Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Excepting Mary Ann

As I work my way through the pages preserved in Job Tison's probate file in Glynn County, Georgia, I'm keeping my eye on any further wording echoing the Tison will's stipulation about "Mary Ann and her future increase," Whatever Job Tison meant by that wording, he wanted that to be "left undivided" until his youngest daughter came of age.

How hard it is for us, researching our ancestors from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, to understand the context in which such phrases are used. We certainly do not think in terms of the American culture of early 1800s southern life. The very thought of owning another person seems foreign to us—let alone any customary business arrangements linked to such a transaction.

Thus, we are left to our presumptions—unless someone from that time period had the foresight to spell it all out for us. Such gifts of cultural translation are rare.

I presumed that Mary Ann was a slave, considered property of the Tison estate. Thus, any child she was about to have would also become property of that same estate. That was the lot of the enslaved, generation after generation. I presumed that, for whatever reason, Job Tison did not want Mary Ann to be separated from the child she was about to have—as could well have happened, given the customary treatment of slaves about to be sold—and for whatever reason, he wished to grant this mother-to-be a reprieve for the seventeen years between the point of Job's death and his youngest daughter's twenty-first birthday.

My main question, therefore, was: what was so special about that child? And what made that child's mother so unique that she was singled out in the wording of the Tison will?

What is interesting about making presumptions is that one presumption can be as likely as another. Thus it was that reader Lisa posed the question, "Does that mean that the signers of the statements expected to share in the profits from a future sale" of Mary Ann and her "increase"? In other words, was Job Tison providing his heirs with investment guidance in his will?

A plausible explanation, just as reasonable as any assumption I might have made. Of course, the best way to arrive at the correct conclusion would be to examine the rest of the documents in the probate file—which will take quite a bit longer to do. Also, a thorough search for any supporting documentation—or, in its absence, contextual explanations provided through local illustrations of what was customary in that time and place for such circumstances—would be important.

All that will come in due time. However, though it is drawn from a different place (the state of Virginia) and a slightly earlier time period (the close of the 1700s), there is another example which prompts me to wonder about the Job Tison stipulation. It is the story of Thomas Jefferson and his liaison, well after the death of his wife, with the slave Sally Hemings.

The story, as I understand it through reading Jefferson's Daughters recently, is that Sally Hemings had been sent to accompany Jefferson's younger daughter across the Atlantic to live with Jefferson during the years he served as an American diplomat in Paris. While in France—a place in which slavery was not, technically, legal—Sally realized she could easily have left the Jefferson household, could have declared in court her intent to no longer be a slave, and the French court would have upheld her contention. Somehow, during those years in Paris, Jefferson may have already begun discussing a continuing relationship with Hemings, and in an agreement with her, persuaded her to return with him to Virginia, once his business in France was concluded.

In that agreement, among other details, Hemings had stipulated that each of her future children with him were to be freed upon their coming of age.

While the Hemings saga is not likely to be what Job Tison had in mind in his own will, the fact of such a relationship and agreement gives us an example of what certainly was an unusually cordial relationship between a slave-holder and the enslaved. While such stories are more likely to include violence, rape, and other deplorable mistreatments, there apparently were also some instances which included other arrangements. While I certainly have no resources pointing to such a possibility, there had to have been some reason for such a stipulation in the Tison will. I doubt it was there just because, on his deathbed, he felt like being nice. Mary Ann was not just some "lucky winner."

Then, too, I am aware that some of the slaves from the Tison plantation were counted, in future census enumerations, as mixed race. Specifically, they were commonly acknowledged to have "white" ancestry in their heritage. Where would that parentage have come from? We already know that Hester, the Tison slave bequeathed to Job's daughter Sidney, was considered biracial, as was her son, King Stockton. While Hester certainly wasn't singled out for any special mention in the Tison will, hers might have been, in the coming years after his death, a story similar to Mary Ann's.

All those thoughts, at this point, are merely presumptions. And one presumption is likely to be just as reasonable as any other. Who knows? Perhaps the tradition, back then, was to withhold sale of a slave until timing provided a better increase to the "investment." Perhaps, unlike either of our presumptions, there was another reason for the specific wording of the stipulation about Mary Ann. Perhaps we will someday uncover an explanation in the volume of papers in the Tison probate file. Or perhaps we will not.


  1. This is a really interesting exercise in understanding ante-bellum language that may have had (probably did have) completely different meaning than we would give it now. I think you are on the right track. It seems unlikely that Tison simply wanted his heirs to benefit from a higher price down the road. I was struck by the wording in the heirs' signed statements; the phrase "excepting of Mary Ann" seems the same for each document, and may have been a standard phrase used in probate settlements. Maybe a legal historian would know how it was used in that era?

    1. Lisa, I had the distinct feeling that that phrase, repeated almost word for word in each heir's written receipt, was something added upon the advice of an attorney. Whether that was so, I don't know, but found it curious that the wording was so strictly adhered to in each instance, as if needed to meet some legal technicality.

  2. :0 I think many people would be shocked if they did 23 and me or some such DNA tests:)

    1. That is likely so, Far Side. We all have aspects of our ancestry that we may not have been aware of. Some stories do survive, passed down through generations, but others never received as much air time, for whatever reason.


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