©2009-2016 Becky Higgins

Saturday, November 24, 2012

How My Hopes Were Dashed

I had for many years hoped against hope that my ancestors had never been slave owners. I say “against hope” because many of my lines migrated from the Eastern coast – New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland – to Virginia and into Kentucky before finally entering the Indiana, a free State. But, I told myself, none of my lines had significant wealth which might have been prohibitive. In fact, I family lore in the Buchannan/Benefiel family stated the reason they moved to Indiana was to “get away from slavery.”

However, I’ve known for a while now that my Joseph Leisure owned at least one slave. He wrote in his will written in 1835 that “Item. My negro man John at the death of myself and wife I hereby emancipate and set free.” Joseph died in 1838 but his wife didn’t die until 1853. I thought at least Joseph was planning to free John which made me feel a bit better; that is until my recent trip to Garrard County, Kentucky for further research into this family. All I had previously was a copy of the will but there was more. Included on the second page of the Joseph Leasure Estate Inventory (Will Book 1; pages 401/402) is listed: “Negroes: One negro man named Tom - $150; One negro woman named Milly - $200; One negro man named John - $700.”

Though my heart sank a bit when I found this information, I know I need to take this knowledge in context of the times. I’m sure Joseph was a good man in many ways but I have to admit my impression of him is now a bit tainted. He wasn’t a large land owner, only purchasing some 46½  acres  on Sugar Creek in Garrard County, Kentucky (Deed Book G, page 124), yet he held three people in bondage.
So far, happily, there is no evidence that Joseph’s son, Nathan, my 3rd great-grandfather ever owned any slaves prior to his move to Indiana in 1834. At least there’s that.

Now the question is how do I objectively write Joseph's biography for the Leisure Publication? Guess I'll have to take some time before I start that.


  1. I found that my great-grandfather (yes, that close a relationship) kept his (inherited) slaves out of trouble with their local fire & brimstone preacher. (Check contemporary newspapers and church minutes.) See if slaves stuck around the area after they were freed, or even stayed as servants in the household. (I think some of ggf's did that, but not enough evidence yet.) There were as many ways to run plantations as there were plantations, and a man who owned slaves didn't necessarily buy them himself.

  2. Thanks for the comment, JG. You're right, maybe Joseph did inherit. I'm sure I'll get over the shock:-)