Wills, Property and Slave Returns

Slave Return for 1817 from Ancestry.co.uk

I have commented before on how useful Wills can be in establishing family relationships, highlighting people one had missed when searching parish records, and filling in background on where a family was and when.

Following the piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Samuel Felsted I have done some further research on his family. His sister Mary, who married Stephen Cooke in Kingston in 1782, outlived her husband by a quarter of a century dying in Bethnal Green, London in 1843 at the age of ninety-three. Her Will is here.

Several branches of the family had settled in London, but Samuel’s youngest son John Lawrence (or Laurence) Felsted probably died in Jamaica, although we know from his Will that he owned a house in London. John’s sister Sarah also died in London and we know from her Will that she owned property in Kingston.

When John Lawrence Felsted died in about 1821 he left property to his two children Justina Frances and Samuel James. This included a house in Church Street, Kingston; a store in Water Lane (convenient for the harbour front) and a Penn in the parish of St Catherine. In August 1820 John had sworn an affidavit on his slave return that in June of that year he had owned three slaves. Only two are named – eleven year old Henry, a creole ‘sambo’, and seventeen year old Betsey a creole ‘negroe’ both of whom appear to have been passed on to John by his mother Margaret Mary Felsted. In 1817 she had been in possession of thirteen slaves, in 1823 this number had reduced to six. Betsey was still enslaved in 1832, the return then being sworn by the attorney for the Executors of John Lawrence Felsted, whose name incidentally was Justinn Nelson which suggests that John’s daughter Justina may have been named after him.

John’s sister Sarah was also a slave owner, the return for 1817 showing her as having a twenty-nine year old negro creole slave called Cassander and her three sons, Richard, John Walker and William aged twelve, two and four months respectively. She also owned a twenty-one year old African negro woman called Ellen. Sarah was listed as owning Ellen outright, but as having a one-sixth share of Cassander and her children. She shared ownership with  C.Dawson, S.M.Robertson (her sisters) S.M.Fry of London, J.L.Felsted and J.F.Fry ‘an infant of this Island’. All these are descendants of Samuel Felsted and although I have not seen his Will it is reasonable to suppose ownership of Cassander was passed to his children by Samuel. It is possible this list also provides evidence that Ann Cooke Felsted, who married Joseph Fry, had died before 1817 since S.M.Fry and J.F.Fry referred to are her children.

The information from the slave registers for Jamaica can be viewed on Ancestry for the years 1817, 1820, 1823, 1826, 1829, 1832 and 1834 (you do need to be a subscriber to view them). The registers were compiled following the abolition of the slave trade in order to try to ensure that the trade was not being continued.

Returns had to list not only slaves owned, but the changes in numbers since the previous return due to deaths of any slaves or the birth of new ones. Usually in addition to the name and sex of the person, their age and racial mix is given together with whether they were ‘creole’, that is born in Jamaica. I have seen one who was listed as American.

These documents may be one of the few ways someone with ancestors who were enslaved has of finding out about them, and of course they also tell us something about their owners.

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of all the Jamaican Wills of the eighteenth century is the way in which slaves are routinely listed as property alongside stock, horses, carriages and all the paraphernalia of the plantation or merchant business. Just occasionally a named individual is able to stand out, perhaps through manumission or the gift of a small legacy, but too often by being passed on, still enslaved, to a new owner.

6 thoughts on “Wills, Property and Slave Returns”

  1. Frances

    Fascinating (and somewhat chilling). As ever, a good read, thanks.
    I sometimes wish my lot weren’t (the earlier ones, anyway) illiterate peasants and labourers – it would make finding them easier.

    1. Anne M Powers Post Author

      Thanks, Frances, the Scottish side of my family run into the sand at the end of the eighteenth century for the same reasons. And yes it is chilling. The worst one I know of, which I think I have written about before is the man who left four salt-water slave children to his own small son requiring them to be branded with his initials! The best that could be said about it was that they were to be taught a trade and so were probably spared work on the plantations.

  2. Marjorie

    You only need to register will ancestry.com to view the slave registers – you do not have to subscribe. So you can view them for free.

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