Life and Death in Slavery

Celia: A Slave

by Melton A. McLaurin
University of Georgia Press, 148 pp., $19.95

On occasion, as with the two excellent books under review, a gifted historian may discover a remarkable story about ordinary people that illuminates the laws, themes, and disputes of history. This interplay between private lives and public events enables the reader, who knows in retrospect how the official scroll of time will unfold, to recapture the contingency of the past, to enter a world when, for example, no one could predict how long the Fugitive Slave Law would be in effect or know whether Kansas would become the next slave state.

Robert Newsom and Edward Gorsuch, the murdered slaveholders who are the subject of the books by Melton A. McLaurin and Thomas P. Slaughter, were not owners of great plantations but rather presided over prosperous family farms. Gorsuch ruled a homestead in Baltimore County, Maryland, that had belonged to his family for nearly two centuries. Between 1819 and 1822 Newsom and his family had migrated from Virginia to the new slave state of Missouri, where they had settled in the rich river bottom lands of Callaway County, due west of St. Louis and almost precisely in the center of the state. In 1850 Newsom was sixty years old, Gorsuch fiftyfive. Both were fathers of grown children and were respected members of their border state communities. McLaurin’s portrait of Newsom as “the self-sufficient yeoman farmer,” “the fulfillment of the Jeffersonian dream” applies equally well to Edward Gorsuch.

Neither Newsom nor Gorsuch was rich, but for both of them a lifetime of hard work and shrewd management had brought satisfying rewards. Newsom’s farming region was noted for its healthy herds of livestock and its impressive crops of wheat, rye, corn, and oats. In 1850 Newsom owned, in addition to his eight hundred acres of land, eighteen horses, six milch cows, twenty-seven beef cattle, seventy pigs, twenty-five sheep, and two oxen. Gorsuch owned twelve horses, fifty pigs, thirty sheep, some forty cows, and flocks of chickens and ducks. Both Newsom and Gorsuch had been able to provide opportunities and advantages to their children. Even in 1855, when Newsom was sixty-five and a widower, he shared his house with two daughters who were nineteen and thirty-six, to say nothing of the latter’s four children, who ranged in age from twelve to four.

These family farmers, almost archetypal of the mid-nineteenthcentury American, one a western “pioneer,” the other a settled native of the East and a “class leader” in the local Methodist Episcopal church, seem far removed from the popular image of the cotton-growing slaveholder. Yet in 1850, 36 percent of the slave labor force had nothing to do with cotton cultivation; 43 percent lived on plantations or farms with fifteen or fewer slaves. Edward Gorsuch owned twelve slaves including four young adult field hands. Robert Newsom owned five male slaves including a five-year-old boy. Then, in 1850, he purchased a girl named Celia, who was about fourteen, the same age as his own youngest child, Mary. There was nothing unusual …

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Letters

Wounds April 23, 1992