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Saturday, December 21, 2013

"This day ran away from my premises, servants..."

Nancy Estes Row's list of runaway slaves, 1862

This is the story of Bettie and Robert Upshur.

     Greenfield, a large plantation in western Spotsylvania, was home to Absalom Row and his family and dozens of other inhabitants. At any given time there would be at least thirty permanent residents at Greenfield, not including kinfolk and other guests who would come to stay for extended visits. [Please note that the images in my blog can be clicked on for enlarged viewing]

Absalom Row

     When he died in 1855, Absalom left behind an estate valued at $25,443. His property included 889 acres of land, cash and bank stock, furniture and other household effects, and the tools, livestock and other impedimenta necessary for running a large farm.

Inventory and appraisement of Abalom Rows estate

     However, more than half of Absalom Row's wealth was tied to the value of the twenty five slaves he owned at the time of his death. The inventory and appraisement of his estate, completed in May 1856, show these slaves to be valued at $14,375. Listed in the right column of the page shown above are the names of three of those individuals: Molly (the nickname for Mary), and her two children, Betsy and Isabelle, valued together at $1,000.

Nancy Estes Row (Courtesy of Ellen Apperson Brown)

     In his will, Absalom named his wife, Nancy Estes Row, as the executrix of his estate. In the eighteen years she was to manage Greenfield, Nancy handled her affairs ably and with a business-like competence traditionally associated with men in the South of the mid-nineteenth century. She exercised sole discretion in all monetary matters including, of course, that discretion pertaining to the lives and well being of those black servants held in bondage at Greenfield.
     In 1857 Nancy gave to Martha and James T. Williams, her daughter and son in law then living in Richmond, three expensive presents. These included 11 year old Ellen Upshur, 12 year old John and 9 year old Patsy. John and Patsy were very likely Ellen's brother and sister. Some time ago I discovered the fate of Ellen Upshur and you can read her story here. To another daughter, Bettie, and her husband Zachary Rawlings, Nancy Row gave two children for Christmas in 1860: Adaline, 16, and 14 year old David.
     Whether or not we choose to give Nancy the benefit of the doubt regarding the possibility of her being a willfully cruel mistress to her slaves, there is no denying that - no matter how gently it could be administered - slavery was an inherently harsh business. On very short notice, persons could be sold off and carted away like so much livestock or furniture. This practice inevitably broke up families, and even in otherwise benevolent households,  most slaves opted for freedom when the opportunity presented itself.
     In the spring of 1862 Federal troops set up camp in Stafford and for a few months occupied the town of Fredericksburg. Their presence became widely known throughout the region, to masters and slaves alike. It would not be long before the enslaved, as many as 10,000 of them, disappeared from local plantations and made a bid for freedom within Union lines.
     Among those who fled were most of the slaves of Nancy Row. Written in her own hand, the list of runaways appearing at the beginning of today's post includes the name of three who left on June 26, 1862 and never came back: Mary Agnace Upsher, 28 (listed as "Molly" on Absalom Row's estate inventory), Betsy and Robert. Betsy's sister Isabella died at Greenfield in 1857.
     Bettie Upshur was born at Greenfield in January 1855. Her brother Robert arrived in May 1860. At the time of their escape from Greenfield, their mother was the head cook of the plantation. That meant that she and her children lived in the room over the kitchen, which stood just south east of the house.
     In January 1863, Nancy Row - with the assistance of her son in law Zachary Rawlings - filed an affidavit with the Corporation Court of Fredericksburg, documenting the loss of her slave property. Slave owners throughout the south routinely filed such paperwork in the hope of some day being compensated for their loss. In her affidavit, Nancy listed the names, ages and values of those who ran away and did not come back. Included are the names of Molly, "No. 1 cook," Betty and Robert.
     By 1864 these Upshurs were living in Washington, D.C. Mary became the wife of a man named Mundy and had two daughters with him, Anna and Frances.
     The name of Robert Upshur next appears in the written record in 1886. He is listed in the city directory of Washington, D.C. as a "laborer." When his name next appears in the directory in 1894, he is living with Bettie at 1345 27th Street NW.

Detail of 1900 census, Washington, D.C.

     By the turn of the century, Betty Upshur is shown to be the head of the household that includes her brother Robert and their two half sisters. The 1910 census shows the same family together, less Anna.

Detail of 1910 census, Washington, D.C.

     In 1915 Bettie and Robert Upsher are still living together, now at 2728 P Street NW.

Detail of 1915 Washington, D.C. city directory

     But the city directory and the census do not tell the entire story.
     Since 1864 Bettie Upshur had been working in the household of one of Georgetown's most socially prominent families. Robert next became employed there in 1871 and their sister Frances Mundy in 1881.
     John D. Patten (1843-1927), an 1861 graduate of Georgetown College, was a partner in the firm of Patchin & Patten, listed variously as "attorneys for national banks," "agents for national banks," or "bank examiners." Patten and his wife dwelt among the city's elite. They were members of a number of civic and philanthropic organizations, including the Columbia Historical Society of Washington. John D. Patten was a member of Washington's exclusive Cosmos Club, where he served on the membership committee.

From the 1899 Cosmos Club members and officers

     In 1916 the society matrons of Washington held a well publicized contest, which would feature the names of those household employees who had been in service the longest. The results were published in the November 3, 1916 edition of the Washington Times. Three employees of Mrs. John D. Patten were certainly among the head of the class: Bettie Upshur - 52 years, Robert Upshur - 45 years, Frances Mundy - 35 years.

Washington Times 3 November 1916

     From their beginnings as slave children in the attic of a plantation kitchen in Spotsylvania, Robert and Bettie Upshur spent their lifetimes in the service of others and made the best of what life had to offer them during that period. They spent their lives together, ending their days working in an architect designed mansion in Washington listed in the Register of Historic Homes.

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