It is always tempting to speculate about conditions on a given plantation, and the daily, human relations between enslaved people and those who held them. Ultimately, however, we are left with just a few pieces of evidence, which may be suggestive but are rarely conclusive. For this family the signals are contradictory–some suggest relatively benign conditions within the institutionalized violence and inhumanity of slavery; others demonstrate a willingness to part families, sell individuals, and hunt down fugitives even at great cost. Some details suggest close domestic relationships, but we don’t know their nature.
If you are descended from any of the people I have written about in this cluster of pages, and you have insights into these relationships, please get in touch. I so want to hear your stories.
In the meantime, here are some pertinent facts and a few hypothesss–
1) Some families were recognized by John S. Magruder, his executor Charles B. Hamilton, and his sons Nathaniel and Roderick McGregor, when slaves were appraised or left by will. At the same time, numerous children appear separately on the inventories. In 1840, the slave schedule for Roderick McGregor (who ran the family plantations after John S. Magruder’s death) shows six females in the 10-23 category, no women older than 23, and nineteen children under ten. This strongly suggests that a number of children were living there without their mothers. In 1850 and 1860, the situation looks less out of balance, and there are one or two older women–suggesting the typical pattern of older women minding the kids while their parents worked.
2) The Bowie family was manumitted by Roderick, though not all family members. Washington Magruder and his wife are also said to have been freed at some point, though we have only Alice Maude Ewell’s memoir to go on. I have not been able to confirm her claim by using freedom certificates or census records–in fact, census records indicate Washington was not free before the Civil War. Roderick and Nathaniel’s maternal uncle manumitted 27 people in his will, including members of the Mullin/Mullen family.
3) In 1836, Nathaniel McGregor (Roderick’s brother) wrote a note to the P.G. county court, asking them to assist the Mullin family to find documentation of their free status. He wrote that sometime in 1816, 1817, or 1818, Basil Mullin (a free man of color) had purchased the freedom of his son Joseph, Joseph’s wife Cate, and their eldest daughter (unnamed). Mullin/Mullen family.
4) In March of 1861, after discovery of a runaway plot involving people enslaved by the McGregors and neighboring families, Nathaniel McGregor gave an enslaved man named George 75 lashes to “get the truth out of him.” He then required two other enslaved men, Ned and Sam, to give him 25 more, even though George had already “confessed.” (I will be posting more about the McGregor family letters, but you can read them yourself online at the Huntington Library.)
5) In the 1850 census, Henry McGregor’s widow, Elizabeth or Eliza (Berry) McGregor, was living with the family of William Wedge and his wife S.T. Wedge. (By 1870, she was living in Arkansas with her daughter Ellen [or Eleanor] Hall McGregor Markwood.) The Wedges were a mulatto family who traced their descent from a white woman named Mary Wedge, who had five mixed race children in the 1720s and 1730s. (See Paul Heinegg’s marvelous work on Free African-Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware for an explanation of the relevant laws, as well as details on the family.) Another family, headed by another William Wedge and his wife Ann, lived one household away from Roderick McGregor. Also see a William Wedge as witness in a D.C. Slavery Compensation Petition.
6) By 1850, Roderick McGregor and his wife Ann (née Berry, widow Eaton) lived separately and were perhaps divorced. (Court records, where a divorce case might be recorded, are not available online and have not been indexed, so even in person it would be a daunting project to find them.) If they were still married at the time of his death, she would have been entitled to one third of his estate, but she is not mentioned in the will. They had no children, and Ann lived into the 1870s.
In 1850, Roderick McGregor was the only free person in his Upper Marlborough household, with 39 slaves declared on the slave schedule. If he had a relationship, consensual or otherwise, with a slave woman (or man), nothing in his will or estate papers suggests her (or his) identity, nor is there any manumission record in Prince George’s County. Because at his death he freed the Bowie family in Washington, D.C., I thought it possible that he manumitted other people there in earlier years, but thus I have not found any record that he did so.
7) In 1850, Ann E. McGregor was living with Margery Berry, 73 (presumably her mother) just one household away from the Wedges and her sister-in-law, Eliza McGregor. Next door–or at least next on the census page–lived Ann’s brother William Berry and his family, including seven year-old Elisha.
In 1853, Ann E. McGregor paid $10,000 for Berry’s Grove, along the main road between Bladensburg and Upper Marlborough. According to the deed, she and Roderick had sold this plantation to Margery Fergusson in 1843, and Ann was buying it back. [I believe this is the same Margery called Margery Berry in the 1850 census. The Berry family is torturous to reconstruct.] She was still living at Berry’s Grove when she made her will in 1871, naming her nephew Elisha E. Berry as her principle heir.
8) The family that falls between the Wedges and the Berrys on the 1850 census, is that of Richard Brown (65) and his wife Linny (60), both designated mulatto. Richard “Dick” Brown was manumitted by the will of Ann E. McGregor’s grandfather, Elisha Berry. Dorothy Provine’s transcription of his 1828 Freedom Certificate reads as follows:
Richard or Dick Brown has a yellow complexion, is about 41 years old, and 5 feet 9 inches tall. He received an injury to the joint of the middle index finger of his right hand from a knife cut. He was raised in the family of Elisha Berry and freed by the will of Berry dated 19 June 1802 and recorded 28 June 1813).
In the 1870 census the Wedges are gone, but the Brown household now consists of Isaac, 50, Fanny 43, and their children, Sallie, Thomas, Mary, and Catharine.
9) By coincidence, or not, the household next to Roderick McGregor’s on the 1850 census, is that of Benedict Brown, a white 46 year-old “manager,” with his wife Ann and 4 children. Living in the Brown household was Ellen Henson, a free black woman, 40 years old. In 1847, Roderick McGregor assisted Ellen Henson by swearing an affidavit that her freedom papers had been destroyed in his presence. I do not know the context of this affidavit, nor who destroyed the papers, but the destruction of freedom papers was a tactic used to attempt the re-enslavement of free people.
10) Ann E. McGregor (Roderick’s wife or ex-wife) made her will in 1871. The bulk of her assets were left to her nephew, Elisha E. Berry, but she also left property to a servant–
Item: I give and devise unto Enoch Burgess (colored), a servant man now in my employ and residing on my said farm or Plantation, for and on account of his faithful services to me, four acres of land (being a part of my said farm known as Berry’s Grove Farm”) the same being a corner lot situate(d) and lying on the main road through my said farm to Upper Marlboro… and I do hereby direct my said nephew Elisha E. Berry to build for the said Enoch Burgess on said lot of land a small but comfortable Dwelling House, the cost of which not to exceed the sum of one hundred dollars.
Item: to Enoch Burgess: 1 cow to be selected for him by executor.
Enoch Burgess appears on the 1870 census, 24 years old, with his wife, Mary Burgess, 23 years old, and six month-old George Burgess. The only household between the Burgesses and Ann McGregor is that of Isaac & Fanny Brown
In 1874, Ann E. McGregor was still holding out hope for financial compensation for her lost slaves, either from the state or the federal government. A codicil to her will clarifies that her nephew, Elisha Berry, was entitled to “all my right and interest in and to all the slave or negro property which I held, owned and possessed at the time the said slaves and negroes were emancipated.”
11) At least eight young men held on Roderick McGregor’s plantation ran away between 1838 and January of 1858, three of them more than once. One, Frederick Chapman, who was 20 years old when he ran away in 1838, may have gotten away permanently. (See Will of Roderick McGregor and Runaways from R McGregor Plantation for more about these men.) Only a few other Magruders I have researched have records of runaways, and none have so many; so I can’t help but be suspicious that physical or psychological conditions at Roderick’s place were harsh. It was common for slaves to run away at the time of a death, fearing sale or separation, but only two of these eight men ran after Roderick died.
12) Slaves were sold away. Harry was sold from John S. Magruder’s estate in 1825, Jack Bowie was advertised for sale from Roderick’s estate in 1858, and two others (Barney and Phill) known to have been in Roderick’s possession earlier are no longer in evidence by 1858.
From 1840 to 1850, the total number of slaves held by Roderick declined from 44 to 39. From 1850 to 1860 the numbers were more stable, declining slightly to 36, but the population (and community) was far from stable. A comparison of the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules (for which we have individual age-and-sex information) shows that six male and six female slaves died, were sold, or otherwise left the plantation, not counting an elderly man who presumably died in that decade. In other words, one third of the people who lived there in 1850 were gone by 1860.
Slave owners sometimes took pains to sell enslaved people to owners of their choice, or to plantations where they had family or friends (see Wills of John Read Magruder Sr & Jr and related pages for an example), but we know Jack Bowie was advertised publicly and thus was vulnerable to being sold to the deep south. That was a terrible fate–permanent separation from loved ones and from everything familiar, followed by life on industrial-scale cotton plantations that are justly described as slave labor camps. This domestic diaspora eventually totaled more than a million people transported out of the Chesapeake. Those who had run away or in other ways resisted enslavement were sometimes targeted for such sales.
Jack Bowie’s story has a better ending, however. In 1862, after slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia, Joseph C. Willard and Henry E. Willard (owners of Willard’s Hotel) filed a petition for compensation for the loss of five slaves. Among them was Jack Bowie, whom they had purchased on the pleading of his mother, to save him from being sold south. William & Matilda Bowie Family
13) Doctors’ invoices show visits, medicine, and occasional all-night attention was provided to “servants” on Roderick McGregor’s plantation both before and during the time his estate was in probate. (Medical Records McGregor Plantation.)
14) Roderick McGregor (younger), the son of Nathaniel and heir to his namesake’s plantation, left a legacy to his servant Martha Williams, in his will.
15) See also the Magruder-Hamilton cluster of pages. All of the people owned by Elizabeth Magruder (John S. Magruder’s sister) were manumitted by terms of her 1827 will–several immediately and the rest after periods of service ranging from five to 32 years. Her niece Eliza Hamilton, one of the heirs, freed everyone in her service at the time of her 1857 will. More, she left a duplex tenement house to several of her servants, cash to some, and set up a trust fund for the benefit of many. The proximity of these dates to the dates of wills by John S. Magruder and Roderick McGregor is striking, as is the contrast in their terms. Let no one say slave owners had no context in which to question the morality of slavery.
One of Eliza Hamilton’s executors declined to serve, leaving Nathaniel McGregor her sole executor. The inventory was performed promptly, but the estate remained unsettled when McGregor died in 1876 [or 1870] and the court handed it over to someone else. One wonders if Eliza’s “servants” ever got their real estate or their money.
16) Among the Magruder-Hamilton slaves were several people surnamed Dodson. Roderick held at least one Dodson, as well–Ned Dodson, who ran away in 1838. He might be the Ned on Roderick’s 1858 inventory, and/or the Ned mentioned in Nathaniel McGregor’s 1861 letter, who was forced to whip the enslaved man, George. Ned Fletcher, 55 years old in 1870, a farm hand living near both Ann McGregor and the younger Roderick McGregor, is another possibility for the Ned mentioned in letters. An extended family of free people of color named Dodson had lived in Prince George’s County at least since the 1780s. Dodson Family.
In Roderick’s estate papers is a bill from a John Dodson, for putting his stud to one of McGregor’s mares. (Roderick McGregor owned at least a few race horses.) I have found only two John Dodsons in the census who seem close enough. One is a white farmer in Anne Arundel County; the other is a D.C. resident of unknown occupation, and a member of the Dodson family once held and then freed by Elizabeth Magruder, Roderick’s aunt. D.C. included plenty of farmland in the mid-19th century, though it seems unlikely that young John Dodson, then in his early 20s, would have owned a high quality stud horse.
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Archives of Maryland:
Prince George’s County Register of Wills (Estate Papers) 1789-1831. Estate Papers of John S. Magruder. MSA C2119-60-3.
Prince George’s County Register of Wills (Estate Papers) 1790-1855. Estate Papers of Roderick M. McGregor. MSA C2119-63.
Prince George’s County Court (Land Records) Ann E. McGregor deed for purchase of Berry’s Grove, 1853, MSA CE 65-62, JBB 3, p68-69, digital images 12 June 2006, accessed 25 May 2011.
Maryland State Archives, Searching for Ancestors Who Were Slaves: An Index to the Freedom Records of Prince George’s County, Maryland, 1808-1869, MSA S1411, Index 38, an electronic and card index prepared from a 1971 typescript by Louise J. Hienton; card for Dick (or Richard) Brown, MSA S1411-02, digital image no. 2672 (accessed 27 Nov 2011). Source: Prince George’s County Court, Certificates of Freedom, 1820-1852, p.109.
Dorothy S. Provine, compiler. Registrations of Free Negroes, 1806-1863, Prince George’s County Maryland. Washington, D.C.: Columbian Harmony Society, 1990. Extracted from the Registry of the County Clerk, 1806-1829; the Register of Wills, 1820-1852; and Affidavits of Freedom, 1810-1863, using microfilm copies: CR47, 249 and CR47, 250. Richard Brown: No. 110, p100, from Registry of Certificates of Freedom, 1820-1852, Prince George’s County Register of Wills, p109.
Sources of runaway ads listed on Runaways from R. McGregor page.
National Archives and Records Administration (NARA):
Record Group 21, Entry 111, Transcripts of Wills Probated, Vol. 3, p452-53, Will of Elizabeth Magruder (d.1827).
Record Group 21, Entry 115, Old Series Administration Case Files, 1801-78, No. 4338, Eliza Hamilton (d.1861).
U. S. Census:
1840 U.S. Census, Maryland, Prince George’s County, combined population & slave schedule, Maryland, 3rd District, (Marlborough), p4, dwelling 5, family of Roderick McGregor, digital image, Ancestry.com (accessed 18 Nov 2011).
1850 U.S. Census, Maryland, Prince George’s County, Maryland, population schedule, Marlborough District, page 76, dwelling 554, Roderick McGregor; dwelling 555, Benedict Brown family; dwelling 557 William Wedge family; digital image, Ancestry.com (accessed 18 Nov 2011).
1850 U.S. Census, Maryland, Prince George’s County, Maryland, population schedule, Marlborough District, no pg., dwelling 451 William F. Berry family; dwelling 452, Ann E. McGregor family; dwelling 453, Richard Brown family; dwelling 454, William Wedge family; digital image, Ancestry.com (accessed 22 Nov 2011).
1850 U.S. Census, Maryland, Prince George’s County, slave schedule, Maryland, Marlborough district, pages not numbered, household of Roderick McGregor, digital image, Ancestry.com (accessed 21 Nov 2011).
1860 U.S. Census, Maryland, Prince George’s County, slave schedule, Maryland, Marlborough district, p75-76, household of Roderick McGregor, digital image, Ancestry.com (accessed 21 Nov 2011).
1870 U.S. Census, Maryland, Prince George’s County, population schedule, Marlboro district, p.36, dw 219, fam 222, household of Enoch Burgess; digital image, Ancestry.com (accessed 25 March 2021).
Authored books on slavery and free African-Americans in Maryland:
Barbara Jeanne Fields. Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland During the Nineteenth Century. New Haven: Yale UP, 1985.
Paul Heinegg. Free African Americans of Maryland and Delaware, from the Colonial Period to 1810. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2000.
T. Stephen Whitman. Challenging Slavery in the Chesapeake: Black and White Resistance to Human Bondage, 1775-1865. Baltimore: Maryland Historial Society, 2007.
T. Stephen Whitman. The Price of Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore and Early National Maryland. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1997.