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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Slavery and Absalom Row

Absalom Row

     Like his father, Thomas Row of Orange County, my great great grandfather Absalom was an active, community-minded man of many dimensions. While still living on his father's farm as a young man Absalom already enjoyed a reputation as a farmer, road builder and gold miner. After he bought Greenfield plantation, the farm of his late father in law Richard Estes, Absalom lost little time establishing his presence in the public life of Spotsylvania County. From the 1830s until his death in 1855 Absalom served at various times as justice of the peace, school commissioner and overseer of the poor. The archives contain many documents bearing his signature as he performed his official duties.

Greenfield Plantation

     Of course, Absalom Row had many other responsibilities as well. He owned a profitable 889 acre farm, which included a blacksmith shop, a carpenter shop, shoe shop and a weaving house. He was an active gold miner, both in his own right and as a contractor for the White Hall mining enterprise. Gold found in Panther Run at Greenfield was fashioned into wedding rings for the first wedding of his son George.
     The records show also that Absalom Row was a devoted and caring husband and father. He hired at least one tutor for his daughters in the early 1840s and his will made provision for the further education of his daughter Bettie and son George. He had sufficient confidence in his wife Nancy to name her as the executrix of his will.
     And he owned slaves.
     Absalom Row grew up on Row Farm in Orange County, Virginia. He was born into a household staffed by black slaves. The presence of these people, and their status as property, would have been among the earliest memories of Absalom. There is no written record of Absalom's thoughts on slavery, but I cannot help but believe that he thought the institution was part of the natural order of things, one of the difficult realities attendant to managing a large farm in the first half of the nineteenth century.

1820 Federal census for Orange County

     The 1820 census shows that twenty four year old Absalom Row owned thirty five slaves in Orange County. At this time he most likely lived in the house built in 1810 on a tract of the Row Farm across the road from his father's house. The same census shows that Thomas Row himself owned twenty slaves that year. Since the census credits Absalom with owning slaves in his own right, it is not unreasonable to think that they were used for Absalom's own enterprises, including gold mining. The Rows were involved in the gold mining operations on the nearby Grasty property.
     The year 1820 was also significant to Absalom in a highly personal way. An older brother, Carlton, lived with his wife Lucy on a plantation in (I believe) King George County. They had married in 1818 and their daughter Rachel was born the next year. The undocumented story that has been handed down to the present day says that Carlton whipped one of his slaves, or perhaps had the overseer do it for him. The slave thus abused conspired with the kitchen help to exact his revenge. On March 6, 1820 poison (some say ground glass) was put into the food of Carlton and Lucy Row, killing them. The infant Rachel was spared. She was brought to her grandfather Thomas' house in Orange and would in large part be raised there.
     From this distance it is nearly impossible to speculate on the effect this event had on Absalom and the rest of the family, apart from the shock and grief it must have caused. Did it harden his heart toward all slaves? Did he sleep with one eye open for the rest of his life? Did he institute harsh measures among his own slaves to mitigate the possibility of an uprising? There is nothing in the record known to us that speaks to any of this. What is known, however, is that Absalom never manumitted his slaves and gave no hint that he considered them as anything but his rightful property.

Virginia Herald 10 June 1829

     On the 26th of May 1829 Chandler escaped from the Row Farm in Orange. He left behind his wife and was thought to be "lurking about Fredericksburg." In this notice published in the Virginia Herald Absalom speculates that Chandler may try to make his way to Ohio, and he requests that this piece be reprinted in Winchester in case Chandler sought freedom by traveling through the Shenandoah Valley. It is unknown whether slave catchers apprehended him, but I have always hoped that Chandler made good his escape.

1830 bill of sale to Absalom Row

     By 1830 Absalom and Nancy Row and their daughter Martha were living in Spotsylvania County. The census for that year shows that they owned four slaves in their own right. I am not sure of this, but it seems to me likely that the Rows were living with Nancy's father Richard Estes at Greenfield. In any event, Absalom was living in Spotsylvania when he bought Lizzy for two hundred dollars on January 12, 1830. The seller was a Richard Adams of Henrico County. Whether this was done as a private transaction or was part of a public auction I cannot say. Lizzy would have been among the four slaves shown belonging to Absalom in the census of that year.

Slave patrol in action

     Slave patrols were legally sanctioned groups of white men, drawn from the ranks of the local militia, whose job it was to monitor the movements and activities of slaves. They "apprehended runaways, monitored the rigid pass requirements for blacks traversing the countryside, broke up large gatherings and assemblies of blacks, visited and searched slave quarters randomly, inflicted impromptu punishments and as occasion arose suppressed insurrections" [Sally E. Haddon, Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas, 2001]. One of Absalom Row's official duties was to appoint men to serve in these patrols and approve their pay. Two of these documents are shown below. The one dated 1855 includes the name of James Brock, who was overseer at Greenfield 1849-1862.

1845 slave patrol

1855 slave patrol

     Absalom Row made his will on January 15, 1847. In it he names his wife Nancy as executrix. The first two pages of his will are shown below. In item four he empowers Nancy to give to any of his children who marry any property she chooses so long as a proper valuation is made: "...according to this rule (viz) a negro man five hundred dollars, woman four hundred dollars and children in proportion to be valued by any of my old friends in the neighborhood."
     Item five also deals specifically with the slaves: "Should any of my negroes become unruly it is my wish that my executrix hereinafter named may use her discretion and either sell or hire them out as she thinks will most advance the interest of the children."

Will of Absalom Row, page 1

Will of Absalom Row, page 2

Inventory and appraisement, page 1

Inventory and appraisement, page 2

     After Absalom's death an inventory and appraisement was made of his estate by his friends and neighbors Richard Pulliam, William Fife, William Stephens, Joseph Trigg and Leroy Dobyns. This comprehensive listing of all his earthly possessions, both real and personal, included livestock, farm equipment, household furnishings, two bee hives, a galvanic battery, 889 acres of land and cash and bonds. And twenty five slaves. In aggregate these slaves were appraised at $14,375 and accounted for 56% of the personal wealth of Absalom Row. Even if he had ever considered freeing his slaves (and there is no evidence that he ever contemplated doing so) such an act would have gone a long way toward impoverishing his family. For that to happen would take an act of war.

Slaves of Absalom Row

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