Handsell Enslaved Database Finds the Forgotten

Handsell Historic Site is more than a lovely, small historic park to visit, with its native longhouse and garden, historic house and Nature Walk. Never intending to create a museum, the Nanticoke Historic Preservation Alliance (NHPA) from the very beginning of the Handsell restoration efforts believed that the significance of this property lay in the history of three cultures who lived there. It is a place where skills, traditions, foodways, music and lives of Native People, Africans and Europeans mingled and merged to create the uniquely American experience we know of today.

During COVID down-time, NHPA volunteer researchers have focused their efforts on creating the Handsell Enslaved Database, recently released last month on its website for African American History Month.

The team of Midge Ingersoll and Betsy Malkus (NHPA Trustees) and volunteers Elaine McGill (of Georgia and a descendant of Dorchester County enslaved) and Tommy Price (of Annapolis, with a degree in history) have spent the last several months transcribing Wills, Chattel and Land Records, historic family letters and manumission documents to search for the names and ages of any and all enslaved persons connected with the early Rider-Billings-Steele and John C. Henry families of Dorchester County and Annapolis. These related families were slave owners associated with the Handsell property. Nineteenth century owners of Handsell are also included in the research, as they all held enslaved people.

In this unique database, every name is recorded along with pertinent details on his or her life, wherever they can be found. Age, slave owner names, manumission dates if applicable, sources of all information and a transcript or description of any event pertaining to their lives, including any relation to another individual, if found. Then the list is carefully reviewed for possible family connections. Sometimes it is possible to follow an enslaved person from location of birth through any movement between the slave owning family, their own children and siblings. In a few cases, when manumission papers or Wills and Probate documents mention a last name for the enslaved, it is possible to find them in later census with families of their own, and even as landowners after the Civil War.

This process of finding a forgotten person is called “building a life.” Starting with 18th and early 19th century slave inventories, where only a name and age are given, and after extensive searching, it is possible to identify the person in later life, tract his/her movements and slowly watch a life story emerge.

As an example, young Moses, age 10, was listed in James Steele’s 1806 inventory. At that point he might have been held at Handsell or at “The Point” in Cambridge. His story might have ended there without more research. However, a later Will mentions Moses was “raised on the Eastern Shore.” At some point, James Steele and his wife Mary Nevett Steele, give (or loan) Moses to their son James B. Steele and his wife Milcah Gale Steele who lived at the Eldon plantation on the Choptank River.

On December 22, 1826, Milcah writes to her sister-in-law Catherine Steele Ray in Annapolis, “…with regards to your plan of giving him (their other brother Henry Maynadier Steele) Moses  as a pupil, I fear it would only end in disappointment as unluckily Dorcas (another enslaved person) and Moses are on very bad terms, so that it would to be apprehended, that he would learn more of spite and ill will from her, than he would get good from him…However it will serve to amuse you dear Catherine, to teach him yourself, and as he is a smart boy I hope he will reward your care.”

This demonstrates that the family was willing to educate Moses, an enslaved man, unusual for the times and that he had some relationship with Dorcas. Moses is next mentioned in the Will of Mary N. Steele, who gives instructions that Moses Mowbray should “be given” to her daughter Catherine Steele Ray for a period of three years at which time “he must be free.” Assuming Mary’s wishes were carried out, that indicates that Moses (now with a last name of Mowbray) was freed in about 1839-40.

A scan of the original letter from December 22, 1826, supports that Mary N. Steele advises her daughter Catherine about educating Moses. The letter is from the Collection of Letters of the Nanticoke Historic Preservation Alliance.

Fast forward to the 1860 Federal Census and we find Moses Mowbray, age 65, in Trappe, Talbot County, living with his wife Eliza, age 50, daughter Mary, age 14, and son Moses, age 9. The good news is he is a farmer owning land valued at $500, with a personal estate of $100 ($600 would be worth $20,154.36 in today’s dollar). He was not wealthy by any means, but he was building a life. The final goal now is to connect Moses to any living descendants. Because of the work of the Nanticoke Historic Preservation Alliance, any descendants who connect through his children Mary or Moses Mowbray will be able to trace generations back to young Moses, born enslaved in 1795.

There is much work to be done, and most of the names on the database will unfortunately remain just names and ages, as their story was not found or never recorded for posterity. But for the few who can be discovered, meaningful results will give some Maryland African Americans a chance to uncover their family history. And that is what makes all the work worthwhile.

The data base can be located on the Handsell website at www.restorehandsell.org. Families who recognize any names on the list are asked to contact restorehandsell@gmail.com. Handsell may also be found at www.facebook.com/handsellhouse.

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