Kinship among the Enslaved

Draft posted 20210417

At the end of January 1717, William Hunter, SJ signed a deed of gift seeding all of the property associated with a Britton Neck farm related to Newtown, including 15 enslaved people, to Thomas Jameson, a layperson. The deed was an effort to secure that property, which was under threat of confiscation by the Maryland colonial authorities. Though the document is lasting evidence of the shifting winds of hostility toward Catholic clergy in the colonial period, it also represents the first documentation of an enslaved group owned by the Jesuits. Furthermore, the group consisted of four men, four women, four boys, and three girls. Though they are not clustered into family groupings, the presence of those seven children suggests that there were perhaps some heterosexual partnerships among the listed adults.1

Chronologically, the next record that names enslaved people who are owned by the Jesuits is a list of enslaved children born at Port Tobacco starting around 1750. This list is typical of much of the Jesuits accounting for their enslaved property. It is tucked at the end of George Hunter's record book, and it details the names and dates of birth, and often the names of their parents, for those born at the property. From these individual lines, scrawled in thick, messy ink, unfurl the bones of nearly a dozen enslaved families.2

The presence of these families suggests a growing community at the Port Tobacco farm in the middle of the 18th Century. For decades scholars of slavery have taken up a robust debate over the possibility and extent of community formation among the enslaved in the United States.3 Historians of the Chesapeake region, Allan Kullikoff and Russell Menard foremost, point to exactly this time period as the tipping point where those enslaved in Maryland and Virginia beginning to achieve a critical population density, gender balance, and adjacency that would allow them to develop a separate culture and a moderately stable family lives. Part of this growth of slave culture and community depended on the ability of the enslaved to congregate in larger groups on plantations with groups of more than 20 enslaved persons. Jean Butanhoff Lee, based on her assessment of census and tax records in Charles County where the Port Tobacco farm was located, has argued that Kullikoff and Menard's claims are not true for the whole Chesapeake region until the revolutionary era. However, the population characteristics are present on the majority of Jesuit-owned plantations by 1765.4

In the summer of 1765, George Hunter, who was the Jesuit Superior at the time, composed a summary report for the order's Provincial in Rome that detailed the status of the individual missions, detailing their acreage and enslaved people who labored thereon. Five of the seven plantations that Hunter described were home to 20 or more enslaved people, with White Marsh being the largest community at 65 people. Port Tobacco in Charles County was the second largest with 38 people. Then, St. Inigoe's, Newtown, and Bohemia, all had between 20 and 29 people. Furthermore, those five plantations had an average enslaved population of children or elderly, hence non-laboring individuals, of 46%. Even the two smaller farms, St. Joseph's and St. Marie's, both of which had enslaved populations of seven, included two or three people out of service.5

This numeric account suggests that the groups of enslaved people across the Jesuit plantations found themselves in groups that could develop their own shape and character, based on their size and relative stability. Many individuals lived their entire lives on individual plantations. This trend continued in subsequent decades, resulting in multigeneration families and connections to African descended people in the surrounding areas. Their desire and ability to build meaningful, lasting relationships is also evident in their ongoing willingness to marry, and in their efforts to unite their families through self-purchase. The Jesuits sometimes helped in these efforts based on their commitment to avoiding the separation of married people. Thus, the enslaved people owned collectively by the Maryland Province Jesuits in the 18th and 19th Centuries lived in conditions that allowed them to build communities and kinship ties.

  1. Deed of Gift between William Hunter, SJ and Thomas Jameson (January 30, 1717), MPA, Box 27, Folder 2.
  2. George Hunter, List of children born at Port Tobacco, Bound Manuscript, MPA Box 3, Folder 8.
  3. The question of the scope and possibility of people developing strong community and kinship bonds, and in turn developing and maintaining a distinctive cultural domain, has been the subject of generations and schools of slavery studies scholars. See, John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, Revised and enlarged edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979); Herbert G. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925, First edition (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976); George P. Rawick, From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community, The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, v. 1 (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Pub. Co, 1972); Sterling Stuckey, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
  4. Allan Kulikoff, Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680-1800, 1 edition (The University of North Carolina Press, 1986), Russell Menard, "The Maryland Slave Population, I658 to I730: A Demographic Profile of Blacks in Four Counties," William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Ser., XXXII (I975), 30-38, and Jean Butenhoff Lee, “The Problem of Slave Community in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake,” The William and Mary Quarterly 43, no. 3 (1986): 334–61, While the records from the Jesuit plantation in Charles county undercut Lee's argument, Lee's work is an important reminder that slavery is different in different times and places and that it is not productive to make generalizations that stray too far from the direct documentary record. [Charles County tax records and census documents for St. Thomas's Manor and Port Tobacco -- at the county seat or at the Maryland State Archives?]
  5. George Hunter, SJ to Provincial Fr. Deunett , "Missions in Maryland," (July 23, 1765) MPA Box 57, Folder 1.