A few of the early readers of The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr have expressed surprise that Theodosia Bartow Prevost and her husband James Mark or Marcus (or Jacques-Marc; he went by both the French and Anglicized versions of his name) Prevost owned slaves on their New Jersey property.
At the beginning of the American Revolution, every single one of the thirteen original colonies had enslaved people living within its borders. Slavery was not limited to the large-scale plantations of the south. While enslaved people in the northern colonies did work in agricultural settings, many of them also served as servants in houses and businesses, as well as being skilled tradespeople like carpenters, coopers, shipbuilders, seamstresses, laundresses, and so on. The majority of them did not live in separate quarters, as on the southern plantations, but in the homes or businesses of their slaveholders, sleeping in attics, cellars, or simply on a pallet in the corner of the kitchen or hall.
Theodosia and her husband lived on a sizable property called The Hermitage near the town of Hopperstown (today called Ho-ho-kus) in Bergen County, New Jersey, not far from the New York border. The Prevosts lived in the newer house on the property, called the Little Hermitage, while Theodosia’s widowed mother, Ann DeVisme, lived with her younger children in the other. Like most of Bergen County, the houses were surrounded by rich farmland that was likely worked by a combination of free and enslaved people. Additional enslaved servants worked inside the two houses.
There are no surviving records of these enslaved people, or what became of them once The Hermitage was sold by Col. Aaron Burr after his marriage to the then-widowed Theodosia. As a result, the enslaved people I include in The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr are characters of my invention. But the names and descriptions of two of Colonel Prevost’s enslaved servants from before the Revolution are known, because together they self-emancipated, and ran away from The Hermitage.
Col. Prevost placed the advertisement, above, in The New-York Journal; or, The General Advertiser, in January 12, 1775. He offered a reward for the capture and return of a husband and wife named Mark and Jenny. Runaway advertisements like this were a common feature of colonial American newspapers at the time, a way for those who placed them to retrieve their lost “property”. The advertisements are also one more example of how insidious the institution of slavery was in colonial America, as commonplace as notices for sales of ship’s bread and lost pocketbooks. The newspaper’s owner might not himself be a slaveholder, but he was still part of the complicated economic chain of slavery, and profiting from it.
This advertisement is interesting because while Mark and Jenny ran away in September, Col. Prevost didn’t place the advertisement until January. Perhaps he hoped they’d come back on their own, or be captured and returned by a helpful neighbor (who wouldn’t expect a reward), or perhaps he placed an earlier advertisement in another newspaper that has not survived. In any event, it’s not known if Mark and Jenny were ever captured and returned to the Prevosts, or if they escaped together to freedom and a new life.
Like Mary Emmons, the heroine of Secret Wife, I very much hope they did.
Many thanks to Victoria Harty, Executive Director, The Hermitage Museum, for her assistance with this post.
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