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Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Journal of Absalom Row

The slaves of Absalom Row, spring 1825

     During a research trip to Spotsylvania earlier this month, a family artifact that had been hidden away for decades was rediscovered. It is a leather bound journal, measuring 4x6 inches that is in museum condition, considering its age and the circumstances in which it was used almost 200 years ago. [Please note that each image in my blog can be clicked on for larger viewing]

Absalom Row's journal

     This is the record kept by Absalom Row (1796-1855) of Orange County during a journey he made in 1825. I am his great great grandson. This journey made by Absalom was a business trip undertaken with a serious purpose in mind. It covered several hundred miles of arduous travel on often primitive roads from Orange County, Virginia to Huntsville, Alabama. He and his fellow travelers slept in the open each night during the month it took to reach their destination.
     The entries in this book are matter-of-fact and, it might be accurately said, all business. There is nothing here of self reflection, or musings on the purpose of this enterprise (which was starkly financial). There are no descriptions of the people involved or their thoughts or reactions to what was happening.
     And yet, despite the unselfconscious veil drawn over the human feelings that are never mentioned, this little book is one of the saddest documents in my family's archive.

Absalom Row

     Absalom Row grew up in a slave-owning household and, in fact, his family had enjoyed the services of either indentured servants or black slaves for the 200 years leading up to his journey. By his early twenties Absalom was already a slave owner. The 1820 census indicates that he owned thirty five, all of them male. The fact that there were so many (he was still unmarried and his father Thomas owned a fewer number) and that there were no females among them leads me to speculate on the reason. Census data from 1830, 1840 and 1850 - in addition to his personal records that have survived - show that he never again owned so many as he did in the early 1820s. That fact, coupled with the expressed purpose of his trip in 1825, makes me consider that his involvement in the business of slave trading may have been more extensive than I ever thought possible.
     While this aspect of my family's history is a difficult one to write about, I have in previous posts confronted this topic and presented the facts as I found them in the original records. For those of you who may not have already read those articles pertaining to Absalom, they are Slavery and Absalom Row and A Case of Murder in Old Spotsylvania. As a rule I tend to let the historical record speak for itself without a lot of editorializing, so let us stipulate here that the institution of slavery was a bad thing for the enslaved, a corrupting influence on their masters and an enormous impediment in the moral development of our nation. Therefore we must not seek to mitigate the consequences of its existence, or to dismiss the complexities and nuances of this and all man-made institutions.
     In the spring of 1825 Absalom received money from his brother Keeling Row and his father as investors in this financial venture. In preparing for this trip Absalom incurred some costs, among which were $25 for a wagon called a "carryall," 25 cents for a watering bucket and $5 paid for four blankets. The last were intended for the four slaves who accompanied him from Orange: 18 year old Ralleigh (also spelled "Rolley" or "Rolleigh"), 22 year old Willis, 14 year old Fanny and 12 year old Richard ("Dick"). For 6½ cents he bought a jews harp for Richard.

The start of the trip

Orange County 5th April 1825. Set out on a journey to Huntsville, Allabama. Camped at Church Run to wait for Mr. Goodloe who was to accompany me on my journey to Huntsville. 
Wednesday 6 was fair and pleasant. Rode to see Mr. Richard Taliaferro. Mr. Goodloe arrived at 10 o'clk. We set out, fed at Hawkinses and camped at William F. Gordon's in Albemarle. There Jack left me.

     Jack was a friend of Absalom's who had rented two of his slaves, Matthew and Anthony, mentioned in the list at the beginning of this post. William Fitzhugh Gordon was an attorney who once practiced law in Orange and represented Albemarle in the House of Delegates 1818-1829 and the U.S. Congress 1830-1835.

Saturday morning 9 was fair. Started at sunrise, crossed mountain and forded the south branch of the Shenandoah three miles from the top of a settlement town called Wainesborough. Took the left hand just above town, past through a very pretty neighborhood, fed at Moore's and waited on the return of Mr. Goodloe, who went to see some negroes that was to sell. Moved forward 1 mile in the evening to a good camp. Mr. Goodloe did not arrive.
Sunday morning 10th was also fair. Mr. Goodloe also returned, had bought two boys. Got under weigh at Greenville 15 miles from Waynesboro and camped over the Rockbridge line. 

     The two boys bought by Mr. Goodloe are never mentioned again. They appear, indirectly, at the end of the journal in an accounting of the slaves who were sold. We never learn their names.
     This band of eight travelers continued their way south up the Shenandoah Valley on what is now Route 11.

Monday 11 was fair. Started by sunrise, past the village of Fairfield 12 miles from Greenville and fed at a blacksmith shop 2½ miles from Lexington, where we had some repairs done to our carryall. Camped just across the north branch of the James River at Lexington 23 miles from Greenville. 

     As they were trundling through Fairfield, Absalom would have seen to the north the Willson farm called "Mount Pleasant." Here in 1854 Mary Elizabeth Houston was born. Twenty one years later she married Absalom's son George Washington Estes Row at nearby New Providence Presbyterian Church.
     They continued south. Goodloe's horse took sick on April 15 and died the following day in Newbern. They had a little more horse trouble three days later, just before crossing into Tennessee from Virginia.

Tuesday 19 was rainy in the morning and we started off at 7 o'clock a.m. Crossed the Holston River at the 7 mile ford five ms from our camp. At 9 a.m. (we crossed the same river 4 or 5 times before getting to the 7 mile ford) fed at a branch just beyond the big spring 44 ms from the [Wythe County] Courthouse from Abbingdon. Camped at Carpenter's 3½ ms from Abbingdon. Here our horses got away.
Wednesday 20. It was fair. Got off at 7 a.m. Past Abbingdon at half past 8. Took the left about one mile west of town. Fed at a run near Reston's Store 10 ms past Abbingdon and camped at a small run in Tennessee two ms from Washington line in Sullivan Co.

     From here Absalom and his party made their way toward Knoxville. In Knoxville Absalom bought shoes for Ralleigh for $1.50 and for Fanny he paid $1.00 for shoes and $1.25 for a dress. Fanny was sold for $400 to John Harrison of Roane County.

Saturday 30th was fair & pleasant. We got off at 1½ past six. Past Sparta at 12 & fed at Simpson's mills 4 ms from Sparta in White County. We had very bad roads from the foot of Clinch Mountain to Sparta and poor land. We had to give 75 cts for corn, $1 for whiskey & 37½ cts per dozen bundles for fodder. Crossed the Caney Fork and camped at a large spring 1½ miles from the ferry in Warren County. We traveled 22 miles this day.

     They continued south from Sparta and crossed into Alabama four days later.

Friday 6 was fair. Started and crossed the mountain fork of Flint in the morning. Was detained at the three forks till the evening 7 ms from camp. Crossed and camped at spring 5 ms from Huntsville and 12  from the mountain fork where we camped the night before.
Saturday 7 was fair. Started by eight. Fed and got breakfast at a pond near Stokes's where after breakfast we took up our board 1 mile from Huntsville, which place we visited in the evening.
Sunday 8 was fair. Spent the day in writing to our friends in Virginia.

     In Alabama Absalom Row sold Ralleigh to Col. Jesse W. Garth for $575. Robert Lanford bought Willis and Richard. It is not clear whether the two boys purchased near Waynesboro were sold in Tennessee or Alabama.

Costs and sale prices of the four slaves

     This page shows us that a hefty profit was realized for each slave. Willis & Richard cost $545 and sold for $850. Fanny cost $250 and sold for $400. Ralleigh cost $355 and sold for $575. Another page I believe shows that the two boys sold for $625 and $575.
     Absalom also kept track of his incidental expenses for his "Huntsville account" - clothing, shoes, postage, snacks, cakes, soda water, washing and so on. Each slave was given a little money when sold: $1.00 to Willis, 25 cents to Dick, 50 cents to Ralleigh and 25 cents to Fanny.

Incidental expenses

     I need hardly add here that slavery was a hard business and it was transacted by hard men who sold the people in their possession with an astounding lack of compassion. That my great great grandfather, a man of his time and place, participated in the slave trade is a difficult thing to deal with.
     But today, let us remember the names of those slaves we have learned here. They and millions like them deserved a fate better than this and had to wait so long for their deliverance.

     And out of the shadows their eyes implore us.



  1. Heartbreaking, and important to remember and document.

  2. Thanks, Anne. And I am in complete agreement with you.