in some Southern states, that children who were products of Black fathers, but White mothers, often obtained their freedom once they reached a certain age. Thus, many African-Americans attempted to 'pass as partial Whites,' or went to court attesting that their mothers were White and not Black, when the issue became a source of contention between the person enslaved, and his or her master or mistress.

The Philadelphia (PA) Public Ledger, for December 27, 1860, reprinted an article from a Natchez, Mississippi newspaper, entitled, "Painting a White Girl to Make Her a Slave."  It was stated how a man from Natchez was on a steamboat on its way to Greenville, Mississippi, when he noticed a young girl, "aged about nine or ten years," with black hair and "yellowish brown skin." He was told she belonged to a gentleman on board who was taking her to New Orleans to be sold for $160.00. Talking to the young girl alone, the inquisitive passenger was informed by the girl, how "she was an orphan, and had been taken from an asylum in New York," and that her hair had been light originally, but her 'master' had a barber dye her hair black, and also put "some yellow dye on her skin."

Soon after the above confession, the young girl was taken by the ship captain, who after using potash, soap and water, removed "the dyes...and the light hair and light complexion {were} brought to light." The pretended "master was seized by the excited passengers," who caused him to be locked up in a state room until the boat should land.  The young girl was eventually placed in an orphan asylum in New Orleans.

Interestingly, such cases of 'white slavery' in the Southern states was not limited only to the 'ante-bellum' or pre-Civil War period of history. During the 'War Between the States,' in 1863, a correspondent of the Cincinnati (Ohio) Gazette (reprinted in the Philadelphia Daily Evening Bulletin), related that within the 78th Ohio Infantry Regiment, was a man who was taken, "as a runaway slave," into the Union lines in Tennessee. His features and skin color denoted "Anglo-Saxon" ancestry, while his eyes were also "blue, his lips thin, and his hair light."  His former Tennessee master had admitted to Colonel Mortimer D. Leggett, "that there was not a drop of African blood in the veins of his slave," and that he had purchased the man in Richmond, Kentucky years before, and that he'd been "sold into slavery, out of some charitable institution to which he had been committed as a vagrant."

The Lebanon (PA) Courier, for April 9, 1863, contains a remarkable tale of a white man held as a slave. The account states how a planter's daughter in Mississippi was seduced, and to "hide her shame" after she became pregnant, her female child was given to a slave woman, along with a certain amount of money, in order to "bring her up as her own." The child eventually became the "mistress of the planter's son, who succeeded to the estate. She had by him five children, and among them the man...Charles Grayson. This was in Calhoun County, Mississippi, three miles from Paris."

Eventually Charles was sold to William Steen, and soon after he learned of his true parentage. Running away, he was "captured and treated with harshness. He was made to do more work than any slave.--The object was to break him down. He proved to be strong and able to bear all the burdens put upon him."

On December 17, 1862, the Third Michigan Cavalry came into the area, and Grayson procured a horse and rode into their encampment. There he was employed as a cook for one of the non-commissioned officers, Theodore Reese, of Company 'F.' He wished to move North, and was thus aided by Lt. Col. G. Rogers as well as citizens of Jackson, Tennessee, who assisted Grayson in carrying out his plan. Not long after he took up residence in Cass County, Michigan, where by 1870 he was working as a farm laborer for a Peter Scofield and his family of Cass County.

Charles Grayson was a 'slave' for seventeen of his twenty-three years, but his "straight, light hair, fair blue eyes, a sandy beard," revealed that he was indeed a Caucasian and not of Black ancestry.

The above accounts are only a few scattered renditions of one little known aspect of the institution of slavery within the Southern States prior to and during the American Civil War. Such incidents reveal that 'slavery' is a much more complex issue than anyone has imagined, affecting individuals, both White and Black in a very diverse manner.

Such accounts, like so many other topics included within this blog, may be found here, within the collections at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Nineteenth Century Christmas in Words and Illustrations

This appeared in the December HSP email publication, History Hits: Collecting & sharing the stories of Pennsylvania. For a free subscription, enter your email here
The Christmas holiday season has generated much interest from both a personal and commercial perspective within the United States for many years. What is considered to be the first illustration of Santa Claus descending a chimney with a bag or sack full of toys was printed in the January 1841 issue of the New York City weekly newspaper, the New York Mirror (1823-1842). The picture below, drawn by Dublin-born portrait-painter Charles Cromwell Ingham, was then made available in print through the efforts of a wood engraver, Robert Roberts, an immigrant from Wales.  
Christmas cards have been around for quite some time. William Egley Jr. of Great Britain has received credit for creating the oldest card in 1843, though many early versions appear to stem from Valentine cards, whose origins can be traced as far back as the 15th century. Poems or verses, along with graphic illustrations, have been a major part of Christmas cards, as demonstrated by the one below, printed in 1855.   
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Christmas is a time that brings families together.  In a letter written in 1842, a woman named Mary in Montrose, Pennsylvania, recalled to John, how "... (Christmas Eve), you know, when St. Nicholas fills the stockings of good little children, Bubby held the candle while I drove a nail by the fireplace, he then hung up his stocking, and went to bed...As soon as he was awake this morning...I wish you could too could have seen him as he drew parcel after parcel, from the stocking--carefully inspected the contents, and then laid it aside for the next."

William R. O'Donovan, writing to his sister from New York City on Christmas Day in 1871, stated: "This is Christmas night...A night that brings to all our minds the recollections of our childhoods, with what a keen zest we all used to look forward to Christmas for weeks before, with anticipations of what Santa-Claus would bring us. And how our eagerness to see the contents of our stockings, drove all sleep away.  It may seem foolish, at this time of life to recall such reminiscences. But I am glad...I am still able to recall with pleasure the halo of brightness that always lent to this day such a sweet enjoyment to our youthful minds. May none of us ever grow old enough in Spirit to forget these early, happy, times in the morning of our lives...."

Mr. O'Donovan later writes to his mother on Christmas Day in 1876 lamenting the plight of the poor in New York City. "I have seen fair young girls, who have never known the want of a luxery, {sic} in filthy tenements, ministering to poor sufferers, with the self forgetfulness, and gentleness of angels...How then can I call this a hard and heartless world? It is full of beauty, and truth, and love; if we will but try to find it...."

In the 19th century and today, Christmas has brought joy to many souls, in both picture, poetry, and memory, much of which is available within the collections at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The American Frontier: Romantic Portrayal vs. Reality

Today's culture is permeated with so-called 'reality' television shows, which in some ways are no doubt 'mirror-images' of at least a portion of our society, while others are blatantly more fiction than fact, characters and events simply 'staged' for the camera and a gullible public that thrives on sensationalism.  The same was true for the frontier period of American history, with its stark 'reality' of scalpings, murders, death by wild animals, disease, accidental misfortunes on farm or within the forest, as well as fictional renditions of persons and events (though occasionally based somewhat on 'fact'), as rendered in such popular novels, as those by famed author, James Fenimore Cooper.

Luckily, many primary sources exist describing 'life on the Frontier,' by which one can at least gain a semblance of the perils and harsh reality that our ancestors endured, as well as an almost nostalgic yearning for a time long past that could prove to be either 'Edenic' or 'Hellish,' depending perhaps on one's perspective.

Elias Pym Fordham, describing the frontier of Illinois Territory in 1817, remarked:
To be at an unknown distance from the dwellings of man...and then to lie at night in a blanket, with your feet to a fire, with your rifle hugged in your arms, listening to the howling wolves, and starting at the shriek of the terrible panther: This it is to be in a wilderness alone.
One visitor to a Kentucky pioneer station or fort, during the time of Daniel Boone in the late 18th-century, stated how:

The whole dirt and filth of the Fort, putrified flesh, dead dogs, horse, cow, hog excrement and human odour," coupled "with the Ashes and sweepings of filthy Cabbins, the dirtiness of the people, steeping skins to dress and washing every sort of dirty rags and cloths, will certainly contribute to render the inhabitants of this place sickly." One visitor to Boonesborough itself, remarked how its residents were, "a poor, distressed, half-naked, half-starved people," while another settler lamented how there was "no bred, no salt, no vegetables, no fruit of any kind, no Ardent sperrets, indeed nothing but meet {meat}.

 A Mr. Andrew Boggs, along with his wife Margery Harris, were the first settlers in what is now Centre County, Pennsylvania, at a place called 'Bald Eagle's Nest' (the site of Milesburg) in 1769. Boggs ran a 'Trader's Inn,' which was visited on one occasion by the Rev. Philip Vicars Fithian, of Greenwich, New Jersey, who was on a tour of the frontier in the spring of 1775. The good parson relates how the pioneer post was located in a "pleasant spot," with a "broad creek running by the door." However, his appreciation for his lodgings 'soon soured,' since he then remarks that,   
Soon after we had dined, two Indian boys bolted in (they never knock or speak at the door), with seven large fish--In return Mrs. Boggs gave them bread and a piece of our venison. Down they sat in the ashes before the fire, stirred up the coals, and laid on their flesh. When it was roasted, they eat in great mouthfuls and devoured it with the greatest rapacity...

I sat me down on a three-legged stool to writing. This house looks and smells like a shambles--raw flesh and blood, fish and deer, flesh and blood in every part--mangled, wasting flesh on every shelf. Hounds licking up the blood from the floor...naked Indians. Ten hundred thousand flies. Oh, I fear there are as many fleas. Seize me soon, kind sleep, lock me in they sweet I lay me down let me...lose my senses! 

Stop! oh, stop! sleep to-night is gone. Four Indians came droving in, each with a large knife and tomahawk...For all this settlement I would not live here--for two such settlements--not for five hundred a year.
Lucy Watson, who had lived on the frontier in New Hampshire in 1762, recalled in later years, how as a child her family "could hear the wolves howling near them every night. The Foxes could be heard to Bark by day as well as by night. The Panthers too, were several times heard. They cried like the voice of a woman in distress, and would deceive Persons so as to incline them to go after them..."

Lucy goes on to relate how her family had went "to work to cutting down Trees, to burn them away and get the Land clear. This they did themselves, for they could not get any hired help.--The wild wooden state was such, that formerly a Mrs. Pritchet, with her infant Son, got lost therein--She wandered about till the child died and she buried it under a Tree root, where the ground was broken by the blown over tree. Hunger and anxiety bewildered her mind and when she was found after many days of search...she was so wild she fled from them. Her clothes had been nearly torn off by the bushes and brakes."

Many early frontier families, floated down the Ohio River on 'flatboats,' from Redstone, located in what is now Fayette County, Pennsylvania, to Limestone (now Maysville, Kentucky my home town), where many such would-be settlers were waylaid, captured, or murdered before ever arriving at their intended destination. One such family was that of Jacob Greathouse, and his party of sixteen, in the spring of 1791. Other pioneers in their group had previously arrived at Limestone, but the Greathouse family had not appeared as expected. Thus, a relief party of frontiersmen went to search for them, and soon found them all, from the youngest to the oldest, scalped and tortured.

Jacob Greathouse and his wife "had been tethered each to a sapling...Their bellies had been opened...and a loose end of the entrails tied to the sapling. They had then either been dragged or prodded around and around so that their intestines had been pulled out of their bodies to wind around the trees as they walked...Greathouse himself had stumbled along until not only his intestines but even his stomach had been pulled out and wound into the  obscene mass on the tree. They had been scalped and burning coals stuffed into their body cavities before the Indians departed."

Such accounts as the above were quite often the realities of 'life on the Frontier.' Yet, still there literally hundreds of thousands of pioneers who ventured westwards. Frederick Jackson Turner, an historian and son of early Wisconsin settlers, would write a seminal essay, entitled, "The Frontier in American History," wherein he would vividly recall the 'hybrid' culture created on the frontier, with the merging of Native-American and Anglo-American societies. Though he advocated that American democracy had originated as the result of the frontier experience, later scholars such as Ray Allen Billington, would challenge his thesis, but admit that Turner's theory held true in that "the frontier environment" did indeed heighten or intensify democratic institutions, rugged individualism, and independent thinking.

It is appropriate to close this blog entry with a famed quotation, taken from Turner's essay, which contains much truth as well as 'romance' of the frontier experience in America. He states:
The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, mode of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car, and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him.

Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick; he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion. In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails.

Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe...The fact is, that here is a new product that is American.
The 'frontier' is a massive subject in and of itself, in regard to our American heritage. Luckily, much of its past reality and romance can be found here, within the primary and secondary sources, available at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.