Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Manumission in the Arkansas River Valley: Three Case Histories

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Manumission in the Arkansas River Valley: Three Case Histories

Article excerpt

THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN COUNTIES of the Arkansas River Valley never had large slave populations. Slave-owning farmers in this area tended to be settled along the river, and, like a majority of Arkansas slavemasters, most owned one to four slaves.1 Only a few possessed twenty or more slaves, the usual indication of planter status. Two of these river counties, Pope and Conway, were typical in encompassing bottom lands suited to plantation farming, midlands composed of foothills and smaller farms, and then uplands in the Ozark mountains. Accordingly, the white population ranged from farmers/planters invested in slave agriculture, farmers with no slave labor, farm renters, a few professionals, and hunter/squatters. Pope and Conway Counties, in the diversity of their geography, settlement patterns, agricultural methods, and slaveholding resembled many Arkansas counties outside the Mississippi delta area in the antebellum period.2 The slave manumissions that occurred in these two counties can therefore possibly provide some indicators about the phenomenon statewide.

As in the rest of the state during the prosperous 1850s, the numbers of slaveowners and slaves increased in both counties. In 1850, the Pope County population was 10.2 percent slave (479 individuals), and the Conway County population was 6.7 percent slave (240 individuals). By 1860, Pope County's slave population had grown to 12.4 percent slave (978 individuals), and Conway County's slave population had reached 12 percent (802 individuals).3 The counties had seen a remarkable growth of almost 150 percent in the their slave populations during the 1850s, reaching 1,780 by 1860.

The most immediately apparent fact about manumission in the two counties was how infrequently it occurred. Between 1836 and 1860, only twenty-eight manumissions of individual slaves were recorded in the will and deed records of the two counties. The rarity of manumission (referred to as emancipation in the documents of the period) was possibly the product of most masters' inclination to see slaves primarily as investments to be passed on to sons and daughters. Arkansas law also carefully regulated manumission. In 1838, Arkansas lawmakers established two ways by which manumission could be legally granted: slaveowners could emancipate a slave through a last will and testament, or they could emancipate through witnessed statements presented in circuit court. But Arkansas law also increasingly restricted the ability of freed slaves to dwell in the state. In 1843, the legislature passed a law forbidding free African Americans from moving into Arkansas and required those already resident to post a $500 bond in order to remain. In 1859, another law prohibited free blacks over twenty-one from living in the state after I860.4 Legislation on manumission was doubtlessly driven by delta planters, but how thoroughly the 1843 restrictions on free blacks were enforced statewide is an open question. Arkansas remained very much a frontier state where local sentiment often governed.5

Nine specific acts of manumission/emancipation found in the will and deed records of Pope and Conway Counties affected twenty-eight slaves. Three of these acts of emancipation provide details on the circumstances and outcomes for the slaves involved. Though exceptional in a number of ways, these case histories tell rich human stories.

The first case history involves six slaves in Conway County. In 1837, Radford Ellis, a farmer living in Petit Jean Township in Conway County, died. His widow, Jane Ellis, paid the four other Radford heirs $500 for their interests in six slaves-Charles, Mary, Mariah, George, Elijah, and Ann-and released her dower rights in her husband's property.6 Radford Ellis had purchased Mary, about eighteen years old, and her one-year-old twin daughters, Maria and Charlotte, for $650 in January 1826.7

In April 1838, already in her seventies, Jane Ellis made out her own will. A later wife of Radford Ellis, she requested burial by her husband and noted that she had no children or parents living. …

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