The Last Wishes of Nathan Talbott
Unread for more than 50 years, the Montgomery County resident's final will and testament included a startling request
Nathan Talbott was born in Prince George’s County in 1763, and died in Montgomery County in 1839. He was a planter and a man of some means—a slave owner whose human property in 1836 included a 45-year-old woman named Harriet and her four children, ages 4 to 21. In his will, he identified her as “negro,” and her children as “yellow,” meaning of mixed race.
Talbott then did what seemed, in the context of the times, a radical thing. He directed in his will that Harriet and her children be freed upon his death. Not only freed, but moved from Maryland to a free state, their passage paid from the sale of his estate.
After his death, two of his three sons—Henry Warren and Thomas Talbott—filed a “caveat” to the will, alleging that their father was unduly influenced by his slaves and not in his right mind when he gave away a substantial part of their inheritance.
Thus unfolds one of the countless postmortem family dramas that have played out in Montgomery County history.
The Talbott story recently came to light after Marion Jackson, a 10-year employee in the office of Joseph M. Griffin, the county’s register of wills, found a cache of old wills in a file cabinet in Rockville. They had been there for more than 50 years, awaiting shipment to the Hall of Records in Annapolis.
The documents—along with census, cemetery and other archival records—offer a unique window into the human dimension of the “peculiar institution” of slavery as it existed in this now progressive suburban county more than 170 years ago. For Griffin, looking at original documents that hadn’t been seen for many years was “a little overwhelming.” But what struck him most was that human beings could be treated as “property, given away along with belongings, furniture and things.”
Some of Nathan Talbott’s descendants still live in this area and say they know the backstory: Nathan fathered Harriet’s children and, thanks to his will, she and the children moved west, possibly to Ohio, and adopted the Talbott name.
“As we understand it, Harriet’s children were Nathan’s children,” says Douglas Bowman, a Frederick County lawyer who grew up in Rockville and Gaithersburg and is Nathan’s direct descendant, six generations removed, through Henry Talbott. “That’s what we believe to be true based on everything, including the family oral history.”
Owners fathering their slaves’ children was not uncommon, though it was rarely documented. “I think it happened up there in Poolesville a lot,” says Jane Sween, author of Montgomery County: Two Centuries of Change (Windsor Publications, 1984) and a Gaithersburg resident long active in the Montgomery County Historical Society.
“That was very common,” adds Anthony Cohen, an African-American historian of slavery and the Underground Railroad who lives in Olney. He notes that post-emancipation census records identify many individuals as “mulatto.”
Gwen Reese, now retired and living in Gaithersburg, grew up in Sugarland, one of many small black communities that sprang up around Poolesville after the Civil War. She says a number of her relatives reflect mixed-race antecedents. “You can’t tell them from white,” she says.
What makes the Talbott family different is Nathan’s determination that his children with Harriet be raised not in a slave state, where opportunities afforded even free blacks were severely limited, but in a “free” state.
Maryland had a centuries-old tradition of slavery, especially in the part of Montgomery County around Poolesville known as Medley’s election district, after John Medley, who owned a tavern in Seneca where residents once went to vote. According to the 1830 census, 19,816 people lived in the county, and 12,103 of them were white, 6,447 were slaves, and 1,266 were free blacks.
When the Civil War came, most of Medley’s white males crossed the Potomac River to fight for the Confederacy. When abolition came up for a vote as part of an 1864 state constitutional revision, Montgomery voters opposed it by 3 to 1.
The Talbotts had emigrated from England to Tidewater Maryland in the 17th century. They were related through marriage to the Calverts, who were granted the original charter for Maryland by King Charles I in 1632.
In the 1750s, Nathan’s father, William, moved from Anne Arundel County to Montgomery (then part of Frederick County). The Talbotts were part of a larger migration of whites from Tidewater to Piedmont who tried to grow tobacco, as they had in southern Maryland. They soon found the soil unsuitable and switched to wheat, but they retained their Southern way of life—and their slaves.
By 1800, Nathan Talbott would be listed in the federal census as a Poolesville planter with two sons, Henry and Thomas, a wife, Verlinda Talbott, and three slaves. A decade later, the household would include another son, Odel, and three more slaves.
In the 1831 Montgomery County tax assessment, Nathan’s assets, excluding real estate, would be listed as: three ounces of silver plate valued at $3; three slaves valued at $240; and other personal property valued at $120, for a total of $363. His son Henry, meanwhile, owned $439 in property, including four slaves, as well as 225 acres near Poolesville, 80 acres of which his father had sold to him.
Verlinda died in November 1830, but Nathan would live another nine years. Whether his wife knew of his relationship with Harriet is unknown. Though racial mixing was a common if discrete occurrence in antebellum Maryland, there’s little evidence of slaveholders’ public benevolence toward their mixed-race offspring.
“It was not super-common, but it happened,” says Maya Davis, research archivist at the Maryland State Archives and a specialist in African-American history. Slave owners acknowledged their paternity in the late 1700s and early 1800s, Davis says, but such admissions became much less common in the late 19th century, thanks to Jim Crow laws that resulted in racial mixing being more frowned upon.
Of the recently rediscovered old wills, only Talbott’s and two others were legally processed. Many predated the Civil War. Listed along with bureaus, bedspreads and other household items were the slaves of the deceased, their dollar value assessed along with that of the livestock.
“It’s just sickening the way they leave it, just like they do the furniture,” says Griffin, whose great-grandparents immigrated to Maryland from Ireland in the late 19th century.
He reads aloud from the will, dated May 11, 1821, of John Madden, who “bequeaths to my wife all of my negroes and personal property,” and to his son, Elijah, “and his heirs the following negroes, Jerry, about 10 years old, negro girl Mary about eight years old and negro Girl Eliza about five years old, and their increase from this day.”
Griffin notes also the will of Samuel Turner, who freed his slaves when they reached 35. That sounded “kind of humane,” Griffin says, “until I realized they were no good [as laborers] anymore; they’d gotten all the work out of them, and they didn’t want to take care of them.”
Vyleter Jones did much the same in her 1851 will. She left a slave named Ann to her husband, Charles, “for life…to serve him and be protected by him.” But her three male slaves were to be freed at age 44. Should her husband die before then, her “friend and neighbor,” Andrew Clopper (as in today’s well-traveled Clopper Road, aka Route 117), was to sell them and use the proceeds to provide for Ann.
Edward Howes, in his 1822 will, left his slaves to his nephews with the stipulation that they be sold only to “persons in the state of Maryland” who the nephews “may suppose will treat them well.”
In another charitable act, Benjamin Cooley in 1846 decreed “my negro man James Diggs” freed upon Cooley’s death “in consideration of his faithfulness.”
There is no record of what happened to the slaves after their emancipations, Griffin says. But the intentions to free them at least are clear.