James Holmes 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Preserving Records of African-American Slaves In 1860, more than 182,000 African Americans called Texas home. The majority of them toiled the rich farmlands of East Texas or cultivated the coastal plains. They planted and harvested cotton, corn, and sugar or worked in skilled trades as blacksmiths and mechanics. They built homes, married, and raised families. And they were bought and sold like prized cattle. Nineteenth-century court records such as the Harrison County Estate Records provide a unique glimpse into the tragedy of human slavery. Here, human beings are cataloged like livestock, listed by a given name followed by a statement of their age, sex, and market value. Just as a modern rancher’s estate might name a champion bull or quarter horse, the inventory of the Estate of Harrison County’s S.M. Hagerty lists men, women, and children with names like “Little Jim,” “Big Eliza,” “Big Lucy,” and “Amazon.” The same administrator who grouped “milk cows and calves” into a single lot inventoried mothers and babies as “Nancy and boy Calvin” or “Molly & her infant Fanny.” He made special note of slaves with skills that increased their value such as “Ben, blacksmith” and “Martin (mechanic)” and those with human frailties such as “Margaret (deaf ).” But he gave none of them a last name. The inventory of Hagerty’s estate also reflects the economic reality that slaves were by far the most valuable assets a family could own. At a time when prime East Texas farmland sold for as little as $1 per acre, cattle brought $10 per head, and a good horse might sell for $75, human beings sold for hundreds — even thousands — of dollars. The inventory of Hagerty’s estate reflects that his 19 slaves were worth a total of $10,400 and represented 73 percent of his entire estate. The administrator assessed the value of Hagerty’s unskilled male slaves at $600 to $800 depending on their age. Those who had been trained as a blacksmith or mechanic like “Ben” or “Martin,” he predicted could bring as much as $1,200. For the cost of one of these slaves, Hagerty could have easily purchased a house and lot in town plus 500 acres of farmland, a team of oxen, and a barn full of pigs, sheep, and cattle. Instead, he borrowed money against them, pledging people as collateral. At the time of his death, Hagerty had mortgaged “John” for $750. Civil and criminal case files also provide unique insights into the slave system. Dissatisfied buyers frequently brought suits alleging misrepresentation of a slave’s health, skills, or character. Creditors sued to foreclose on notes for which slaves had been posted as security. Judges sentenced convicted slaves to be hanged, whipped, or even “branded with a hot iron.” At the same time, the indictments, pleadings, and charges reflect that slaves received a great deal of due process. Driven in equal parts by devotion to the law and a determination to protect the investment of slave owners, judges routinely appointed counsel to represent accused slaves, tried them before juries, and allowed them to appeal their convictions. In capital cases, the jury not only determined guilt but found the value of the slave and whether the owner had interfered with the prosecution. If the slave was hanged, owners could apply for a rebate of up to one-half of the slave’s value from the state treasury. These stories are nowhere better preserved than in the records of our courts. By James Holmes
Published by State Bar of Texas. View All Articles.