Babies and Baptisms

Draft posted 20210412

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.

  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.
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