Tag Archives: slavery

Diary Foreshadows Conviction for Involvement in Slave Trade

Post contributed by Laurin Penland, Library Assistant for Rubenstein Technical Services

For someone like me who studied Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness in school, the Congo River can play an outsized role in my imagination as a place of brutal Western imperialism. So, you can imagine, how, when I was carefully paging through a diary from 1852 for a ship named the Mary Adeline, I froze in a moment of recognition upon seeing the words, “I was in the Congo River 12 days, during which time got ashore Shark’s Point. Was attacked by the savages, defended the vessel successfully and was eventually got off by … [the] steamer ‘Firefly’ and schooner ‘Dolphin.’”

Hand-written diary entry.
Diary entry written by Appleton Oaksmith while captain of the Mary Adeline. The entry describes a battle on the Congo River in 1852.

This ship’s diary was written almost forty years before Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, during a time when enslavers were still abducting people from Africa and selling them if not legally, then illegally, especially to countries in South America (by that time many countries, including the US, had outlawed the transatlantic slave trade). The diary was kept by a man named Appleton Oaksmithcaptain of the Mary Adeline—and though he does not mention enslaving people in the diary, I was suspicious. I wanted to know what he was doing in the Congo River and why he was “attacked.” So, I began to do more research.

First, I should provide a little more context. This diary was donated to the library as an addition to the Appleton Oaksmith papers, which the Rubenstein has held since 1937. The library had previously borrowed the diary in the 1950s so that it could be microfilmed. And now, decades later, the owners of the physical diary decided to donate it to the Rubenstein. It’s part of my job in the library to process new additions to collections, and this addition of the diary led me to try and discover what exactly the diary was about and how I might add it to the existing collection.

I did not know much about Oaksmith. In our online catalog, the description of Oaksmith stated merely that he was an “adventurer, author, ship owner, and industrial promoter of Hollywood, N.C.” A quick Google search for Oaksmith led me to think that “adventurer” was at best a polite euphemism and at worst a papering-over of the history of illegal slave trading. Here is one of the first entries I found about Oaksmith and his ship, the Mary Adeline:

“The U.S. brig Mary Adeline departed from Rio de Janeiro in April 1852 destined for the coast of Angola. After having been visited by the British steamship Fire Fly investigating evidence of slave trading, the Mary Adeline ran aground on a sandbar at Shark’s Point near the mouth of the Congo River. Within hours an estimated fifteen hundred to three thousand Africans attacked the boat. They used muskets, spears, oars, and cutlasses as weapons, along with hooks and poles to climb the side of the ship. The small crew of the Mary Adeline fought back by shooting a six-pound cannon that killed several of the Africans…. News of the battle spread quickly. Couriers capable of running fifty to sixty miles a day surely carried this information along the African coast. Inhabitants of Salvador learned of the attack after the return of the Mary Adeline to Salvador in late July. A planned attack by Africans of a slaving vessel helped to convince Bahians and foreigners resident in Salvador that a resumption of the slave trade would pose significant and unwanted risks.”[1]

This passage is from Dale Torston Graden’s monograph, From Slavery to Freedom in Brazil, Bahia, 1835-1900. Graden’s description of the battle in the Congo River suggests two important points: 1) It is likely that Oaksmith was attempting to enslave West Africans, and 2) the attack played a significant role in limiting or ending the slave trade in Brazil. If these things were true, why did previous archivists describe Oaksmith as an “adventurer” and not as an enslaver?

This question sent me searching our digitized collection of the Rubenstein’s old card catalog. This is often the first place I look when trying to find more information about collections that the library has held for a long time, given that sometimes, descriptions in the old card catalog were never migrated to the online catalog due to length, complexity, or outdated language. The old card files on Oaksmith included a long biographical sketch. The writer of the description chose to describe the battle on the Congo River through the lens of the crew members of the Dolphin who helped Oaksmith escape. According to the Dolphin, Oaksmith fought “gallantly” against “3000 natives who had assembled for the purpose of plundering [the Mary Adeline’s] valuable cargo.”[2] Later, the card file mentions that Oaksmith was indicted for slave trading, that he escaped from jail, and that he was eventually pardoned by President Grant. I was confused by the card file and by our online description, especially in juxtaposition to other scholarship that I found online. Was Oaksmith on the Congo River to enslave people? What was his valuable cargo? Why was he attacked? If he was eventually indicted, when was he convicted? How should I change the description of Oaksmith in the online catalog?

Old paper card catalog file with typed text.
Part of Oaksmith’s biographical sketch from the Rubenstein’s old card catalog. The card file emphasizes the perspective of crew members who helped Oaksmith escape the “attack” by West Africans.
Inside the front cover of Oaksmith’s diary. The inscription reads, “George Marsden, Rio de Janeiro.”

One curious aspect of the diary is that there is an inscription inside the front cover that reads, “George Marsden, Rio de Janeiro.” I found mention of Marsden in The United States and Transatlantic Slave Trade to the Americas, 1776-1867:

“[In 1852] the British Prime Minister to Brazil, Henry Southern, wrote to the foreign office about indications that the US vessels Mary Adeline and Camargo were being prepared to engage in the slave trade. ‘Mr. Marsden, a broker in Rio, a citizen of the United States,’ continued Southern, ‘is the party who is actively interested in getting up and aiding these speculations.’”

Later in 1852, the Camargo “disembarked 500 slaves at Bracuhy, south of Rio de Janeiro.”[3] Marsden was jailed but was eventually freed. The captain of the Camargo, Nathaniel Gordon, escaped from Brazil, but was hung ten years later in the United States for slave trading. (Gordon is the only person in US history to have been executed for the crime of slave trading; his conviction and hanging are largely credited to the politics of that moment with the start of the Civil War and the beginning of Lincoln’s presidency.) The last place that Gordon abducted West Africans was at Shark’s Point on the Congo River, the same place that Oaksmith had run aground years earlier.[4] And as for Marsden, after he was released from jail, he went on to be involved with a New York shipping company that was caught trafficking enslaved people to Cuba. Oaksmith also had significant ties to Cuba: his brother Sidney lived there, and Oaksmith himself was perhaps best known by historians as an ardent supporter of William Walker who “planned to establish a Central American empire that would ultimately include Spanish Cuba.”[5]

Newspaper clipping
Newspaper article from The World describing Oaksmith’s conviction for outfitting a slave ship, June 16th, 1862.

It turns out that there is a copious amount of scholarship on Oaksmith and the illegal slave traders of his time. While I have not yet determined with certainty the purpose of Oaksmith’s journey to the Congo River in 1852 aboard the Mary Adeline and the reasons for the battle that ensued, I found historical evidence for his later attempts at slave trading, thus justifying two changes in the collection description: mentioning  in the online catalog that Oaksmith was indicted for outfitting the slave ship Augusta in 1861 and finally convicted for outfitting the slave ship Margaret Scott in 1862, and adding “Slave trade – United States – 19th century” as a subject heading. I also decided to remove the word “adventurer” from his biographical description, lest it glorify the horrors of the slave trade and chattel slavery. The Appleton Oaksmith papers have also been added to a list of collections to which Rubenstein archivists hope to return, down the road, so that we can provide more detailed and just description. This is one of many legacy collections at the Rubenstein that deserve to be reprocessed and re-described so that we can better document the history of slavery and redress archival errors, silences, omissions, and erasures.

As for the ship’s diary that inspired this blog post, it has finally joined the rest of Oaksmith’s papers at the Rubenstein Library and will be requestable in the reading room once the library has reopened.


 

[1] Dale Torston Graden, From Slavery to Freedom in Brazil, Bahia, 1835-1900 (Albuquerque: University of Mexico Press, 2006), 8.

[2] Card catalog entry for the Appleton Oaksmith Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

[3] Leonardo Marques, The United States and Transatlantic Slave Trade to the Americas, 1776-1867 (New Haven & London: Yale University Press) 170, https://doi.org/10.12987/yale/9780300212419.001.0001.

[4] Ron Soodalter, “Hanging Captain Gordon.” Civil War Times, 08, 2009, 46-53.

[5] John J. TePaske, “Appleton Oaksmith, Filibuster Agent.” The North Carolina Historical Review 35, no. 4 (1958): 427-47. Accessed June 15, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/23517266.

What Happened to Fanny?

I wanted to share one of the most powerful letters I’ve seen while working here at the Rubenstein Library: a letter from Fanny, a former slave, writing from Texas in 1867 (149 years ago today!). Here’s the letter. (Click to enlarge; transcript below.)

fanny1 fanny2

Texana, Jackson Co., Texas, August 5th, 1867

Dear Sister,

Your kind favor of a July 3rd to hand a few days ago, it affords me such pleasure to be in a position where I can converse, if not in person through this medium. it found us all in tolerable good health and delighted to hear of [your?] being well.

I am yet so very anxious about my children that I want you to take this letter and show it to Mr Slade urgently requesting him to write to Mr J. Paul Jones (to above address.) stating all he knows in connection with the sale of my children and Mr Jones has kindly consented to write for me. He could not afford me a greater pleasure or favor and in return beg to assure him of the fervent and constant prayer of one who though humble hopes that her prayers are heard.

I hope to have a longer letter the next time for paper must be scarce in your section.

Say to Brother Slade that he is in position to require all his prayers, for he was the cause of my children being sent away, or rather my being separated, for if God can forgive him for this sin he will forgive the balance —

You forget to state anything about John Wilkins, who was your first husband. how came you to be separated or is he dead. are you a member of any church you seem so silent on that subject.

George says to send his son out here and he will go home with him next spring.

When you write to sister Lotty write the general substance of what I have written to her. I am ashamed to hear you [?] of old age. I never feel old unless after a hard day’s work. I am more like a girl of sixteen than an old woman. Receive the love of one who may never see you, but constantly has you in mind. Love from all to your family.

Your sister,

Fanny

Unfortunately we don’t have the letter’s envelope, so I don’t know who Fanny’s writing to. Although she addresses her sister, I can’t be sure they’re actual relatives. I don’t know Fanny’s last name. I don’t know her sister’s name, or where her sister lives. I’m not sure which Mr. Slade she’s referring to, or where he lived (it could be North Carolina, Georgia, or somewhere else). There’s a lot I don’t know about the people in this letter. But, one thing is very clear: Fanny’s looking for her children. The Slades sold them away, or sold her away, at some point before 1865. This letter is concrete, powerful evidence of the devastating impact slavery had on African American families, with ramifications lasting long after the the end of the Civil War.

I found this letter breathtakingly sad. I couldn’t stop thinking about Fanny. Did she ever find her children? All I could know for sure was that her sister did show the letter to Mr. Slade — because now it is held in the Slade Family Papers. But, unfortunately, I found no further correspondence with Fanny or J. Paul Jones in the collection.

I decided to look for circumstantial evidence instead. I returned to the pre-war years of the Slade Family Papers to look for evidence of her existence in the plantation records. Despite being able to trace many of the slaves owned by the Slades from the 1830s through the 1860s, Fanny was a mystery. The only hint of a slave named Fanny lies in this estate inventory for Henry Slade, who died in 1838.

1838 slave list
1838: Liley (34, dropsical, 100) Fanny (15, 500) Stephen (12, 500) Atwood (10, 450) Maranda (7, 350) Clay (5, 300) Reuben (3, 200)

The majority of the papers in the collection stem from Thomas B. Slade and William Slade, two brothers who appear to have inherited the majority of Henry Slade’s estate. In 1838, Fanny was 15, and the estate inventory suggests she was unmarried and had no children. She is listed in what appears to be a family group with Liley (presumably her mother), Stephen, Atwood, Maranda, Clay, and Reuben. Fanny does not appear on William B. Slade’s slave census for 1850, and is not listed on his slave inventories for 1861 or 1864. My guess is that Henry Slade’s Fanny was separated from her mother and siblings shortly after 1838. I base this theory on an undated slave valuation scrap that I found tucked into William Slade’s account book.

Undated scrap from William Slade's account book. It lists Liley, Reuben, and Clay -- but no Fanny.
Undated scrap from William Slade’s account book. It lists Liley, Reuben, and Clay — but no Fanny.

It has the same names and similar ages as the Henry Slade estate inventory, except several slaves, including Fanny, are missing. I’m guessing this scrap represents the slaves that William Slade acquired as part of the settling of Henry’s estate around 1838. It’s possible that Fanny, Stephen, Atwood, and Maranda moved with Thomas B. Slade down to Georgia, where he ran the Clinton Female Seminary. It appears that Liley, Clay, and Reuben were transferred to William Slade and stayed in Martin County, North Carolina. Clay and Reuben continue to show up on William Slade’s accounts in the 1850s.

Since that 1838 Estate List is the only evidence of any Fanny I could find in the papers, I turned back to her 1867 letter. She lived in Texana, in Jackson County, Texas, and referenced J. Paul Jones, a literate man who was writing for her. I decided to look for a Fanny from Texana in the 1870 U.S. Census, using the library’s subscription to Ancestry.com. One problem I faced was the location, Texana, which is not referenced in the 1870 Census (too small, I suppose) and is now a ghost town under the Lake Texana Reservoir. I ended up using J. Paul Jones as a reference point. By 1870, he was living in Victoria, Texas, near enough to Jackson County for me to feel confident that it was him.

Screenshot 2016-08-03 at 9.40.53 PMHe was a relatively successful landowner originally from Maryland. I then narrowed the search with a birthplace of North Carolina and a race of Black or Mulatto. And I eliminated the Fannys who were too young in 1870 to have had children before 1865.

I ended up with two possible Fannys in Texas; but, neither matched the age of the Fanny on the Henry Slade estate inventory. The first, Fanny Ward, was 26 in 1870; her estimated birth year was 1844. At the time of the census she lived with Lucas Ward (30) and George Nicholson (62) in Matagorda County, Texas, near Jackson County. The letter mentions a George, which is why this Fanny seemed like a possibility. But I’m also thinking that Fanny Ward seemed too young to be referring to herself as an old woman in her letter to her sister. The other option in Texas was Fanny Oliver, from Victoria County, Texas, also near Jackson County. In 1870, Fanny Oliver was about 58 years old, and was married to John Oliver (62). The tone of the letter reads to me like an older adult woman; between these two Fannys, I was leaning toward Fanny Oliver.

That of course presumed that Fanny still lived in Texas three years after she wrote her letter to Mr. Slade. I began to wonder if I had it wrong. Maybe by 1870, she had reconnected with her children and had returned to the East Coast. In looking around the 1870 census, I found several former Slade slaves who had taken the Slade name; I decided to see if there was a Fanny Slade living somewhere outside of Texas. It turns out yes, there were several Fanny Slades in 1870. I narrowed my census search to slaves born in North Carolina in or around 1820, and found the following:

Screenshot 2016-08-03 at 9.32.56 PMSlade, Fanny. 45. F. Black. Works on Farm. Birthplace: NC. Cannot Read. Cannot Write.

And with her: Slade, Rose. 15. F. Black. Works on Farm. Birthplace: GA. Cannot Read. Cannot Write.

Circumstantial evidence suggests this is the right Fanny. She adopted the Slade last name. In 1870 she was 45, meaning that in 1867 she was 42 — she was old enough to have children pre-war. She would have been born around 1825, only 2 years off from the 1838 estate valuation from the Slade Family Papers, which put Fanny’s birth year as 1823. In 1870, Fanny Slade was living in Dooly County, Georgia, which was home to numerous other Slades, both black and white, in the 1870 Census. And most gratifying, in my mind, was to see that in 1870 she was living with Rose, a daughter, which suggests that her quest to be reunited with her children was partially successful.

It could be that I’m totally wrong; the Slade Family Papers are frustratingly silent and I’m out of ideas as to how to cross-reference this hypothesis. Too many blanks in the evidence means I have too many unanswered questions, the first being, What Happened to Fanny’s Other Children? I doubt we’ll ever know.

Letters from former slaves to their masters, like Fanny’s, are extraordinary documentary evidence of freedmen and women claiming their freedom and their rights. What’s amazing to me is that this letter was not only written, but has survived. So many former slaves did not have Fanny’s resources, especially friends like J. Paul Jones, to help her find her children. I hope that she at least found some answers, even if I never do.

Charles N. Hunter Papers: Full of Surprises

When I began processing the Charles N. Hunter Papers, I had just completed my work on the N.C. Mutual Collection, which was full of incredible material concerning Durham’s Black business community throughout the 1900s. The Hunter papers constituted a much smaller collection and, as such, I was not prepared to find such a rich and varied amount of information regarding a time period (mainly 1870s-1930s) that is often under-explored and underrepresented in general historical accounts of African Americans in the United States.

The collection paints a broad picture of the evolution of race relations and racial thought during Hunter’s lifetime, including a change in the tone of his beliefs concerning the best way for Blacks to seek equality and dignity within the United States (a change which appears to coincide with increasingly strained race relations in the 1920s). Given Hunter’s extensive experience as an educator in North Carolina, the collection also provides unique insights into the daily workings of the education system for Black children in the post-war, rural South. Additionally, Hunter’s extensive personal correspondence can be found intermingled with the amazing sociological and historical perspectives that are present within his business and community papers. The placement of his personal triumphs and tragedies amidst his professional and community commitments gives his papers a uniquely human dimension. In examining the collection, it was personally difficult for me to see so many personal family tragedies unfold in what seemed like a short period; however, this allowed me to connect with the Hunter by way of seeing the relationship between his public and private life.

Birchbark letter
The bark from a Birch tree, collected and used as writing paper.

Within the Hunter papers, there are a wide variety of interesting artifacts, some of which include: a letter from a friend written on Birchbark (an amazing piece that is now quite thin and fragile); letters that provide greater elucidation of the daily business aspects of the operation of NC Mutual during the early 1900s; Hunter’s affectionate correspondence with the Haywood family, which owned his family prior to emancipation; and a blank 1850s “Slave Application” for the N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Company of Raleigh.

Slave Policy Insurance Form
An application for an insurance policy covering a slave, 1850s.

The latter company is one that was distinct from the N.C. Mutual that began its operations in Durham just before the turn of the 20th century, and the history of the Raleigh company is largely unknown or forgotten. In addition to offering general life and property insurance,  N.C. Mutual of Raleigh also allowed slave owners to take out policies covering their slaves for a limited number of years. It is unclear how or when Hunter came by this form, but the presence of this document within the collection brings forth the great irony of both a pre-Civil War N.C. Mutual that insured the lives of slaves and a completely separate post-Civil War N.C. Mutual that was created, owned, and operated solely by former slaves and the children of former slaves.

Post contributed by Jessica Carew, a Ph.D. candidate in the Political Science Department at Duke University and an intern in the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History and Culture.