"Old Isaac Remained"

Draft posted: 2019-02-09

all our married people who had married out of our farms, have been sold to the masters of their husbands or wifes, or to the next neighbors of them, so that husbands & wives are together, but some children who could not be sold with their mothers, have been sent with the others to Louisiana. There remain in our farms only few old people, well provided for their life times. So old Isaac remained at W. Marsh

Grivel letter to Lancaster, May 4, 1839

This excerpt from a letter from Fidelis Grivel, a French-born Jesuit priest, to Charles Lancaster, a Jesuit native to Maryland, encompasses a whole range of issues and questions that are central to beginning to understand the history and experience of the enslaved community owned by the Jesuits in colonial and early national Maryland. By May 1839, circumstances had changed dramatically for the majority of the people--enslaved and free--who lived and worked on the five primary farms owned by the Jesuits in rural Maryland. Just months before, those farms had been home to 275 enslaved people, many of whom had spent their entire lives owned by the order of priests who served the Maryland community of Catholics. But after the execution of a set of contracts in 1838, the bulk of that community was rounded up and shipped to Louisiana to begin a new phase of their lives in slavery.

Yet, as Grivel noted in his letter to Lancaster, a small number of the community remained in Maryland, due to advanced age or marriage to a person not owned by the Jesuits. Most notable for Grivel among those who escaped sale to Maryland was "old Isaac." For modern readers becoming familiar with the stories of this community, their relationship to the Jesuits, and their sale to Louisiana, Isaac is a landmark individual for many reasons. For decades few digitized sources related to these events were publicly available, but the primary one was large form census that enumerates the community at the time of the sale. Isaac Hawkins heads that list. Available since 1995 through a digital project of from the Georgetown University undergraduate American Studies Program, the census and its partial transcription meant that Isaac was the first name that many African Americans with Maryland roots, curious about their own genealogical background, might have encountered in the course of their internet research. Similarly, scholars and students working on the complicated question surrounding slavery and US Catholicism might have begun with the 1838 community in conjunction with reading the body of scholarship published over the last forty years. More recently individuals curious about the larger story of the effort of the Jesuits and Georgetown University to grapple with their responsibility for their past would come to know Isaac Hawkins's name due to the university's decision in 2016 to rename after him a campus building that had born the name of a Jesuit who authorized the 1838 sale.

But, Isaac Hawkins did not live out his long life in isolation. Far from it. He resided on White Marsh Plantation in Prince George's County and was the head of a large family. At the time of the sale, the unnamed Jesuit who drafted the inventory noted that Isaac had four sons, one daughter, and 16 grandchildren with him at White Marsh. His wife was not identified, nor was she owned by the Jesuits. The list clearly identifies three generations of the Hawkins family (including Isaac Hawkins II, 26 years old, and Isaac Hawkins III, 4 years old), and in late 1838, at the age of 65, Isaac lived through the experience of losing them to Louisiana.

Though Isaac Hawkins is likely the most well-known of this community, his place of prominence is due primarily to that single document, prepared in anticipation of the sale. There are so many more people and stories to learn about with this community. In addition to the Hawkins family, the census clearly outlines upwards of forty families--wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, cousins. For the enslaved community owned by the Maryland Province Jesuits, the 1838 cohort is just the beginning.

Since the Jesuits arrived in Maryland with the first English colonists in 1634, their history with slave-owning was long, more than a hundred and twenty years. With the first mention of enslaved people in the archival record appearing in 1717, that history was very well documented in the records left by the Jesuits. As a result, there are hundreds of families and thousands of stories that can and should be told about this community and their experiences of enslavement with the Jesuits in Maryland. Doing so requires the careful analysis of more than 130 linear feet of archival material in the Archives of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus (housed in the Booth Family Center or Special Collections at Georgetown University Library), in conversation with the histories of slavery in the Chesapeake, the Jesuits, and U.S. Catholicism.1


  1. Archives of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, Booth Family Center for Special Collections, Georgetown University Library, https://www.library.georgetown.edu/special-collections/using/policies/maryland-province-archives