Excerpt from “Runaway and Freed Missouri Slaves and Those Who Helped Them, 1763 – 1865” by Harriet C. Frazier [Chpt. 1 – “The Myth of the Contended Slave”]

"Yarrow Mahmout," oil on canvas painting was done in 1822 by James Alexander Simpson (1805-1880). Collection of Peabody Room, D.C. Public Library.

“Yarrow Mahmout,” oil on canvas painting was done in 1822 by James Alexander Simpson (1805-1880). Collection of Peabody Room, D.C. Public Library.

(p. 13) Though most slaves died at younger ages than most whites, fanciful stories regarding the unbelievable longevity of an occasional slave appeared in Missouri newspapers. One concerned Negro Sam, who died on the plantation of his master in Georgia in 1860. Sam was believed to be 40 years old when captured in Africa in 1760. From unnamed reliable persons and “the negro’s own statement, he is supposed to have been over one hundred and forty years old at the time of his death.” [38]

Such accounts often concerned bondpersons allegedly owned by the family of President George Washington. One was 191 years old, formerly the property of Augustine Washington, father of our first president. She was on display at the Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts in Louisville: “It is said that unquestionable certificates of her age can be shown.” [39] Another former nurse of General Washington, aged between 140 and 160 years, a new story related, had been exhibited in New York: “She … lies in bed, eating or smoking her pipe. Her pulse is full strong, strong and regular and near 80 in a minute. She tells many interested anecdotes in relation to the early childhood of General Washington.” [40] Eighteen years later, General Washington’s sole surviving slave, a male aged 124 years, was being transported to the World’s Fair and put on display near a contribution box for the Washington Monument. [41]

Mark Twain’s essay, “General Washington’s Negro Body-Servant,” describes newspaper accounts of the death of Washington’s famous servant, whose name was also George, at age 95. These stories, Twain notes, date from 1809 until 1864, including

(p. 14)

one which appeared in the St. Louis Republican in 1840. The humorist went to the heart of the matter when he wrote, “The longer [George] lived the stronger and longer his memory grew…. Allowing that when he first died, he died at the age of 95, he was 141 years old when he died last, in 1864.” [42] Most likely none of these many fanciful stories mention that President Washington’s last will and testament gave his wife, Martha, a life estate in all 150 slaves he owned, and she freed all of her inherited human property before her death in 1802. Even if, miraculously, they might have been alive for decades after their former owners’ deaths, all were long since ex-slaves; all were free women and men.

Surely, few who read these tall tales believed the reported ages of these slaves to be accurate, nor were they likely to credit their purported intimate association with the family of Washington; but these accounts, if somewhat exaggerated, showed how beneficial slavery must [have] been for those who enjoyed well over a century of being owned by prominent white persons who took such good care of them. Whites chuckled as they read these stories, and in addition to the human interest of such accounts, readers were thereby assured that slavery helped to promote the longevity of the featured bondpersons. Persons who lived to these wonderfully advanced ages must be content. That unhappy people die much sooner was the sound moral of these reports about the slaves of George Washington more than 60 years after his death.

End Notes:

38. California News, May 5, 1860, 2:3.

39. Missouri Intelligencer (Columbia), Aug. 22, 1835, 2:2.

40. Ibid., Sept. 19, 1835, 4:1.

41. L.T., Aug. 19, 1853, 4:1.

42. Twain, Complete Humorous Sketches and Tales, 91.

Sources:

Special thanks to Martha Ruff at the Sojourner Truth Room at the Oxon Hill Branch of the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System!

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