The Mystery of William Jones, An Enslaved Man Owned by Ulysses S. Grant

The Mystery of William Jones, An Enslaved Man Owned by Ulysses S. Grant

On March 29, 1859, Ulysses S. Grant went to the St. Louis Courthouse to attend to a pressing legal matter. That day Grant signed a manumission paper freeing William Jones, an enslaved African American man that he had previously acquired from his father-in-law, “Colonel” Frederick F. Dent. Described as being “of Mullatto [sic] complexion,” five foot seven in height, and aged about thirty-five years, Jones now faced an exciting, but arduous life journey in freedom.[1] As fate would have it, William Jones would become the last enslaved person ever owned by a U.S. president, while Ulysses S. Grant holds the strange distinction of being the last of twelve presidents in U.S. history to have been a slaveholder.

The manumission of William Jones written in Ulysses S. Grant’s handwriting on March 29, 1859. Photo courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.

From 1854 to 1859, Grant struggled to support his family as a hardscrabble farmer in St. Louis, Missouri. During this time he grew fruits, vegetables, grains, and oats at White Haven, an 850-acre plantation that was the childhood home of his wife, Julia Dent Grant, and owned by his father-in-law. Enslaved labor did most of the work at White Haven, and at some point Grant acquired ownership of William Jones.[2] Beyond these basic facts, the relationship between Grant and Jones is riddled with ambiguity. When did Grant acquire Jones? Did he pay money for Jones, or was he a “gift” from his father-in-law? Why did Grant feel the need to acquire a slave in the first place? Why did he free him? What sort of work did Jones do for Grant and his family? What was the relationship between the two men like? Unfortunately the single primary source document for historians to analyze—the manumission paper written in Grant’s own hand—fails to convey reliable answers to these questions. Further complicating matters, Grant never mentioned Jones again in any of his existing papers or in his famed Personal Memoirs. And perhaps the biggest question looming over the entire discussion is “what happened to William Jones after he was freed?”

As an interpreter at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, I face visitor questions about William Jones on a daily basis. While I often struggle to give satisfactory answers to these questions, I have taken a great interest in trying to provide some sort of answer to the last one. After all, Jones should not exist simply as a footnote in Ulysses S. Grant’s life story (as he is so often depicted in popular Grant biographies) but as an individual with his own thoughts, experiences, and struggles both in slavery and in freedom. To that end I have endeavored over the past year to research what may have happened to Jones after his manumission. In the course of my work I have made two important, but very tenuous, discoveries about William Jones.

The first concerns where Jones may have settled once he became free. In a time before the invention of the telephone, major cities throughout the United States published city directories that listed residents’ names, home addresses, and occupation. In the course of looking through the 1860 St. Louis city directory online I found a listing for “Jones William (Col’d)” in the directory. His listing states that he worked as a horse driver and was living at rear 100 Myrtle Street, which was very close to the St. Louis riverfront and is now part of the grounds at Gateway Arch National Park. (“Rear” refers to an outbuilding or small home in a back alley.) Further research in the directory found that Jones was living with five other free people of color in the same house, while a man named Herman Charles who worked in the furniture business was living at the main home. He was most likely renting out the rear home to Jones and his cohorts.[3]

A screenshot of the William Jones listing in the 1860 St. Louis City Directory. Photo Courtesy of Rollanet.

Does this listing represent the same William Jones that was freed by Ulysses S. Grant? Unfortunately, there is no listing in the 1860 federal census for a William Jones of African American descent living in downtown St. Louis. On the one hand, it was common—both then and now—for census-takers to miss residents during the surveying process.[4] Moreover, it is entirely plausible that Jones would have opted to stay in St. Louis. Only two percent of the city’s population was enslaved by 1860, and a small but thriving community of 1,500 free blacks lived and worked in St. Louis as barbers, blacksmiths, cooks, dockworkers, hotel and restaurant workers, and laborers.[5] Where else would Jones have been able to quickly settle and start working, especially if he had any other family to support? St. Louis may have been his best option at the time. On the other hand, a census listing would have confirmed the age of the William Jones listed in the directory and helped confirm if he was the same person previously owned by Grant. That “William Jones” is such a common name further complicates matters. Without a census record the city directory listing is therefore compelling but inconclusive.

A map of St. Louis in 1857. The red square notes where 100 Myrtle Street was located at the time. Today it is part of the grounds at Gateway Arch National Park. Photo courtesy of the author.

The second insight concerns court records from the St. Louis Courthouse. On May 6, 1861, the court records indicate that a “William Jones (Col’d)” was arrested with several other free blacks for not having their freedom papers. Like other slave states throughout the South, Missouri law assumed that African Americans were enslaved unless proven otherwise. When African Americans received their freedom in Missouri, they were required to apply for a “freedom license,” post a bond between 100 dollars and 1,000 dollars, and demonstrate to the court that they were “of good character and behavior, and capable of supporting [themselves] by lawful employment.”[6] Sometimes a benevolent slaveholder would pay the bond, but often the person being freed was held responsible. Grant’s financial troubles while living in St. Louis would have most likely prevented him from posting Jones’s bond in 1859. In any case, the William Jones arrested in 1861 was publicly whipped on the steps of the courthouse for his indiscretion and ordered to leave Missouri within three days. Gateway Arch National Park Historian Bob Moore originally found this court record and stated in an email to staff at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site that he believes it was the same William Jones that was freed by Grant, but nevertheless staff at both sites recognize that the evidence once again cannot fully corroborate the claim one way or the other.[7]

Other research I conducted proved frustrating and led to dead ends. I looked at the military records of more than 250 black soldiers named “William Jones” who served in United States Colored Infantry units during the Civil War without finding one who matched the description for height, complexion, and age listed in the 1859 manumission paper. Likewise, while there are multiple listings for “William Jones (Col’d)” in St. Louis City Directories from 1861 to 1865, it is nearly impossible to confirm if they are the same one previously listed in 1860. Furthermore, there is no William Jones of African American descent listed in the 1870 federal census for St. Louis. My research continues in earnest, but like many enslaved African Americans, the story of William Jones’s life in freedom is shrouded in mystery. As Fredrick Douglass once stated, “genealogical tress [sic] do not flourish among slaves.”[8]

Where else should I look for information on William Jones? What research have you done on enslaved African Americans and their transition to freedom? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.

 

 

[1] The original manumission paper is housed at the Missouri Historical Society. A transcription of the document is located in John Y. Simon, ed., The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 1:1837-1861 (Southern Illinois University Press, 1967), 347.

[2] National Park Service, “Slavery at White Haven,” Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, April 2, 2018, accessed October 26, 2018, https://www.nps.gov/ulsg/learn/historyculture/slaveryatwh.htm.

[3] “Kennedy’s 1860 St. Louis City Directory,” Rollanet, 2007, accessed October 24, 2018, https://www.rollanet.org/~bdoerr/1860CyDir/1860CD-J.htm#J.

[4] Pew Research Center, “Imputation: Adding People to the Census,” Pew Research Center, May 4, 2011, accessed October 20, 2018, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/05/04/imputation-adding-people-to-the-census/.

[5] National Park Service, “African-American Life in St. Louis, 1804-1865,” Gateway Arch National Park, 2018, accessed October 26, 2018, https://www.nps.gov/jeff/learn/historyculture/african-american-life-in-saint-louis-1804-through-1865.htm; Lorenzo J. Greene, Gary Kremer, and Antonio F. Holland, Missouri’s Black Heritage, Revised Edition (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993).

[6] The mention of William Jones is in the St. Louis County Record Book 10, “May 6, 1861,” 333, Gateway Arch National Park Archives, St. Louis; Ebony Jenkins, “Freedom Licenses in St. Louis City and County, 1835-1865,” Gateway Arch National Park, 2008, accessed October 26, 2018, https://www.nps.gov/jeff/learn/historyculture/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&PageID=3120173; Kelly Kennington, In the Shadow of Dred Scott: St. Louis Freedom Suits and the Legal Culture of Slavery in Antebellum America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017).

[7] Robert Moore, email to Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site Staff, November 10, 2017.

[8] Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Miller, Orton, & Mulligan, 1855), 34.

Nick Sacco

Nick Sacco is a public historian working for the National Park Service as a Park Ranger at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri. He recently had a journal article about the Grand Army of the Republic published in the Indiana Magazine of History entitled "The Grand Army of the Republic, the Indianapolis 500, and the Struggle for Memorial Day in Indiana, 1868-1923" (December 2015). Nick also runs a personal blog about history, "Exploring the Past," at https://pastexplore.wordpress.com/.

2 Replies to “The Mystery of William Jones, An Enslaved Man Owned by Ulysses S. Grant”

  1. Puzzle solving is always super interesting — thanks for sharing! You asked for ideas, so here are some. (I’m not too familiar with St. Louis resources, so some of these ideas won’t be helpful.)

    Have you tried learning more about the other five free people of color he was living with in 1860? (They may have something in common with him, so if you find them, you find him. A daughter in the household might marry him, or he may move with them somewhere else, etc. And hopefully they aren’t all named John Smith.)

    Have you looked for what happened to the other enslaved people in the Dent household? (He is probably related to some of them. Again, if you find them, maybe you find him.)

    Is there a white slaveowner named Jones near the Dent place 35 years earlier? Based on a little experience in looking for other enslaved people, Jones may be his (white) father’s name. Or Jones isn’t mulatto, just smart and white people didn’t think African Americans could be smart without the influence of white-ness. Or the white ancestor is further back in his tree, in which case, it may indicate that his enslaved father was owned by a Jones.

    Does he show up in any estate papers of any Dent family people? Did Dent leave any papers in archives? Is he in the 1850 slave census? (I realize he would be nameless, but depending how many people are owned, you can sometimes match them up.) How did Dent acquire his slaves? Where? (Is William likely to have been born in Missouri? Or Maryland?) Did Dent transfer slaves to his other children? (Are his other children slaveowners? Do they show up on the slave censuses and/or do they have a lot of personal property? But personal property isn’t as good a tell in St. Louis as it is in Mississippi.) Did Dent buy slaves when he bought the land? (I’ve seen the names of those transferred on other deeds.) Did he inherit them?

    The digitized St. Louis directories for 1864, 1865, and 1866 (on ancestry) each show more than one William Jones, col’d – are any of them near Myrtle? Is Dent in the 1860 directory? Is Grant? Is it possible he continued working for one or the other? Don’t focus too much on the age — I’ve seen a lot of sloshing around when it comes to enslaved people’s ages later.

    Could he have been a wedding present to the Grants? Was there a place to record transfer of personal property? (Think the equivalent of where you record the title to your car these days.) Can you ask somebody at the courthouse?
    (I have to confess – I’ve tried some of these tactics today and couldn’t get anything to shake loose, but maybe you can.)

    Good luck!

    1. Dear Lisa,

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment and helpful suggestions. You sound like you’re a real pro at doing genealogical research! For better or worse, a lot of your questions have been analyzed by myself, other park staff, and numerous Grant biographers over the years without much luck. To wit:

      1. I have looked up the 1860 census to learn about the other free people of color and was able to find one of them in the census with the 100 Myrtle address. Nancy Gather was listed as a washwoman in both the City Directory and the census. Beyond that I haven’t been able to find much else about the people living there, although I have more work to do regarding Nancy Gather’s whereabouts (great suggestion on your part).

      2. We know very little about what happened to the other enslaved people of White Haven after the Civil War. According to Julia Dent Grant’s Personal Memoirs the remaining enslaved people at the beginning of the Civil War (30 were listed in 1850 and 7 were listed at White Haven in 1860. We’re not sure why the numbers changed in 1850s) ran away by 1864. We have only two interviews with former White Haven slaves who were interviewed by St. Louis papers after Grant’s death in 1885–Mary Robinson and Mary Henry–but the white reporters who conducted and edited their interviews were primarily interested in Grant’s experiences as a farmer, so close to nothing about the enslaved peoples’ thoughts and experiences from their own perspective exists.

      3. According to the 1850 Slave Schedule there was an R.C. Jones who lived near the Dents in South St. Louis County and owned one enslaved man (black, not mulatto) aged 21. Whether there’s a connection to be made, I’m not sure. If the manumission paper is to be trusted, William Jones would have been about age 26 in 1850, and of course since he is described as “mulatto” it seems unlikely that the enslaved man owned by R.C. Jones is William Jones. Moreover, Julia recalled in her Memoirs that a good number of the Dent slaves were born in Maryland and Virginia (Col. Dent was originally from Cumberland, MD), so the possibility exists that Jones may have been born there rather than in Missouri. Again, we’re not sure. I should look into the R. C. Jones story a bit more, however.

      4. Unfortunately there is no existing Dent paper archive or plantation records of how White Haven was run. We have precious little documentation in Col. Dent’s own hand, and much what we know about him is based on how others perceived him. Likewise, while we know that some of the enslaved laborers accompanied the Dents on their move to Missouri, Col. Dent most likely purchased a number of slaves after he moved to St. Louis. The issue of the Dent children’s connections to slavery is very complex but essentially the Dent daughters (Julia, Nellie, and Emma) were informally “gifted” four slaves each. With regards to Julia, there’s no legal documentation confirming she actually owned those slaves, leading most Grant scholars to believe that they were her father’s all along, although the entire Dent family certainly benefited extensively from enslaved labor. Emma purchased four slaves from her father in 1862 after he ran into financial issues, confirming that the daughters did not actually own the slaves before the Civil War and only informally “owned” them.

      5. The other William Jones entries in the various city directories have them living in St. Louis city, but not around Myrtle street. They lived north and west of the St. Louis riverfront where Jones was listed in 1860. Whether any of the entries from 1861-1866 are the same William Jones is unknown. No record in the 1860 census for William Jones really complicates matters. Grant was not in 1860 directory because his family had moved to Galena, Ill by that point. Col. Dent remained in St. Louis and went back and forth between White Haven and his city home at 4th and Cerre St. during this time.

      6. Finally, as previously mentioned we do not know when, how, or why Grant acquired ownership of William Jones. We know that he acquired Jones from his Father-in-Law based on the manumission paper’s wording, but that’s about it. Whether Jones was a “gift” or whether Grant bought him outright is unknown. We have collaborated over the years with Gateway Arch National Park, the Missouri State Archives, and the Missouri Historical Society to try and learn more, but unfortunately all we have is the manumission paper and a note in the St. Louis County Record Book confirming that Grant had signed the manumission paper at the Courthouse that day.

      So that’s where I am right now with things. Thanks so much for your great comment and I hope to someday share more findings!

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