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Over time, the Jesuits' capital investment in enslaved people grew as the people they owned bore children and formed families, aided by the laws of Maryland. The first of those laws, passed in 1664, clearly established that "all Negroes and other slaves already within the Province And all Negroes and other slaves to bee hereafter imported into the Province shall serve Durante Vita."1 By tying freedom status to race, the Maryland colonial assembly all but guaranteed that the reproduction of enslaved women would mean a reproduction in wealth for their owners. And, though, the priests who collectively owned large numbers of enslaved people took vows of individual poverty, together they depended on the wealth and labor provided by their human property. As Jennifer Morgan notes, "It seems, then, that the ultimate contradiction--if we can even call it that--in the system of slavery was the banal, even thoughtless, coexistence of humanity (in the recognition of marital bonds) and inhumanity (in the appropriation of children and the unborn). This juxtaposition shaped the ways in which enslaved women and men could hope to articulate their own sense of family, parenting, or culture formation--all the things that constituted their lexicon of humanity."2

The Founding Generations

The most clearly documented type of community relationship represented in the archival materials that document the lives of the enslaved people owned by the Maryland Province Jesuits are the births of new enslaved babies. These records arise in several forms, but the most common is through listings in estate record books. These lists, often located at the back of a daily account book, track the new births over time usually with a notation about the parents of the child. While a white family might track its growth and history inside a family bible, the presence of these records among the other accounting notations for the estates firmly establishes the status of these new children as the collective property of the priests who owned them and their parents.

First, the records reveal 140 documented births, beginning around 1750. For example, ledgers from Bohemia Manor, Newtown, and Port Tobacco, include lists of children born at those farms over a twenty to thirty year period.3 Each row in these lists includes the bare traces of a family relationships: a date, a name, a mother, and often a father. Occassionally, the entries are struck through, indicating that the child has died. Sometimes, there is a date for the death. The connections depicted on the pages of these ledgers, noted by Jesuits, cannot give us a sense of the bonds of affection, or the bonds of expedience that might have lead to initimate relationships. Nor do they reveal the durability or duration of the coupling, beyond the births of multiple children to the same couple. For example, the siblings Mary (1752), John (1754), Rose (1758), Benjamin (1760), and Henry (1763) were born to Clare and Ben, Sr. between 1752 and 1763 at Newtown.4 The list also includes a number of other groups of siblings (1752-1770):

At roughtly the same time, a foundational generation was being born at Port Tobacco (1755 to 1778). Many of the entries are struck through, but the meaning of those lines is unclear.5

In 1764 a document from Fingal and White Marsh lays out a set of family groups, delineating the children that were too young to work, and the elders of the community. While the document does not clearly note the birth dates of these children, it does clearly document parental and sibling relationships. At Fingale, Nanny Cooper had three children; Sarah, Phyllis, and Mary each had four. At White Marsh, Charity had six, Nelly and Franc (Frank) had five each; Henny had three, and three other women each had a child.6

Each of these documents provides a glimpse of the children and parents on individual farms in the second half of the 18th Century. These are large families showing that the enslaved community enjoyed a reasonable degree of stability. Over the course of the period of Jesuit slave ownership, the archives note 400 individuals with at least one named parent. But, of course, there were also larger families. These first generations formed the foundation for a sprawling network of intermarried families that were present at the time of the mass sale to Louisiana in 1838.

One cannot consider these children without also pondering the limited universe of choices open to their parents. As much as couples might have been happy to welcome babies into the world, it was a world of constraint, oppression, and perpetual slavery. In her masterful work on the reproductive labor of enslaved women, Jennifer Morgan urges against romanticizing these women and calls for historians to recognize the complex range of emotions that enslaved mothers might have felt toward the occasion of bringing another person into a life of oppression. Morgan cautions, "It becomes difficult, if not impossible, given the realities of disease, overwork, and fertility control, to accurately situate enslaved women's experience of childbirth and parenting. Mechanisms for interrupting the violation of enslavement could certainly have included a withdrawal from voluntary intimate contact, from the extension of the self in community. In that context, the birth of a child would have done nothing to alleviate sorrow; indeed, it would only have made the load heavier."7 Morgan was referencing the situation of women in Barbados in the 1650s, but her insights apply to the women enslaved in Maryland in the 18th and 18th centuries.


If the farm inventories and ledger books contain the most information about the growth of the population over time, the sacramental registers provide another angle through which to see the larger community of African Americans associated with the Jesuits, both slave and free. As the first sacrament of initiation for a Catholic, baptism is an essential step on the path of belonging within in the faith community. Since Catholics practice infant baptism, for the most part, the choice of that initiation is one made by a child's parents with the support of a set of godparents or sponsors. Essentially, these parties assent to the tenants of the faith on behalf of the infant, pledging to raise and educate the child in beliefs and principles of the religion. Certainly, however, the question of free assent is an open one when the priest conferring the sacrament of baptism is also part of a larger corporate structure that is responsible for holding the parents and the child in a state of perpetual, hereditary servitude.

Even with this deep contradiction, many generations of enslaved parents presented their children for baptism by the Jesuits. The bulk of the documentary evidence is clustered between 1819 and 1833, with sacramental registers from White Marsh, Newtown, and St. Thomas, but there are also early records of baptism at Bohemia Manor and St. Joseph's Manor from between 1750 and 1800. Though the coverage of these documents is spotty, the social structure that accompanies the baptismal sacrament opens a glimpse of the wider world of community associations and networks. The 87 recorded baptisms also include 69 godparents or witnesses. This larger network hints at the relations with a wider community of African descended peoples in the areas around the Jesuit plantations.

Maryland Jesuits in a Slave Society

Questions of community, kinship, household, and family are all constrained and opaque when social relations are governed by conditions of commodification. Regardless of the often paternal stance of the Jesuits, these enslaved people were property who were bought, sold, managed, tallied, and governed. As such, each and every one of them lived with the possibility that they may be separated from their family and friends based on the decisions of their enslavers. However, to some extent, this particular group of enslaved people enjoyed a degree of stability that was not present for other enslaved people in the area. The rhythms of slave-owning families that led the families of the enslaved to be torn asunder were reduced somewhat. Since these bonds people were owned in common among the priests, they did not face the threats of displacement and disbursal at the point of an owner's death or an owner's child's maturity.

The enslaved people who labored on farms owned by the Jesuits in the 18th century were caught up in the political and legal ambiguities caused by the suppression of the order in 1773. Though the suppression may not have impacted the day-to-day lives of the men, women, and children who lived on the estates, the removal of the institutional structures of the order called for Jesuit property to pass to the control of the local bishop. Except, there was no local Bishop in Maryland yet. At the same time, the restrictions on property holding by Catholic clergy in Maryland further compromised the men's hold on the farms, and the enslaved laborers who worked them. The resolution to this situation came in 1793 with the chartering of the Corporation of Roman Catholic Clergymen. Henceforth, the Corporation owned all of the property that had been informally held in common among the priests who were at that point former-Jesuits. This corporate ownership shielded the enslaved families from the danger oof separation posed by common inheritance and dowry practices among Maryland elite.8

While the early generations of Jesuits in Maryland hailed from England, by the end of the 18th Century the community was comprised of many American-born men. These men were the descendants of the Catholic Maryland elite, and as such, they were enmeshed in the family business and machinations of their relatives. Their own extensive families meant that they were had the possibility of playing a part in the fate of enslaved people owned by their relatives, as well as in those of the enslaved people owned by the Jesuits.

The evidence of this dual existence for so many shows up most clearly in the collection of wills from relatives of Jesuits. Time and again in the first decades of the 19th Century, Jesuits are party to very standard, proforma inheritance documents and actions. Charles Sewall presents a most interesting case. In the closing years of his life, he was involved in a cascading set of family inheritance transactions that resulting in the shifting ownership and the upheaval and disruption of the lives of numerous enslaved people.

In 1801, upon the death of his father Nicholas Lewis Sewall, Charles Sewall inherited a large estate and a number of enslaved people, including six children under the age of two.9 Also in 1801, Henry Sewall, his brother bequeathed to Charles his enslaved property: "all my negroes with their future increase, for a limited time prescribed as follows. Viz. all my negroes at and above the age of eighteen years shall belong to him for the space of three years after my decease, at the expiration of which period they shall be free; and those of my negroes who at my decease may be under the age of eighteen years, I give to my brother Charles Sewall untill they arrive at the age of twenty one years, at which time my will is that they shall have their freedom."10 Then, in 1803, Dorothy Digges sold a woman, Jane, and a child, Henny, to Charles Sewall on behalf of her son, who had inherited them from his father George Digges. The document uses standard language to document the transaction. For the sum of $85, Dorothy Digges, as executor of the estate, Sewall purchased the woman and child, and acquired the right to hold them in perpetuity through his estate.11 Then on November 10, 1806, Charles Sewall died which moved his will, drafted on August 15, into effect. That document declared, "I give & bequeath one Negro man called Baptist & his wife Grace with their present Children & future increase; also a negro girl Called Nancy Daughter of Anny, also a Negro girl called Celia unto my said sister Eleanor Pye, to her, her Heirs, Executors, administrators or assigns, for them & their use for ever." Furthermore, he bequeathed "a negro woman called Moll & her two children Davis & James with her future increase" to his grand nephew.12 Thus, in the course of just under ten years, Charles Sewall, SJ, played a critical role in the life course of at least sixteen individuals from four families.

These transactions show that in addition to the relatively stable core of the collectively owned group of enslaved people who labored on Jesuit estates, the men in the order were entangled in complex family arrangements that meant that they also wielded tremendous power of the lives of dozens of other enslaved people. Just as Charles Sewall was part of a sprawling establish Maryland slave-owning family, so too were the Carrolls, Fenwicks, and Neales. Together the clergymen who hailed from these families exercised a great deal of control over the lives of the enslaved owned in common by the Jesuits, but also over the lives of the enslaved people owned by their parents, siblings, in-laws, cousins, and nieces and nephews.

Relative Stability

For the enslaved people owned by the Jesuits, disruption and family separation were definitely a possibility. The 125-year history of their collective enslavement in Maryland is punctuated by individual and small group sales and some significant transfers among the estates. Nonetheless, overall the groups experienced a significant degree of stability. Tracing the family connections through the archival sources reveals several large, multi-generation families that spanned from the 1750s to the point of sale in 1838.


Made with Flourish

Made with Flourish

Made with Flourish

Made with Flourish

Made with Flourish
  1. 1664 Maryland Law
  2. Jennifer L. Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (Philadelphia: Univ of Pennsylvania Pr, 2004) 105.
  3. Bohemia:
  4. Newtown:
  5. Port Tobacco:
  6. Thomas Hughes, History of the Society of Jesus in North America Colonial and Federal Documents, Vol. 1, Part 1 Nos. 1-140 (1605-1838) (Cleveland: The Burrows Brothers company, 1908) pp. 230-231, and
  7. Morgan, 114-115.
  8. R. Emmett Curran, “‘Splendid Poverty’: Jesuit Slaveholding in Maryland, 1805-1838,” in Catholics in the Old South: Essays on Church and Culture, ed. Jon L. Wakelyn and Randall M. Miller (Mercer University Press, 1983), 125–46; Robert Emmett Curran, The Bicentennial History of Georgetown University: From Academy to University 1789-1889 (Georgetown University Press, 1993); Thomas Murphy, Jesuit Slaveholding in Maryland, 1717-1838, Studies in African American History and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2001).
  9. A partial inventory from 1802 indicates that Nicholas Sewall owned a boy named Jerrard who was 15 months old, girls named Bridget and Milly who were 12 months old, a girl named Jenny who was 6 months old, a boy named Nace who was 2 months old, and a boy named Baptis who was 3 months old. Additional Inventory of NL Sewall Estate, November 11, 1802, MPA, Box 39, Folder 8 (110 W6). Records also show that Nicholas Sewall had purchased five people (Jerry, George, Nanny, Baptist, and Frank) in 1790 from Thomas How Rigdale, Horkins Hanson, and Ignatius Matthews who were trustees of the debt Walter Pye upon his death. Deed of sale from Thomas How Rigdale, Horking Hanson, and Ignatius Matthews to Nicholas Sewall, February 22, 1790, MPA, Box 39, Folder 8 (110 W5). [Request copy of Nicolas Sewall's Will (Non-Jesuit Wills [95 G1-Y1]., 01/01/1694-12/31/1840) Box 25, Folder 8.]
  10. Henry Sewall Will (copy), December 30, 1801, MPA, Box 25, Folder 8 (95 S2.5).
  11. Dorothy Digges deed of sale to Charles Sewall, April 9 1803, MPA Box 26, Folder 7 and
  12. Charles Sewall Will (copy), August 15, 1806, MPA, Box 26, Folder 12 (96 S2).
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