Modern Medea: A Family Story of Slavery and Child-Murder from the Old South

Modern Medea: A Family Story of Slavery and Child-Murder from the Old South

by Steven Weisenburger

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The first in-depth historical account of the events that inspired Toni Morrison's novel Beloved.

In the middle of a frigid Sunday night in January 1856, a twenty-two-year-old Kentucky slave named Margaret Garner gathered up her family and raced north, toward Cincinnati and freedom. But Margaret's master followed just hours behind and soon had the fugitives


The first in-depth historical account of the events that inspired Toni Morrison's novel Beloved.

In the middle of a frigid Sunday night in January 1856, a twenty-two-year-old Kentucky slave named Margaret Garner gathered up her family and raced north, toward Cincinnati and freedom. But Margaret's master followed just hours behind and soon had the fugitives surrounded. Thinking all was lost, Margaret seized a butcher knife and nearly decapitated her two-year-old daughter, crying out that she would rather see her children dead than returned to slavery. She was turning on her other three children when slave catchers burst in and subdued her.

Margaret Garner's child-murder electrified the United States, inspiring the longest, most spectacular fugitive-slave trial in history. Abolitionists and slaveholders fought over the meaning of the murder, and the case came to symbolize the ills of the Union in those last dark decades before the Civil War. Newspaper columnists, poets, and dramatists raced to interpret Margaret's deeds, but by the century's end they were all but forgotten. Steven Weisenburger is the first scholar to delve into this astonishing story in more than a century. Weisenburger integrates his innovative archival discoveries into a dramatic narrative that paints a nuanced portrait of the not-so-genteel Southern culture of slavery and its destructive effect on all who lived in and with it.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Weisenberger has told the full tragedy of the real Margaret Garner, and her life speaks to us more eloquently than any novel about the inhumanity of slavery, the spirit of freedom and the strength of the human will.” —James C. Klotter, Lexington Herald-Leader

“Weisenburger . . . researched newspaper articles, courtroom testimony, maps and manuscripts to piece together the real and fascinating account of the institution of slavery and one slave's dramatic rebellion against it.” —Sharon Shahid, USA Today

Kirkus Reviews
Weisenburger relates the historical events upon which Toni Morrison's Beloved is based: the child-murder committed by Margaret Garner, a fugitive slave who chose to kill her own child rather than see her returned to slavery. In 1856, Margaret Garner and her family attempted to flee Kentucky to the free state of Ohio, just miles across the Ohio River. When surrounded by trackers with no possibility of escape, Garner slid a knife across the throat of her little girl. She had already begun attacking her other children when she was subdued and arrested. This account covers the escape, murder, and subsequent trials of the Garners (particularly Margaret), which inflamed the neighboring states of Ohio and Kentucky with arguments over slavery. Weisenburger, a professor of English and director of the Program in American Studies at the University of Kentucky, unfolds a complicated tale with a fullness that incorporates many social and political aspects. His descriptive chronicle extends the bare specifics of the case into a dramatic narrative that covers issues ranging from Southern antebellum culture and morality to the mythical portrayal of Margaret in poems, paintings, and novels. Most of the historical documents come from white sources (newspapers and legal documents written by white reporters and officials), and through this outwardly simple choice, Weisenburger simultaneously acknowledges the inherent bias of history and forces the reader to remember the woman at the center of the story, even though she 'tells' very little of it. Weisenburger is a successful historic storyteller despite the fact that his dogged research (to the point of actually retracing the Garners' escaperoute) brings up a less-than-complete historical record. His very strength is in acknowledging the partial nature of 'the facts.'

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Chapter One


* * *

Summer 1840

                                 The girl stood on the ferry dock, alert to each new sensation. A smell of tar rising off the piers. Acrid wisps from the glassworks and iron mills drifting westward with the Ohio River's rich, muddy dankness. A fetid odor from the stockyards and packing plants mixing with the redolence of grasses on a summer morning.

    She faced north. Morning sun riding the horizon made a bright aura over her right shoulder, warmed her brown face, and cast long shadows over the limestone bluffs above Covington, behind her. Before her, sunlight glinting off Cincinnati's windowpanes blazed again off the river. The girl squinted into those dancing lights toward the chuff-chuff of a side-wheel ferryboat. Then it loomed red, white, and green and its gunnels nudged the piers as in a great clatter of chains the gangplank banged down.

    The girl was seven years old and a slave. Four days had passed in Covington since she last saw her mother, eighteen miles south at Maplewood plantation, near Richwood Station, Kentucky. "Keep near, Peggy," warned Massa Gaines. Her given name was Margaret, after her grandmother, first in her family brought to this place from Virginia. They called Margaret's mother Cilla, sometimes Cilly, but her given name was Priscilla.

    His children gathered excitedlyaround this tall, noble-looking figure they called "Pa." John Pollard Gaines was a widely respected Kentucky planter, lawyer, and politician, and the only master Margaret had known. Four days before, he had hefted his wife, six children, and Margaret into a carriage and bounced them along the log-planked, "corduroy" Turnpike toward Covington, filling the passing hours with tales of his own father, Abner Gaines, who ran the first stagecoach line over that same road—Lexington to Covington, eighty miles in two days, winters and summers. Near Covington, Massa Gaines reined in at a house on the pike just south of town, where they would lodge with his youngest sister, Mrs. Bush. Her husband, Percival, was John Gaines's age (forty-five), called himself a manufacturer, and owned eight slaves. Nights, Margaret slept with Massa Bush's slaves, including two boys near her age. Days, the other slaves went about their chores while Margaret "nursed" (babysat) Mistress Gaines's youngest child, one-year-old Mary.

    Perhaps it seems strange that a slave child should have responsibility for a white baby. At Margaret's February 1856 fugitive slave trial her master's attorneys would call Southern witnesses to testify that slave owners would never consider such a usage. In turn her defense attorney would call to the witness stand a "free colored" woman who would assure doubters: "It's a common thing for colored children of 5 or 7 years old to nurse white children in the families they belong [sic]." She went on to say that it was how masters "train them up" to domestic service. Seven other defense witnesses would back her up, and eventually so would a range of twentieth-century historians, who have noted that by nursing white infants a slave girl like Margaret probably secured Maplewood plantation's few benefits: indoor work, leftovers from Massa's kitchen, better clothes.

    Disembarking from the ferry at Cincinnati, the West's self-styled "Queen City," Margaret walked on free soil for the first of only two times in her life. Fearing interference by the city's "damned abolitionists," John Gaines had cautioned his wife, Elizabeth, to keep a close watch on the girl, and sixteen years later Margaret would recall, "My mistress kept me very close to her all the time." On the ferry dock Margaret studied well-dressed black porters outvying each other's manners and hustling white Southerners headed to Queen City hotels. White and black roustabouts loaded barrels of salt pork and whiskey and unloaded barrels of molasses and coffee. Everything seemed strange, and if it hadn't been for Southerners speaking a familiar lingo Margaret would have been overwhelmed by the dinning tongues: Irish brogues, Quaker thees and thous, thick-tongued German ich's and du's, the odd Connecticut Yankee.

    John Gaines probably hired an omnibus and put Margaret atop it with the driver. We can imagine her looking back, gradually losing sight of Kentucky as they jostled away from the dock, up a wide thoroughfare like Broadway. All around her bustled the largest city west of the Alleghenies, a society of sharp contrasts. Despite its downtown of neat redbrick row houses and gleaming limestone mansions, well-paved streets and tiled sidewalks, Cincinnati was also a city where men, many of them black, drove stock right up Broadway to the slaughterhouse. The stench from manure and gutter slops rose everywhere with swarms of gnats and mosquitoes and flies. Perhaps Margaret glimpsed Bucktown, the mostly black neighborhood of dingy tenement houses and run-down shanties, whose residents nevertheless boasted of their schools and the Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal churches.

    She certainly saw a fair number of black people: hog butchers, brick masons, coopers, nattily dressed house servants, whitewashers—menials of all kinds, and all of them free. By 1840 Cincinnati's black residents amounted to 5.1 percent of its population, some 2,240 souls in a population of 44,000. Half of those black citizens had known slavery. Some had purchased their emancipation. Some Southern masters—rare ones—had brought other slaves to Cincinnati for legal manumission, sometimes calling on John Jolliffe to draw up the documents. The rest—probably half of the former slaves—were fugitives. Cincinnati in 1840 was also a very young town, where 80 percent of the people were under the age of thirty-six. The 1840 census reveals that Cincinnati's black residents were overwhelmingly young, and that almost half arrived during the 1830s, typically young men looking for work in the meatpacking plants.

    Although it promised extraordinary opportunities to blacks, the Queen City was no sanctuary. Margaret Garner's 1840 sojourn there fell between two of its most vicious race riots, in which, in 1836 and again in 1841, Cincinnati whites leagued with Kentucky "rowdies" to unleash terror against the city's free blacks while police mostly turned their backs. Meantime the city's "Black Laws" required all free blacks to register and post a bond (as surety against any criminal or civil charges), denied them rights to sue whites, excluded them from jury service, and blocked access to public schools. Despite such blatant racism, Ohio Valley blacks still considered Cincinnati an "emporium of the West," a boomtown symbolizing the best and at times the worst of American democracy.

    As the John Pollard Gaines family shopped and dined through that long summer's day in 1840, Margaret Garner might well have claimed her freedom. Once Gaines brought her across the Ohio River, Cincinnati's abolitionists might have whispered in Margaret's ear their willingness to spring her. With their good legal help she would have needed only to assert her desire for freedom before the right magistrate—one of the city's antislavery men. Histories of antebellum Cincinnati tell of some slaves who leaned toward the whispers and claimed their freedom. But they tell of equally many who failed. In the famed "Matilda case" of 1837 a teenage girl came with her master to Ohio, accepted abolitionist help, and lost despite the impassioned, brilliant arguments of antislavery lawyer Salmon Portland Chase, destined (as Ohio governor) to play a backstage role in the Garner drama.

    John Gaines knew all of this but knew just as surely that no seven-year-old slave girl would stand up against her master, slavery, and American law to make a run at her inalienable right of liberty. Not with her mother held eighteen miles away in Kentucky.

    John Gaines was a confident, commanding, and imperious Southerner who always knew what he was about. Beyond managing the day's shopping and dining, he of course kept close watch on his human property. One unforeseen result of his caution would be that Margaret's not claiming her freedom in 1840 would figure importantly at her fugitive hearing in 1856. Her lawyer would argue that her earlier sojourn automatically freed young Margaret; her master's lawyers, that Margaret could have fantasized the trip and that even if it did occur the law required a slave in transit on free soil to ask for her liberty before a court could grant it.

    We are fast-forwarding the story. The record says that in 1840 Margaret "nursed" young Mary Gaines in Cincinnati, returned to Covington and the Bushes' house, then, several days later, to Maplewood and her parents. She'd come safely back, from the great Ohio River to tiny Mud Lick Creek and the neighborhood where she was born. Still, Massa Gaines had taken little Peggy "over Jordan." The girl had lived one of the great metaphors of Southern slave culture: Margaret had "gone to Canaan-land," tasted freedom in Ohio.

    Though everyone called Maplewood a "plantation," it had nothing of the Greek-columned grandeur out of slavery's storied past. Gaines's property was bordered south and east by dirt roads. Where they intersected, just below a knoll of pasture, stood Richwood Presbyterian Church, established in 1834, a year after Margaret's birth. Opposite, at Maplewood's northwest corner, atop a still higher knoll studded with oaks and sycamores, stood the master's house, a two-story brick and clapboard structure, probably aswarm with children, adults, and slaves. From Maplewood's porch John Gaines could survey nearly all three hundred of his rolling acres, his orchard, pond, barns, livestock, and black bond-servants. When a Gaines slave plowed, watered cows and sheep, picked a pippin apple, walked to Sunday services, fished or gigged frogs in Mud Lick Creek, he or she did it under the watchful gaze of Maplewood's master or mistress.

    As Southern slavery went, life at Maplewood probably imposed relatively few hardships on young Margaret. Maplewood was Boone County's thirteenth-wealthiest plantation and among its leaders in hog production. The work of Gaines's dozen or so slaves varied seasonally and never required of them the grinding gang labor of Cotton South plantations. They also lived in a neighborhood dense with other slaves. Just south of Mud Lick Creek, at Forrest Home plantation, John Gaines's closest friend, Benjamin Franklin Bedinger, oversaw nearly two dozen. To Bedinger's east and just south of Richwood Presbyterian Church, James Marshall worked his two hundred and twenty acres with the labor of eleven slaves. Smaller landowners in the neighborhood owned two to eight slaves each, and, while the figures are hard to come by and in any case were always shifting, we know that in any given year during the antebellum decades slaves in the immediate Maplewood neighborhood accounted for just under 50 percent of the total population, more than double the statewide percentage.

    In itself this fact is significant. Since this population remained fairly stable, it is clear that Maplewood blacks lived in a neighborhood with a well-developed slave culture. "Abroad" marriages knitted together slaves from neighboring plantations through ties of kinship. Slaves came together during all kinds of joint neighborhood tasks, seasonal jobs, and cyclical activities: in repairing roads, shoring up creek banks, mending fences, driving stock to markets and rail depots, hauling and weighing tobacco, milling grain, getting and hauling provisions, and attending services at Richwood Presbyterian. Historian Marion Lucas remarks that Kentucky slaves generally moved freely between plantations on Sundays and major holidays such as Christmas. And while the particular nature and extent of slaves' secret religious services in cabins and "hush harbors" remains enigmatic, it would be more remarkable if slaves around Maplewood did not attend them.

    After her birth on 4 June 1833, Peggy came to know Maplewood first from her parents' slave cabin, most likely situated behind and below an orchard running along the plantation's northern boundary, then from the kitchen of the Gaines house, where Cilla worked. From age five or six Margaret worked in her master's household and nursed his steadily burgeoning brood. When she escaped in 1856 Margaret and her children wore the coarse cotton clothing typical of slaves and lacked decent winter shoes. Otherwise, reporters observed, Margaret and her family appeared healthy and well fed. A neighboring doctor, Elijah Clarkson, took care of the Maplewood slaves' medical needs and claimed to have treated Margaret since her birth. He either attended or looked in on Margaret just after the births of her own four children, beginning in 1850.

    Excepting her nominal father, Duke, who inexplicably disappeared from the print record when Margaret reached her early teens, the girl grew up with an intact nuclear family. She sometimes knew the fear, but probably until 1856 she never knew the actual fact, of loved ones being "sold south" by either of her two masters. In November 1849, when she was sixteen, John Pollard Gaines accepted a territorial governorship and sold Maplewood and all his slaves to his younger brother Archibald Kinkead Gaines, who passed Maplewood along to his descendants, who have held it intact until today. The principal themes of their story would be property, stability, prosperity, and tradition.

    This is Margaret Garner's story, but telling it requires us to include the masters' lives, because their will dominated hers and became in a crucial way Margaret's "fate." For even though a slave might sustain kinds of psychological free agency, even at times resist or conspire to subvert a master's authority, Southern law denied her any biological, economical, social, political, or cultural agency except the master's. This means that in a profound sense slaves' ordinary lives are not tellable, for one of storytelling's most deep-seated conventions is that characters achieve their identity or "roundedness" precisely to the extent they behave as free agents. From saying "I am," from declaring independence, come both character and plot, the flesh and bone of stories. Thus Frederick Douglass's boyhood in slavery, though stuff for many memorable anecdotes, remains untellable until he fights the slave breaker and runs for New Bedford. Thereafter his life satisfies the terms culture requires for it to be memorialized as full-fledged narration.

    Just so, Margaret Garner's life was nonnarratable until she escaped Kentucky and cut her two-year-old daughter's throat, practically in her massa's face, deeds that electrified her image against slavery's outer darkness. Then her story had to be told. Still, the restless demand of historical narration for the fixed stars of actual people and real events pushes inquiry into slavery's outer darkness, where memories that weren't committed to paper vaporized long ago and even those that were written down have become blurred inks on old newsprint and letter paper, sometimes preserved on microfilm. What those surviving texts say about her masters' lives, at times also the slaves' lives, reconstructs the texture of her life and thus points to reasons why Margaret Garner became a fugitive.

Masters and Slaves at Maplewood

* * *

What sort of men were her masters? What did it mean to be their slave at Maplewood?

    To friends and allies John Gaines epitomized the handsome Kentucky squire. Six feet tall, "stout in person, with a fearless commanding presence, and limbs indicating great physical power," he impressed the discriminating ladies of Washington, D.C. One of them painted a word picture for her society column in a magazine called The Huntress:

His face is partially round, partaking the old Saxon outline. His features are rather full, fair, regular, and manly, with a square forehead of moderate depth—firm and free, denoting ardor and strong mental powers. But no coward can meet his daring eye without shrinking-keen, clear and unblinking as the touring eagle's, it would penetrate a shield; it is a dark blue, and emits much fire and buoyancy. His warrior's brow, bold and vigorous, is tempered with gentleness and generosity, the true characteristic of the high-minded sons of Kentucky. His countenance is frank and free from alloy, open as day to the kindly charities of human nature. His manners are such as nobility of mind alone can boast, full of courtesy and polite attention.

This sketch of John Gaines's patrician self-confidence colors in two surviving images: a daguerreotype of John and Elizabeth Gaines with eight of their eleven children, probably taken around 1848-50, and a formal portrait of Representative Gaines, probably done around 1849-50. Gaines's Democratic Party enemies, we should note, also saw behind that courteous nobility a man "tactless in action and overzealous in asserting his authority."

    His ancestors came out of Newton, in Breconshire, Wales. Knighted heirs, shareholders in the Virginia Company, they sailed to the colony in 1643, built a plantation on the Rappahannock River near Culpeper, used African slaves to start a tobacco crop, and rapidly prospered. In 1756 their descendant James Gaines fought with Colonel William Byrd against marauding Indians along the Virginia frontier. When the fighting was done he took his pay in land warrants and moved farther west, into the Shenandoah Valley, where he established a plantation in Augusta County. Himself one of twelve children, James Gaines also raised a dozen, and his fifth child, Abner, kept up the family traditions. He enlisted in a Virginia militia for the Revolutionary War, collected his pay in land warrants, set his sights still farther westward, on "Kentucke," and started another brood, eventually numbering twelve, six sons and six daughters.

    Abner Gaines bided his time until 1797. That spring he and his brother Benjamin scouted the rolling hills south of Cincinnati, following the ancient buffalo trace as far as Big Bone Lick, already famous for its fossilized remains of mastodons. When Gaines set his gaze on the landscape now called Walton, whose rolling hills lush with knee-high grasses were studded with old-growth stands of oak, sycamore, and black walnut, it reminded him of his Shenandoah Valley birthplace. Abner and Benjamin Gaines purchased tracts and returned to Virginia for their wives, children, and slaves.

    Some three thousand whites and three hundred slaves already lived in Boone County when Abner Gaines arrived. Like other early settlers, Gaines planted Virginia tobacco, and at first he struggled. By the 1810 census Abner Gaines's household numbered seven children but still only four slaves, evidently the same who emigrated with him from Virginia.

    Margaret descended from these slaves through her mother's mother. Like neighboring Kentucky planters, Abner Gaines would have depended on his female slaves to assist Elizabeth Gaines with child care and other household chores. The job of his male slaves would have been, quite literally, to build his estate. Abner Gaines's slaves put up his first log dwelling, cleared and tilled his fields, and expanded his wealth in livestock. Their diet in those early years would have consisted mainly of cornmeal and pork—probably the least cuts of pork, such as ribs, jowls, and knuckles—plus whatever game, fish, or wild berries and nuts they could hunt, catch, trap, or forage. Not the diet needed to bolster them against diseases, especially pellagra, or to strengthen them for the heavy labor of clearing fields and building homes and fences. Perhaps this explains why the man's slave family grew so slowly during his first twenty years in Boone County.

    Yet build his estate they did. The Gaines slaves probably inherited that first cabin after completing the master's plantation house, "a two-story home of more than fourteen rooms" constructed out of "solid brick on limestone foundation and all woodwork [of] solid walnut." Abner Gaines had moved his family into this commodious home by 1810. He was rapidly prospering, as well as diversifying his holdings. In its 16 May 1818 edition the Western Monitor ran an advertisement proudly announcing commencement of the first "LEXINGTON & CINCINNATI MAIL STAGE, Abner Gaines—Proprietor." The ad boasted that Gaines himself lived on the road and owned a tavern at Williamstown, in Grant County, "for the accommodation of the passengers." He operated his stage line five years before selling out.

    Abner Gaines was determined that his sons should be gentlemen. He sent three of them, John Pollard, Abner Jr., and Richard, to read law at a private school in Cincinnati, though the studies of John, his eldest, were interrupted by the War of 1812. When he was nineteen John Pollard Gaines fought the British at Malden, opposite Detroit, in Ontario, Canada. Like his ancestors, he was paid in land warrants that he sold and swapped.

    Back at Boone County after the British war young John Gaines set up as a planter and (after eventually completing his legal training) as a lawyer. In 1824 he visited the family seat in Augusta County, Virginia, returning to Kentucky with a bride, Elizabeth Kinkead Gaines. By 1825 he moved with her to a newly purchased Richwood Station plantation that he named Maplewood. When Abner Gaines died in 1832, his widow, Eliza, moved to Maplewood and John Gaines inherited a sizable portion of his father's wealth and slaves, including Margaret's mother, Priscilla. The slaves' duties included serving old Eliza Gaines, nursing Elizabeth Gaines's growing brood, tending her house, and working the master's farm. With their help, John Gaines prospered. In 1842-43 several of his male slaves worked alongside hired hands in constructing a larger, more expensive residence for his rapidly expanding family.

    With neighbors Benjamin Franklin Bedinger and James Marshall, all Virginia gentlemen like himself, Gaines tried-tobacco. He was still growing and shipping it as late as 1837, but, along with many other northern Kentuckians, soon came to depend largely on hog production for Cincinnati markets. He also, speculated in northern Kentucky and eastern Arkansas lands and in regional manufacturing ventures.

    John Gaines also speculated in slaves. From cash-strapped or bankrupted planters Gaines bought bondsmen at a discount, then demanded premium prices from itinerant traders. One such trade is notable because it involves names in the drama to come. Its details emerge from an 1843 business memo to Gaines from a fellow attorney:

When Jas. M. Preston was here some 3 or 4 weeks since he informed me that he had levied an execution of mine for about three hundred dollars on four negroes of Dr. Clarkson's before he applied for the benefit of the bankrupt Law; which will hold good. These negroes, 2 men a boy & a girl, were previously mortgaged to Foster & Cave. The amount net principal and interest about $800. Preston can force a sale on those negroes, and if they are as valuable as Mr. P. thinks they are worth more than will satisfy. F & C claim will not have to be paid till they foreclose their mortgage and their bill for that purpose was not filed till last Nov. term. Aug't next is as soon as it is possible for them to get a judgment. My part would be for cash as it has been expensive. I propose for you to purchase the negroes if you think anything can be made on them and if you think and act so, you can take your time to pay me from the sale of them. Consult Preston and satisfy yourself.

Here was a delicate case. Dr. Elijah Smith Clarkson was a lifelong friend and the physician who attended Gaines's family and slaves, and in 1843 John Gaines was Clarkson's attorney for a bankruptcy proceeding. Yet all of this about the slaves was going on under the table, which explains why Theobald admonished Gaines to silence: "This is in confidence and I want your opinion."

    Clarkson had used his slaves as collateral in securing a home mortgage with the Foster & Cave firm in Covington; thus they wound up as listed property in the bankruptcy action. Those slaves' fate spells out in black and white the greatest insecurity Southern slaves knew: a constant danger of unexpected sale, perhaps to the Deep South, in consequence of their master's death or drunkenness or mere delinquency. Clarkson's wallet, it turned out, was simply overextended in 1843. Seven years later he owned an $11,000 home managed with the labor of seven slaves. The bankruptcy was only a ditch that temporarily mired his wheels; he soon rolled on, but four of his slaves had been sold who knows where. Clarkson's friend and attorney John Gaines pulled Clarkson out of the mire, and helped himself to a little extra as well.

    John Gaines's diverse agricultural and financial interests complemented one another. He combined the agrarian allegiances of a Jefferson, born of his commitment to Maplewood, with Hamiltonian allegiances to a national marketplace, where his fortunes were steadily building throughout the 1830s and 1840s. During these decades his politics were, however, wholly undivided. A die-hard member of the conservative Whig Party, Gaines further identified himself with the party's right-wing "Cotton Whig" membership. In his political speeches and correspondence, Gaines proudly proclaimed the "Southron" ideal, according to which slavery was the natural, constitutional, and spiritual right of whites. Unlike fellow Kentucky Whig Henry Clay, he never advocated gradual emancipation and recolonization in Africa for American slaves, and always claimed a right to own and trade them throughout the United States.

    Gaines's hog production and speculative investments made Whig calls for tariffs, waterways, turnpikes, and railways natural to him. It probably seemed equally natural that he should begin a career in politics, for such had been his father's plan. When Margaret was an infant in the 1830s Gaines began serving the first of several terms as a Kentucky assemblyman. In 1845 he challenged a veteran of the Black Hawk War, Colonel John W. Tibbatts, for a U.S. congressional seat and barely lost, a surprisingly good showing for any Whig in northern Kentucky's predominantly Democratic Tenth District.

    Gaines was fifty-one when war broke out with Mexico in 1846. He accepted the Kentucky governor's offer of a commission as major in charge of the 1st Regiment, Kentucky Volunteer Cavalry. The announcement surprised local Whigs, who were railing against the fighting as a bloody folly of the Democrats, and it angered family and friends, who thought Gaines was heedless of both his family and his age, which ought to have ruled out any more military campaigning. But the Mexican War promised grand patriotic adventures, perhaps the sort of fame that wins elections. In June, he took command of a regiment that included an audacious young captain named Cassius Clay (Henry Clay's nephew). By late July, Gaines was leading his troops nine hundred miles overland from Arkansas to Camargo, on the Rio Grande, and local Whigs had changed their tune and rallied to praise him.

    At first Gaines's men saw little fighting. Then, in late January 1847, at the same time that Kentucky's Tenth District Whigs caucused at Burlington and unanimously nominated him, in absentia, for another congressional race, Mexican troops used the cover of a driving rain to surround Gaines and thirty of his enlisted men. The Mexicans were holding Gaines as a prisoner of war in Mexico City when northern Kentuckians handed Maplewood's squire a 124-vote victory over the Democratic challenger, their first ever and proof that Gaines's political instincts, in agreeing to fight President Polk's war, had been true. Shortly after, Gaines made a dramatic escape, fought at Montezuma, and—following stopovers with brothers scattered in New Orleans, Natchez, and southern Arkansas—finally returned to Maplewood in December 1847. He took a few weeks to tell neighbors his war stories, then once more kissed his wife and children goodbye and boarded a steamboat for Washington, where he was four weeks tardy.

    John Gaines was a congressman at an exciting moment. Revolutions rocked European empires, the Mexican War was successfully concluded, and the United States enjoyed a new coast-to-coast empire. Bills and resolutions on the western territories—New Mexico, California, and Oregon—preoccupied the members, and the issue of slavery in the new territories overrode all others. To these debates Gaines contributed not even a tittle. He missed the session's most crucial votes on new territorial governments and California statehood, and instead concentrated almost entirely on matters of patronage and preference. He worked assiduously for Kentucky's veterans, securing here a widow's benefit and there a land warrant. Knowing of his family's long-standing use of military land warrants, we are hardly surprised by this emphasis, but with few exceptions it seems to have constituted Gaines's only legislative commitment.

    For the first session of the 30th Congress, John Gaines was in Washington for nine months. After an autumn at Maplewood he was back in Washington for the second, shorter session, returning home in the spring of 1849. These long absences tested his family's patience. Letters from the children continually revert to their longing to see him and, more importantly, to their mother's loneliness. "My dear Pa," wrote eighteen-year-old Florella in March 1848 during a visit to her uncle Benjamin's in Arkansas:

I suppose you write home [to Maplewood] frequently, and I might hear of you through them, but I have received but a single letter since I left home, and that was from [younger sister] Harriet; she said that Ma was very careworn and I am afraid she is very lonesome, and that at times makes me very anxious to get back, not that I am home-sick, for I have spent my time very pleasantly indeed, but I am afraid that Ma needs us. Pa you said that maybe you would come home before the session ended. I do hope you will. I feel almost as anxious to see you now, as I did before you came home from Mexico.

When Florella wrote this the Gaines children had seen her father for less than one month out of the previous twenty-four.

    But Florella's mother, Elizabeth Kinkead Gaines, was more than just emotionally careworn. For two months after Gaines first departed for Washington in late December she was physically worn down, bedridden with pneumonia. She recovered, and in April 1848 journeyed to Washington, arriving late in the month and staying until the first session concluded on 14 August. The next autumn she again fell dangerously ill and her recovery this time took months and continued into the winter.

    Despite his wife's illness John Gaines departed for Washington again in late November, "in company with Senator [Thomas Hart] Benton," after a gala send-off on the Covington dock. His children forwarded news from Maplewood: "Ma has been improving ever since you left," wrote young Harriet. "She walks through all the rooms above stairs and without the assistance of your cane and thinks of coming downstairs in a few days. She requests me to tell you because she knows you will be pleased at that." This last comment is typical. During his absences Elizabeth Gaines seems to have communicated to her husband entirely through their children's letters.

    She was left very much alone with the cares of plantation management, and what did that entail? Mrs. Gaines had to oversee her entire plantation household, especially the six female slaves whose daily labors—in gardening, cooking, cleaning, laundering, sewing and mending, spinning and weaving, as well as "nursing" the younger Gaines children—kept things going. She also had six young children at home, only one of whom, the teenaged Archibald (named for his uncle), was old enough to be useful as farm overseer. The rest of her eldest children were either attending schools or visiting Deep South relatives.

    Lonely she doubtless was for the company of white adults, and careworn from work, but surely this forty-six-year-old woman was also exhausted from childbearing. In fact she illustrates most poignantly a key aspect of nineteenth-century womanhood: a wife's lack of control over her own reproductive life, a lack profoundly analogous to what slave women experienced.

    "Do you get as many children as ever?" one of the Major's business cronies once inquired. In the Gaines tradition he did, but fell one short of his forebears' patriarchal twelve. After her 1824 marriage Elizabeth Gaines gave birth about every eighteen months, beginning with Abner (named after the child's grandfather). Toward the end, her births were sandwiched between John Gaines's sojourns away from Maplewood. After she delivered their second-youngest, Matilda, he left on a lengthy business tour to New York and Boston, and their youngest, Elizabeth ("Libby"), was born just months before he rode off with the 1st Kentucky Volunteer Cavalry on 4 July 1846.

    John Gaines was an extroverted, restless man, one hungry for success and public honors, but also a man who, from our late-twentieth-century perspective, epitomizes the male chauvinism of Victorian culture. During most of the 1840s Gaines nested at Maplewood only long enough to "get" more children. By early 1849, childbearing had left his wife frequently ill, with failing eyesight and teeth. In 1848 the children rejoiced when "mother had her teeth supplied, being eight in number, which greatly improves her looks." How did Elizabeth view her life at Maplewood? We don't know, because none of her letters survive. She may have considered herself too unlettered to write the worldly Major, or she may simply have been too busy, like other plantation mistresses: "Challenged daily by the limitless demands of her children, a husband who believed in firm obedience from all of his dependents, and the elusive wall of resistance that her house slaves formed."

    What about their slaves? In the surviving correspondence they are hardly mentioned and even when they are it is rarely by name. Their daily labors, their marriages, births, and deaths, even the facts of their mere presence at Maplewood, seem to have been taken mostly for granted. What we do find in archived papers—some pages almost illegible from bleed-through of the inks, many partially burned at the margins because of a 1911 fire at the New York State Library, which owns them—are letters from Gaines's brothers and his son Archibald, wall-to-wall with the routine of agricultural life of Maplewood and its cycles of plowing, planting, harvesting. These letters tell us that John Gaines's boys struggled at the adult work of running his plantation. Young Archibald fretted over how much acreage should be committed to oats, rye, or grass, and worried that having the slaves plow Maplewood's high ground might "destroy the beauty of the ridges by leaving it a sand bank." Their greatest headache was the Major's "pork concern." Neighbor Benjamin Franklin Bedinger sometimes took young Archibald under his wing for trips to Indiana, buying weanlings. (Bedinger would have been a good teacher: later in the decade he drove to Cincinnati four hundred hogs "of his own feeding, with corn of his own raising," and fetched a record price for them. He did equally well with sheep.) The hog market, however, was always volatile. In November 1846, Bedinger warned Gaines (then soldiering in Mexico) of probable losses: "Your sons have made good crops better than mine I think; all your business is in pretty good condition save your pork concern ... I am told there will be considerable loss there." After the following year young Archibald wrote that the season's profit in hog raising would cover their indebtedness for seeds and weanlings, compensate Bedinger for the rental of some pasture land, pay his children's school tuitions, and leave them afterward with several hundred dollars free and clear—in all, not a bad year. Meantime the congressman's salary and his other investments were adding to Gaines's steadily growing wealth.


Meet the Author

Steven Weisenburger, professor of English and co-director of the Program in American Culture at the University of Kentucky, is the author of Fables of Subversion: Satire and the American Novel and A "Gravity's Rainbow" Companion.

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