The Seven Slave Daughters of Elijah Bettis III

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.


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4 Responses to The Seven Slave Daughters of Elijah Bettis III

  1. Janell O Nickols October 30, 2017 at 11:10 pm #

    I am confused. I have Elijah Bettis who married Amey Overton, and had 7 children: Jean, Sally, Eleanor, Elijah, Lovely, Ransom, and Overton. This son, Elijah, married Elizabeth Robinson. Their children were Amy Overton, Charnelcie, and Elijah. Is this Elijah #3 who had the seven slave daughters? He is the only one for whom I do not have a spouse. I would love to have more information about these Elijah Bettises. I am researching the “Charnelcie” name.

    • Carla Rabinowitz October 30, 2017 at 11:52 pm #

      Hello again, Janell. The Elijah III who was the father of Amy, Charnelcie and Eiljah IV is indeed the same man who fathered the seven slave daughters, as well as the one who married Elizabeth Robinson. Elizabeth does not appear in any of the other documents I’ve found, and I don’t know anything about her ancestry. The birth dates of ELijah III’s children follow a fairly well-known pattern. He did a lot of exploiting of slave women before he finally married a white woman in his forties. If you go to his census listing for 1830, you find a lot of women about the right age to be his enslaved daughters, but none of the right age to be their mothers. It was reasonably common for a slaveholder to sell his enslaved concubine or concubines away when he married a white wife. All of his legitimate white children seem to be younger than his enslaved ones, but their mother does not appear on the census list and is therefore probably dead.

      There is not a speck of doubt in my mind that the story of the enslaved daughters is accurate, because the names on multiple documents including the deed by which Elijah freed them match up with the names passed down by their descendants. I actually have chapters full of information about both Elijah Jr. and Elijah III, but I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for the book, which will hopefully be published in May 2018.

  2. Janell O Nickols November 4, 2017 at 9:50 pm #

    Thank you, Carla! I can’t wait for the book! I have found quite a bit of information regarding my research on the name, “Charnelcie,” of which there are at least ten connected with The Elijah Bettis line! I still have not discovered the original meaning of the name, as the family legend about it being a Native American word for “no name” has not panned out. I suspect it is French – as “Charnell” is a man’s name in French. The original Charnelcie that I have found was born just outside of St. Genevieve, MO to Elijah Bettis.

  3. Carla B Rabinowitz November 5, 2017 at 4:13 pm #

    A little further away that “just outside”, but certainly close enough for regular communication. If you check the topic list for “Rodde Labbe”, you can find out about a Frenchman from the mining town of St. Michel who had some commercial dealings with the Bettis family – Ranson Bettis was a witness for him in a lawsuit – and moved south to Randolph County AR at around the same time they did. One of the houses in Old Greenville was described as “French” by a local historian in the 1950s. I can’t think of any French name related to Charnelcie, but it’s certainly possible.

    Also, Elijah III was a Freemason, and there was a sizable group of Masons in Ste. Genevieve.

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