Partnerships and Marriage

Draft posted 20210412 | Last revised 20210417

At the end of 1815, an enslaved man named Charley, who labored on St. Inigoe's Manor plantation, had decided he was ready to marry. His chosen partner was an unnamed woman who was not owned by the Jesuits, but who lived nearby. Negotiating such a marriage was a delicate matter. Charley needed permission from a key Jesuit in a leadership position, not simply from the Brother who managed St. Inigoes. Thus, he discussed the matter directly with Giovanni Grassi, who was the President of Georgetown College and Superior for the Maryland Province. Then, Br. Marshall followed up with a letter asking for clear permission for the man to marry. Grassi, an Italian immigrant, who had led the College and the local order for just over three years at that point, wrote back to Marshall just after the new year, granting Charles' request based on his understanding of the situation: “I have no objection that Charley may marry the woman he mentioned to me, for as far as I can recollect she is not a free woman, and lives almost on the plantation and belongs to a person fixed in the place. You can inquire if such is the case, and then allow him permission to marry in a [Christian] manner.”1

Grassi's reply highlights many of the complexities and constraints facing enslaved people owned by the Jesuits when they looked to marry: the ultimate control of the owners; the distrust of association with free people, the concern among the Jesuits about the proximity of spouses; the concern about the possibility of a partner owned by someone else might chance separation.

So many of the sources in the Maryland Province Archives address enslaved people in terms of family ties. Parents and children are listed together in notations about new births and baptisms. Couples are listed in relationship to one another, and in terms that treat their partnerships as marriages. The ambiguity of the character of these relationships is heightened by the social and legal conditions in the 18th and 19th centuries that regulated or even prohibited marriage for the enslaved. In 1777, enslaved people in Maryland were able to marry with their owner's consent, yet that marriage had no legal standing given the party's status as property.2 This in-between status for couples left them at mercy of their owner's wishes and whims, even those owners who claimed to respect the bonds of enslaved marriage.

Given the tenuous status of marriage for enslaved people, Tera Hunter's capacious framing in Bound in Wedlock is useful. Hunter defines marriage "as it was understood during and after slavery to encompass committed conjugal relationships, whether legal or not, monogamous, bigamous, polyamorous, or serial. Black heterosexual intimacy comprised a wide range of domestic arrangements out of necessity, not all of which were described as a marriage. African Americans did maintain relationships that they called marriage, however, despite the lack of support that safely scaffolded Euro-American relationships as sacrosanct."3 For the most part, the Jesuits did respect the insolubility of the marriage bond even for enslaved people. To some degree, this is not surprising, given the status of their owners as members of the Catholic clergy who treated marriage as a sanctified, permanent, religious commitment. Nonetheless, these doctrinal commitments served as a double-edged sword for the enslaved people who were governed by them, as they were sometimes used to prohibit people from entering into a marriage with a partner who lived abroad or one who was not owned by a Catholic.

As with most things, the records left by the Jesuits are silent on so much of the important and enlivening elements of the committed partnerships of their enslaved people. The daily intimacies and sustenance of those relationships, if they were not completely held private from the Jesuits who lived on, managed, and visited the estates, they were not recorded. The most common evidence of relationships among enslaved people on the Jesuit plantation occurs amongst the inventories and notations of new births in the pages of farm ledger books. Sacramental records also serve as a key source of evidence. Finally, if the Jesuits were to discuss individual enslaved people in their correspondence amongst one another, the topic was usually related to marriage. These letters are particularly revealing of the boundaries that the Jesuits placed around the ability of the enslaved to regularize their committed relationships.

Over the span of the 125 years of documentary record, the sources provide clear evidence of 112 couples spread across the various farms, which represents 16% of the total population (1131 people). The parties to these relationships appear together as parents of a new child, listed as married couples in inventories, and occasionally as participants in a marriage ceremony. The majority of these unions (62.5%) were coresidential, allowing the formation of relatively stable nuclear families.

Given the large populations on the Jesuit estates from the 1750s onward, the documentary record only offers a small window into what must have been a wide and varied world of romantic and sexual relationships. Hunter notes that in addition to long-term committed relationships, other kinds of more episodic connections such as finding a "sweetheart" or "taking up" with someone were common. Those times of shorter connections, that often did not result in children being born did not rise to the attention of the Jesuits in a way that would cause their notation. Among the enslaved population writ large, Hunter has found that most enslaved people engaged in episodic partnerships throughout their lives based on the shifting conditions of their ownership, frequent mortality, and other disruptions that affected their lives.4

Even though the Jesuit plantation communities were large (most had over twenty residents), a significant number of members of the community looked beyond the perimeters of their home estates for partners. These relationships anchored these individuals in wider African American communities in Maryland. Twenty-eight documented marriages included one person who was owned by an enslaver other than the Jesuits, and 14 who were free Black people. Thus, 42 couples out of the total or 37.5% had a marital partner who resided outside the Jesuit properties. Of those partners who lived abroad, 22 were women, and 20 were men. In partnering abroad, men and women were no different than most enslaved people and were willing to take advantage of the opportunity to marry exogamously.5 With an all-time population of men outnumbering women by over 100 people (women = 519; men = 612), the gender balance among an age-appropriate cohort on the individual estates must have often been uneven, pushing individuals to look abroad for partners. Brenda Stevenson's analysis of enslaved people in Loudoun County Virginia during the 18th Century suggests that abroad marriages were the norm even for those on large plantations. She notes, "It is not unreasonable to assume, therefore, that even when demographic conditions theoretically could provide a high incidence of monogamy and nuclear families among the slaves of a particular holding, black men and women sometimes made other choices based on a complex combination of reasons; choices that, on occasion, resulted especially in abroad marriages and functionally matrifocal families, sometimes serial marriages, or even polygamy. Operative extended kin networks of various description undoubtedly allowed slaves some assurance that these kinds of decisions would not result in dysfunctional marriages or families."6

  1. Giovanni Grassi, SJ, letter to Joseph Marshall (1816-01-03) Catholic Historical Manuscript Collection, Box 6, Folder 7.
  2. Tera W. Hunter, Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2017), 67.
  3. Hunter, 7.
  4. Hunter, 31-33.
  5. Hunter, 34.
  6. Brenda E. Stevenson, Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South, electronic resource (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 208-234. Quotation from 234.
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