Tag Archives: slavery

The power of a ‘trusty friend’

Part of John Denny's power of attorney

Part of John Denny’s power of attorney

When six of his slaves were spirited away from his Mercer County, Kentucky plantation in 1824, John Denny (1750-1834) gave his “trusty friend” John Guthrie power of attorney to track down, regain possession of the fugitives, and “dispose of them in whatever way he may think proper.”  This grant of agency is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.

According to the power of attorney, the slaves were stolen by James Hall Denny, John’s own 21-year-old son, and James’s brother-in-law Asher Labertew.  The younger Denny had become strongly opposed to slavery and, perhaps in defiance of his father, may have tried to escort the slaves to freedom in Indiana, where both he and Labertew settled soon after.

A testament to this family drama, the power of attorney was also evidence of the curious intimacy between slaveholders and the African Americans whose bodies they owned and controlled.  In order to assist and support Guthrie’s authority to repossess the runaway slaves, Denny shared his knowledge of their physical characteristics.  The group consisted of a woman, her children and grandchild.  There was Nelly, a “heavy woman” with “foreteeth somewhat [in] decay” and a forefinger broken and “lyed down in her hand she cannot straiten it out,” a daughter, a “bright mollato [mulatto] named Mariah” with “a little man child at her breast,” and another, Milly, who was “middling Chunky.”  Eliza was six or seven, and the youngest, three-year-old Mary, was “somewhat inclined to a yallow coulor.”

Whether John Guthrie recaptured the six is not known, but an ominous clue appears in the fact that the power of attorney was recorded in Mississippi ten months later.  Perhaps Guthrie found his quarry and, in accordance with the authority granted him, “disposed” of the family by selling them down the river.

Click here to access a finding aid for John Denny’s power of attorney.  For more of our collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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A Woman’s View of the Fight

Union and Confederate letterheadsIn Kentucky, the imminent breakup of the Union in 1861 and the approach of civil war sparked lively intra-family debates.  In the Brown Family Collection, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives holdings of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections, a transcribed letter to Charles Ewing Nourse (the Browns were his in-laws) from his older sister Sarah (“Sally”) Doom, the wife of a Nelson County tanner, eloquently shows her struggle to make sense of the war.

Was it a purely political question of states’ rights, Sally wondered, versus an intrusive federal authority?  “I cannot,” she wrote, “look upon the disruption of the most glorious Government that man ever saw, with any sympathy or pleasure.”  The whole, she believed, was greater than the sum of its parts, and the initial secession of South Carolina would lead to “the privilege of all to secede into innumerable petty states which can and will be overthrown and enslaved by any Foreign power that may desire it.”  Insisting that she was “very green to try to talk politics,” Sally nevertheless declared that “if I were a man I would devote myself to my country (if I had the sense).”

But she wanted to dig deeper into the matter.  “We ought to weigh the thing better than we have,” she continued.  To those claiming that secession would remedy the current crisis, and that it was worthwhile to “throw away” the benefits of a federal government, she cut to the chase:

Could I believe the South were actuated by noble feelings, I could sympathize with them.  But the grand moving object of ‘our noble progenitors’ is the survival of the African slave trade . . . in my opinion the most degrading, despicable occupation a people could engage in.

Click here to access a finding aid for Sally’s letter.  For more collections on the Civil War and slavery, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.  Click here to browse a list of our Civil War collections.

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A Scriptural Divide

Reuben Alexander

Reuben Alexander

From their roots in Henry County, Virginia, the Alexander family migrated to plantations in Kentucky, Mississippi, Texas and elsewhere.  Members kept in touch, but there were two that patriarch Reuben Alexander (1785-1864) might not have wanted to seat next to each other at Thanksgiving.  One was his nephew, Edward Fontaine, of Hinds County, Mississippi.  The other was Reuben’s own son Miller, who caused his family to drop its collective jaw when he freed his slaves and struck out for Iowa to go into business.

In a letter to his father from Keokuk in 1859, Miller acknowledged the damage he had done to his net worth, but the deeply religious man felt compelled to explain himself to his skeptical parent.  “I knew I had not your approbation in moving North–And am sorry for it, but it was my duty to obey the voice of conscience and of God,” he wrote.  Moreover, “if you were possesser of ten thousand slaves and would give them to me to return to Ky. I could not do it.”  While not an activist for abolition, Miller declared that “every feeling of my nature revolts at the idea of owning a fellow creature, when I am but a worm myself.”

Only a month earlier, Reuben had received a letter from nephew Edward, who weighed in on his cousin’s struggles.  “I regret to find from Cousin Miller’s Letter that his fanatical freak, freeing his slaves, and settling among the pious Yankees had led him into difficulties.”  Nevertheless, Edward–a pastor–hoped that Miller’s youth and energy would “enable him to extricate himself from the embarrassments into which his unscriptural views of the question of Slavery have drawn him.”  Edward prayed that Miller, whose former slaves had doubtless been rendered equally unhappy by this unholy state of affairs, might recover from his “fanatical freak” and regain his former prosperity.

Reuben Alexander’s family correspondence is part of the Alexander Family Papers in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For more collections about Kentucky families, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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