Wednesday, September 23, 2015

"Massas" in Missouri: Aaron Fray and Wesley Green

There are so many unknowns about our ancestors' lives.  We can imagine. We can do our best to learn about the times and places they lived in, or the famous events they participated in, or the people they might have known.  Sometimes we can learn from letters or diaries what other people at the time  were doing and thinking, but usually, the best we can come up with is a couple of names and dates, especially the farther back you go.  Once in awhile, though, you get surprised with something great--a STORY!

That's why I was so excited to find not one, but TWO great stories concerning these 5x great grandfathers of mine from my Ely side, contemporaries and in-laws, Aaron Fray (1776-1854) and Wesley Green (1795-1871).

I don't have many Southerners in my family tree.  A few Virginians who later moved north.  A few Kentuckians who later moved north.  The Frays were in Virginia, and Greens in Maryland, then both families moved to Kentucky, then ended up in Missouri.  That's moving north, right?  Well, in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s Missouri was a pretty rough place to live, with a pretty raw and violent mix of peoples and ideologies.  In 1821 it was admitted as a slave state as part of the Missouri Compromise.  (Maine was admitted as a free state to keep things fair, and I had some family up there too at the time, the Philbrooks and Hardys, but we'll talk about them another day.)

The Frays and the Greens lived in the Howard/Randolph county area of Missouri, which borders the Missouri River and lands smack in the middle of the state.  (For those of you interested in the Mormon War in Missouri in the late 1830s, never fear, as far as I can tell these families were not near or involved in the area around Independence.)  The area was settled mostly by Southerners from Kentucky and Virginia, and those Southerners brought their slaves and plantation ways.  By the 1860 census, slaves accounted for 25% of the population in Howard County.  (wikipedia.)

It turns out that both Aaron and Wesley were slaveholders.  Do we have any indication of what kind of masters they were?  (I know you are all crossing your fingers and hoping they were nice.)  Well, I think I have some answers for you.

First Wesley Green.  He was the younger of the two men and lived through the Civil War.  A Methodist Episcopalian (whose church was burned at the beginning of the war.)  He moved to Missouri with some of his brothers (also slaveholders) in the 1820s. He outlived his daughter Miranda who married Aaron's son Henry Fray.  With a generic last name like Green, I wasn't hoping to find much information about the family, but it turns out that Wesley's name shows up in a very interesting list in The History of Chariton and Howard Counties published in (full text on Google Books, pg. 279).

The list is a list of "Colored Recruits from Howard County", SLAVES who enlisted to fight in the Civil War--for the UNION!  The list is 3 pages long!

It includes:
Ollie, owned by Wesley Green
Harrison, owned by Wesley Green
Polk, owned by Wesley Green.

The author of the history includes this explanation:
 "One of the most remarkable facts connected with the history of those times--a fact showing the astonishing credulity of the people--was the belief that the institution of slavery would either remain intact, or that the owners of slaves would be compensated for their loss."
So, although I don't know the fate of any of these slave recruits, (there's a research project for someone...) I do know that by the end of the war, they would no longer have been listed as "owned by Wesley Green"!  I also know that they probably worked in manual labor instead of out and out fighting, so perhaps their lives did not seem that different.

Hopefully Wesley was the type of master who allowed them to fight because it was their wish, not forced them to enlist in his stead, against their wish, as a show of patriotism.

On to Aaron Fray. I don't know how well Wesley and Aaron knew each other (if at all) before their children were married in 1839.  Aaron was a Virginian, and we know something very notable about his time there--he worked at one time as a contractor for one of the most famous Virginians of all--Thomas Jefferson!  This was in 1820, and apparently was some ditch work for the construction of the University of Virginia (founded 1819).  Of course, as a 45 year old slaveholder, it is likely that he used his "subs". Another researcher, Ms. Mertens, on has written a short biography of Aaron Fray and includes the contract written by Jefferson.  (The original is housed at the University of Virginia.)

Around 1824, Aaron and his wife Lucy moved to Missouri.  Aaron was Lutheran and raised sheep. 

Now for a real treat--and I am so amazed to have come across this.  In 1933 a 97 year old woman named Mrs. Jennie Hill was interviewed for the local paper and was printed in the Wichita Eagle.  She was a former slave, and her master was none other than Aaron Fray!

 (As shared by Kate Machill on  The article was also later published in Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies, by John Blassingame, 1977.)

 Jennie Hill, interviewed 1933 in Kansas by Florence Patton. Age: ninety-six, b. 1837, Missouri. Enslaved: Missouri.
Slavery days replete with stories of cruelty and inhuman treatment heaped on the faithful slaves by a crucifying master, stories intensified by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” are fast becoming mere legends to the younger generation, studied once and then forgotten in the humdrum of daily life.
But to Mrs. Jennie Hill, 633 North Water, mother of the late Robert Hill, for many years head waiter at the Wichita Club and well known to every business man, slavery days are real. For Mrs. Hill was born in slavery nearly 96 years ago.
Today Mrs. Hill lives in a modest home, she read of modern improvements and takes and interest in leading political situations, but her heart and thoughts are wont to turn back to the days of her girlhood, back to the slave days when her owner was “Massa” and his wife was the “Missus.”
Seated in the living room of her home at 633 North Water with her gray hair combed becomingly back from her slender face and dressed in black in mourning for her son, Mrs. Hill went back through her store of memories and brought out bits of her life before Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, opening to them a new world of they had never dreamed.
Mrs. Hill was 27 years old at the close of the Civil war, was married and had three children, who also were born to slavery.
Looking back to her slavery days Mrs. Hill has much for which to be thankful. Her father and mother were owned by Aaron Fray, a small land owner in Howard county, near Boonville, Missouri. His slaves consisted of this couple who had served the Frays before him [Aaron's parents, John and Rebecca Fray], the 11 children of which Mrs. Hill was the oldest, and an uncle of Mrs. Hill's who was also an old servant in the family. But here let us have Mrs. Hill tell her own story of her experiences in slavery.
"I can remember back to the time when I was a child maybe about five years old. We didn't have the cotton fields in Missouri that are somehow associated with all slaves.
"Massa Fray raised sheep instead of cotton and as soon as I was old enough to work my mother taught me to weave cloth. Then I learned to sew. I helped with the housework, worked on the farm, chopped wood and did everything that other slaves did as soon as my strength permitted.
"But all the work was not without pay. The pay was not in money, of course, but it was in kindness for Massa Fray was the best man that ever owned a nigger. His missus was kind and his children were good to me. They even taught me to read and when I could master a few words I was the proudest little pickaninny in all Missouri.
"Few slaves ever learned to read or write. Schools for slaves of course were not thought of. We were just like so many animals and in many of the plantations the animals were treated far better than the 'niggers.' My mother was also taught to read and maybe write a little. Anyway I know just how old I am for the date of my birth was written down in the Bible. That is something a very few of the remnant of slaves know. They guess at their ages for their ignorant mothers had no way of recording their birth.
"In the 27 years I served my master as a slave I got but two whippings. That in itself speaks for the kindness of the master. Both of these whippings were for little things. In my missus' bedroom was a box where my Sunday best dress and bonnet were kept. Sunday I went to church with her and always after church I had to take them off and lay them out carefully in the box. Guess I must have got in a hurry this one Sunday for I hadn’t been out in the yard long until I heard her call ‘Jen, come in here! Haven’t I always told you to lay your dress and bonnet out straight. Look in there.’
“I looked. The bonnet and the dress were a wrinkled mess. The missus had a switch under her apron and she brought it out and laid it over my legs without ceremony.
“My second and last whipped was sometime later and was given to me by massa’s daughter. She had told me not to go to a party some of the folks were having that night. After awhile massa asked me why I didn’t go and when I told him I had been told to stay at home he said, ‘Lawsy, Jen, who owns you anyway? Go on and go to the party.’
“But the next day the daughter caught me on the woodpile. She said she was going to whip me and told me to put down my ax. I threw the ax down and the handle flipped up and hit her on the let. Then I did get licked.
“Plantation life in Missouri was not like it was farther south. The northern slaves were proud that they were north of the Mason Dixon line and the worst thing that could ever happen to a nigger was to be sent ‘down the river.’
“Much of the old plantation atmosphere that you read so much about in the southern homes was absent from the home of the Frays, but in its stead there was a peace and devotion of us slaves to the white folks which was unknown in most of the southern families. We lived in a log hut less than a block from the big house where the family lived but we were comfortable and always had enough to eat and plenty to wear such as it was. But it was hard work all day, day in and day out and never have anything we could call our own.
“When I was 21 years old I married. My husband worked on a farm a mile or so from the Fray place. In the south the slaves from two or three plantations live in a compound and when a couple marries they just start living together without any ceremony. A ceremony wasn’t much good for a slave wasn’t allowed to take any vows. But I was really married. My husband and I went to another slave on his place who could read and write and knew something of the Bible. He said the same marriage ceremony for us that we had to say over again when we were freed. All the slaves who were living together and had families when they were freed had to be legally united in marriage before they could go out to make their way in the world.
“I was proud of my marriage, performed by the ‘educated nigger’ and I sure got mad when anybody said anything about us, not being married.
“Then came my little babies and just before the war broke out I had three. How well I remember how I would sit in my room with the little ones on my lap and the tears would roll down my cheeks as I would ponder the right or wrong of bringing them into the world. What was I bringing them into the world for? To be slaves and go from morning to night. They couldn’t be educated and maybe they couldn’t even live with their families. They would just be slaves. All that time I wasn’t even living with my husband. He belonged to another man. He had to stay on his farm and I on mine. That wasn’t living—that was slavery.

“Then came the war. All around us we heard of the great Abraham Lincoln but I never saw him. But the missus’ daughters read to us of how great he was and told us how he was poor; how he split rails and wrote with charred wood and walked for miles to borrow books to read. I ate up all that information, for there was nothing in this world I wanted more at that time than an education. But Abraham Lincoln was president of the United States. He was a white boy and I was just a slave.
“There were stories of the bushwhackers killing many of the slaves but we only had a few encounters with the soldiers. On one of these occasions the bushwhackers came into Massa’s house and demanded something to eat. We fixed it for them in double quick time for we were scared to death. Some of the soldiers started ransacking the house but their officer stopped them. We heaved a sigh of relief when they finally left for there had been stories where they carried the young slave girls away with them.
"When Massa died he showed his love for his slaves by making a provision for us in his will.  That provision was that none of our family were ever to be sold to anyone but a Fray. After his death our family was scattered. Some went to one child of the Massa’s and some to another but we were all close and could see each other often. After we were freed my husband left his master and for a year worked for my people. Then we worked for his master for awhile and later came to Kansas where we were determined to give our children the education which we were denied.
“But all slaves did not have the happiness and the peace that was our lot. Cruel masters from the south would come into Missouri and here and there buy up a father, a mother, a couple of young daughters or the sons. They would tear them away from their families and keep them in a little shack until they had bought what they wanted. Then they were driven to the boat landing just like cattle and loaded on the river steamer for the trip ‘down south.’
“Those masters were cruel. They carried rawhide whips and if the women dragged a little in their long march they were lashed with the whips until the blood streamed from their poor cut backs.
“Some people think that the slaves had no feeling—that they bore their children as animals bear their young and that there was no heartbreak when the children were torn from their parents or the mother taken from her brood to toil for a master in another state. But that isn’t so. The slaves loved their families even as the Negroes love their own today and the happiest time of their lives was when they could sit at their cabin doors when the day’s work was done and sing the old slave songs, ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot,’ ‘Massa’s in the Cold, Cold Ground,’ and ‘Nobody Knows What Trouble I’ve Seen.’ Children learned these songs and sang them only as a Negro child could. That was the slaves’ only happiness, a happiness that for many of them did not last.
“When Lincoln freed the slaves I knew of dozens of children who started out to search through the southland for their parents who had been sold ‘down the river.’ Parents left in the north country searched frantically for their children. But I only know of one case where the family was ever united. Some perhaps were killed in the battles but in the majority of the cases the children of slaves lost their identity when they were taken from the place of their birth into a new country.”
That is the story of Mrs. Hill and her trials and tribulations as a slave. And is it any wonder that today as she nears her ninety-sixth birthday that she sits by the fire and dreams and at night when she lies awake and goes over in her mind happenings of more than a century ago when, as she expresses it, she ought to be asleep.
And when she sleeps it is in a room almost as old as the dreams of the gentle old lady. The bed she sleeps in is of black walnut and is more than a half century old. Her dresser matches it and a chair which was her husband’s has a woven bottom of birch bark. The legs are coming loose and the back is a little wobbly but it is precious to her and will hold a place in her life as long as she lives. And in the corner is a table more than a hundred years old which was a piece of the furnishing of her home when she was a girl in slavery."

1 comment:

  1. Found Aaron Fray's will. Although he does not mention the slaves (his wishes may have been verbal to his administrators), it was interesting that Wesley Green was one of the witnesses, so they must have been friends.