Not every person of color who owned slaves did so for business reasons. In fact, many did so for sentimental reasons. In several states, while a slave was permitted to buy their own freedom, once they had earned it, there were strict rules in place designed to discourage the newly-freed slaves from setting others free. For their part, owners who freed slaves were often required to send them to other states. Meanwhile, the freed slaves themselves were not only required to move states but they might also be barred from purchasing their loved ones’ freedom.
Given this, some newly-freed slaves would set about earning enough money that they could buy slaves of their own. And, once they had the financial ability to do so, they would buy their husbands, wives, children or even friends. Thus, while the whole family might not be ‘free’ legally speaking, at least they could all be together. Dilsey Pope took such a course of action. Having bought her own freedom, she settled in Columbus, Georgia, and then successfully purchased her own husband’s freedom. Husband and wife were reunited, even if they were also, in the eyes of the law, slave and master (or, in this case, slave and mistress).
In this sense, Dilsey’s story was far from unique. What did earn her a place in the history books, however, is what became of the husband. At one point, Dilsey and her spouse had a heated argument. In a fit of rage, she sold her husband to a white neighbor. Though she soon changed her mind and asked to have him back, the new owner refused to sell him and the legal system of Georgia was on his side. Though certainly unique, the history books also contain a number of other stories where freed slaves traded family members, not always for benevolent reasons but sometimes out of spite or simply to turn a profit.
Not all slave owners of color purchased slaves in order to keep their families united, however. Nat Butler was far from sentimental. Once he gained his freedom, his sole concern was making as much money as he could, with trading slaves seen as the best way to earn some fast money. So cut-throat was Butler in his dealings that it wasn’t just slaves who feared crossing his path. His ruthlessness was also noted by white plantation owners, ensuring that Butler wrote himself into the history books.
Little, indeed next to nothing is known about Butler’s early life, including his years as a slave and how and when he earned his freedom. Historians do, however, know something about his years as a free man. He lived just outside of the town of Aberdeen in Hartford County, Maryland. While he may have cultivated his land, it appears that his main source of income came from the selling slaves. More specifically, he made a tidy profit sending escaped slaves back to their masters. Quite simply, if you were a plantation owner in Maryland and one of your slaves went missing, Butler could bring him or her back to you – for a price, of course.
In many cases, escaped slaves would turn to Butler for help. Perhaps they thought that, as a man of color himself and, moreover, one who had experienced the cruelty of slavery first-hand, he might show them compassion. But he only showed them cruelty. Butler would convince the slaves to stay on his property. While they thought they were safe, he would try and find out who the slaves ‘belonged to’, and more importantly, how much they were willing to pay for their safe return. If the reward was big enough, Butler would send the slaves back. If the slaves didn’t have a big price on their head, Butler would buy them for himself and then sell them for a profit.
Over the years, Butler amassed a relative fortune – especially for a person of color in Maryland. He also gained a reputation. Butler was feared by slaves. They were wary that, even if they managed to escape their plantations, they could fall into Butler’s hands and end up working in even tougher conditions in the Deep South, many miles from their loved ones. Even his fellow slave traders, as well as the white plantation owners themselves, felt he could be too tough, or cruel even. Indeed, so hated was Butler that slaves tried to kill him on several occasions, with no success. What ultimately became of Butler, however, remains a mystery as his later years are lost to history.
For a white plantation owner to take a female slave as a mistress was hardly unique in eighteenth-century America. So, few people would have been so shocked to see the wealthy Joseph Pendarvis become involved with a lady of color. However, Parthena was more than just a slave lover for Joseph. The pair were so close that they had seven children together. And so, when Joseph died, he remembered all of them in his last will and testament. The children, along with their mother, not only inherited a large expanse of arable land, they also took on dozens of slaves. Indeed, in 1830s Carolina, few families owned more slaves than the Pendarvis clan.
In fact, James Pendarvis, the eldest son of Joseph, inherited 1,009 acres of land close to Green Savanna. He was also bequeathed on a plantation in nearby Charleston Creek. Moreover, according to the record books of the time, James inherited 113 slaves to work this land, making him the largest non-while slaveholder in all of South Carolina. James carried on growing his business interests and so, by the time of his death in 1798, the Pendarvis family owned 155 slaves, the majority of them picking cotton or rice.
James himself left his property as well as his slaves to the next generation. Well into the nineteenth century, then, his heirs were among the most prominent individuals in all of not just their native Collerton County (modern-day Charleston) but of all of South Carolina. Notably, however, the Pendarvis family were not the only people of color to use slave labor to work the rice fields of South Carolina. The history books noted that the Holman and Collins families, both descended from a female slave brought to America from Sierra Leone, both traded in and made use of slaves during the second half of the 18th century.
Men and women of color owning slaves was not so uncommon, even in 18th century South Carolina. However, in most cases, they would own just one, two or three slaves, often family members. Which is what makes the case of Justus Angel so notable. In 1830s Collerton County, the part of the state where Charleston now lies, he was deemed a ‘slave magnate’. Not only did he own dozens of slaves himself, he also traded in them, earning himself a fortune at the expense of other, more unfortunate souls.
As with so many cases of freedmen who made their fortune, almost nothing is known about Angel’s early years. Where he came from, how long he lived as a slave, and how and when he earned his freedom, have all been lost to history. What is known, however, is that, by 1830, Angel was working with his partner, a certain Mistress L. Horry, in the slave business. Between them, they owned 168 slaves, putting them to work on their plantation and earning themselves huge amounts of money in the process. What also made Angel and his partner notable was their treatment of their slaves. Quite simply, just because Angel was a person of color himself didn’t mean he would treat his slaves kindly. Far from it, in fact.
While there is no evidence to suggest that neither Angel nor Horry were any crueler than the white plantation owners of the time, they definitely weren’t any nicer. For them, slaves were nothing more than labor or possessions. The records show that they used their privileges as owners to punish any slaves that tried to escape. What’s more, they would buy and sell slaves purely for profit, with no concern for their well-being. Undoubtedly, families would have been split up and some slaves would have been sold on to even crueler masters.
Marie Therese Metoyer was born into slavery but died a rich woman. And a rich woman with slaves of her own to boot. In fact, at the turn of the 18th century, Marie Therese was one of the richest ladies in Louisiana. As a free lady, she was an astute entrepreneur as well as a social climber. Moreover, she was Christian-minded and worked to improve the society she lived in – even if she did make use of slave labor. So, how did this lady, born to slaves, earn first her freedom and then her fortune? The answer is simple: thanks to a simple twist of fate.
Marie Therese was actually born Coincoin (with no given surname) in the Louisiana French outpost of Natchitoches. While she was born into slavery, she did have some education as a child, being trained in nursing and then pharmacy – skills that she would be able to put to good use later in life. The records show that she had children young. Five children, to be precise, though who their father was is not known. What is known is that in 1765, Coincoin’s mistress decided to lend her to a man called Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer. It was a decision that would change the lives of both the slave and the young French merchant.
Metoyer fell in love with his new slave. In order to stay together, he purchased her, as well as her children. She took a French name and when they had six children of their own, he purchased their freedom too. But, after many happy years together, Claude Thomas fell for another woman, divorced Marie-Therese and returned to France. He left behind all his possessions, however. Marie-Therese was a wealthy woman. By 1830, it’s estimated that she owned more than 1,000 acres, with an estimated 287 slaves working the land.
As with many plantation owners, Marie-Therese was tough with her slaves. She was obviously a shrewd businesswoman since she got steadily richer, suggesting she had little time for sentimentality. At the same time, however, she was a committed Catholic. She used her money to maintain her local parish church, and she even volunteered the labor of her own slaves for the task. Marie-Therese died in 1816, dividing her property – including her slaves – up between her surviving children.
At the time of his death in 1887, Antoine Dubuclet was a wealthy man. A very wealthy man. In fact, he was widely regarded as one of the richest men in all of the South, richer even than his white neighbors. According to historians’ estimates, he was worth around $265,000, around 200 times the average annual income. As well as his land, he also owned significant numbers of slaves. Moreover, he was well-respected in society, not just because of his riches. Dubluclet was, in many ways, a true Southern gentleman: smart, well-dressed and debonair. The Dubluclet family had come a long way in a very short space of time.
Unlike many slave owners of color of the period, Antoine Dubuclet was born to free parents. He was born in 1810, the son of a part-owner of a sugar plantation close to Baton Rouge. When his father died, his mother moved to New Orleans with Antoine’s younger brothers and sisters. Antoine, meanwhile, took over at the plantation. As well as the land, he also inherited around 70 slaves. In 1834, the other partners in the plantation sold up and the whole business was split equally between Antoine and his siblings. However, Antoine retained a position of leadership, growing the business until, by 1860, it was one of the largest sugar plantations in all of Louisiana, with around 100 slaves toiling the fields.
The American Civil War sent the sugar industry into freefall. Plantation owners, both white and black, lost huge sums of money. However, Antoine had married well back in the 1830s. His free, colored wife had wealth of her own and he had used it wisely, diversifying their investments. As such, Antoine came out of the war in good shape and soon entered the world of politics. He was nominated as the Republican candidate for the Louisiana state treasurer in 1868 and won. Against the odds, he got the bankrupt state back into the black, ensuring his re-election in 1870 and then again in 1874. He died in 1887 and is buried in New Orleans.
As a physician and man of science, surely Andrew Durnford should have seen that all men were born equally? Evidently not. For, as well as being a doctor, Durnford – a man of color himself – was also a plantation owner. From the 1820s onwards, he grew his sugar business across the state of Louisiana, ultimately becoming the owner of not just large amounts of land but of dozens of slaves too. Furthermore, the history books show that he regarded the system of slavery as just and, indeed, even the ‘American’ way of doing things.
Born in 1800 in New Orleans, Durnford was the son of an Englishman and a free woman of color. Thanks to the Louisiana Purchase, he automatically became a citizen of the United States and earned a fine education, being fluent in both French and English. While Durnford was still a young man, his father died. After that, he became first friends, and then business partners, with one of his father’s old friends, a white New Orleans merchant by the name of John McDonogh. Though he was a trained physician, Durnford turned to McDonogh for credit in order to enter the plantation business. His friend agreed, they struck favorable terms and the young man was able to purchase a small piece of land just south of the city.
Over the years, Durnford’s plantation grew, and the man himself climbed steadily through Louisiana society. In the late 1820s, the historian David O. Whitten, has revealed, Durnford paid $7,000 for seven male slaves, five female slaves and two children. What’s more, soon after that he traveled to Virginia to acquire 24 more slaves to work his land. In all, it’s estimated that Durnford owned more than 80 slaves at the peak of his operations, earning a small fortune off their hard work.
According to some accounts of the time, Durnford might have been able to free his slaves. A Creole man who had sent his former slaves to be free in Liberia, Africa, asked Durnford if he would consider doing the same. He demurred, apparently arguing that “self-interest is too strongly rooted in the bosom of all that breathes the American atmosphere”. In 1859, Durnford died on his own St. Rosalie Plantation, the land still tended by slaves, including slave children.
Like many slave children born on plantations, John Carruthers Stanly’s parentage was questionable. According to most accounts, he was born in March of 1795, the son of John Wright, a prominent merchant from New Bern, North Carolina. His mother was an enslaved Africa woman working on a nearby plantation. As such, the child their affair produced was also born enslaved. Fortunately for him, however, the owners of the plantation, a couple called Alexander and Lydia Stewart, were far kinder to their slaves than the majority of their peers.
It was due to this benevolence that Stanly was able to learn a trade while still being enslaved. Alongside a standard education (itself quite rare for slave children), young John learned to become a barber. What’s more, he was able to work part-time cutting hair while not busy on the plantation. After a few years, he had saved up a sum of money and earned himself a reputation in the local community as an honest and hard-working young man. So, in 1798, when he turned 21, he was able to buy his own freedom, backed by the support of the Stewarts.
In 1801, Stanly not only purchased his wife, Kitty, but two slave children as well. This meant he and Kitty could be legally married according to the State of North Carolina. Then, with his brother’s freedom purchased, he focused his attention on moving out of cutting hair and into making some serious money. With two of his own slaves taking care of his barber shop, Stanly bought some land just outside of New Bern. Over time, he expanded his operations significantly and, at his peak, he had an estimated 163 slaves under his control.
At some point in the 1820s, Stanly’s wife died. He was also forced to cope with some serious financial troubles. At one point, Stanly was even forced to sell some of his land and his slaves in order to cover a debt run up by his own brother. By the 1840s, he had lost much of his fortune. Indeed, at the time of his death in 1843, at the age of 71, Stanly had just 160 acres and seven slaves to his name. His children inherited all his property, slaves included.
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