Who was free black Isaac Dunn?

Posted on May 8, 2013 by


There are certain things that sit there… in my mind… unanswered in my quest to understand better my ancestors and the people around them… and this is one of them.

He appears but once, as far as I can tell, in the census records. Isaac Dunn was listed, on September 6, 1860, as residing with my third great grandparents, in Clear Spring, Maryland. Listed as “Black” and age 12, Isaac was born in Maryland.


Apart from that, there’s nothing else I know about Issac. He did not appear in the 1850 census, and did not appear in 1870. I hoped… just maybe… to find him listed as a member of the USCT, but… no luck.

I’m curious as to who this young man was. As my family owned no slaves as of 1860, was he a child of one of the former Moore family slaves, or was he simply hired by my third great grandparents for chores around the home (and/or work on the canal boat)?

To help answer, I began my search…

As of 1860, other free blacks with the name of Dunn could be found in Clear Spring.

Philip Dunn was the oldest. Born ca. 1790, he was listed as residing at the home of David Hatter (age 65, and also a free black). Yet, David Hatter was the only person not bearing the name “Dunn” in a household of seven. Hariet Dunn, age 37, was the second oldest of the Dunn family members in the household… followed by William H. (11), Ann E. (7), Daniel J. (4), and Sarah J. (2). It would seem that Hariet may well have been the mother of Isaac… but there’s nothing to prove this.

Otherwise, there were only two households in Clear Spring headed by free persons of color with the surname of Dunn.

First, there was William Dunn (age 37). A day laborer, William, headed a house in which lived Margaret (his wife?; age 23), James (9), John (7), Ann (4), and Margaret (2). As Isaac was born ca. 1848, there’s no reason to think that Margaret could have been his mother.

Then there was John W. Dunn (age 26), also a day laborer, who lived with his wife, Amelia (age 24) and son, John W. (age 2). Again, as with Margaret, there’s no way Amelia could have been Isaac’s mother.

This leads me back, in search of other things that might tell me more about Isaac Dunn… perhaps… perhaps not…

A few years back, I discussed my fourth great grandfather, James Draden Moore, and his story (at least what little I learned) as a slaveholder. As a man who had grown-up apparently surrounded by the example of the peculiar institution (though he later removed to Washington County, in his youth, he bore witness to a Moore family which was very active in the cultivation of tobacco, in Prince Georges County, Maryland), it appears he quite literally bought into the very institution with which he had become familiar… though perhaps not quite on the scale of his father and grandfather. From owning seven slaves (one man and seven women) in 1820, by the time of his death in January 1840, he owned five slaves (six men, and two women). Exactly how his widow dealt with the matter, immediately after James death, is unclear. As I’ve mentioned before, James did not leave a promise of freedom to his slaves upon his death, but at least had specified that none be sold outside of the county. Within the decade, however, his widow, Mary, had either freed or sold all but two slaves… two men, age 30 and 39. 

1850 slave schedule for Washington County, Maryland, showing Mary F. Moore as the owner of two slaves.

1850 slave schedule for Washington County, Maryland, showing Mary F. Moore as the owner of two slaves.

It doesn’t seem, therefore, that Isaac Dunn was a remnant of that history.

Incidentally, regarding the two remaining slaves owned by Mary F. Moore… I cannot account for the 39 year-old man, but I feel somewhat confident that the 30 year-old (who was… give or take… 40 years of age in 1860) was passed along to one of her sons, Joseph S. Moore… brother of my third great grandfather, Cyrus. As of 1850, neither Joseph or Cyrus (the only two surviving sons of James D. and Mary F. Moore) owned slaves. Yet, in November 1858, Joseph executed a deed of manumission for William Gasper. The age, in both 1850 and 1860, seem to align. Upon the date of manumission, William Gasper was described as “about 40 years of age… 5 feet 4 1/2 inches high, of a brown copper color, [with] a small scar on the right hand and one on his forehead.”

This, of course, leaves me… still… with no answers regarding Isaac Dunn.

Was he the son of the ab0ve-mentioned Hariet… a young free black in the employ of my third great-grandparents? Or… was he the child of persons still in bondage at the time?

Often, questions remain unanswered questions.  

I realize some might recoil at the mere mention of this sort of thing… as such talk is disturbing. Obviously, today, we have a different mindset than that which existed in the early to mid-1800s. While some (descendants of white slaveholders) might avoid such investigations, I think these things merit our inquisitiveness and our time. We may never learn or understand what it all means, yet, to know that these relationships existed, I think, is important. If nothing else, I think it’s interesting to think about how events over 150+ years have changed our course as human beings, and how our past was once interwoven with things that seem very foreign… strange, and even offensive… to us, today. Understand, however, I don’t think we should look down upon and criticize the people of the past. Rather, and as I said… the times may seem foreign to us… but that time was their time, in which they lived. We can’t even come close to grappling with what they understood and accepted as part of life, and we shouldn’t try to look to the past through such lenses. We really don’t know how they dealt with the peculiar institution. Should we, for example, consider the slow departure (less slaves over the course of years) from the institution as evidence that they began to understand things differently… that they wished no longer to be part of the institution? Perhaps that it was no longer acceptable in the circles in which they moved? I know I digress from the objective of the post, but I think Isaac Dunn is still pivotal in my course of thinking about these things.