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Estimating Ages in LISTS of SLAVES_revised

Estimating Ages in LISTS of SLAVES_revised

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Age of slave howt estimate
Age of slave howt estimate

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Published by: valencia_nelson on May 21, 2011
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ESTIMATING AGES IN LISTS OF SLAVES I find that being able to estimate ages of slaves listed in source records can

help to match people across to other records, and to resolve ambiguities between different lists or sources. Many lists of slaves give no ages, but there are at least two common ways to estimate some ages. One way broadly estimates ages based on appraised values (especially if you have subsequent appraisals to compare and show trends) but I will discuss that method another time. In this post I will describe a way of estimating ages of mothers and children when they are identified and listed together in an inventory, deed, mortgage, or similar property lists. Most records used by researchers are probate records, where the slave owners and their administrators or executors intend to distribute children among heirs, so mothers are usually listed with only their youngest children. Children over age 8 or 10 were often distributed separately, so inventories often list mothers with only their youngest 4 or 5 children. Sometimes the youngest child is listed without a name. Nineteenth century parents sometimes waited a few weeks or months before naming a child to see if it survived early infancy (not wanting to expend a precious family name on a child who would die in infancy). You sometimes see this in the 1870 census when the youngest member of the family is enumerated as "Babe"-the child has not yet been named. In slave lists, where the youngest child is not named, it may be an unnamed newborn--but this is not a rule: perhaps the appraiser did not know the name (or forgot it). Note: Historians are in fairly close agreement about the average age of enslaved women at the birth of their first child, and the average time between live births. Brenda E. Stevenson, Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South (1996), page 246, computes an average time between births, based on slave births in Virginia between the 1760s and 1860, finding “average spacing between live children was 2.4 years.” Stevenson also found the average age of mothers at the birth of their first child was 19.71 years. On her page 404, note 53, Stevenson cites the work of Trusselol and Steckel who calculated “the mean age of first birth ofr slave mothers throughout the antebellum South was 20.6 years.” Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South (revised edition, 1999), pages 97-98, concludes that a typical slave woman had her first child at age 19 and subsequent children two and a half years apart (see also her page 209, note 31, for discussion of findings by other historians). Marie Jenkins Schwartz, Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and medicine in the Antebellum South (2006), page 104, endorses the finding of an average age 20 of enslaved women giving birth to their first child, with subsequent children two and a half years apart. Here is a rule of thumb I use to estimate childrens' birth years. In inventories when enslaved mothers are listed with children, the children are almost invariably listed in descending age order. I estimate two and a half years between births. Two and a half years seems to work in most cases unless there was unusual child mortality (but the records seldom document this) or other interruption. Unless I have other information that alters my assumptions, I assume that children listed with mothers are the youngest children, that they were born two and a half years apart, and that they are listed in descending age order.

Example from Hancock County, Georgia: James Thweatt's will, dated September 1814, gave to his son, Kinchen P. Thweatt, "Critey and four children, George, Mimey, Sinthy & Amos." Using my rule of thumb, I estimate the years of their births: George 1805 or 1806 (if born 2½ years before Mimey) Mimey 1808 (if born 2½ years before Sinthy) Sinthy 1811 (if born 2½ years before Amos) Amos 1813 (the youngest; he has been named, and is probably 6-18 months old) We can test how well my rule of thumb worked on one of Critey's children. Thirty-five years later, Kinchen P. Thweatt died in 1849 and his estate was probated in Upson County, Georgia. He probably had a family Bible or plantation book in which slaves' ages were recorded and consulted by the appraisers, because the ages given in his inventory do not appear to be roundedoff guesses. George is inventoried at 44 years old in April 1849, suggesting he was born 180405. My estimate of his birth year, 1805-06, may have been one or two years off, but was probably good enough as a starting point from which to identify and compare data about George in other records. Can we estimate the ages of enslaved mothers? Women might unusually begin having children as young as age 14, but based on my research in Upson County, the average age for mothers bearing their first living child was 20 years (with most first-time mothers aged between 18-22). This agrees closely with the historians’ findings previously discussed. Thirty-five years after the 1814 inventory cited above, Critey appears again in the inventory of Kinchen P. Thweat's estate in 1849. She is described as 63 years old (born approx 1786), suggesting that she would have been about age 18 or 19 when she had George. George was therefore probably her first child. Wills and probate inventories sometimes give subtle clues (but these are guides, not rules). If the list says "[Name] and her children" the list likely includes all the mother's living children in the possession of the slave owner at that time. If the list says "[Name] and [a number] children" then only the youngest children are listed with the mother -- usually the oldest shown will be about 8 to 10 years old. She may have older children that are being divided and distributed apart. If the list says "[Name] and her youngest child(ren)" then that mother assuredly has older children that are being inventoried apart from her. You may not be able to tell who they are (but see case study at link below). If you think the source record (estate inventory or whatever) shows a complete list of the mother's children, estimate the mother's age at first birth as 20 and add two years for each subsequent child. This will give a rough age that can be compared with other records. For a case study in reconstructing mother-child relationships by comparing probate lists, follow this link to David Paterson's study, "Determining Maternity by Correlating Records of Alpheus Beall's Slaves" at AfriGeneas.com: http://www.afrigeneas.com/library/beall.html

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