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Slavery at Liberty Hall: The Stepney Family, Part 4

By Sara Elliott, Director

Stepney Family blog

This is the fourth and final installment in the blog series about the enslaved Stepney family. These biographical sketches may have contained information that seemed contradictory or confusing. As has been said before, African American genealogical research can be very difficult. We have collected information on people we believe are the Stepneys who worked and lived at Liberty Hall. Without corroborating documents, it is hard to confirm which individuals with the surname Stepney, found in post-Civil War public records, were enslaved by the Browns.

But as more research is done, as more obscure documents are transcribed and put online, and the more public documents are digitized, the greater our chances are of getting that confirmation.

We hope you enjoyed learning more about the Stepneys and their roles in the history of Liberty Hall Historic Site. We will keep you up-to-date on any new information that we find about them and the other enslaved African Americans who worked and lived at Liberty Hall.

Mourning Stepney (1823 or 1824-?)


Little is known about Mourning Stepney.  The date of her birth is uncertain, as is the meaning of her name.  It may have referred to grief or sadness, but Mourning was also a common name in 18th-century Virginia.[i]

A letter written by Margaretta Brown in 1827 expressed concern for a little girl named Mourning who was having trouble learning to walk, and an 1828 letter noted that “Mourning can now walk alone.”[ii]

In the will he prepared in 1836, John Brown described Mourning as the “unfortunate daughter” of Miles and Hannah Stepney.  The will specified an annual annuity for Miles and Hannah for the remainder of their lives and Mourning’s.  James Stepney, one of Miles and Hannah’s sons, was directed to care for his parents and Mourning until his twenty-fifth birthday in 1846.

Although Mourning is not mentioned by name in Brown family records after 1836, there is a small possibility that she lived until at least 1849.  That year an African American man named Miles Stephens paid tax on a slave valued at $75.  In other records, the names of Stephens and Stepney seem to be used interchangeably, so it seems likely that the taxpayer was Miles Stepney.  Since John Brown did not arrange for Mourning’s manumission and James was freed in 1846, Miles may have been caring for Mourning—still classified as a slave—in 1849.    

Edwin Stephens/Stepney (1826-1880)                                                                                

In a deed of manumission filed on May 4, 1836, John Brown directed that ten-year-old Edwin Stephens be freed on his twenty-fifth birthday—April 8, 1851.[iii] John’s will, prepared at the same time, transferred Edwin to John’s son Orlando until the manumission date to make up for Orlando’s portion of the Brown land being smaller than Mason’s.[iv]

The name Edwin Stepney does not appear in Brown family letters before 1836.  But because the Browns refer to his brother James as both Stephens and Stepney, it is likely that Edwin was the youngest child of Miles and Hannah Stepney.

Little is known about Edwin’s life after 1851.  Military records list an African-American man named Edward Stepney who in 1864 enlisted in the 43rd Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry and was wounded at Petersburg.[v] But it is uncertain if Edwin and Edward Stepney are one and the same.

Newspaper notices in the Louisville Courier in 1855 and 1866 recorded that a man named Ed Stepney was arrested for drunkenness.[vi] In 1859, the Courier reported that Ed Stepney was arrested on suspicion of theft.[vii] The 1870 census listed Ed Stepney, age 45, working as a cook in Louisville and living with 50-year-old George Stepney, who was working as a laborer. An 1873 city directory in Buffalo, New York, listed a carpenter named Edwin Stepney, but other sources recorded his 1880 death in Louisville.

Henry (1800-?)                                                                                                                       

In 1826 John Brown sent an enslaved man named Henry to Alabama to live with his son Orlando.  In letters written in 1827 to Orlando, Margaretta Brown tells her son to “Tell Henry that his Father’s family are well” and describes Hannah Stepney’s concern about Henry’s welfare.[viii] In 1828, Margaretta Brown reminded Orlando that Henry “is to be free at twenty-eight—and although no writings were drawn, yet he (your Father) has ever considered his emancipation at that time, as certain, as if you were bound by the strongest proceedings.”[ix] But a deed of manumission has not been found in Franklin County or in the 1827-28 Alabama legislative record, which included manumissions.[x]

In a March 1829 letter to Orlando, John Brown mentioned that “Henry & all Hannah’s family” had the measles.[xi] The 1830 federal census did not include a Henry Stepney as a head of household, but did list a free black man between 24 and 35 years old named Henry Clermons.  Henry Clermons’ Frankfort home was near that of Hezekiah Black, who in 1820 ran a school that Henry and Selim Stepney attended.  In an 1836 letter to his father, Orlando Brown wrote that “I could not get Simon [an enslaved man] to prime the woodwork and as neither Selim or Henry has come up I have to get Marshall to do it.”[xii] The 1840 census listed a free black man named Henry Samuel living near Liberty Hall, and an African American barber named Henry Samuel is listed in the 1870 census.

As no Brown family records list Stepney as Henry’s last name and the Browns did not emancipate any Stepney family members until 1836, it is hard to know if Henry was Miles and Hannah’s child.[xiii]  He may have been Hannah’s son by another father or a child the Stepneys cared for and considered their own. 


[i] See “The Name Mourning” in The County Court Note-Book, Vol. 1: 2 (December 1921) on Google Books, and “Slaves Named In Wills [in North Carolina and Virginia]” 

[ii] Margaretta Brown to Orlando Brown, September 18, 1827 and March 25, 1828, Filson Historical Society.

[iii] Franklin County, Kentucky, Deed Book Q, pp. 271-73.

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

[v] Pennsylvania enlistment records and National Park Service Soldier and Sailor Database.

[vi] Louisville Courier newspaper, April 12, 1855; May 14, 1866; May 15, 1866; August 1, 1868.

[vii] Louisville Courier newspaper, June 28, 1859.

[viii] Margaretta Brown to Orlando Brown, March 20, 1827, Filson Historical Society.

[ix] Margaretta Brown to Orlando Brown, October 14, 1828, Filson Historical Society.

[x] From 1819-1834, Alabama slaveholders petitioned the legislature to liberate individual slaves (“Manumission by Last Will in Antebellum Alabama”).  The index of the 1828-29 Alabama Legislative Acts includes entries owners who emancipated slaves, but the name Orlando Brown is not among them (Acts Passed at the Twenty-ninth Session of the General Assembly of the State of Alabama (1829).

[xi] John Brown to Orlando Brown, March 20, 1829, Filson Historical Society.

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

[xiii] The Stepney family members who were older 25 when John Brown manumitted them in 1836 included Miles (about 66), Hannah (age unknown), Rose (about 28), and Joseph (about 26).