Slavery


The most surprising and disturbing aspect of Alexander’s will is that it documents the fact that he was a slave owner. Understanding slavery is difficult but it is more perplexing to realize that an ancestor owned people and used them as he would farm animals. In Alexander’s case, one wonders who was the father of Priscilla’s children because Alexander did not own any male slaves. Was Alexander the father of the children of his “negro woman Priscilla?”


In the third provision of the will Alexander states that “I give and bequeath to my wife Catherine Stewart during her natural life, my negro woman Priscilla . . . ”

 

In the next paragraph, he gave his daughter and oldest child, Margaret Stewart Edwards, his “negro girl Sally and her in evolve provided she pay [his] executor fifty dollars.” If Margaret didn't pay the fifty dollars, she was to be paid two hundred dollars from the residue of his estate. To his daughter, Euphemia Stewart Culton, he gave his “negro girl Pamela.” Euphemia was required to pay the estate $20.00 to retain Pamela. If Euphemia did not pay, then she would receive two hundred dollars in place of Pamela. Thus, Sally and Pamela would be conveyed to either Margaret and Euphemia or if rejected, Alexander directed that the three slaves would become part of the residue of the estate, presumptively sold, and the money for their sale would be placed in the residue of his estate and shared by all of Alexander’s children.


With respect to Priscilla, Alexander added that “my negro woman Priscilla remain with my son Isaac until she is forty five years old, and that she then be free, and that her three children, viz. Mary, Jane & Ann be valued; and that the amount of their valuation added to the residue of what estate I possess at my death, not heretofore disposed of shall be equally divided between all my children. But my son Isaac if he thinks proper to do so may keep said children at their valuation as his own property on his paying my other children their respective proportion of such valuation and residue as aforesaid.” The assessed valuation of these three young girls, ages 9, 3, and 1, was $650.00. It is unknown whether Isaac elected to keep these young girls or pay his brother and sisters their share of their worth or whether he rejected the offer and they were sold as part of the residue of the estate. If Isaac had elected to keep them and pay his siblings their share, at least the young ones would have remained with their mother, Priscilla.


One might suppose that Priscilla’s story and that of her children would end with the execution of the terms of Alexander’s will but one would suppose incorrectly. Thirteen years after Alexander’s death, Kentucky’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, issued an opinion entitled Stewart’s Executor v. Wyatt, & c. This case involved a dispute between Isaac and Alexander’s other children over who was entitled to ownership of three young slave children who had been born of Priscilla after Alexander’s death. As noted, Alexander had provided for the disposition of Priscilla’s three children living at the time of his death, but his will did not provide for the disposition of additional children born after his death.

 

 The court provided the background for the dispute:

 

“[Catherine Stewart] died shortly after [Alexander]. After her death and before the period had arrived when Priscilla was to be free under the will, she had three children. Those children form the subject of the present controversy. Isaac Stewart . . . claims [the three children] under the . . . will. [Alexander’s] . . . other children resist this claim, deny [Isaac’s] right, and contend that [the children] either pass under the residuary clause in the will, or belong to . . . [Alexander’s] . . . estate, and being undisposed [sic] of by his will, pass to his executor for the benefit of his heirs. The Court below decided in favor of the heirs . . . and [Isaac] seeks a reversal of that decree.”


 The Court of Appeals observed:

 

“[Alexander] reserved no interest in the slave. He devised none to any other person but [Isaac]. . . . He disposed of the children Priscilla then had. He made no allusion to the children she might afterwards have. [Alexander’s actions support] . . . the conclusion, that the devise to [Isaac] was absolute, leaving no interest in the slave in [Alexander’s estate], but vesting the whole right and title to her for a limited period [to Isaac].”

 

 The Court of Appeals concluded:

 

“A claim to the children of a female slave, may arise from an interest in, or right to the mother; but where no right to the mother exists, and the children are claimed alone on the ground, that the mother once belonged to the person asserting the claim, or his ancestor; although he had divested himself of all interest in her, it is impossible to imagine any foundation for such a claim to rest upon.

 

Wherefore, as Priscilla was devised in remainder, absolutely [to Isaac] until she attained the age of forty-five, at which time she was to be free, and [Alexander] reserved no interest in her, the children born during the continuance of the estate in remainder, belong to [Isaac].”


Thus, the Court of Appeals reversed the lower court and granted Isaac the three children.


 We do not know the fate of Priscilla, her six children or the two other slaves mentioned in Alexander’s will. They probably took the Stewart surname as their own upon their freedom following the Civil War. Thus, to Alexander’s legacy, we must add the names of Priscilla Stewart, Mary Stewart, Jane Stewart, Ann Stewart, Sallie Stewart and Pamela Stewart. We do not know the name of Priscilla’s three youngest children but they also should be added to the list.

 

The 1850 Census for Knox County lists Isaac Stewart as a slave owner. These included:


A 52 year old male
A 45 year old female

A 40 year old female
A fifteen year old female
A 10 year old male
An 8 year old female
1 4 m m fugitive from state

 

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