Meet the Enslaved People

In 1820, there were 103 enslaved people on the property who performed a range of tasks from tending the fields, to cooking, to blacksmithing, to woodworking, to masonry, to leather working, to milling, to weaving. The cook was considered one of the most valuable enslaved people on the property with the highest level of training, and enslaved children would often help in the kitchen by bringing in water and firewood.

When their eldest daughter, Ann, married Mr. Philip Williams, a lawyer from Woodstock, Virginia, Major and Mrs. Hite ensured that their daughter had the enslaved people they needed to set up their new homestead. In a letter written on 6 May 1826, Mrs. Hite asks whether the new bride and her husband will need help with their garden, and if so, she and Major Hite will send one of their male servants, despite the inconvenience to Belle Grove’s harvest.

In a follow-up letter written just a few days later, Mrs. Hite continues to go into detail about two of their unmarried enslaved men:

Daniel’s  qualities  you know, they say however that he is smart  at work and he can be smart  in the  house  and probably  would  with  you  as he would  have  other  things  to do to prevent  idleness he did  work a little  in  the  garden  under  Hogin. Isaac too has  worked in  garden  but has never been in  the house,  at any  period  in  his  life  except for  the  last  mentioned  business. Isaac would  I presume  be the  most  valuable  at present  he has however  a proud spirit  and might  not  at all  times be very  manageable. Daniel  is in  his  17th year since  January,  you  and your  husband  must  make your  choice,  they  are the  only  two that  have  not  wives.

Mrs. Hite on 10 May 1826

These two letters from Mrs. Hite to her daughter are revealing, if not a little raw and shocking, too. While Mrs. Hite describes Isaac as having a proud spirit and not always being very manageable, she also seems unwilling to send married men away from the plantation (and arguably away from their families). In two letters she wrote in December of that same year, 1826, she talks about the enslaved families in such a way that she clearly saw them as close units who needed and relied on each other, but she was still their enslaver.

Tell Hannah  that  Daniel  has got pretty well  now but  has been complaining  very  much  since  she went  away.  Evelina  and her  child  are doing  very  well. 

Mrs. Hite to her daughter, Ann Maury, on 21 December 1826

Anthony  is very  impatient  for  the return  of his wife [Judah] as the children  are very  troublesome  to him  at night  he complains  that  he can get  no rest for them. I hope her  coming  will  not subject  you  to any  inconvenience. I should  not have  agreed  to his  going  was it  not for  the  children. 

Mrs. Hite to her daughter, Ann Maury, on 30 December 1826
What do you think?

Think like a historian and step back into the 1800s in the Shenandoah Valley for just a moment: Did Mrs. Hite attempt to keep enslaved families together, or was she an enslaver who looked at her enslaved as property instead of real people?

Did you know?

There has been a shift away from slave and slave owner/master to enslaved person and enslaver.  Historians, scholars, and writers believe that slave is dehumanizing and unfair because the person didn’t have a choice – their enslaved life was forced on them. Using “enslaved” as an adjective (description) rather than a noun (object) helps reinforce that fact that one group of people – the enslavers – forced an enslaved life on another group of people – the enslaved. From here, we can then bring in the humanity of the enslaved person by adding who they actually were – man, woman, child, worker, and so forth. Similarly, the term slave owner implies that a person can own another person, which isn’t the case, so “enslaver” more accurately describes those who forcibly enslaved people.

What have we learned about Ann’s relationship with her enslaved people?

Mrs. Hite’s maternal grandmother, Mary Stith (Dawson) Grymes, was deeded an enslaved woman, Mareeah, by Charles Carter of Corotoman, who was the grandson of Robert “King” Carter. In her will, Mary indicated that Mareeah would be freed upon Mary’s death with no obligation to serve her family. Mary also ensured that Mareeah’s children would be manumitted once they reached age 21. Her will also required that whomever owned Mareeah’s children had to educate them, teaching them how to read, which was ultimately outlawed in Virginia.

We’re unsure if Mrs. Hite’s upbringing affected her outlook on enslavement after her marriage to Major Hite, but what we do know is that she was an enslaver until her death in 1851. As mistress of the plantation, Mrs. Hite oversaw and managed enslaved workers, controlling their tasks, like deciding meals and doling out ingredients, which were under lock and key.

In one letter written to her eldest daughter, Mrs. Ann Maury Hite Williams, on 21 December 1826, Mrs. Hite wrote,

I have been engaged all day in cutting out the servant’s clothes which is very fatiguing to me now that I am getting old.

Mrs. Hite

Let’s unpack this quote:

  • At the time that she wrote this letter, she was 44-years-old.
  • Enslavers often referred to their enslaved as servants.
  • In her role as the plantation’s mistress, she made clothing for the enslaved.
Did Mrs. Hite include any enslaved people in her last will and testament?

While Mrs. Hite didn’t bring any enslaved people to Belle Grove after her marriage to Major Hite, she was given all of her husband’s enslaved people after he died:

Seventhly, to my wife Ann in lieu of her settlement and all other claims on my estate, I give and bequeath to her during her widowhood, my Belle Grove tract of land together with my mills and distillery, all my goods and chattels viz: all my slaves household and kitchen furniture, all my livestock of every description…

Major Isaac Hite Jr in his Last Will and Testament written on 31 October 1827

It’s worth noting that Major Hite lists his enslaved with other household items and livestock – they were just another item in his list of assets.

However, in Mrs. Hite’s Last Will and Testament, she only lists one enslaved person, John, who she requests choose his new master:

I request that my Negro man John may have the privilege of choosing a master

Mrs. Hite on 5 January 1851

It’s very possible that John was among the few enslaved people left under her supervision as her husband’s will requested that each of his sons receive two enslaved males and two enslaved females after they married or turned 18-years-old and that each of his daughters receive however many enslaved Mrs. Hite deemed “proper.”

However, when Mrs. Hite died, John is not listed in an inventory of her possessions. It only lists “Negro Jim (blacksmith) valued at $450, Elijah valued at $800, Sally (cook) valued at $175, Martha (Sally’s child) valued at $250.”

Primary sources

List of Enslaved Men, Women, and Children Recorded by Isaac Hite Jr. in his Commonplace Book

Who was Judah?

Isaac bought Judah, also referred to as Judy, from his cousin, Abraham Bowman. Judah was purchased with her two sons, Sam and George, and they came to Belle Grove around 1816. She had ten more children by 1836: four girls and six boys.

Judah was one of Belle Grove’s notable cooks. She passed away from a lung ailment when her youngest child, Jonathan, was just five weeks old.

During the last  two weeks my Cook was dangerously ill with a complaint one of great suffering a violent pleurisy in the first  instance terminating in an inflammation of the heart which was most distressing. She finally went under the disease on Saturday morning leaving 12 children; the youngest only five weeks old. I deplore her loss to her younger children more than my own inconvenience which is very considerable – but it is the will of him that can not err of course ‘it is wisest best.’ I shall  endeavor to discharge the additional duties that devolve upon me to the best of my ability.  

Mrs. Hite in a letter written on 5 April 1836

If you are interested in what Judah’s life may have been like, check out Brian C. Johnson’s historical fiction novel, Send Judah First, which leverages the facts and fills in the gaps with imagination.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

What do you make of Mrs. Hite talking about Judah’s death? What reaction do you have to her words?