Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Wealth and Slave Ownership

The recent Geico Insurance commercials are quite effective because they try to simplifying things. Do you know, the ones I'm talking about? They say, "if you're a ____, then you ____. It's just what you do." And while there are certainly exceptions to their statements, they get their point across. I suppose one could use the statement for many wealthy people in the antebellum South. "If you're wealthy, you own slaves. It just what you do." Again, there were exceptions to that rule. And, on another thought, one might argue that those people we were well off due to their owning of slaves.

A colleague at work shared the above advertisement with me from the Richmond Sentinel, and ran in January 1865. If you have been to Pamplin Historical Park, you might recognize the name Boisseau. The Boisseau's plantation, Tudor Hall, is a main feature of the Park.

The plantation patriarch, William E. Boisseau died in 1838. Listed on his estate inventory were fifty-one enslaved men and women, boys and girls. William's wife, Athaliah Keziah Wright (Goodwyn) Boisseau is listed in the 1840 census as the head of household and shows as owning thirty-five slaves. One wonders what happened to the additional sixteen slaves listed on the estate inventory two years earlier. Were they sold or given to her seven children? Apparently, around this time, Athaliah inherited an additional 520 acres on non-contiguous tract. It may be this piece of land that is mentioned above as "Derby."

By 1850, Athaliah was living with a daughter, Ann E., and her husband, Robert H. Jones, on an adjoining plantation. Jones, a tobacco inspector, had apparently been married to Ann's older sister, Martha Eliza, who died in 1840. The 1860 census shows Athaliah still living with the Jones family. That census shows Jones as owning $57,000 in real estate and $100,000 in personal property, of which were seventy-four slaves, who lived in seventeen slave dwellings. Also in the Jones household in 1860 was twelve year old nephew Adrian Boisseau. Adrian's father and mother, physician William Boisseau, Jr. and Julia (Grigg) Boisseau had moved to Alabama where they passed away in 1854. Tudor Hall eventually devolved from Athaliah's to her third oldest son Joseph, who lived there with his wife Ann until Union army threats displaced them in 1864, and their home was used as the headquarters for General Samuel McGowan from South Carolina.

One of the most interesting things in this short newspaper article to me is the inflationary prices that the named enslaved people sold for. Athaliah died in Petersburg in December 1864, when goods and commodities in the region were becoming extremely stretched due to the Union army's occupation of the area, which naturally drove up prices for everything.

As always, so many questions come to mind. Were any of the slaves that were sold related? Were any purchased in groups? Or, were they all separated? If separated, were they able to reunite since the war was over within the next three months? In addition, I would be extremely interested in learning who purchased these individuals and what type of wealth they possessed to pay such inflated prices. Whoever they were, they surely soon found that wealth built on slave ownership was like building a structure on quicksand.


  1. I know I'm not answering your questions but just thought I'd respond. I'm actually related to the Boisseau family. Adrian Boisseau is my great great grandfather. I never knew they owned slaves until finding my 3x great grandfathers will. I've often wondered what happened to them after.

  2. Hi Phalen. Thanks for reading! If you have the will of William Boisseau, Jr., I would be very interested in having a transcription of it. If you are willing to share it, would you mind emailing it to me at trtalbott@aol.com?

  3. This is very interesting. I can across the article because I'm researching the Pamplin family. My in-laws are African American Pamplins. I'm trying to find out if their ancestors were owned by the Boisseau family

  4. This is fascinating! I believe I am a descendant of the Boisseau family. A few interesting things. The Boisseau’ s recycles their names. My great grand father's name was Eugene Bosseau born 1896 in New Orleans LA. I am African American, and according to my ggf's WWI registration and other docs he was AA as well. I learned in my tours of the plantations in New Orleans that the "Plantation Children" were given the master's last name, but with a slightly different spelling. I have completed the Ancestry DNA test and I have communicated with two of my Boisseau cousins. I have not been a to find out which Boisseau is my ggf's father. The only name on his death certificate in 1969 (same year I was in Chicago, IL) was his mother Eva Zimmerman. One last thing I did learn from my Boisseau cousins is their names are commonly William, Eugene, and Joseph, which I thought were very telling. I would love more information, if it's possible.