Understanding the Complexities of Slavery in Kentucky

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By Tony Curtis

The Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives (KDLA), in Frankfort, Kentucky, houses the largest collection of papers concerning Kentucky’s Civil War-era governors. Comprising a large portion of this collection are “Official correspondence and petitions related to appeals for pardons, remissions, and respites.” Each appeal for executive clemency provides historians with new glimpses into the complexities of Civil War-era Kentucky. One particular document, from the papers of Governor Thomas E. Bramlette, opens a window on two relatively unknown aspects of slavery in Kentucky: slave hiring and slave marriages.

Slave hiring was a common practice across the commonwealth of Kentucky, throughout the larger Border South, and in many other slave states. While plantations did not comprise the majority of farms across Kentucky, slavery lay at the foundation of every aspect of the economy, society, and culture of the state. Many farmers, from small farmers to the urban businessmen, hired or hired out the enslaved on contract. In a March 1864 letter,[1] Alanson Trigg, a plantation owner, merchant, and banker from Western Kentucky, petitioned Governor Bramlette to “remit the fine imposed upon him” by the Warren Equity & Criminal Court “for permitting as was alledged [sic] two negro men slaves to go at large & to hire themselves.” “Owing to the condition of the County will,” he wrote, he was unable to “bring these negroes from Warren to Barren County, in which your petitioner resides.” As Trigg further states, “he placed them in the care & control of John Pelty and Wm G. Hendrick who promised to take care of & manage them as his own & if the law has been violated your Petitioner says others & not he violated it” and that “there are not better behaved & more honest slaves any where to be found than the two mentioned in the Indictment.” Not only did Trigg shift the blame from himself, he shifted the blame away from the two enslaved men and toward the two individuals who promised to “take care of & manage them.” According to an endorsement written by Trigg’s lawyer, J. B. Underwood, the two men accepted blame at the court hearing. However, Trigg was convicted and fined. Another endorsement by R. B. Hawkins supported Trigg’s claims and added, “The same privileges are given many other negroes in the town & country.”

Little is known about slave hiring across Kentucky, both in the urban and rural setting. Historians have noted that approximately 12 percent of the slave population in Lexington and 16 percent of the Louisville slave population were hired out in 1860, which is higher than Eugene Genovese’s estimate of 5 to 10 percent across the entire South.[2]

Alanson Trigg’s letter to Bramlette also includes a discussion of slave marriages—another important subject, about which historians continue to learn. Trigg states that he left his two enslaved men in Warren County under the auspices of supervision, and due to the fact that, “Each of them had a wife in Warren County near a farm owned by this Petitioner for many years & on which he had kept his slaves. On selling his farm he did not wish to sell his slaves & allowed them to remain in Warren out of humanity.” Why might historians and other researchers find this statement valuable? We still do not know enough about the prevalence of slave marriages and unions in Kentucky. Yet, while not supported by Kentucky law, marriages were often recognized by slave-owners on the same plantation or farm, or across property boundaries. Slaveowners engaged in this practice for several reasons, as a method to sustain the institution of slavery, as a means to increase their personal value, and as an avenue for increased connectivity of the slave economy. In short, more slaves, more slaveowner capital, more interconnectedness —the more sustained and entrenched the slave economy in Kentucky.

This document suggests several questions for future research on slavery in Kentucky: How common were cross-plantation or cross-farm marriages in Kentucky? What structures and networks sustained slave communities? What kinship ties existed among nuclear families and larger kinship networks, including enslaved women, and perhaps free blacks as well? Were enslaved men and women allowed to negotiate their own hiring out, or was this a relatively isolated incident that occurred within the context of black enlistment and the ultimate destruction of slavery? To answer questions like these, many more documents of this type will need to be found! But Trigg’s letter suggests we have more to learn about slavery in Kentucky.

[1] Alanson Trigg, et al., to Thomas E. Bramlette, March 1864, Office of the Governor, Thomas E. Bramlette: Governor’s Official Correspondence file, Petitions for Pardons, Remissions, and Respites 1863-1867, Box 9, BR9-508 to BR9-509, Kentucky Department of Library and Archives, Frankfort, Kentucky.

[2] Aaron Astor, Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation, and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 2012); Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Vintage, 1974); and Jonathan D. Martin, Divided Mastery: Slave Hiring in the American South (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004)

For Reading:

Barton, Keith C. “‘Good Cooks and Washers’: Slave Hiring, Domestic Labor, and the Market in Bourbon
County, Kentucky.” Journal of American History 84 (September 1997): 436-60.

Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Burke, Diane Mutti. On Slavery’s Border: Missouri’s Small-Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2010.

Glymph, Thavolia. Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household. New
York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Kaye, Anthony. Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South. Chapel Hill: North Carolina, 2007.

Lucas, Marion B. A History of Blacks in Kentucky: From Slavery to Segregation. Frankfort: Kentucky
Historical Society, 2003.

Martin, Jonathan D. Divided Mastery: Slave Hiring in the American South. Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Harvard University Press, 2004.

O’Neil, Patrick. “Posses and Broomsticks: Ritual and Authority in Antebellum Slave Weddings,” Journal of Southern History 75 (February 2009): 29-48.

West, Emily. Family or Freedom: People of Color in the Antebellum South. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012.

—. Chains of Love: Slave Couples in Antebellum South Carolina. Urbana: University of Illinois
Press, 2004.

—. “Debate on the Strength of Slave Families.” Journal of American Studies 33 (August 1999): 221-41.

—. “Surviving Separate: Cross-Plantation Marriages and the Slave Trade in Antebellum South Carolina.”
Journal of Family History 24 (April 1999): 212-31.

Toward an Understanding of the Civil War-era Kentucky County Courts

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By Tony Curtis and Patrick A. Lewis

How are governments structured? How do they function? These are two very fundamental and, surprisingly, very different questions which the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition (CWG-K) will address. The first question involves how people imagine their society works on a theoretical level. The second shows how those theories really play out in the world.

No one, we found, has really addressed either question for Civil War-era Kentucky. No single source exists on the structures of government—state, district, and county, executive, legislative, and judicial—or describes how each individual piece worked with the others. But in order to carry out our work we had to know. We had to know, first, to anticipate where we might find documents to and from our governors. And we had to know, second, to start to understand how the war disrupted government in the Commonwealth.

Thus began a research odyssey to diagram state and county government—literally map out every department, cabinet, and court on wall charts in the CWG-K offices. Twenty-seven sources, twenty-four oversized sheets taped to the wall, and one nine-foot scroll later, we have a more complete picture of these institutions as they existed in Civil War-era Kentucky and how they were supposed to function—theoretically.

Actual practice was another issue, but that is for the documents to illuminate. One particular area in which we have already seen wartime turbulence is the county court system. How did civil war affect the county courts? Who was elected or appointed to hold these offices? Did they function as the 1850 Kentucky Constitution set forth or were they in complete disarray?

Fortunately, CWG-K documents will help historians explore this question further. Though the new constitution made county courts incredibly powerful, the executive branch—in particular the governor and secretary of state—wielded a great deal of power as they handled the appointments and resignations of state officials in each county. In the 13,000+ documents currently in process, thousands of letters and petitions relate to the commissions of county officers from across the commonwealth.

An April 19, 1862 letter to Governor Beriah Magoffin from five “freeholder” citizens of Wolfe County, Kentucky, speaks to the great wartime confusion about the legal status of county officials and the legitimacy of the local courts. The petitioners state that “We have not had any courts held in our county since Sept. 1861 up to April 14th[.] There was an attempt made By the County Judge to hold County Court on the Regular court day in Apr 1862 and was prevented by force of arms as he were accused of Being a disloyal citizen of Ky.” In addition, Wolfe County had collected “very little tax” without a properly appointed sheriff.

With multiple county officers, including a county judge, facing accusations of “aiding the Southern Confederacy” or outright serving “in the Southern army,” a Justice of the Peace had held court and appointed multiple county officials to fill vacancies “of officers which have resigned or are considered Disloyal.” So, the correspondents asked the governor, simply, “whether the court were held legal or not[?]” These five citizens of Wolfe County “want[ed] the Regular courts held and the proper officers appointed to do Business and if we are not on the Right Track if your honor pleas give us some instructions.”

Does so much turn-over of court officers suggest a dysfunctional system? It certainly might for Wolfe County. Elsewhere, documents from mid-to-late 1865 noting the reconvening of the county courts might hint that such wartime closures due to want of qualified, loyal officers were not uncommon.

At the same time, other documents point to an overburdened county court system due to a dramatic increase in crime that occurred during—and often as a result of—the war. Dozens of letters and petitions arrived daily on the desk of the governor asking for pardons and other forms of executive clemency. These suggest a functioning court system in other counties.

Even with all of CWG-K’s research into and charting of state government, such documents raise more fascinating questions than they answer at this stage. For example, in the process of researching the component parts of the state government, we learned that very little worked in the way we—and many other historians before us—had thought. Kentucky currently operates under its fourth constitution, but at the time of the Civil War it had only recently passed its third. Significant pieces of the government familiar to us today simply did not exist in the 1860s.

How has the balance of power between the executive, legislative, or judicial branch shifted? What powers has each branch of government gained or lost? How has our interaction with the federal government changed over time? Rich insights from CWG-K documents will help researchers answer some of these important questions.

[1] Ezkiel Hobbs, et al., to Beriah Magoffin, April 19, 1862, Office of the Governor, Beriah Magoffin: Governor’s Official Correspondence file, Petitions for Pardons, Remissions, and Respites 1863-1867, Box 4, MG4-412, Kentucky Department of Library and Archives, Frankfort, Kentucky.