Sunday, September 11, 2011

Problem #2: Wills

For this week, I compared two 19th-century wills; one for Caroline Carson of Adams County, Mississippi in 1831, and the other for Robert Christian of Augusta County, Virginia in 1857. Both of these individuals were Southerners of sufficient personal net worth to merit the writing of a will, so it is no surprise that in both cases, the overwhilming majority of the "property" in question, at least in terms of space and attention given, consists of slaves. What is interesting is to note the differences in which these two individuals appropriated their property.

My initial perspective on these two will was framed by the differnces between the year and geographic location each will represented. To say that both Caroline Carson and Robert Christian were "Southerners" is to obscure as much as it explains, because Mississippi in 1831 was a very different place than Virginia in 1857. Mississippi was the "Deep South" in the heart of the cotton-producing bastion of plantation slavery; in 1831 it was still a very new state, with a rapidly growing population and a high demand for slaves; Virginia in 1857 was an agriculturally tired Upper South state where slavery was slowly withering. In Christian's will, there is a hint at this context--after having gone into some detail as to which family member is to inherit each slave (in both wills, it is important to note, the slaves are identified by name), he makes a point to note that the executors are to have full power to sell these slaves as long as the profits go to the family member for whom each slave was assigned. Yet, Carson's will also contains a similar provision (at the beginning, rather than later in the will), so it seems that this might be little more than a standard legal necessity. When Christian's will was written, a Civil War driven by the fear of secessionists that the demise of slavery in borders states such as Virginia threatened the institution in places like Carson's Mississippi is only a few years away, but there is no sense of crisis or fear of losing property in his will.

But while the differing temporal and geographic contexts do not provide much contrast, another factor seems to, and I think that the best explanation is the most obvious--gender. Our class reading for this week is Free Women of Peterburg: Status and Culture in a Southern Town, 1784-1860 by Suzanne Lebsock; Lebsock's study concerns one Southern city but covers a time period encompassing both of these wills and therefore provides a useful context. Among other points, Lebsock argues that when dealing with their estates, women in the 19th century South were generally more concerned with the emotional, financial, and social well-being of their heirs--to be blunt, they were not afraid to play favorites in order to consider the different needs of their offspring or other dependents.

We don't know Caroline Carson's marital status from the will alone, but I assume she was a widow. She strongly suggests that she is ill and will die soon; her age is not given but since she only has one living child and he is still a legal minor, it is safe to assume that Carson died fairly young.

Carson, possibly yielding to a legal reality that the executor must be a man, or perhaps out of a genuine respect for his competence, assigns her brother as the executor; given that the will is devoid of warnings or conditions, it does seem that Carson trusted her brother regardless of why he serves as middleman for her estate. At any rate, she first deals with her two sisters, each of whom (through Carson's brother, James Green) receives one of two "woman slaves" (I assume they were personal house servants) and one thousand dollars. One of the two sisters also receives the carriage and carriage horses; this discrepancy is not explained, so it may simply be that the other sister needed a carriage less than the other. Since neither sister shares a last name with Carson, one might assume that at least one of them is married (I don't know what Carson's maiden name was, if she was indeed married, so we cannot rule out one or the other of her sisters' last names), yet there is no mention of husbands. Under the legal standards of the time, one would assume that the husband would have legal right to his wife's inheritance, but there is no recognition of this, if indeed correct, in the will.

The two sisters are also entitled to "equal portions" to household furniture jewelry, and clothing. It seems evident that Carson trusted her brother's judgement, since "equal portions" of such a variety of material goods could be open to a lot of interpretation and disagreement. It also seems likely that the decision to give the carriage and horses to one sister rather than selling them and dividing the money was a recognition of greater need rather than an act of personal preference.

She then makes a brief mention of a legacy of five hundred dollars to be given to her slaves, and then a yearly stipend after that until her son reaches the age of majority. While this seems generous, and seems to indicate some level of personal feeling towards her slaves, she leaves her brother and sisters plenty of latitude in deciding how to divide this legacy and even whether or not the slaves deserve it at all.

The rest of the will concerns all the rest of her property (Carson was obviously fairly well-off, as she not only owned many slaves and sizable land holdings, but also had what was then a great amount of liquid capital--cash--on hand), which is given without any detailed inventory, to her minor son. Once again, Carson clearly tursts her brother, as the will does not detail this inheritance in detail. The only conditions she gives her son--and they are 'desires' not binding clauses--concern what seems likely to be one family of slaves. She asks that "Jesse, Mima, Jinney and Suckey" be given preferential treatment; that Ned Morris (the only slave for whom she designates a last name) be given a conditional emancipation at the age of 30, including a five hundred dollar award; and that his wife, Suckey (presumably the "Suckey" mentioned above; I suspect the other slaves mentioned are Ned and Suckey's children) also be given her emancipation if both herself and Ned meet the conditions of loyal service.

The will ends, almost as an afterthought, with the suggestion that certain tracts of land be sold "in the best manner for the interest of my son." The wording strongly suggests that these holdings are relatively minor parts of her larger estate, and yet is the only specific mention of actual real property. Given that the will strongly implies the ownership of many slaves, and presumably a large enough plantation for them to work on, this once again points out how much of her personal and real property Carson did not elaborate; she certainly trusted her brother, but also her primary concern as she was facing death was for the emotional well-being not only of her son, but also for her sisters and for a favored slave family.

Compare Carson's approach to that of Robert Christian. Christian is presumably older than Carson, because his son is at the age of majority and three of his four daughters are married. I assume he is a widower, as he makes no allowances for a wife.

Christian first wants his estate to settle all debts and bills; then he leaves all of his land and the buildings on them to his son John. Then he moves on to his daughters, and here things get a little more interesting.

He identifies each daughter by her first name and middle initial, and as the "wife of" the named husband; each daughter receives the same amount--two hundred dollars--but not under the same conditions. While Nancy B. wife of Robert P. Brown gets two hundred dollars without comment, the other two daughters receive theirs "for her sole and separate use", and Rachel M. wife of James H. Burdett is also "free from the debts and control of her husband." The fourth daughter, Sarah Rebecca, is to receive the same money in two yearly installments after Christian dies; it is not clear whether this is because she is a minor or solely due to her unmarried situation. The latter is possible, because the son is instructed to give her a home as long as she remains single and then, if she marries, to give her an inheritance equal to her sisters (no stipulations regarding the prospective husbands' control or lack thereof).

These same conditions apply to the division of the slaves, all of whom are named and each of whom are assigned to the different daughters, again with the same different conditions regarding the husbands for each of the married daughters; interestingly, when giving slaves to Rachel Burdett, the daughter whose husband is most explicitily and completely excluded from control or possession of his wife's inheritance, Christian also expresses a 'desire' for each of Rachel's daughters to be given/assigned a particular female slave.

It is very tempting to read this will and assume that Robert Christian simply did not like or trust two of his three sons-in-law, but in light of reading Lebsock it is entirely possibly that he was simply being practical--if he knew that Charles Hyde and James Burdett were in finanical trouble, he also knew that anything he left to his daughters would be lost to creditors unless he explicitly prohibited them from having any legal claim to those assets. It is not impossible that he was trying to help their families rather than expressing disapproval or trying to impose disharmony in their families.

It is also possible that Christian was aware of the bonds of affection between his slaves and his family, given that he specifically requests that particular attendents be allocated to two of his grandaughters. At any rate, what does come through is that Christian's primary motivation was a consideration of the financial status of his offspring; whether the considerations were driven by a distrust of two of his sons-in-law or a more sympathetic recognition that their assets would need to be protected, the terms of his will are primarily driven by a desire to control the usage and control of his assets even after his death; while Carson was driven more by concerns for the well-being of a favored slave family and most importantly a desire to express affection and love for her son and most likely for her sisters as well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Caroline Charlotte Green was married to Joseph Carson on May 16, 1814. Joseph left a will on April 18, 1817. Their marriage apparently did not last very long, but did produce two children, James G. Carson and a pregnancy. I have not been able to locate that second child in the records. It may have been stillborn or died in infancy. Caroline is on the 1818 tax roles as head of house and listed in the 1820 Census (presumably) under Estate of Joseph Carson. Joseph also apparently had another child, presumably by a free woman of color. Joseph referred to his child as his "natural" daughter. The designation of "natural" was often used to describe children born of pla├žage relationships, formal unions between wealthy white european men and freeborn women of color.

I found her brother's grave listed in a private cemetery on their plantation, The Grove. His headstone gave his born/died dates as: February 24, 1789-May 15, 1832. Their sister, E(liza) C. Wood also had a grave marker: November 15,1792-April 3, 1851. Assuming Caroline was not the first born, she could not have been more than 42 years old at the time of her death.

The cemetery also gives a possible answer to why Eliza Wood was given the sole use and benefit of Caroline's carriage and horses. There are five grave markers of children born to Eliza and David Wood, none of whom survived past 4 years of age. One of babies only lived two hours.

According to a historical marriage website for Adams Co., MS (Mississippi State Genealogical Website, of MSGW, for short), I was able to find Caroline's sister's spouses. Matilda married James Railey on December 14, 1820. Eliza appears to have been married multiple times. Husband #1 Joseph Bowman- January 25, 1812; Husband # 2 David Wood- June 12, 1819. Both of these were confirmed on census records. Possible Husband #3 William G. Connor- May 14, 1846 ( While researching the Grove Plantation, I found two possible husbands to Eliza: Kinsey and Metcalfe. According to the Metcalfe Family papers, (the Metcalfe's acquired the Grove in 1852), Henry Laurens Metcalfe (b. 1829), son of Dr. James Metcalfe, married Eliza C. Kinsey.

Husbands 3-5, I have not yet confirmed as actual husbands to Eliza C. Green Bowman Wood.