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When Joseph Mosley, SJ wrote to his sister in October 1766 he was keen to relate to her his triumph in settling a new outpost for the Jesuit Mission in Maryland. In 1764, he had been dispatched by his superiors to scout and purchase a new plantation site in Talbot County. By March 1765, he had acquired the land for St. Joseph’s mission. On that land were

three Buildings, a miserable Dwelling House & much worse for some Negroes, & a House to cure tobacco in. The dwelling House was nothing but a few Boards riven from Oak Trees, not sawed Plank, & these nailed together to keep out some of ye coldest air: not one Brick or stone about it, no plastering & no chimney, but a little stole in ye Roof to let out ye smoak. In this I lived till ye Winter, when I got it plastered to keep of ye cold, & build a Brick Chimney, ye Bricks I was obliged to buy & cart about 5 Mile.1

To this newly established outpost, Mosley brought eight enslaved people with him from White Marsh, none of whom would have enjoyed the warmth of plastered walls and a fireplace with a brick chimney. However, in their cramped quarters, the enslaved group might have found some refuge. His mention of the separate building to house the enslaved people reflected increasingly common spatial relationships among the enslaved, their owners, and possibly indentured servants. These separate accommodations eventually included features designed to support and perpetuate reproduction amongst the enslaved, even though indentured servants had traditionally been discouraged from productive sexual relationships. The cascading effect of this shift in the late 17th century resulted in separate quarters for the enslaved that could also include spaces of autonomy, for cooking, gardening, and arranging their domestic spaces, including adding modifications such as underground storage areas beneath floor boards if there were any.2

More so than Mosley, the eight enslaved laborers would suffer from the harsh conditions of the Maryland winter. Their existence on the Jesuit-owned estates coincided directly with a climate phenomenon that is now known as the Little Ice Age, in which the world became “slightly but significantly colder.”3 For residents of the Chesapeake region, this general cooling trend, which began in the 1300s, was exemplified repeatedl endured crippling winters in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.4

While no current or former Jesuits were assiduous catalogers of the weather, many other prominent Chesapeake residents, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Carroll were. All three of these men made special note of a major snowstorm in March 1772. Over the course of ten days, Carroll noted three significant snowstorms that laid over 20 inches of snow at Carrollton in Howard County. He remarked, "I may say that the Planters here have lost two months work, & I apprehend the loss in stock of all sorts will be great.”5 Those storms were followed by several extremely hard winters. 1780 was marked by a Chesapeake Bay that was frozen over with five to seven inches of ice from the head to the mouth of the Potomac River. In 1784, Baltimore Harbor closed at the beginning of January and did not reopen to ship traffic until the end of March.6

The period extreme winters of the late 18th century continued into the 19th century. The climate had not gotten any better in the Chesapeake area in the intervening years. If anything it had gotten worse. Jefferson’s accounts included a major storm in 1804-5.7 In an 1815 letter, Mobberly described the conditions at St. Inigoe’s: “WE have about 15 fires burning, most of them consuming wood all day & all night--Thus all our Blacks during the winter can do scarcely any thing else besides the procuring of wood &c.”8 His distress at the amount of work and attention that was required simply to keep everyone from freezing to death that winter was followed by several unusually cold seasons in which 1816 has come to be known as the year without a summer.9

The implications of this ongoing stretch of frigid temperatures in the mid-Atlantic are well known to historians of early America, and they are echoed in the experiences of the enslaved people who lived on the Jesuit-owned plantations in Maryland. The hardships of winter combined with minimal housing and clothing provisions, and outdoor labor to contribute to illness and mortality amongst the enslaved. That burden was particularly significant for children and the elderly, two population segments that were highly represented on the Jesuit estates.10

While these hardships were significant, the harsh winter climates could present some opportunities for the enslaved to seek freedom. For instance, in 1821 Jerome Mudd, SJ wrote from Georgetown College to Frs. Mulledy and McSherry, reporting: “Our winter has been very severe and afforded us abundance of ice to store up in our new ice house. If it had not been for stoves, I don't know what we should have done. Not only our feet and hands suffered from the frost, but I doubt whether our Moses would have escaped."11 Mudd’s observation about Moses’ flight echoes historian Tony Perry’s observation that the enslaved people took advantage of the frozen and desolate ground to hasten their journey to freedom, but that at the same time they risked the harms of long-term exposure to the cold.12

In combination with the bone chilling cold of the winters in Maryland during this period, the enslaved people who lived on Jesuit plantations also had to contend with the deterioration of housing conditions. When Adam Marshall, SJ took up the position of Procurator in 1820, he made an effort to assertain the condtions of the various sites. The farms were poorly managed in many respects, but especially financially. The accounting practices of the Jesuit managers were haphazard and many of the estates were in significant debt. Writing to his superiors in Rome in 1821, Marshall reported, "I found our plantations, with only two exceptions, in a very wretched condition, very poorly provided with the necessaries for cultivation, their buildings insufficient & in ruins, particularly those which accommodate the slaves which are almost universally unfit for human beings to live in."13

The terrible temporal conditions that Marshall described to Rome persisted through the subsequent years that the Jesuit's farmed the plantations with enslaved labor. Whether it was because of inattention, poor accounting, or a patent lack of understanding of what it would take to profitably run and agricultural enterprise, the managers at the various estates could never muster profit margins large enough to materially improve the circumstances of their enslaved laborers, and it is unlike that they would have directed profits toward those improvements rather than investing them in Georgetown College or the new mission work in Missouri.

  1. Letter, Joseph Mosley to Mrs Dunn (his sister), 1766-10-14, Early Jesuits' Papers Collection: Joseph Mosley (Box 1, Folder 7).
  2. Lorena S. Walsh, Motives of Honor, Pleasure, and Profit: Plantation Management in the Colonial Chesapeake, 1607-1763 (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9780807895924_walsh. 382.
  3. Sam White, “The Real Little Ice Age,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 44, no. 3 (2014): 327–52. Quote from 327.
  4. John E. Kutzbach and Thompson III Webb, “Climate and Climate History in the Chesapeake Bay Region,” in Discovering the Chesapeake: The History of an Ecosystem, ed. Philip D. Curtin, Grace S. Brush, and George W. Fisher (Baltimore, UNITED STATES: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 15–39, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/michstate-ebooks/detail.action?docID=3318061.
  5. Ibid, and David M. Ludlum, Early American Winters, 1604-1820, vol. 1, 2 vols., The History of American Weather (Boston: American Meteorological Society, 1966). Quote from page 46. (Carroll Papers. Md. Hist Mag. 14-2 (June 1919) 138-139).
  6. Ludlum, 148, 152.
  7. "The Winter of 1804-1805" The Jefferson Weather & Climate Records (The Papers of Thomas Jefferson and the Center for Digital Editing) https://jefferson-weather-records.org/taxonomy/term/382.
  8. Letter, Mobberly to Grassi, 1815-03-05, MPA (Box 58, Folder 6), http://slaveryarchive.georgetown.edu/items/show/66.
  9. Christian Pfister and Sam White, “A Year Without a Summer, 1816,” The Palgrave Handbook of Climate History, edited by Sam White, Christian Pfister, and Franz Mauelshagen (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2018) 551–61. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-43020-5_35
  10. Tony C. Perry, “In Bondage When Cold Was King: The Frigid Terrain of Slavery in Antebellum Maryland,” Slavery & Abolition 38, no. 1 (January 2, 2017): 23–36. https://doi.org/10.1080/0144039X.2017.1284923.
  11. Mudd letter to Thomas Mulledy and William McSherry (May 2, 1821) MPA, Box 59, Folder 2. (1821-MPA-59-2-Mudd-Mulledy-McSherry-1821-05-02.json)
  12. Perry, 29-31.
  13. Adam Marshall to Rome (February 6, 1821) Provincia Maryland 2 II 5, Archivum Romanum Societatis Jesu [http://www.sjweb.info/arsi/en/archivum-romanum-societatis-iesu/]: http://slaveryarchive.georgetown.edu/items/show/470.