This post was written by Julia Lipkins, Reference Archivist, Manuscript Department.
Archival collections from the Revolutionary War period are thick with stories of soldiers and generals, their battles won and lost. Although less evident, collections of this era also contain documentation of what President Obama recently described as the “nation’s original sin,”[i] i.e. the institution of slavery. I recently examined the papers of Horatio Gates (1728-1806), a general in the Continental Army, who defeated the British at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. The collection provides an intimate view of American political and military maneuvers throughout the Revolutionary War and includes extensive correspondence with Benedict Arnold, John Burgoyne, George Washington, and others. A few documents in the collection also offer a fleeting glance at the institution of slavery as practiced by Gates and his contemporaries.
On March 15, 1773, Gates purchased an estate in Berkeley County, Virginia (now Jefferson County, West Virginia), which he named, Traveller’s Rest. A few days later, Gates acquired a slave named Nace. The receipt for Nace, which is torn in half and therefore only partially legible, was found in a folder of household bills, tucked in between invoices for a “copper kettle” and “leather britches.” It appears that Nace was purchased from a man named Daniel Beard for £90.
There is no mention of Daniel Beard or Nace prior to the sale in 1773. Gates received other offers to purchase slaves, most notably from Samuel Washington, a land speculator, local government official, and younger brother of George Washington. On March 13th, 1774, almost a year after Nace was purchased, Samuel Washington offered to sell Gates a family of slaves in order to mitigate his financial difficulties. Washington wrote:
The late Disappointmt. I have mett with in Respect to money Matters. will Oblige me to sell some Negros in Order to Answer present Purposes. Therefore if you are Inclin’d to purchase any more of the Colour. will lett you have a fellow his wife & Child. The man is about 23 or four years of Age & do believe is Equal at either axe or hoe, to any Negro in the Colony. his wife is about 17 years of Age was bro’t up under the care of Mrs. Washington from a very small Girl. & Sews. spins on the flax & other Wheels & Acquainted w.th all sorts of Business about the House…
There is no evidence that Gates purchased the slaves from Washington. However, just a few years later in 1776, Nace’s fate would lie in Washington’s hands. According to a 1938 article by historian John W. Wayland, Nace was arrested for stealing from Gates and convicted by Washington, who was then sheriff of Berkeley County. According to Wayland’s research, Washington and his fellow “gentlemen justices” sentenced Nace to his death:
On November 20, 1776, gentlemen justices present Samuel Washington, John Coke, Godwin Swift, Robert Worthington, and Morgan Morgan, Negro Nace, a slave belonging to General Horatio Gates, in gaol accused of breaking open the cellar of the said General Gates and feloniously taking from thence a “Chest Money and Cloaths,” was brought before the bar. When he was asked whether he was guilty or not guilty, “He says he is guilty.” It was therefore the judgment of the court that he be remanded back to gaol and that he continue therein till the third Friday in December next, and then be hanged by the neck “till he is dead.” Nace was valued at 70 pounds, which sum was to be paid to his master, General Gates.[ii]
At the time of the judgment, Gates was serving in the Continental Army, likely in Ticonderoga or Albany. The charges were perhaps brought by a family member or employee at Traveller’s Rest. I did not find any correspondence, to or from Gates, which mentioned Nace or Washington’s sentence. It is unclear when and how Gates learned of the trial, and if he ever received the compensation of “seventy pounds” for Nace’s death. Washington would die five years later, with longstanding debts owed to his brother, George.[iii]
Gates continued to own slaves at Traveller’s Rest until he moved to New York City in September 1790. At the time, it was purported that Gates emancipated his remaining slaves upon his relocation. In 1837, the Anti-Slavery Record, an abolitionist publication, distributed an account of Gates in which he, “summoned his numerous family and slaves about him, and amidst their tears of affection and gratitude, gave them their freedom.” [iv] Although a heartfelt narrative, the account was later disputed by author Paul David Nelson. In General Horatio Gates: A Biography, published in 1976, Nelson wrote that Gates sold his slaves, along with other household possessions to John Mark, the new owner of Traveller’s rest:
The general sold Traveller’s Rest, along with all his livestock and household utensils to John Mark, a close friend. Although he was to receive much praise for freeing his slaves at the time, in actual fact he sold the Negroes to Mark for £800. In an agreement with the purchaser, Gates stipulated that six older Negroes be freed after five years’ service and eleven younger ones upon reaching the age of twenty-eight.”[v]
Nelson claimed that Gates’ agreement with Mark was motivated by economics, rather than altruism. Gates, like many of America’s founding fathers, helped to deliver the country from British oppression, all the while propagating America’s “original sin.”
[i] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in Eulogy for the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney,” White House Office of the Press Secretary, June 26, 2015, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/06/26/remarks-president-eulogy-honorable-reverend-clementa-pinckney
[ii] John W. Wayland, “Colonel Samuel Washington,” Americana 32 (1938): 320-323.
[iii] “George Washington’s Last Will and Testament, 9 July 1799,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-04-02-0404-0001 [last update: 2015-06-29]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, vol. 4, 20 April 1799 – 13 December 1799, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999, pp. 479–511. George Washington forgave Samuel’s debt in his will.
[iv] The American Anti-Slavery Society, “Horatio Gates,” The Anti-Slavery Record 3 (1838): 173.
[v] Paul David Nelson. General Horatio Gates: A Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisana State University Press, 1976), 287-288.