Sarah

Sarah

The known facts about Sarah’s life begin with one handwritten line in the 1860 U.S. Census. Even this brief individualization represented an anomaly. More than 99 percent of African Americans in Sumter County, Georgia, appeared without names in this simple government spreadsheet that apportioned power in the form of congressional representatives and electoral votes. Sarah was one of only 48 African Americans in the county named in this document by the local farmer and slaveowner who served as the census enumerator that year.[i]

Sarah’s name harkened back to the wife of Abraham in the Book of Genesis and the start of important genealogies for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Born in Georgia about 1835, Sarah may have worked in a house or a kitchen or the cotton fields. The census worker listed her as unmarried; however, this marital status reveals little about her personal life because Georgia did not recognize enslaved unions. Sarah was pregnant though at the beginning of 1860. While the exact circumstances of her pregnancy went unrecorded, it can be inferred that Sarah did not want to bring a child — or perhaps an additional child if she was already a mother — into this world.[ii]

1860 U.S. Census, Mortality Schedule, Sumter County, Georgia.

Sarah lived in southwest Georgia, a remote place with important links to broader histories. In 1864 and 1865, it became infamous for “Camp Sumter,” more commonly known as Andersonville, where 13,000 U.S. soldiers perished for want of shelter, wholesome food, and clean water. In the twentieth century, an interracial Christian commune launched a partnership housing program that became Habitat for Humanity. Jimmy Carter, born in Sumter County, became the first president born in a hospital and the first president from the deep South since before the Civil War. In 1860, though, Sumter County exemplified the “Black Belt” or what W.E.B. Du Bois later called “the shadow of a dream of slave empire” as he narrated his passage through the region. Slavery was more common than freedom here. The county’s enslaved population grew from 29 percent of the total population in 1840 to 52 percent in 1860. The 1840s and 1850s also saw an increase in large plantations. John B. Lamar, the brother-in-law of Howell Cobb who had large plantations across the state, kept 193 enslaved people in Sumter County alone on the eve of the Civil War.[iii]

The number in each county represents the proportion of people who were enslaved. Detail of Edwin Hergesheimer, “Map showing the distribution of the slave population of the southern states of the United States. Compiled from the census of 1860,” Library of Congress.

Sarah had few choices and these options reflected an important day-to-day fault line under slavery. Slaveowners wanted enslaved women to produce children. Historian Sharla Fett writes that “soundness,” from the perspective of slaveowners, meant “an enslaved person’s overall state of health and, by extension, his or her worth in the marketplace.”[iv] Soundness equated to strength, a clean medical history, a good outward disposition, and for women it included the likelihood of having children. In January 1850, an overseer on John B. Lamar’s plantation in eastern Sumter County, settled his account with Polly Taylor, a local midwife. He paid her $16.50 “for midwife services to Antoinette, Harriet, Marry Ann, Viniy, Nancy Florida, and Fanny.”[v]

Yet try as they might, slaveholders could never turn human beings into the extensions of their will. Contraception and abortion were methods of asserting control over one’s own body even if that body was legally owned by someone else. It could also mean resisting the dehumanization of slavery, including the threat of sexual violence posed by owners and overseers.[vi]

Contraception and abortion became more visible in nineteenth-century America until the Comstock Law of 1873 forbade “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” material in the mail and more and more state legislatures criminalized abortion. Yet before the Comstock Law, physicians specializing in abortions and merchants specializing in abortifacient pills made the practice readily available for women with money. By one estimate, and the trustworthiness of these estimates are debatable, there was one abortion for every five or six live births by the 1840s and 1850s.[vii]

The patent medicines advertised in newspapers to produce abortions would have been difficult for Sarah to procure. She and other women relied on medicine practiced by enslaved midwives, root doctors, and herbalists. Enslaved women used cotton root on plantations before apothecaries began selling it as an abortifacient. In 1860, southern white physicians discussed herbal ways that enslaved women were believed to end pregnancies. The plants included tansy and rue as well as the “roots and seeds of the cotton plant, pennyroyal, cedar berries, and camphor.”[viii]

Patterns of miscarriages caught the attention of slaveowners. In 1855, rumors abounded in eastern Sumter County that the cruelty of overseer Stancil Barwick had resulted in enslaved women losing pregnancies in the field. When John B. Lamar asked his overseer for an explanation, Barwick described two recent miscarriages. A woman named Treaty lost a child, but Barwick said he knew nothing about it. He admitted that Louisine, about five-months pregnant, worked in the cotton fields that July, but he asserted “she was workt as she please[d].” In Barwick’s telling, Louisine came to him and told him she was sick. “I told her to go home,” he said. “She started an[d] on the way she miscarried.” Barwick believed enslaved men had spread these rumors to injure his reputation. He gave no outward indication the women intentionally ended their pregnancies, and the ambiguity of miscarriage provided cover for individual decision making.[ix]

1860 U.S. Census, Mortality Schedule, Sumter County, Georgia.

All methods of ending pregnancy — from physical operations to patent medicines and local plants — came with physical dangers that paralleled the risks of carrying a child to term in the nineteenth century. While we do not know how Sarah decided to end her pregnancy, we do know the outcome. According to information her enslaver gave to the U.S. census worker, Sarah died during an abortion in February 1860.

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As a teacher of public history, I tell students every year about the power of individualizing and localizing “big” history while at the same time contextualizing the lives of everyday people in the past. Sarah was one of 74 deaths reported in Sumter County in the year ending on June 1, 1860. It was far from the only tragedy or the only death that raised more questions than answers. Moreover, like most of the people on the mortality schedule, Sarah has no known, preserved gravestone.

The greatest challenge in writing about Sarah is not how little is known about her. After all, even a name in the 1860 U.S. census set her apart from the vast majority of enslaved people. The challenge is reconstructing the necessary local, regional, and national context without losing—or worse, obscuring—Sarah’s individuality in the process. The risk, though, is worth it because the knowns and unknowns of Sarah’s life and death offer a portal into difficult pasts that resonate far beyond southwest Georgia today.

[i]. 1860 U.S. Census, Sumter County, Georgia, Mortality Schedules, Sarah, pg. 616; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com : accessed May 3, 2022); citing NARA microfilm publication T655, roll 224. In addition to the names of 46 enslaved people, Benjamin Tharp recorded the names of two free people of color, Lucy Wilkinson and Jepthah Sheets, 1860 U.S. Census, 17th and 26th Districts, Sumter County, Georgia, dwellings 49 and 63, families 50 and 64, Lucy Wilkinson and Jepthat Sheets, digital image, Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com : accessed 16 July 2019); citing NARA microfilm publication 653, roll 136.

[ii]. 1860 U.S. Census, Sumter County, Georgia, Mortality Schedules, Sarah, pg. 616; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com : accessed May 3, 2022); citing NARA microfilm publication T655, roll 224. In marking the religious symbolism in her name, I am drawing from Marcus Rediker’s similar observation in The Slave Ship, A Human History (New York: Penguin, 2007), 19–20.

[iii]. Edwin Hergesheimer, “Map showing the distribution of the slave population of the southern states of the United States. Compiled from the census of 1860,” (Washington, D.C.: Henry S. Graham, 1861), Library of Congress; W. E. Burghardt Du Bois “The Negro as He Really Is: A Definite study of One Locality in Georgia Showing the Exact Conditions of Every Negro Family—Their Economic Status—Their Ownership of Land—Their Morals—Their Family Life—The Houses They Live in and the Results of the Mortgage System,” The World’s Work 2 (May-October 1901), 852; U.S. Federal Census, 1840, 1850, 1860, Social Explorer; U.S. Census Bureau; Michael R. Haines. Historical, Demographic, Economic, and Social Data: The United States, 1790-2000; Susan Eva O’Donovan, Becoming Free in the Cotton South (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017), 22-25.

[iv]. Sharla Fett, Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations(Chapel Hill & London: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 20.

[v]. Plantation Book, Box 1, John B. Lamar Papers, MS 131, Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, The University of Georgia Libraries, Athens.

[vi]. There is extensive literature on enslaved women and everyday resistance. See, for starters, the classics Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1985) and Stephanie Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

[vii]. Janet Farrell Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in 19th Century America (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1994), 50. Estimates vary in number and in quality, in part, because of the way they became used as evidence of moral crisis needed greater government regulation in the nineteenth century.

[viii]. Dorothy Sterling, ed., We are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Norton and Norton, 1997), 40.

[ix]. Stancil Barwick to John B. Lamar, July 15, 1855, in Ulrich B. Phillips, ed. Plantation and Frontier Documents: 1649–1863, Illustrative of Industrial History in the Colonial & Ante-Bellum South (3 volumes; Cleveland, OH: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1909), Vol. 2: 312.

Evan Kutzler

Evan Kutzler is Associate Professor of U.S. and Public History at Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus, Georgia. He is the author of Living by Inches: The Smells, Sounds, Tastes, and Feeling of Captivity in Civil War Prisons (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019) and co-author of In Plain Sight: African Americans at Andersonville National Historic Site, A Special History Study (National Park Service, 2020). As a public historian, he consults with cultural organizations and writes for the local paper.

One Reply to “Sarah”

  1. Clear, compelling and highly readable. Beyond the educational and cultural value of this piece, its real impact moved me deeply.
    Could this article be the first time Sarah received public respect? Thank you, Dr. Kützler, for the dignified, truthful telling of part of Sarah’s story. You aren’t only writing history, you are awakening your readers.

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