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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Slaves

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

How can someone of this century-in this country-truly understand what slavery means?

Try explaining what Southerners used to call the "Peculiar Institution" to your child or grandchild: "Well, a slave was someone owned by someone else." The next part of this simplified definition would be, "That person did anything their master wanted them to because they owned them and could punish them if they didn't do what they were told."

A better way to comprehend slavery is to read some of the official paperwork filed away in the courthouses of Texas counties that existed before the Civil War and the freedom for blacks that followed in 1865. (Of course, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863 but the Confederate states were not inclined to oblige until after their defeat in the Civil War.)

In fewer than two decades from the time Stephen F. Austin first brought Anglo colonists to the Mexican province of Texas, the lower Colorado and Brazos rivers were lined with cotton plantations. Slavery supplied the labor pool that made those farming operations profitable. By 1845, newly admitted to the Union, Texas had an estimated 30,000 slaves. That was more than 25 per cent of the state's population.

Someone owning more than 20 slaves was considered prosperous. Planter John W. Myers of Wharton County fit that category. But money could not buy health.

On Nov. 29, 1846, "being weak in body, but of sound mind," Myer wrote his last will and testament.

The second paragraph of that document covers the routine legal requirements of someone's last wishes, including the author's appointment of his son and another county resident as executors of his estate.

It is the third paragraph of the instrument that stands out like a chicken snake trying to hide in a bag of freshly-picked cotton:

"I give to my yellow woman slave, Maria, her freedom and also to the children which she may have at my death or hereafter and hereby emancipate her and her offspring. So long as the said slave resides on my plantation, I desire she may be comfortably supported and when she desires to remove to any other state than Texas, I will that she may be furnished sufficient money to bear her there."

Many a good novel has less of a story line than those 73 words, especially considering that Myers owned 38 other slaves whom he did not mention in his will. Why did Myers choose to free only one of his chattel humans?

Myers could have answered the question, of course, but he died in early 1847. The date of his death was not noted in the official paperwork that followed it, but his will was filed for probate on January 17 of that year. A month later, an inventory of his estate showed that Myers had died a wealthy man by the standards of the day.

But of his total net worth of $15,030, the value of his land and possessions (land, livestock, corn, cotton, utensils, a gold watch, a shotgun and a rifle) amounted to only $4,900. The rest of his assets were human beings, ranging in listed value from $600 each for two men, 30-year-old Joe and 28-year-old Grant (slaves had no last names) to $50 for an infant girl named Mary.

The inventory listed the value of women with children, someone like Maria, as ranging from $300 to $375.

Whatever happened to Maria is unknown, but wherever she ended up, she died free.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" August 8, 2018

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