Gravesend Characters Past: “Betsey” (c. 1726-1843)

Continuing the challenge posed by my fellow members of the Society for One-Place Studies that we blog about 52 residents of our respective places in as many weeks, I turn my attention this time to a Gravesend woman for whom the barest traces survive. Scraps, really; but taken together, they provide a glimpse into her long life of servitude.

She first appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper, of all places. The National Gazette of Tuesday 8 March 1831 (p. 3) did not name her, but focused on the fact which made her a curiosity: her great age.

Longevity.–There is now in the family of Mrs. Stillwell, in Gravesend, a colored woman, who has attained the age of 103 years. She came into the family when she was 28 years of age, and has remained in the same house since that time. She is industrious, milks the cows, and does the washing for a family of ten persons, and will not suffer others to assist her. Her faculties are all good, and particularly her eyesight. [1831 – 103 = a birth year of c. 1828]

Similar accounts ran in New England papers in the following weeks. She remained nameless, and her age varied slightly–102 instead of 103 (which calculates to a birth year of c. 1729)–but the recitation was verbatim.

1840.census.Stillwell.Maria - Copy

Detail of page for 1840 U.S. census, Gravesend, Kings County, N.Y., showing household of Maria Stillwell and the tick mark for her servant who was upwards of 100-years-old.

She was still alive nine years later, on 1 June 1840, when the federal census enumerator stopped into the residence of Maria Stillwell to count her household. Again, the National Gazette and Literary Register of Philadelphia tells the story (Tuesday 1 September 1840, p. 2):

The officer, employed to take the census of King’s [sic] county, N.Y., met at the residence of Maria Stillwell, at Gravesend, a colored woman at the advanced age of 113 years. She appears to be in perfect health, eats, drinks, and sleeps well, and performs her duty as a domestic with astonishing energy and activity. She says she can milk the cows as readily as she could a hundred years ago. [1840 – 113 = a birth year of c. 1727]

Before 1850, the decennial United States federal census did not record the names of every member of every household. Only the head of the family was listed; everyone else was entered by tick marks or numbers in columns describing their status, sex, and age. In Maria Stillwell’s household, under the column headed “Free Colored Persons / Females / 100 and upwards” is a lone scratch of the pen, nearly off the page, for her 113-year-old servant.

Remarkably, she lived nearly another three years, until March 1843. In death, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Wednesday 8 March 1843, p. 2) finally gives her name:

BrooklynEagleWednesday8March1843pg2col4

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Wednesday 8 March 1843, p. 2. [Note: 1843 – 117 = a birth year of c. 1726. “Saturday last” = 4 March 1843.]

A briefer notice, in the Christian Intelligencer of the Reformed Dutch Church for Saturday 11 March 1843 spells her name “Betsey” and pushes her death back to Friday the 3rd.

And what have we learned from these bits and pieces? That an African-American woman named “Betty” or “Betsey,” born between 1726 and 1729, entered the service of the Stillwell family at age 28, sometime between the years 1754 and 1757 — when she would certainly have been enslaved — and continued to do their laundry and milking for the better part of a century, until her death at the supposed great age of 117.


Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Filed under Betsey, Gravesend characters, Slavery, Stillwell family

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