What’s it like to be the descendant of a slaveholder?

Posted on January 21, 2009 by


It’s interesting how people bond to ancestry and certain aspects of history related to ancestors. However, how often have you heard someone talk about their slaveholding ancestor? There are all sorts of descendant organizations, but is there an organization for the descendants of slaveholders? I’d be surprised if there was, and I certainly can’t imagine anyone who would want to join.

Nonetheless, descendants of slaveholders are out there, and I’m one of them.

I don’t say this as a point of pride or a point of shame. I can find no reason to be proud for this, yet because I am of the mind that we stand on shaky ground when we dare to judge those of the past through our modern lense of morality, I do not assume shame. I have no stories passed down to me about my slaveholding ancestors, but having, through research, encountered ancestors who owned slaves, I can’t help but ask a number of unanswerable questions. I can only hope that the answers, if they could be found, would reflect favorably on the way the slaveholding ancestors treated their slaves. Though we find slaveholding repulsive today, I can’t do anything about how they thought about slaveholding back then. I can, however, reflect on this matter.

No, the one Virginia slaveholding ancestor that I know of was not a Confederate. In fact, none of my Confederate ancestors were slaveholders. If anything, it is ironic that one slaveholding ancestor, whose two sons later served in the Confederate army (33rd Va. Infantry, Stonewall Brigade), actually ceased to be a slaveholder sometime after 1850. I have no idea whether he sold or freed the slaves. I think it is also interesting that this same ancestor almost died at the hands of a rabid secessionist for expressing his feeling of Unionism in 1860 and 61.

I also have a Kentucky ancestor who owned one slave in 1850, but had not owned one in 1840, and did not continue to own any slaves as of the 1860 census. Incidentally, two of his brothers later served in the Union army (27th Kentucky Infantry).

I have another antebellum slaveholding ancestor who was a Marylander. Most significantly, I continue to carry the surname of this ancestor, so it hits home a little more than the other one mentioned above. My fourth great-grandfather was the last of the line to own any slaves, and he died in 1840; but he was descended from a long line of slaveholders who lived in eastern Maryland, mostly around what is now Washington, D.C. and Prince Georges County, Maryland (Silver Hill being the site of one of the family properties). I’ve never looked into the numbers of slaves in this line of the family, in this particular geographic region, but they were quite active in growing tobacco and contributed significant amounts of tobacco to Maryland during the American Revolution, so it would seem they may have had a number of slaves in the 1700s.

By the time of my fourth great grandfather (born in 1773), well, he had moved to the western part of Maryland and lived in Clear Spring.

In the 1820 census, he was listed as owning one male slave between 14-26 years of age and seven female slaves. There was also one free black male living at the homestead.

Two years later he sold Mary (15), Hannah, and Patty (11). This disturbs me. Were all three of them family members sold to the same person, were they all children (I do not know Hannah’s age), what happened to these people?

Then, it’s also disturbing to me to know that, in 1825, he sold Joseph (age 50), Margaret (age 47), Harriet (age 15), and Rachel (age 11) to Robert Thompson of Louisiana for $900. I can only hope that they were all a family and stayed together.

In 1830, my fourth great grandfather owned six male slaves and two female slaves.

Ten years later, he had four male slaves and one female slave.

When he died in January 1840, he did not leave the legacy of freedom to his slaves. He did, however, specify that none of his slaves be sold outside the county or state.

Incidentally, from my fourth great grandfather, the only descendant to serve in the Civil War, served in the Union army (1st Potomac Home Brigade, Cole’s Cavalry). The Union soldier, a distant first cousin of mine, was one of my fourth great grandfather’s grandsons. This Union soldier never knew his grandfather as he died before he was born, and other than stories that he may have been told, I don’t think he ever knew a time during his lifetime in which the family owned slaves.

In the end, if I take anything from being the descendant of slaveholders, I think what is important to me is, and this should be the most important thing among all of us, that we work to secure something more “forward thinking.” When thinking about my slaveholding ancestors, I prefer to think of that which was mentioned by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” Speech; that “sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.” Certainly, that is the best possible thing that can come from being a descendant of slaveholders.