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It's been awhile ...

The original letter, transcribed below, resides in the family collection curated by Bill Roberson, a second-great-grandson of Robert and Celia Jefferson. Bill and his daughter, Noel, texted an image of it to me recently, and I was blown away!

New York, August 18, 1847

Dear Sir,

Mr. Jesse Heard of Canton, Miss., requests through a friend a letter to some respectable gentleman in your County for Robert, a colored man of yellow complexion and about 35 years of age, who wishes to his relationship in your county, and return to this City. Mr. Heard is represented to me as a merchant in good standing.

Should Robert stand in need of your protection and assistance you will confer a great favor by affording him your friendly act.

Respectfully Yours,

Lewis Tappan

(A note on the document: Isaac Fouke harkens from Jefferson County, Virginia.)

It is probably the most important find to this point in my piecing together the chronology of Robert’s life. In just 80 words, this letter has revealed to me the enslaver of Robert after the sudden death of John Thomas Dearing, who had inherited Robert from his uncle, Asa Dearing of Wilkes County, Georgia, when he died in 1826.

Jesse Faulkner Heard (1798-1853) was a son of one-time Georgia Gov. Stephen Heard, and likely was a childhood friend of Dearing’s from Wilkes County. I don’t know about his educational career, but I know that in 1835 he took a land grant for 81 acres of former Choctaw land in Hinds County, Mississippi.

At the same time, Dearing entered into a land grant in Madison County, on the northwest border of Hinds. Within a year or so, Dearing and Heard became business partners in Canton, where Dearing had purchased a commercial building on North Street from Silas Catching. They were merchants, and the company also was described as a “counting house” in an advertisement announcing that Silas’s brother, Dr. Thomas J. Catchings [enslaver of Celia, Lucy, and Georgiana] would set up his practice in the same building.

Heard and law associate S.D. Livingston, at one time clerk of Madison County Circuit Court, were named administrators of Dearing’s estate, which wasn’t completely settled until after 1850.

So, it makes a lot of sense that Robert would have ended up with the Heard family.

The document also proves that Robert Jefferson, while enslaved, was able to travel around the country on his own. Not only was he going back to Charles Town to visit his relatives, he was also supposed to travel from there back up to New York City. For what purpose, we can only speculate.

A Connection to Yet Another Prominent Man

New York City abolitionist Lewis Tappan

The biggest “aha” moment was reading the name of the man who signed this document. While he had, at first, been a supporter of the American Colonization Society, which promoted sending freed Blacks to Liberia in Africa, in 1833 Tappan joined abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison to form the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Around the time that Tappan wrote this letter in support of Robert Jefferson, he had written a 74-page treatise called “Address to the Non-Slaveholders of the South,” in which he lays out the argument that the institution of slavery only existed to that day because they, those without wealth and influence in the South, were guilty of perpetuating it themselves.

Not because they were able to own human property, but because they accepted it, at most, and did nothing to stop it at the ballot box, at the very least.

“When an infant will bring one hundred, and a man from four hundred to a thousand dollars in the market, slaves are not commodities to be found in the cabins of the poor. You are moreover award that the great capitalists of the South have their wealth chiefly invested in plantations and slaves, and not as with us in commerce and manufactures.”

Basically, he goes on to explain that cities in the North were growing because there were job opportunities in factories and farming that couldn’t exist in the South. And that makes sense. Why would anyone start any kind of business in which they would have to hire paid labor?

Today’s issues involving race have carried over to modern politics in spite of Emancipation, because poor whites have been brainwashed into thinking that they would lose out if Blacks or other marginalized minorities were allowed the same opportunities as them. This is evident in terms of “redlining,” which prevented Blacks from financing their own mortgages and business enterprises through bank loans. Sure, whites weren’t legally kept from obtaining financial loans, but it’s far more difficult to get such loans when you don’t have any money to start with.

Playing “keep-away” from nonwhite minorities has done nothing to help whites living in impoverished towns, cities, or regions. Another example I've read of recently: After desegregation, rather than allowing Black children to swim in municipal-owned swimming pools, many towns and cities opted to close the pools altogether.

This group has always voted against its own self-interests simply because of this racism that seems to have been engrained into the nucleus of every cell in their bodies. Poor white kids who live in mostly Black neighborhoods suffer the same disadvantages, such as underfunded schools and lack of health care or fresh food, simply because it’s been the policy of local and state governments to ensure these things can only exist in wealthy white communities.

I will probably write more about Tappan as I read up on him. I think most of what he says in the “Address” is completely relevant to every problem our society is dealing with in the 21st century.

So, Did Tappan actually know Robert?

That is, for the purposes of this post, the $64,000 question. I have long held the idea that Robert was actually active in the work of the Underground Railroad. That comes from his comments in the 1879 Indianapolis Journal article about having gone up to Canada for a couple of years after bringing Celia and the girls to Lancaster, Indiana, and enrolling them in Eleutherian College. But I also believe this because of the people he was associated with toward the end of his life in Indianapolis, many of whom were involved in the anti-slavery movement.

In a very subtle way, this letter by Tappan seems to give that hypothesis some credence beyond my own “intuition” about Robert’s travels. I would be very interested to know who was the person who contacted Tappan on behalf of Jesse Heard, and who or why did the recipient of that letter recommend Isaac Fouke. Fouke, by the way, at one time owned the house in Charles Town built by Edward Christian, where Robert Jefferson was born.

Fouke, himself, was a prominent citizen who would serve in the Virginia House of Delegates later in life, and as mayor of Harper’s Ferry, leaving that office in 1859, just before the John Brown Raid at the armory there in October of that year.

Elizabeth Shown Mills always pushes fellow genealogists to look at a person’s “FAN Club,” by researching a person’s friends, associates, and neighbors. There is no better way to really get to know the person whose life is being researched.

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Great info!

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