Several readers of The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr have asked about one of the threats that my heroine Mary Emmons feared the most during her enslavement: that any child she bore, regardless of the father, would be taken from her and given away. Did this really happen?
The sad and tragic answer is yes. There are so many horrifying aspects to slavery in America, but those pertaining to children and the callous severing of families were particularly cruel. By law, children born to enslaved women were likewise enslaved; the status of the mother determined that of the child.
The plantation culture of the southern colonies and state depended on a large pool of laborers. Enslaved women were encouraged and often forced to have children to increase the slaveholder’s work force and “property.” Enslaved babies and children were easily absorbed into the existing quarters. Mothers took their children with them into the fields, or left them behind in their quarters to be looked after by members of their extended community, often other enslaved women who were considered too old or infirm for field work. Even very young children could be employed in agricultural work, and were considered useful at an early age. Children of every age were considered a commodity of value, and were bought and sold and often separated from their parents and the only homes they’d known.
But in the north, the majority of enslaved people were employed as house servants or other skilled workers. There were far fewer enslaved people per household, and these people seldom had designated quarters in separate buildings. Instead they slept in the slaveholders’ basements, attics, or kitchens, and their presence was much more integrated into the daily life of the slaveholder’s family. In these circumstances, an enslaved baby or child not only required the direct care of the mother, distracting her attention and taking her away from her duties, but were also viewed as expenses in themselves, requiring food and clothing for what could be years before they could be successfully employed within the structure of the household. A crying baby or fretful toddler was also considered a nuisance in the close confines of most northern houses, a noisy and unwelcome intrusion into the middle of a well-ordered home.
Advertisements like the one above from a Boston newspaper in 1769 offered enslaved children to anyone who wished them, much like free kittens or puppies are offered today, and, like those animals, their “breeding” was emphasized to make them sound more appealing. The grim reality was that most children given away like this would have died due to insufficient care and nutrition. This advertisement is only a single line, a classified notice among many, and yet behind it must have been the incalculable loss and heartbreak of a now-unknown mother.
Above: Advertisement from the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Newsletter, October 5, 1769. Thanks to Carl Robert Keys, associate professor of history at Assumption College, and his always-fascinating Adverts250 Project.
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