Henry was one of the two listed carpenters at The Hermitage. While it may forever be incomplete, his story is a fascinating one, and like Ned Davis, the other carpenter from Andrew Jackson’s plantation, Henry gives us an insight into the human side of the system of enslavement.
Henry was born about 1824-25 on the plantation to a mother named Sally, or Alabama Sally as part of the 1825 tax list says. On that list, he is described as age 0, and honestly I am unsure whether that means he was still in the womb or not yet one year old. This list does not offer who his father is, which leaves us in the same place that we find ourselves many times when discussing children born into slavery: rape of enslaved women by enslavers. Can we say with 100% certainty this is the case for Henry? No, we cannot. But it seems to be a high possibility given the fact that this same tax list has explicitly or implicitly a mother and father for every other family on this list.
Henry also has siblings: John, who in 1825 is 11, and Mary, who in that same year is just one year old. There is another child that Sally has from this list, but its name and age are simply question marks on the document I have. I can’t say whether this is an issue with the copying, the (il)legibility of the original document, or if Sally was still carrying this child in 1825.
From the documents that I have currently, there isn’t much I can say about his childhood. That said, there apparently are 15 different letters that mention Henry by 1841. These may have had something to do with his growing up, but it seems more likely that they would have mentioned him because of his labor because, by that same year, he is mentioned on the tax list as a carpenter. Unlike Ned Davis who I would argue was purchased probably for his skill as a carpenter, Henry was born at the plantation and probably learned the trade while growing up. He may have even learned it from Ned Davis who by 1841 would have been about 40, giving him a tremendous amount of knowledge with which to teach Henry. However Henry learned, though, one impressive note is that Henry by 1841 would only have been about 16. For him to be listed as a carpenter at age 16 while on the plantation with the most agricultural laborers in the state of Tennessee certainly speaks to his abilities as a craftsman.
It is important to note here for the continuation of Henry’s story that Andrew Jackson, Jr. was not great with money. In fact, he is pretty bad in debt frequently, and he does not experience the same wealth that Andrew Jackson does. The debt at one point led to Jackson Jr. attempting to mortgage some people out with creditors attempting to sell them. One such person on an 1853 sale list was Henry, but it does not seem that he actually was sold because Jackson Jr.’s son Samuel mentions Henry in letters from 1857 and 1858.
That said, Henry’s not being sold does not necessarily keep him at The Hermitage. The last mention we have of Henry is from 1858, and it tells of Henry working on Jackson Jr.’s property in Hancock County, Mississippi. Doing what exactly is unclear, but he was down there according to this correspondence. What may have happened after this? Did Henry pass away while working there, or could he have worked until the unrest of the Civil War and then self-emancipated, or perhaps even self-emancipated before this? If so, where might he have gone? All of the answers to this in my view would be purely speculative, but it is worth considering how one’s life beyond enslavement may have been.
To return to Henry’s family, he had a wife and three children. His wife was Adaline, and she appears to have been born on the plantation herself. Her mother, interestingly enough, was also named Sally, and her father was Polidore, and she was listed as two years old on the aforementioned 1825 tax list.
As a quick aside, there is evidence suggesting that Polidore was from Florida and named Fernando before his time at The Hermitage. Just another fascinating tidbit in the whole story of Henry I felt merited a mention here.
With Adaline, Henry’s three children were Polidore (named after Adaline’s dad), Marion, and Margarette. I admit that I do not know much about their children aside from an instance in 1846. To understand this part more, you should know that Andrew Jackson had a habit of trying to keep families together. Do not let this lead you to the conclusion, though, that he was somehow “a good slave-owner” as that description is inherently oxymoronic. It was simply the way he saw best to keep the people he owned in line with what he wanted of them. Jackson Jr. may have continued the same kind of tradition, albeit holding to it less than Jackson did. It appears to be the case that he does partly keep them together in 1846, though, as Adaline and Polidore (potentially others, but that is unclear) went to Mississippi, and along the way, Polidore dies from cholera. It is a sad mention to be sure, but every part of this story is important to Henry’s life as I’m sure the death of a child would be devastating to him, especially if he is still in Tennessee while his wife and one of his children are in Mississippi.
We may never know more than this about Henry, but I hope you are beginning to see the importance of recognizing these people as people. They are not simply enslaved bodies who only experience pain and torment. To be sure, being enslaved was an integral part of their experience on this earth, but it was most certainly not the whole of their identity. Henry was able to be a carpenter by age 16 and have a family. He experienced the happiness of having children and the sadness of burying one. He probably worked alongside Ned Davis, and the two probably shared success and frustration at various stages of their work. And although his story ends abruptly as far as the letters are concerned, his story just may have ended in his freedom, and perhaps it even included freedom with his family. Henry was a human being, not just someone who was enslaved, and that is the part of his and every person’s story that, to me, is the part most worth telling.
I am indebted to Marsha Mullin, Vice President of Museum Services and Chief Curator at The Hermitage, for much of the biographical information contained within this article.