Tuesday, June 24, 2014

"A Harty Wench": One Woman's Struggle with Slavery and Motherhood

Slavery is one of the ugly facts of Colonial life.  For most people, the word slavery conjurs images of sprawling southern plantations under the hot, hot sun.  But the northern colonies had no qualms with human bondage and considered it part and parcel to building wealth.  Philip Livingston (brother of the Robert Livingston who built Clermont) saw importation of slaves from Jamaica and Atigua as being a source of considerable profit; he owned a number of vessels for the purpose in the 1730s.  These carried shipments of as many as 50 slaves at a time from the Caribbean to New York.  His sons later cut out the middle-man and went straight to Africa for their slave imports.

Without the labor-intensive staple crops like rice and indigo, northern families tended to own fewer slaves per household.  In the 1790s, Chancellor Livingston owned 9.  His mother owned 15.  They were often house servants and farm workers.  Occassionally they worked in the Livingstons' mills.  Sometimes, the Livingstons hired their slaves out as part of a land lease agreement.  Other times they lodged young children in other households where they were to serve until they were grown strong enough to put to work at home.

There seems to be a tendancy to cut northern slavery a bit of a break.  Smaller numbers might suggest less commitment to slavery or that somehow it was gentler than the vast slave holdings of the antebellum South.   And then you come across a harsh reminder like this one: a letter from Robert Gilbert Livingston in New York to his brother in 1752.

Slavery, regardless of the number of peole involved, requires dehumanization that can be hard to swallow for the modern reader, and this letter was just the sort of thing that reminded me of that fact.

Robert G was a grandson of Robert the Founder, and it seems that in 1752 he was having trouble with an outspoken and contentious household slave.  In mid June this woman (who is never named in the letter) had a major altercation with the women in the family:

Since She has Yesterday made a Great Disturbance in ye family and that with our nurse molly.  Which has so Disturbed my wife that she is now Quite unwell & our child much worse, as Hansie Can Inform you...

The woman had always had a "devilish tongue" since he'd bought her and her family 16 months earlier for 70 pounds.  She'd lived in her past household for 15 years, but that family had finally given her up for her outspokeness as well.  She was strong, a good worker, and honest.  "I cannot Charge her with stealing any thing that ye family knows," he wrote. Sure she was strong-willed, but with a tougher master, he was sure she could be "as humble as a dogg."

Apparently she'd had previous arguments with the family.  Robert had tried to sell her before for this reason, but the woman had appealed to his wife, and she convinced Mrs. Livingston that she would behave well and was allowed to stay.

But after this latest affront, Robert decided it was time for "our Wench" to go.  And apparently she decided it too.  She asked for permission to be sold and went to the "afternoon sale...to Get a master" but with no luck.  It was a risky business being sold--would the new master or position be better or worse?--but it seems that she was so unhappy in the Livingstons' household, it was worth the risk, even with a 6 or 7 year old son and a 22 month old daughter tagging along beside her.

Maybe she was trying to leave Robert G.'s house because of her children.  After all, the boy was apparently shaping up to be more pliant than his mother and would make a valuable sale in the master's eyes.  Robert had already tried to sell him at least once "but she'l not part with him."  It was a shame, he thought, since the boy was easily worth 40 pounds.

All the same, her attempt to get out was not successful.  She was stuck at Robert G.'s mercy.  He lodged her and the children with "Hansie" while he made preparations to send her off to his brother in Poughkeepsie for sale there--just to make sure that she didn't appeal to his wife again.


"The Greatest reason she won't sell," he mused, "She is near Time.  She says 2 1/2 months to go."  Oh that's right, and by the way she's pregnant.

So here we have a mother who's six months pregnant, trying to care for a six year old son and a toddler daughter, and fending off her master's attempts to sell her son.  In spite of being a good worker (which arguably requires some pride in the outcome), she won't or can't quietly do as she is told.

Unsure of how to convince the woman to go to his brother's house, Robert G. decided to lie.  He would tell her that she was being sent there to give birth, and then once a new master was found, move her out--perhaps even before she gave birth.  "wee Tell her She's Going at yr house to Ly in first, & then Sell her, which you Can Tell, her Til you have a master fr her," he wrote.  Even worse, Robert recommended that she go from a house servant with some 20-25 pounds worth of clothing (a pretty nice wardrobe) to a farm laborer, a more physically demanding area of work that often carried fewer perks but would prevent her from interacting with the owner's wife and children.

The story continued a month later when Robert G. sent another letter up to Poughkeepsie.  Some members of the slave woman's family had gotten sick, endangering his brother's family and the financial potential in the slaves.  "I hope ye boy will recover," wrote Robert G, "If he does I desire he may not be sold but send him down as soon as you have Sold his mother & Child..."  After all that, he'd decided to separate the family anyway.

Perhaps the most startling aspect of the letters is the callous way in which Robert discusses the whole problem.   How would he get some money back out of this bad investment?  How should he separate the valuable boy from his contentious mother? Would the child even live?


The relationship between masters and their slaves was incredibly complex and underpinned by a master's willingness to see blacks as an inferior species and an "other."  Accounts of the Clermont Livingstons indicate that they treated their slaves with "goodwill," that they were "treated more as aquaintances of a lower order than as subjects."  Nevertheless, they were "a lower order," frequently seen as less intelligent and childlike.

Surely some households were better than others to work in and some personalities (master and slave) were better or worse matches.  But the fact remains that even in "good" households, slaves had no legal power to exercise control over where they lived, what work they did, and what became of their children.  They were dependant on their master's opinions and their own ability to influence them, whether through compliance or disobedience.

In spite of how difficult it can be to swallow, looking at slavery in the Livingstons' own words reminds us not to paint them in our own vision of Modern and Enlightened.  Sure, the Chancellor had some forward-thinking ideas and did participate in discussions that would eventually help to end slavery in New York (though not until the Chancellor, this woman, and her children were dead and gone).  He still bought, owned, and sold people like horses and partook to some degree in the mindset necessary to engage in this behavior.  He and his family were products of their time, when slaves were big business and often times nothing more than a good investment.


New York ye[the] 18 June 1752

Lovg Brother

I have Allready wrote by Hansie & Concerning our Wench.  Since She has Yesterday made a Great Disturbance in ye family and that with our nurse molly.  Which has so Disturbed my wife that is now Quite unwell & our child much worse, as Hansie Can Inform you, So that wee are Determ-- now to part with her at Almost Any Shape.  She yesterday Desired a note to be sold (ye firest since wee had her) accordingly I gave her one, & yesterday att ye afternoon sale this day She Tryed to Get a master, all to no purpose.  So have put her on board of Hansie with her sone of 6 or 7 years old a fine boy I would fain keep him but she'l not part with him, her daughter 22m old.  The Greatest Reason she wont sell here at present She is near her Time  She says 2 1/2 ms to go.  I was mistaken in her Time in my Last, You Can try her in your house a day or Two & If you don't Like to keep her, you Can put her to any house in you Place Till She's sold & I will with Thanks pay for all Cost or Trouble & will do so much fr you any Time.

She's a strong harty Wench She Can Earn her Victuals anywhere (If she will) therefore do with her as If your own.  I gave 16ms ago fr her & her Two children 70 [pounds]. & ye boy is at Least worth now 10[pounds] more, as to ye Girl I don't value much--If you Can possibly put her & her Child of So as to keep ye boy I should be Very Glad, for I always took a great Likeness to him--If it was not for her, I wou'd not take 40 [pounds] fr him  But Reather then Keep ye mother I must part with ye boy.

I do asure that ye only Reason I have to part with her, she has a devilish tongue & will be Mistress in any family onless She's over powered by a Master that Can manage her & then She'l be as humble as a dogg-- She will now and then drink a Little to free of Rum, which She Cant Come at in ye Cuntry--, here are so many Little dram shops that Ruins half ye negroes in Town; I cannot Charge her with stealing any thing that ye family knows & If She Could but bridle her passions I wou'd not Take 70[pounds] for her alone--

To amuse her wee Tell her She's Going at yr house to Ly in first, & then Sell her, which you Can Tell, her Til you have a master fr her.  She wou'd do Exceeding weele for a farmer to do Laborious work
Shel no doubt Tell you a Great many Stories, which you are not to Give Credit To, for shll talk a Great deal & Lye a great deal

If She Shoud not bee Sold before She Lys in, Prhaps She may then fetch more then She Woud now, She has at Least 20[pounds] or 25[pounds] Value in Cloathes with her, I bo't her of My John Coes for he was obliged to sell her, or go to Jail, or else shoud not had her so Cheap--When We bo't her wee knew she had a Tongue--and he Sold her for Such, but did not Imagine She was so bad as wee found her & ye reason wee bo't her was that She had Lived ab't 15 years in ye family that with my wifes Aunt Allair, only fr ye Reason before mentioned

Wee was Selling her this 3 or 2 month & have had 2 or 3 Times Masters for her, & when it Came on parting then my wife's mind was Altered, Ocassioned by the Wench's prelaviring Tongue, promising to behave well, But now She's resolved to part with her at all Events, But ye Inconveniency is Just as wee want To Sell her wee Cant at that Juncture Git a master, is ye Reason wee send her up now for fear her mind may alter (as it has happened) & then keep her till She behaves again as She has now, ther fore Since its Gon So farr it must now Go farther, fr I never will have So much Uneasiness again with her, I told her If she was opstropolous with you you woud Send her to prison & there Kept Till sold & that you must do, If She wont be Quiet, but I belive sheel Have more Sense When She finds Earnest

I know it will be a Great Trouble to you & Sister, but hope youl Excuse it, and If and Time I Can do you  ye Like service, It shall not be wanting in me & am with our Loves yr Loving Brother

RG Livingston


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NY 13th July 1752

Since what on ye otherside I rec yrs pr Hansie & and Extreem Sorry you have had so much Uneasiness & Trouble with ye blacks I sent up [to Poughkeepsie]  I hope in ye Lord it will not Effect yr family they say ye Infection is not taken when they Begin to Come out, which Gives me some hopes your family will not Get it from them, I hope ye boy will recover If he does I desire he may not be sold but send him down as soon as you have Sold his mother & Child phaps Children, for If anny youl not be able to sell her till diliv'd.

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