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Bill of Sale for 2 Slaves, March 2, 1859

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Courtney Turner

on 1 May 2014

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Transcript of Bill of Sale for 2 Slaves, March 2, 1859

Letter from Maud C. Fentress to her son Dr. David Fentress Dec. 25, 1860
Writing about slavery in the age of slavery is something to which I have had little exposure in the past. Of course I've read some wider known slave narratives and abolitionist writing, but the writings of slave owners is new to me.
Logic tells us that slavery is a business, but seeing the evidence is something else entirely. I never would have imagined the great number of legal documents that must exist regarding the sale and purchase of slaves. Even in the personal letters it is clear that the business of slavery is simply a part of their lives.
I thought I might notice a difference between male and female slave owners at least in their personal letters. However, this was not the case. Women are generally expected to be more emotional or at least less business-oriented. In the letters I read, the women may have been more emotional toward their own families, but certainly not toward their slaves. They also seemed just as interested in the business of slavery.
Slave Narratives
"There was a planter in the country, not far from us, whom I will call Mr. Litch. He was an ill-bred, uneducated man, but very wealthy. He had six hundred slaves, many of whom he did not know by sight. His extensive plantation was managed by well-paid overseers. There was a jail and a whipping post on his grounds; and whatever cruelties were perpetrated there, they passed without comment. He was so effectually screened by his great wealth that he was called to no account for his crimes, not even for murder."
Bill of Sale for 2 Slaves, March 2, 1859
Letter of Guardianship - Rebecca Hagerty
The Nature of Writing on Slavery, In the Age of Slavery
Most of Bills of Sale were like this one from 1859. They followed a specific format and used the same diction. This one entirely handwritten whereas others used a printed form with blanks to fill in.
The language of this letter, although more formal than the ways most modern families communicate, is much less formal than that of legal documents. In this visualization
no particular words stand out. Note that in the informal, personal letter pronouns are used with much greater frequency.
How this legal document differs from the Bills of Sale
This document, although very similar in language to the Bills of Sale (
), is not a form that could be reproduced by anyone. It was composed by attorneys on behalf of Rebecca Hagerty. This Letter of Guardianship is unique in my research for that as well as its aim which is to gain control of land and all that is held on said land, not simply the ownership of human chattel.
It seems as if the canonical slave narratives, like that of Linda Brent, highlight the greatest atrocities committed by some of the biggest slave owners. This is due of course to the propaganda aspect of said narratives. However, the majority of slave owners worked on a much smaller scale like the buyers and sellers from the legal documents and the authors of the letters I read.

Letter from Maud C. Fentress to her son Dr. David Fentress Sept. 6, 1859
Personal letters are marked by the use of personal pronouns and narrative. When writing to relatives people spent a good deal of time recounting details of their lives which only seems natural. What struck me was how casually the business of slavery was discussed. In a letter to her son Maud C. Fentress moves from the topic of Christmas dinner to selling slaves without so much as a segue.
Bills of Sale
Bill of Sale with Descriptions of 2 Slaves to S.M. Hagerty
Bill of Sale- 20 Slaves
May 5, 1855 document recording transfer of ownership of Ann and her child Harmon
Letter to Aunt, From Hawkins; Hagerty Collection
Personal Letters
Goal: to use paleography, text analysis tools, and literary analysis to evaluate the nature of post-colonial writing in the age of slavery
What are the differences between Legal Documents and Personal Letters?
Does the author or subject's gender factor largely?
How does the slave owner's experience differ from that of the slave?
Follow this link
for a visual representation of the most frequently used words in this document. What stands out (besides articles & conjuntions) is the word "said" used repeatedly in legal documents from this period and numerous reiterations of the parties named in the document.
As legal documents, Bills of Sale are notable for their formality. The language is constant and the documents follow the same form: "Know all men by these presents that I, (insert name here). of (insert place here)..."
This letter seeks a loan by way of describing a journey plagued by troubles at length. Because the loan is asked of a family member, the legal jargon is forgone in favor of a tale of personal woe and personal pronouns.
This transfer of ownership is basically of Bill of Sale but does not follow the form of the previous Bills of Sale. Because the language is not the same, I originally thought this document was written in an extremely formal first person. More than likely, the document was composed by lawyers like R. Hagerty's Letter of Guardianship or it followed a different form than the other documents.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
For slave owners, slavery was simple business; they did not consider it too strongly as evidenced by how casually it is referenced in informal writing.
When written about in slave narratives, former slaves could recite in great detail the wrongs of slavery. This disparity in the experience of slavery was pervasive and long-lasting.
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