Slavery at Liberty Hall: The Stepney Family, Part 1

By Sara Elliott, Director

Stepney Family blog

The first enslaved Black people came to Kentucky with the early European explorers in the mid-1700s. Protected by the 1792 state constitution, slavery continued to grow until by 1860 24% of the population was enslaved.[i] Although most Kentuckians did not own slaves there were over 225,000 enslaved African Americans in 1860, the largest number in the state’s history.[ii]

There were enslaved workers in urban areas as well as rural areas. Male slaves labored in the hemp and tobacco fields, mined iron and saltpeter, and worked in factories making hemp rope and bagging. Domestic duties such as child-care, laundry, cooking, and housekeeping were jobs for which many enslaved women were responsible.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the Confederate states, it did not apply to Kentucky which never seceded from the Union. Slavery finally ended in Kentucky in 1865 with the passage of the 13th amendment; an amendment that Kentucky did not ratify until 1976.

Owning slaves helped the Browns maintain their way of life. Although John and Margaretta Brown believed in gradual emancipation and freed some of their slaves just before their deaths, their sons maintained an enslaved workforce until 1865.

Today thanks to the on-going research efforts of LHHS staff and others, we can share the personal stories of some of these enslaved workers. Mentioned in family letters and further documented through public records, the enslaved Stepney family consisted of the father, Miles, the mother, Hannah, and their children Rose, Joseph, Selim, George, Mary, James, Mourning, and Edwin.

This blog is the first in a series to focus on their story.

Miles Stepney (1770-?)

The name Miles first appears in Brown family letters in 1811, when Margaretta suggested to John that Miles plant their vegetables.[iii] Several letters that mentioned Miles tending to corn crops suggest that he labored in the gardens or fields, but it is not known if those were on the Liberty Hall site or on other land John Brown owned in Frankfort.[iv]

In 1836, John Brown filed a deed freeing Miles Stepney and his wife Hannah.[v] In a will prepared at the same time, John ordered that an annuity of $120 be paid annually to “my old faithful Servant, & friend Miles Stepney & to his wife Hannah” for the remainder of their lives.[vi]

Around the same time, Miles Stepney may have been working as the janitor at the Presbyterian Church Sunday School, which Margaretta Brown supervised.  According to church records, he worked there from 1819 to 1837 and was paid $2 per year.[vii] Census records suggest that by 1840, he was living with Hannah in the Frankfort home of their son Joseph.  In the 1860 census, Miles is the 90-year old blind man living in the household of George Stepney.  It is not known when Miles Stepney died.

Hannah Stepney (dates unknown)                                                                                                 

Hannah’s date of birth is unknown, but her youngest child was born in 1826.  In the will he filed on May 4, 1836, John Brown referred to Hannah as the wife of Miles Stepney, but the marriage date is not known.[viii]

The first record of her name in the Brown household was in 1819, when Margaretta Brown noted that “Hannah has increased my burdens by giving birth to a daughter.”[ix] A few years later in a letter to Orlando, Margaretta puts Hannah and her daughter, Rose, in charge of cleaning the house.[x]

When John Brown sent an enslaved man named Henry to Alabama to serve Orlando, Margaretta wrote about Hannah’s concern about Henry.  While not listed as a Stepney in legal documents prepared by John Brown, Hannah’s actions suggest that Henry may have been her son.[xi] In 1836, when she took Mary Stepney on a long trip to the East, Margaretta wrote to Orlando to “tell Hannah that Mary is well” and reported on Mary’s activities.[xii]

Letters also document that Hannah was sick in bed for four weeks in 1828 and that a year later all her family had the measles.[xiii] An entry in Margaretta’s account book notes that she paid for “nursing Hannah” sometime after 1828, and in a will she drafted in 1833, Margaretta directed that Hannah be provided with a black mourning dress, cape, and stockings.[xiv]

The last reference to Hannah in Brown family letters was in 1836, when Orlando mentioned “Hannah’s house” being on the grounds of Liberty Hall.[xv] Hannah may have been the free black woman, aged 55-100, listed in Joseph Stepney’s Frankfort household in the 1850 census, but the date of her death has not been found. 

To be continued. . .

Endnotes 

[i] Kleber, John E., ed. “Slavery,” Kentucky Encyclopedia, (1992) p. 827.

[ii] Harrison, Lowell H. “Slavery in Kentucky: A Civil War Casualty,” The Kentucky Review, vol. 5 no. 1.

[iii] Margaretta Brown to John Brown, February 5, 1811, Yale University.

[iv] Margaretta Brown to Orlando Brown, September 17, 1823 and David Humphreys to John Brown, November 14, 1826, Liberty Hall Historic Site Collections; Orlando Brown to John Brown, June 23, 1836, Filson Historical Society.

[v] Franklin County, Kentucky, Deed Book Q, pp. 271-73. Last will of Senator John Brown, May 4, 1836.

[vi] Franklin County, Kentucky, Deed Book D, Last Will of Senator John Brown, May 4, 1836.

[vii] Averill, William H.  A History of the First Presbyterian Church Frankfort Kentucky (1901), p. 207.

[viii] Franklin County, Kentucky, Deed Book D, Last Will of Senator John Brown, May 4, 1836. 

[ix] Margaretta Brown to Elizabeth Love, November 29, 1819, Private Collection.

[x]  Margaretta Brown to Orlando Brown, September 17, 1823, Liberty Hall Historic Site Collections.

[xi] Margaretta Brown to Orlando Brown, July 4, 1827 and April 30, 1828, Filson Historical Society.

[xii] Margaretta Brown to Orlando Brown, June 4, 1836, Liberty Hall Historic Site Collections.

[xiii] Margaretta Brown to Orlando Brown, October 14, 1828 and John Brown to Orlando Brown, March 20, 1829, Filson Historical Society.

[xiv] Margaretta Brown, July 27, 1833, Liberty Hall Historic Site Transcript.

[xv] Orlando Brown to John Brown, June 23, 1836, Filson Historical Society.


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