Enslavers in the family tree (part 1)

This post replies to this week’s “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” theme from Amy Johnson Crow: “Negatives” 

Of all the family history topics that rank in a list of negatives, having slavers in the tree must rank among the most negative. I’ve been pondering the fact of enslavers in my family tree for some time now, and thinking through how to document it in all of my family lines. One side of my family is entirely white, Southern, and pre-Civil War, so it’s no surprise that my many distant ancestors include those who enslaved other humans as well as Confederate soldiers (and, post-Civil War, some who upheld the end of Reconstruction and the imposition of white supremacy). I intend at some point to thoroughly document slavery in my family tree, but for this week’s 52 Ancestors prompt, I’ll focus on one individual: Peter Hawthorn, one of my 5x great grandfathers.

Peter Hawthorn was the son of Peter and Rachel Hawthorn of Sussex County, Virginia. He was born about 1752 in neighboring Surry County, his father having died before he was born. His mother died when he was about 7.

In 1775, Peter Hawthorn, in his early twenties, purchased 201 acres of land in Brunswick County, in far southern Virginia, for over 143 pounds from John Ingram and his son Thomas. Brunswick County (namesake of Brunswick stew), became “the cradle of Methodism in the South,” according to historian Worth Earlwood Norman, as the former colonists moved away from the Church of England, and as a new religious fervor spread throughout the new country. The principle founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was notably anti-slavery.

Peter served in some capacity in the American Revolution. In two applications by his descendants to the Sons of the American Revolution organization, he is described as an ensign in the Brunswick County militia. On March 10, 1780, per an article in a 1915 edition of The William & Mary Quarterly, Peter Hawthorn “Ensign” and three other men “are recommended as Officers for a Company of the Militia.” On April 3, 1781, per the W&M Quarterly, “Peter Hawthorn Ensign in the Militia qualifyed to his commission.”

The Battle of Yorktown in fall 1781 essentially ended the war. Like his fellow patriots, Peter Hawthorn returned to his previous life as a farmer, if he had not already resumed civilian life in 1781 or earlier. He may have been a tobacco farmer, as about two-fifths to a half of Virginia tobacco was grown in Virginia’s Southside region, and Brunswick county was one of Virginia’s leading tobacco-producing counties prior to the Civil War.

Peter had by then married Susannah Hines. Her name is listed as part of a large family in the book “Southside Virginia Families,” which noted that she was born March 17, 1753, and married a “Hawthorne.” Her father in this document was named as William Hines of Sussex County. In William Hines’ will dated February 4, 1779 and probated in 1784 in Sussex County, William left “to my daughter Susanna Hawthorn three negroes Old Patt, Doll and Little Nan and Anthony and their increase….”

These four people are likely the oldest recorded enslaved persons in any branch of my ancestry. Peter and Susannah would go on to have at least nine children, and as they grew their family, they also grew the number of those they enslaved. In a document described as a personal property tax list for Brunswick County in 1783, Peter Hawthorn was enumerated and his tax levied. The document shows that he enslaved eight people by then—Will, Doll, Nan, Anthony, Jacob, Dick, Ned, and Abram, who may include those whom Susannah inherited from her father. Peter also owned five horses and 12 cattle. His assessed tax on this personal “property”: 5 pounds 3 shillings. Methodism’s original spirit of anti-slavery apparently did not sweep over Peter Hawthorn, nor did it over much of the rest of the region. In 1790, the enslaved population of Virginia had reached over 290,000, more than double that of the next highest slave population, and about 7.9 percent of the population were enslavers.

Peter Hawthorn, Brunswick County, VA, tax list, 1783, Ancestry.com

In the 1820 U.S. Census, the last that would enumerate Peter, he was the head of a household in Brunswick County (St. Andrew’s Parish) with 23 enslaved people. By his death in 1825, Peter still enslaved over 20 people, perhaps some the children of those named he held in bondage in 1783. If he had ever considered freeing them, we can never know.

There was during and in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution a hope, perhaps, that the institution of slavery might wash away in the tide of liberty that swept the new nation. In an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson called slavery “an execrable Commerce” and “an assemblage of horrors,” and even blamed its existence in the list of crimes committed by the king. His language was struck out, but his phrase “all men are created equal” resounded to all who heard it, including many free and enslaved black people in northern states. Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island abolished slavery in the 1780s. Vermont had abolished slavery in 1777, and then joined the Union in 1791. By 1804, all northern states had abolished slavery.

Even in Virginia, there was an air of possibility that slavery’s future was in doubt. In 1778, the Virginia Assembly passed a bill that, to some degree, abolished the slave trade; there is some evidence that Jefferson had a hand in its crafting. In 1782, the Assembly passed an act allowing slaveholders to free their slaves in their wills or through a petition to the courts. Jefferson in 1783 had called for gradual emancipation in a draft of the Virginia constitution, in the form of freedom for all children of enslaved people born after 1800. This did not pass, but the possibility remained that owners could now free their enslaved populations, and many did. By one count, in 1782 the number of free black persons in Virginia numbered about 1,800, less than 1 percent of the total black population. By 1790, the percentage had risen to 4.2 percent, and by 1810 stood at 7.2 percent of the total black population.

Historian David Brion Davis wrote that “One cannot question the genuineness of Jefferson’s liberal dreams. If he had died in 1784 … it could be said without further qualification that he was one of the first statesmen in any part of the world to advocate concrete measures for restricting and eradicating Negro slavery.”

But then everything changed. The progress of emancipation slowed, then halted, then reversed for a number of reasons, including the changing economics of slavery, and cultural attitudes had bent as far as they were going to until they snapped back. Peter Hawthorn’s continued enslavement of other human beings simply followed this track. In 1792, Jefferson, who over his lifetime enslaved more than 600 people, wrote a letter to President Washington that accounted for the profits and losses of his Monticello plantation. Jefferson had calculated, perhaps for the first time, that he was making a 4 percent profit annually on the birth of black children on his plantation. “I allow nothing for losses by death,” he wrote, “but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four per cent. per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers.” The money—and the lifestyle it bought—was too good.

In 1793, Eli Whitney applied for a patent for his short-staple cotton gin, granted the next year. The device “transformed plantation profit margins” and started to transform the slave economy throughout the south. Cotton planters in the deep south obviously benefitted from this revolutionary way to expand cotton production—and the enslaved laborers who would do the work—but that expansion created a new internal slave trading economy. Even small tobacco and wheat farmers in places like Southside Virginia had an incentive to engage in slave selling now that a lucrative new market was opening up for chattel labor.

States began passing new laws restricting the freedom of free blacks and restricting the ability of owners to free their slaves. (Free black populations in the northern states, too, were subject to strict codes governing their behavior.)

In the summer of 1800, an enslaved man in the Richmond area, Gabriel Prosser, was taken captive and hanged along with over 20 of his followers. Prosser had planned to lead slaves into Richmond, but rain postponed the operation, and two slaves told their owners. Governor James Monroe called out the state militia and crushed the attempted uprising. In the coming years, Virginia would impose new restrictions on slaves’ mobility, ability to learn to read, and the practice of hiring out. In 1806, the Virginia Assembly passed a law requiring freed black persons to leave the state within 12 months or face re-enslavement.

Even in the burgeoning evangelical community, the original Methodist adherence to emancipation was breaking down. “Evangelical churches, led by whites, simply could not agree among themselves their polity regarding slavery, so they split into factions and formed new churches, or they refused to deal with the issue.”

By the end of the century, the brief window of emancipatory feeling had passed. Many enslaved people had been freed, but new economies and reactionary social mores halted progress toward freedom. “Economically, politically, and socially, slavery would be stronger in 1810 than it was in 1790.”

A second major slave uprising occurred in 1831 just to the east of Brunswick County, when Nat Turner led his followers in a bloody rampage and reprisal that took hundreds of lives. Peter Hawthorn’s descendants who still lived in Virginia at this time would have certainly been affected in some way by this violence, but as it turned out, Peter’s grandson, Fred Hawthorne, the progenitor of my Louisiana/Texas Hawthorne branch, was long gone from the state.

This blog post adapts from my own research manuscript on the Hawthorne family, “The Hawthornes: A Family History from Virginia to Texas,” self-published in 2020.

— Fred Dews

One thought on “Enslavers in the family tree (part 1)

  1. I agree with your view about the negative aspects of discovering enslaved persons in the records of our ancestors. I have wondered if documenting those enslaved people, as you have here, can help other researchers who may be looking for them. Or, at least, insure they are not forgotten and will live in ‘the cloud’. Thanks for sharing.


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