Posted: April 16, 2020
Census records prior to 1870 are often the only written record of the enslaved. Scant notations in census slave schedules provide the sex and age of the enslaved and more detail-oriented census enumerators included the names of the enslaved individuals, which were often changed. Families generally were not listed together.
Research into the lives of the enslaved at the Aiken-Rhett House was boosted by an 1874 petition by William Aiken housed in the archives of The Charleston Museum. The petition lists the enslaved once owned by Governor Aiken and reads,” That this (illeg) was further the owner in like manner of the following slaves, who were of his household and in and about his family Tom & Ann Greggs and her son Henry Greggs, Sambo and his wife Dorcas Richardson and her children, Charles, Rachel, Victoria, Elizabeth and Julia. Charles Jackson and Anthony Barnwell, and two carpenters, Will and Jacob…that those about his person and in his family were very valuable from their peculiar qualities as attendants in the service of his house and establishment and two were valuable carpenters.”
This petition was then compared with a September 15, 1846 Deed of Trust between Harriett Lowndes Aiken and her husband William Aiken, Jr., which lists the slaves William, Ducah, Judy, Andrew, Molly, Ann, Hetty, Thomas, Phoebe Ann, Elizabeth, Henry, Sambo, Dorcas, Phyllis, Rachel, Victoria, Eliza, Betsy and Elijah. Although the names of the household enslaved were known, little was known about them as individuals nor the positions they held in the household. Researchers turned to census records to cast some light on their lives as individuals.
Dorcas Richardson’s Story
Dorcas Richardson came to the Aiken family though the marriage of Harriett Lowndes to William Aiken, Jr. From the 1870 census, we know that she was a born in 1821 and was mulatto. Subsequent census records of Dorcas and of her children reveal that she was only 11 years old when she bore her first child.
It is assumed that Dorcas served as an enslaved ladies maid to Harriett Aiken or to her daughter, Henrietta. Had she been a laundress or a cook, she likely would have continued as such once emancipated. Later census records portray Dorcas as a woman of intelligence, aptitude and ambition. As a free woman, Dorcas is found in census records listed as the matron of the Colonel Shaw Colored Orphan Asylum, founded in April of 1865. She later opened bank accounts for herself and for her children as well as for many other emancipated slaves. Her signature on these documents reveal she was literate – quite surprising as she had lived most of her live under slavery where it was illegal for the enslaved to learn to read and write.
In the 1880 census, a notation is made that Dorcas “keeps store.” Additional research shows that she had opened her own fruit store in Charleston in the 1870s. By 1880, we know from the census records that Dorcas was widowed and that her son Charles Richardson lived next door.
To learn more about the lives of the enslaved at the Aiken-Rhett House, download our free app or take the web-based tour of the house at www.historiccharleston.org/app.