In what seemed like an open-and-closed case

Genealogy research often leads to unexpected lessons, some of them unrelated to the family at hand. Recently, I had one of those in opening a link to online transcribed court records provided by a reader’s comment at my Orphan George blog.

The item I was checking involved my great-great-great-grandmother, who often turns up in the records with any of three maiden names. I had finally cleared up two of those when I came across a court ruling in which the man I had suspected of being her father was named … and ordered to pay support to the unwed mother of his child. The new link now pointed me to a judicial ruling in which she is a ten-year-old orphan placed under the care of a family whose name she would also go by. So now all three surnames are accounted for.

There are a few other turns before she marries into my line that still baffle me.

~*~

But that wasn’t what popped up when I opened the link. What I wanted was much further down in the file and would take some scrolling.

No, the first item was this:

“State of North Carolina Guilford County At a Court Called and held for the County of Guilford at the Courthouse in the Town of MartinVille on Monday the second day of February AD 1801 for the purpose of Trying a Negroe Man Slave the property of Sally Tait Wilson & relict of John Tait Deceased—”

After naming the judge and attorneys, the entry continues:

“The State of North Carolina vs Jim a Negro Man Slave Charged with having Committed a Rape on the Body of Sally Colscott Wife of Thomas Colscott in her own House about Midknight on the Twenty Ninth day of October AD 1800—

“To which Charge the prisoner plead not Guilty— When the Court directed the Sheriff to call on the Jury and the following persons attended as such—”

The jurors are named.

“Who being Impaneled & Sworn To Try the [word illegible] aforesaid Find the Defendant Guilty in manner & Form as Charged &c The Court proceeded to Judgment and Continued the prisoner to be Hanged on Monday the Seventeenth day of the Instant between the Hours of Twelve & One Oclock PM & the Sheriff of this County is to [word illegible] the said Order or Pentance as aforesaid— John Hamilton Clk”

And that’s it.

You know the outcome from three words – “Negroe,” “Man,” “Rape,” even before getting to “Wife.”

Somehow, the entry wouldn’t let go of me. I kept returning to it.

I’m struck by the implied overwhelming presumption of guilt on his part and of innocence on hers. And that’s before allowing for the widespread supposition of Black male libido and virility.

But wait!

What was Jim doing in the Colscott household in the first place?

My guess was that he was hired out, for cash income, a common practice, which then raises another question:

What was he doing in the house at midnight?

The plot thickens. I doubt he was staying on the property overnight, between shifts, and if he were, it wouldn’t have been in the house but rather a barn a or shed.

Either way, for him, any thought of sexual activity with a white woman would have been terrifying, suicidal, crazed.

So what was he doing inside the house? And where within it? As I recall from other research, most of the dwellings at the time were pretty modest.

Were the Colscotts and Wilsons/Tates neighbors?

Possibly, if Sally Tate was now the wife of Amos Wilson, whose household included two slaves in the 1800 Census. Another neighbor was Caswell Tate, age 16 to 26, with eight slaves and no other members of the household, male or female. I’ll venture he’s her son.

Let’s now look more closely at the four main characters.

Sarah Colscott, the pivotal figure: Sally was the common diminutive for Sarah, who shows up with her estate papers being filed in 1816 in Guilford County.

In the 1800 Census, both she and her husband, Thomas, were at least 45 years old. A male, 16 to 26, and a female, ten to 16, were the other members of the household, likely their children, although hired help would be another possibility. The surname does not appear in the 1790 or 1810 Census.

We don’t know the state of the marital relationship between the Colscotts, but I would at least consider the possibility that she was dissatisfied in it. Jim could have found himself in a no-win situation akin to Biblical Joseph in his sitution with Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:5-40). He could have even been in the house by invitation, with no way to refuse. Discovered by her husband, she may have seen a cry of rape as her best option for saving some semblance of honor.

Thomas Colscott, her offended husban: Where was he in the time leading up to the incident? Asleep in their bed, assuming they shared one, while his wife may have been up, reloading the fire when she chanced upon an intruder – in which case flight rather than sexual assault would have been Jim’s more rational reaction. Or was Thomas getting home from somewhere else, which would seem a likely possibility to me if he were a large slaveholder.

Is Thomas really an injured third party, as we might assume, or are other factors at play? I keep coming back to that midnight hour.

Sally Tait (Tate) Wilson, owner of the Negro Man Slave: I have not found her maiden surname, but in 1801 she was the remarried widow of John Tate, per the court document at hand. (Mr. Wilson’s first name is still undetermined, though I have mentioned Amos. The other slaveholding Wilson in 1800, Andrew, has no white females in her age range.)

In 1775, John Tate is a major in a company of minute-men raised by Guilford County. The 1790 Census lists Widow Tate as head of a household with one white male age 16 or above, two under 16, and four white females plus nine slaves. The other Tate household is Zepheniah, with one white male 16 or older, two white males under 16, and eight white females, plus 11 slaves. In 1800, there were again just two Tate households, as mentioned, and two in 1810, where A. Tate owns four slaves and William, none. Where did the other males go in the interim? As for the shrinking number of slaves?

The picture that emerges is of an elderly woman at the time of the incident. The two Tate households in 1790 owned 20 slaves, which would place them among the larger slaveowners, though not the largest.

The loss of a black male slave would have been a significant economic hit, one sometimes surpassing the assessed value of a white yeomen farmer in the county. I doubt that Sally, her husband, or her son(s) took this injury easily. Were there resentments, even retribution, that followed?

The Wilsons, by the way, were a large, extended family in Guilford County at the time, but in 1800, only four of the households owned slaves, totaling of 14.

Jim, the prisoner: While it took three months for the case to come to court, while he no doubt languished in jail, the execution was swift, 15 days later.

By the way, we have no idea of his age.

~*~

As you can see, I’m left feeling something’s quite fishy here.

What’s your take?

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