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Detail of the “Inventory of slaves stock &c. in the estate of the late Col. Richard Barnes,” May 15, 1804. John Thomson Mason Account Book, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
Detail of the “Inventory of slaves stock &c. in the estate of the late Col. Richard Barnes,” May 15, 1804. John Thomson Mason account book, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

A New Look at an Old Ledger Reveals Stories About African-American History

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In 1936, the Library of Congress bought a group of six eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ledgers from a Pennsylvania rare book dealer. The accession record for these describes them as: “Account books of iron works, etc., Maryland, 1745-1835.” One of them is described as “ledger of John Thomson Mason, Maryland, 1802-1835.” The dealer must have bundled Mason’s ledger with the others because, like them, it was a piece of Maryland history. Unlike them, however, it has nothing to do with ironworks. The Library paid $29 for it, approximately $650 in today’s money.

The Library must have calculated that the ledger was worth this outlay because John Thomson Mason (1765-1824) was a relatively prominent figure. He was a lawyer, Maryland state legislator, and in 1806, he briefly served as Maryland’s attorney general. He served as U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia while Thomas Jefferson was president, and in 1805 he turned down an offer from Jefferson to serve as Attorney General of the United States. He was also the nephew of Revolutionary-era statesman George Mason (1725-1792). However, a close look at the ledger shows that it is valuable for an entirely different reason. It turns out to be a significant and previously overlooked source of African-American history.

In 1804, Mason inherited a plantation, Montpelier, in Washington County, Maryland (not far from the Pennsylvania border, which may explain how the ledger ended up with a Pennsylvania book dealer) from another uncle, his mother’s brother, Richard Barnes. In his will, Barnes established a path to free, three years after his death, Montpelier’s enslaved workforce, “whose melancholy situation I have long deplored,” and asked his executor to employ them, assist them, and allow them to live as tenants on the plantation. He also set paternalistic conditions: they were to “behave themselves well,” and “be responsible for the support of the young, aged and infirm whilst their situation may require it.” Seventy-six people became eligible for freedom with Barnes’s death in 1804.

Even as he fulfilled the terms of Barnes’s will regarding the people his uncle had enslaved, Mason continued to buy, sell, and rent out the labor of others. The ledger’s more than 550 pages include details about their lives, along with the business records of Montpelier, a working farm, from 1802 to 1835 (the records postdating Mason’s death in 1824 are in the hand of “John D. Dutton, a tutor,” according to a note with the ledger).

Most of the ledger consists of account pages for the people with whom Mason did business: weavers, blacksmiths, wagonmakers, coopers, millers, a stocking knitter, laborers, sellers of goods for use on the farm. Among these are people identified in the index and the account pages as “(Negro),” some or all of whom were presumably among the group freed by Barnes. Typical of these is a man identified in the ledger (page 92) as “Fidler Bill (Negro).” In 1808 Mason supplied Bill and his wife Polly with cash, cloth, salt, corn, and a pig. Bill paid Mason for these with his and his wife’s labor. The account is in his name only, since, as a freeman, he was entitled to his wife’s earnings. For women, regardless of race, freedom had its limits.

Account page for Fidler Bill, 1808-1809, p. 92. John Thomson Mason account book, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
Account page for Fidler Bill, 1808-1809, p. 92. John Thomson Mason account book, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Interspersed with the account pages are cash records documenting Mason’s sales and purchases. On one of these (page 67), he records the sale of thirty-four people, mostly children, between 1807 and 1808.

At the back of the ledger, where the pages are unnumbered, is a list headed: “Inventory of slaves stock &c. in the estate of the late Col. Richard Barnes in Washington County on the 15th May 1804.” It includes names, ages, and deaths, and mentions “papers,” for some – probably a reference to the legal papers that “manumitted,” or freed them. Unheaded lists on several subsequent pages also seem to refer to the people freed by Barnes, as well as others still enslaved. These note names, ages, family relationships in some cases, and indicate some who were sold. Also at the back of the book are lists recording the names and ages of enslaved people Mason hired out to work for others in 1806 and 1807. There are, in addition, scrawled notes on the endpapers of the ledger with additional information about the operation of the farm and the people who worked on it.

“Inventory
“Inventory of slaves stock &c. in the estate of the late Col. Richard Barnes in Washington County on the 15th May 1804,” n.p., John Thomson Mason account book, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Mason’s Montpelier ledger is more than two hundred years old, and in that time nothing in it has changed. What has changed is its meaning and function: originally a business record, then a document from the life of an early American political figure, now the ledger has taken on an additional layer of meaning as a source of information about lives shaped by slavery in Maryland at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

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“accession record…” Manuscript Division accession 5303, April 28, 1936. Accession records, created by division staff when collections arrive at the Library, contain acquisition information about each incoming collection.

“today’s money…” To calculate what $29 in 1936 is worth today, I used the CPI Inflation Calculator on the website of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: https://www.bls.gov.

“John Thomson Mason (1765-1824)…” Biographical information about John Thomson Mason is in Archives of Maryland (Biographical Series), Maryland State Archives. Additional biographical details about Mason can be gleaned from his correspondence with Thomas Jefferson in Jefferson’s papers at the Library of Congress and in the published edition of Jefferson’s papers on Founders Online.

“Montpelier…” The story about Montpelier, Richard Barnes, his will, and the people it freed is in “Montpelier, circa 1790, Clear Spring, MD,” Washington County, Maryland, Historical Trust.

“In his will…” Quotations from Barnes’s will come from “Montpelier, circa 1790.”

“entitled to his wife’s earnings…” For the laws that governed a husband’s ownership of his wife’s earnings, see Marylynn Salmon, Women and the Law of Property in Early America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986). See also, Julie Miller, “Tobacco Lords and Virginia Women in the Records of John Glassford and Company,” “Unfolding History,” May 18, 2023.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this excellent reminder of the layers of information we may find in historical manuscripts, helpful clues that point us in new directions! Each age will indeed see new things with new eyes.

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