Know All Men By These Presents

Posted June 2nd, 2011 by

Sometime around 1811, Sylvester Dunn relocated from South Carolina to Amite County Mississippi. He was one of the very first settlers of the new American territory carved out of the Choctaw nation. The fact that Sylvester had the benefit of a free land patent and free labor surely contributed immeasurably to his success on the frontier.

Gavin Road - Noxubee, Mississippi

On the 19th day of September 1822, Sylvester signed over Bess (32) and her child Caesar (13), Zapheniah (4), Lanah (2), Rachel (30) and her child Milly (8), Anne (7), Charles (5) Prinney (45) Tony (50), and Sophy (an old woman) as collateral for a loan of $1133.32 from the Bank of Mississippi.

On the same day, he signed for a second mortgage on 650 acres of land plus Jack (45), Phillis (40) and her child Cynthia (20), Carolina (19), Enery (16), Jack (14), Ben (10), George (8) Saul (5), Simeon (14), Chaney (20), Friday (7), Susan (5), March (22), Sarah (26) and her child Sain (10), Kate (8), Raymond (5), Jane (4), Lucy (35), Little Sarah (17) and her child, Laney (19), Doll (13), Jefferson (12), Charlotte (9) and Aron (25).

Sylvester made good on his borrowings by 1829, when he paid off both loans. In 1830, he was the master of a total of 28 people.  By 1831, however, he was on the dole again. This time it was Messrs. Davis and Maxwell who loaned him $687.96 against his land and many of the same human beings he had promised as collateral to the bank back in 1822.

Fortune smiled quickly this time. Sylvester paid off his debt in a mere 24 months. His fortunes were on an upswing. He took the opportunity to express his “natural love and affection” for his children by giving them slaves “forever, together with any future increase arising from said negroes.”

To his recently married daughter Mary, he gave Sandy (21), Lauler (5), Abel (12) and Nancy (a small girl).

Her sister Elizabeth got Ig(?) (a black boy about 22), Ann (a girl about 16), Bob and Charles (about 4 or 5).

To his son Alexander he delivered George (19) Raymon (16), Cate (16) and Dick (3).

To Martha, he gave Isaac, Moriah and Legatt along with her children Jim, Char, Elvira and Lafayette.

Joseph was gifted with Jack (25), Aaron (16), Charlotte (16) and her mulatto boy child Edward.

Robert seems to have died, so he passed along two treats to his children, Bolivar and Harriet. To them he gifted Paul (a boy about 16) and Rachel (about 4).

I offer this information as poignant evidence of just how pervasive, lucrative and insidious slavery was. It is said that the Bank of Mississippi was a virtual cash machine for planters. And one man, Sylvester Dunn, availed himself of their good offices to sustain ownership of at least 28 people, whom he traded back and forth whenever he needed cash. It was on their backs that his personal wealth was built. And that was on top of the free land patent he received from President James Monroe as “bounty” for military service.

The heart searing reality is that all of this historical information circuitously routes back to me. Sylvester Dunn was the father of Mary Gordon Dunn who married John Edward Gavin in 1831 and moved to Noxubee County, Mississippi. They were the parents of Robert Lewis Gavin, the white man who fathered 16 children with my African American great great grandmother, Bettie Warf.

John Gavin emulated Sylvester’s personal industry. After similarly migrating from South Carolina, John and his eight brothers all started accumulating slaves. Collectively, they owned more than 100 people by 1860. It is undoubtable that Sylvester Dunn’s other sons-in-law brought even more human beings to the trough.

1860 Slave Census - John Edward Gavin

Knowledge is but one of the fruits of this “healing journey” Tom and I are on. These are the most complete records I have ever found on any one person in either of my family trees.

How am I supposed to feel right now?

One response to “Know All Men By These Presents”

  1. Barbara St. Romain says:

    Seeing the lists with all of those names and ages really impacted me and I'm not even in the family. It is hard to imagine how you were impacted. Please know that I and I'm sure others care about what you are doing and want to be of support if needed. Thanks for sharing this journey.

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