This post is the first of three pieces on 1) how I discovered slavery in my heritage, specifically focusing on a woman named Amanda owned by my ancestor Thomas Jackson and his second wife Courtney Robertson; 2) what more that official county records tell us about Amanda’s life of enslavement and release; and 3) how I found and met one of her great great granddaughters in 1982, my first “linked descendant.”
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Over thirty years ago, for my first sabbatical I set out to study pioneer women’s lives in Randolph County, Missouri. Having required my students to do extensive family history projects in a class on “The Social History of American Women,” I thought I should spend some time pursuing my own. I was born in Missouri but we moved to California when I was eight and never went back, but still wondered about that place. Because I was interested in genealogy, when my Grandma Neel died, I inherited her shoebox filled with locks of baby hair, letters, and obituaries so I knew the names of several generations of her people who lived in Randolph County. I wanted to know who these people were and what their lives were like. I was particularly intrigued by the detail in the obituary of Courtney Robinson Jackson, my grandmother’s great grandmother who died from complications from a fall at “74 years, 9 months and 20 days.”
In the course of examining the U.S. Censuses of Randolph County from the 1830s to 1870s, I was shocked to find out that ancestors of mine in this region of Missouri (which I soon learned was known as “Little Dixie” — hello!) had owned slaves – not on the order of Thomas Jefferson’s hundreds – but some of my ancestors in that time and place did own slaves, more on the order of five, ten, or fifteen people. These particular ancestors were typical of white farming families in the upper South and Southern Midwest. Slaveholding for them was part of daily life, a legally sanctioned way to satisfy their labor needs in the effort to survive and “get ahead,” to make a yearly profit, and to accumulate even more property in a capitalist economy. Slaveholding came with age and a modicum of “success” in large portions of this white dominated nation during the 18th and 19th centuries.
For example, in Randolph County, Missouri in 1830, most white male heads of household in their twenties did not own any slaves; however, by 1860, when they were in their fifties, at least 50% of them did. Contrary to common assumption, these weren’t huge plantations with phalanxes of enslaved workers and a Big House with pillars. In this region, in any decade, the largest proportion of white slaveholding families owned one person, while the average number held was between four or five. “Planters” or owners with 20 or more slaves were relatively rare in the Border States. But like pregnancy, one can’t be a little bit of an owner of other human beings; slaveholding is slaveholding.
How long ago was all this really? Most people whose ancestors weren’t on the receiving end of enslavement in this country think of slavery as far in the distant past, having little real impact on our lives today. But, if, for example, we focus in on the slaveholding of one of my thirty-two sets of great-great-great grandparents — Thomas Jackson and his wife Courtney Robinson/Robertson in Randolph County, Missouri in the 1850s — we’re talking about roughly a hundred and fifty years ago. These people were five generations behind or above me. Put in terms that might bring it closer to home, their son was my grandmother’s grandfather. Not so long ago. Also important to keep in mind is that slavery in this country lasted over 200 years — a very long chapter in the nation’s history. African-Americans in the U.S. were enslaved longer than they have been free!
Even so, this moral crime is not immediately apparent in the official records. If begin searching for a slaveholding ancestor in the 1850 or in the 1860 U.S. Census (the last decades of before the Civil War and the demise of legal slavery), you won’t find any unless you know that slaveholders and the enslaved are listed on a separate microfilm from the “Population Schedule.” In fact, enslaved people were never named in the seven decennial censuses that were instituted in 1790 after the establishment of the United States, graphically illustrating that enslaved individuals were not counted as members of the United States population.
When I first saw Thomas Jackson and several of my other ancestors listed on the “Slave Schedule” of Randolph County, Missouri in 1850, I felt shame. Besides being sickened when I recognized the names of Jackson and several others of my forbearers, I was shocked that the 2,156 human beings enslaved in that county in that year were not named. Just as in all the slaveholding counties in the U.S at that time — their personal identities were not only disregarded, but actually blotted out by this official record.
The only names appearing on this record were of the 465 slaveholders, under each of whom was enumerated their “chattel,” but only by sex, age, and color (B or M for black or mulatto). For example, the document read:
Thomas Jackson —- 1 20 M B; 1 20 M B; 1 17 F B; and five others.
No matter how much this slave-holding pained me or made me feel ashamed, I recognized that there was really nothing on earth I could do about my slave-owning heritage. I could not change what had happened in the past, either the institution of exploitation or my ancestors’ participation in it. But, since I was already a teacher of sociology, I thought the least I could do was to pass on to others the realities and consequences of white slaveholding in this country. And in terms of research, I figured at minimum I could copy the Randolph County records, making the U.S. Census Slave Schedules from 1830-1860, the “Marriage Records of Colored Citizens,” and the 1870 Census of emancipated black families more easily accessible to contemporary descendants of those who had been enslaved in that place – which I did. It took me many days to hand-copy line after line of each of these Randolph County records from microfilm. Of course I had no way of knowing then that a few decades such records would be digitized and on-line for everyone’s perusal.
What can we learn about the nature of slavery by looking more closely at the details of one household with relatively small numbers of enslaved people attached to it? On the broadest level, being a slave meant that one’s entire life — all of their time, energy, and involvements — were at the disposal of the white “master”. White families who “owned” slaves were fully supported by law, from the local to the national level, in their use of and dependency on black people for their economic well-being and personal comfort. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize how degrading and oppressive such social arrangements would be for those enslaved — regardless of how resourceful one might be in making space for oneself and in refusing to be dehumanized, and regardless of how benevolent the masters or others saw themselves.
But how much benefit did slaveholding bring to the lives of ordinary white masters like Thomas Jackson and their families? What were some of the specific economic gains for the white family that were juxtaposed against some of the powerful emotional/ familial losses for those they enslaved?
When Thomas Jackson died without a will in 1856, Randolph County officials performed an inventory of all that he owned as a part of probate, just as county officials do today when someone dies intestate. County probate records can give you a kind of window into a person’s life. Unlike the US Census, Jackson’s country probate provides the actual identities of the enslaved in this household, as well as an idea of how much slaveholding added to the white family’s wealth.
First, who lived in this household? For the first time in 1850, a light goes on for finding and identifying white people, particularly women and children. Besides naming the “head of household,” the U.S. Population Census listed the names and ages of all the “free” white family members. In Silver Creek Township, Randolph County, Missouri, the white members of the Jackson household were:
Courtney 34 (his 2nd wife, my 3rd great [step] grandmother)
Henry 12 (my great-great grandfather)
Malinda C. 6
William Tucker 3
As indicated above, previous to the post-Civil War population count of 1870, no names of enslaved African Americans were listed in the U.S. Census. By contrast, country probate records, even back to the long colonial period, very often include the names of the enslaved. Because they were counted as part of a dead person’s property to be distributed, along with land, livestock, and tools, they had to be identifiable. In the Thomas Jackson’s Probate Inventory taken in 1856, I found the actual names and ages of the African Americans in his household. In the six years since the 1850 census, three babies had been born, making a total of eleven enslaved persons.
After first listing his 160 acres and a few debts owed him, the document reads:
One Negro Man Lee aged about 25 years
One Do (Ditto) Man Lewis ” “ 27 “
One Do Woman Amanda “ “ 35
One Do Boy Frank 14
One Do Girl Mary 8
One Do Girl Frances 7
One Do “ Lucinda 5
One Do “ George Ann 5
One Do Boy Sam 4
One Do Girl Celia 2
One Do Boy Nathaniel 2
Seeing the actual names of individual human beings enslaved by ancestors of mine for the first time made a huge difference and affected me deeply; they came right into focus. Amanda especially stood out for me because she was a woman, and about eight years younger than I was at the time, the only adult woman slave in my ancestor’s household. When I “met” Amanda in this heart-rending way, I decided to try to reconstruct her life based on what I could find in the official county records.
It’s important to remember that these county documents are artifacts of a capitalist system concerned with state enforcement of private property transfer. As such, they give only the slightest glimpses of Amanda as a real person, severely distorted reflections of her experience in the white Jackson family. But they are the only basis I had for knowing anything about her life, or even that she had once existed at all. I probably wouldn’t have attempted this project of reclamation if I hadn’t had a background in Women Studies, especially U.S women’s social history, and in genealogical research.
What can we imagine about Amanda’s relations to the people glimpsed in the Inventory? My hunch, supported by later research, was that Lee, Lewis, and Amanda were siblings and the remaining eight are Amanda’s children; including two possible sets of twins. However, Amanda had no parental rights to her children, because according to the state of Missouri, Thomas Jackson “owned” them. This suggests a painful irony. Each time Amanda gave birth to a child — a common occurrence in the lives of all women without birth control and one of the most intimate forms of human personal experience — she contributed to the economic wealth of the white Jackson household and to the power my third great grandfather had over her through her children.
Besides an Inventory, the probate record includes an appraisal of all the property of the deceased in which county administrators estimate the “worth” of his estate or how much they think each listed item would sell for on the market. For example: 1 picture and frame $1, 1 rifle gun $14, 1 brown cow, $14, etc. In my great-great-great grandfather’s Appraisal, each enslaved person was translated into dollars. While Jackson’s “moveable” property was estimated by Randolph county administrators at $1185.35, his eleven slaves were estimated to be worth $5,875.00 or a whopping 83% of the total, or $163,000 in today’s U.S. economy. 
Here we are looking directly at the process of turning human beings into commodities or “things” that could be bought and sold. Here we see the wealth that accrued to an individual white family from slave ownership. And here the expropriation of Amanda’s body was fully accomplished; in effect, it was colonized.
Note: I am aware that the white Jacksons did not make up this system. They, too, were born into it. While it was structured to their benefit and to the extreme detriment of those they “owned”, being economically, legally, politically, and culturally dependent on slavery, placed them in a kind of social bondage of their own. This would become only too evident if they tried to drop out of slaveholding and refused to cooperate while staying in that community. If slave-ownership was the basis of a community’s economic system, even non-slaveholding white families who were morally opposed to ownership of other human beings were inadvertently complicit in maintaining the status quo through their participation in the everyday exchanges of that system.
Since Amanda was the sole enslaved person in the probate record of Thomas Jackson who could reproduce “saleable” human beings, she served as the cornerstone of the Jackson family’s well-being. It is ironic, that in the Appraisal her worth on the slave market, as well as that of young daughters Mary and Frances, was estimated at $500. This is exactly half that of Lee and Lewis, who are each estimated at $1,000 as “prime males,” valued for their physical strength. Why wouldn’t she be appraised for at least as much as and maybe even more than the men in her household given her ability to procreate and generate wealth for her next owner? It seems that the cultural devaluing of women under a patriarchal system trumps economic logic here.Because Lee and Lewis are listed in Jackson’s inventory as considerably younger than Amanda, I assumed they were possibly her brothers, and probably not sexual partners. It is likely that she had an “abroad” partner – a man owned by another nearby white farmer – who was allowed to be with her a few times a month. As is still true for same-sex partners today in many states, if enslaved people made their fundamental commitments to each other, the laws of slavery did not recognize them. Preventing Amanda and her partner from marrying and, in this case, living together 1) made it possible for them or their children to be separated according to the economic needs of this white family and 2) made it impossible for her partner to actively share a relationship or parenthood of the children with Amanda on a daily basis.
Still, it was greatly in my ancestor’s economic interest to allow Amanda to spend enough time with her partner to produce children and to be nursing most of her adult years. Notably, in the 1870 census, several of Amanda’s children are listed as “mulatto,” suggesting that Thomas Jackson or another white male must have raped her along the way. As a slave she had no dominion over her own body.
(Still to come) Part II: What More Can County Records Tell Us About Amanda?
 See Jennifer L. Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (Philadelphia; U of Pennsylvania, 2004) for a full analysis of the profound significance of the appropriation of enslaved women’s reproductive and sexual lives under slavery.