Jesuits from Elite Slaveowning Families

Draft posted 202104017

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 of separation posed by common inheritance and dowry practices among Maryland elite.1

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.2 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."3 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.4 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.5 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.

  1. 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).
  2. 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.]
  3. Henry Sewall Will (copy), December 30, 1801, MPA, Box 25, Folder 8 (95 S2.5).
  4. Dorothy Digges deed of sale to Charles Sewall, April 9 1803, MPA Box 26, Folder 7 and
  5. Charles Sewall Will (copy), August 15, 1806, MPA, Box 26, Folder 12 (96 S2).
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