can someone of this century-in this country-truly understand what
Try explaining what Southerners used to call the "Peculiar Institution"
to your child or grandchild: "Well, a slave was someone owned by
someone else." The next part of this simplified definition would
be, "That person did anything their master wanted them to because
they owned them and could punish them if they didn't do what they
A better way to comprehend slavery is to read some of the official
paperwork filed away in the courthouses
of Texas counties that existed before the Civil War and the
freedom for blacks that followed in 1865. (Of course, President
Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863 but
the Confederate states were not inclined to oblige until after their
defeat in the Civil War.)
fewer than two decades from the time Stephen
F. Austin first brought Anglo colonists to the Mexican province
of Texas, the lower Colorado and Brazos rivers were lined with cotton
plantations. Slavery supplied the labor pool that made those farming
operations profitable. By 1845, newly admitted to the Union, Texas
had an estimated 30,000 slaves. That was more than 25 per cent of
the state's population.
Someone owning more than 20 slaves was considered prosperous. Planter
John W. Myers of Wharton
County fit that category. But money could not buy health.
On Nov. 29, 1846, "being weak in body, but of sound mind," Myer
wrote his last will and testament.
The second paragraph of that document covers the routine legal requirements
of someone's last wishes, including the author's appointment of
his son and another county resident as executors of his estate.
It is the third paragraph of the instrument that stands out like
a chicken snake trying to hide in a bag of freshly-picked cotton:
"I give to my yellow woman slave, Maria, her freedom and also to
the children which she may have at my death or hereafter and hereby
emancipate her and her offspring. So long as the said slave resides
on my plantation, I desire she may be comfortably supported and
when she desires to remove to any other state than Texas, I will
that she may be furnished sufficient money to bear her there."
Many a good novel has less of a story line than those 73 words,
especially considering that Myers owned 38 other slaves whom he
did not mention in his will. Why did Myers choose to free only one
of his chattel humans?
Myers could have answered the question, of course, but he died in
early 1847. The date of his death was not noted in the official
paperwork that followed it, but his will was filed for probate on
January 17 of that year. A month later, an inventory of his estate
showed that Myers had died a wealthy man by the standards of the
But of his total net worth of $15,030, the value of his land and
possessions (land, livestock, corn, cotton, utensils, a gold watch,
a shotgun and a rifle) amounted to only $4,900. The rest of his
assets were human beings, ranging in listed value from $600 each
for two men, 30-year-old Joe and 28-year-old Grant (slaves had no
last names) to $50 for an infant girl named Mary.
The inventory listed the value of women with children, someone like
Maria, as ranging from $300 to $375.
Whatever happened to Maria is unknown, but wherever she ended up,
she died free.