The descendants of Drew Bettis, the mixed-race grandson of Elijah Bettis III, have passed down the tradition for nearly 200 years: Elijah had seven enslaved daughters, by seven different enslaved women. All of them were close to each other and considered each other sisters. Some of their names persisted in the family for generations: Martha, Elizabeth, Celia, Jenny. They were freed at Elijah’s death, but their children – Elijah’s grandchildren – remained in slavery.
As it turns out, the story is true in almost every detail, except for a small piece of fantasy in which Elijah is identified as a refugee French aristocrat. And in 2006, sitting in the audience at the Pocahontas, Arkansas 150th anniversary history pageant, I was startled to hear those names read from the stage. They were listed in a deed, by which Elijah freed seven enslaved women while keeping their children in bondage. Later on, in the Randolph County archives, amid the red dust of disintegrating documents, I found an acknowledgment that the enslaved grandchildren, carefully listed by name, had been transferred to Elijah’s legitimate white daughters under the terms of his will.
The surviving records give us a glimpse of these seven women. The 1830 Federal census for Wayne County, Missouri lists Elijah, then about 60, as the owner of 36 slaves. Four out of five of those slaves are women under 35 and young children. There are no middle-aged women, who might have been the mothers of the younger ones, and almost no young men. If Elijah had enslaved sons, he may have sold them all down the river, to the cotton plantations of the lower South. If he had had enslaved concubines, he may have sold them all away when he finally married in his mid-40s. But he kept his daughters.
There is also no trace of a white plantation mistress. Judging by the ages of his white children, Elijah’s wife may have died as much a five years earlier. A plantation mistress had an enormously important role: supervising all aspects of household management, the production of clothing, the distribution of supplies and food, and the maintenance of household accounts, as well as the education of her children. And to all appearances, Elijah’s enslaved daughters are filling this role. They are running the household and raising their white half-siblings on their own, with little or no supervision. In a single short row of numbers, the census listing gives us a hint of the unfathomable complexities of slavery.Share