Between the Lines: Teasing out Tame’s Story

In this day and age, it is easy to discover the particulars of someone’s life simply with the click of a button.  Phone number, age, home address, professional resume and more can easily be obtained by searching through public records on the Internet or at the library. A treasure trove of current primary and secondary resources awaits the present-day researcher trying to uncover the facts of someone’s life in the 21st century.

But what do you do when the person lived over 250 years ago? What public and private historical records are available that will tell us who a person was, how they lived, when they died, and who their family was? Time, circumstances, and the natural decay of paper all take a toll on the sources we use to study the history of the people who came before us.  But the amount and quality of available information about a person also depends on the status and role they played in their own time.

In 1750, an enslaved person living at George Washington’s boyhood home, now called “Ferry Farm,” was murdered.  His name was Tame and he was killed by Harry, another enslaved man owned by the Washington family.  These bare facts were recorded at a King George County Court of Oyer and Terminer, with no further explanations given of the crime or of the motives involved.[1]

What led to Tame’s death? For that matter, who was Tame? How old was he? Where did he come from? How long was he with the Washington family and how does his fateful story figure into the daily operations of the farm and household? Answers to these kinds of questions are hard to come by because the stories of the enslaved population in the historical record are limited, in many cases, to just a few documents spanning their lifetime.

Excavated by archaeologist at Ferry Farm, this broad hoe, also known as a “weed hoe,” was used sometime in the mid-1700s by enslaved people to remove weeds and loosen soil around crops. Older slave children joined adults in the fields to do this difficult task.

Discovering Tame’s story begins with finding him in the written records.  Augustine Washington, George’s father, died on April 12, 1743, seven years before Tame’s murder.  His will, written a day before his death, lists by name some of the slaves that belonged to him and to whom he gave them. Tame is not among those mentioned.[2]  The subsequent July 1, 1743 probate inventory of Augustine’s estate details the property and personal items he owned and their value, including a list of the enslaved population, but Tame, again, is not listed.[3]

Since he was not mentioned in either of these two historical documents relating to Augustine’s property, it’s possible that Tame was acquired after Augustine died,  either by his estate, his heirs, or by his wife Mary and sometime between 1743 and 1750.

There is another scenario to consider, however.  Perhaps Tame does not show up in the court documents surrounding Augustine’s death because Tame was actually the property of Mary, Augustine’s wife, instead.

To burn efficiently and ensure a clean flame, the cotton wicks of candles needed to be trimmed frequently. This tool, known as a wick trimmer (above and below), was used for this purpose. Due to the mundane and constant nature of the task, household slaves were often charged with maintaining candle wicks.

To burn efficiently and ensure a clean flame, the cotton wicks of candles needed to be trimmed frequently. These tools, known as wick trimmers (above and below), were used for this purpose and discovered during excavations at Ferry Farm. Due to the mundane and constant nature of the task, household slaves were often charged with maintaining candle wicks.

FF20-325-1-2590-Wick Trimmer

Mary Ball, who married Augustine Washington in 1731, was born to Mary Johnson and Joseph Ball in 1708 in Lancaster County, Virginia.  When her father Joseph died in 1711, he willed to her a young slave:   ”Item: I give to my daughter Mary my negro boy Tame…” (Lancaster County Will Book 10:88). Since Tame is described as a “boy” in the document, he could be roughly any age between 5 and 16 years.

Is this boy, willed to Mary when she was but three years old, the same person who was murdered 39 years later in 1750 at Ferry Farm? As Mary’s property, the boy Tame would have been part of her household wherever she lived: with her mother in Northumberland County following her father’s death, with her as Augustine’s wife at Pope’s Creek, Westmoreland County, and then, finally, at Ferry Farm, where she lived mostly as a widow.  As Mary’s property, Tame would not have appeared in the will or probate lists of her husband.  What is also interesting is that both Tame and the man accused of murdering him were described in the 1750 court proceedings as “belonging to Mary Washington of this county widow.”

Exactly what role Tame played on the Washington farm and within their enslaved community is unknown. If Tame is the same boy Mary received when she was 3, he would be in his 40s or 50s when at Ferry Farm, and thus someone Mary had known well her whole life. Did he work in or around the main household for the family or as a field laborer?  Did his age and long term relationship with Mary relate in any way to his unfortunate murder in 1750? What was his status within the slave community? Even Tame’s name adds an interesting aspect to his story that separates him from the other Washington slaves on the farm. “Tame” is a name of West African origin and is unlike the usual Anglicized names of contemporary Washington slaves, such as Jack, Ned, Tim, Steven and Adam, as recorded in Augustine’s will and probate inventory.

Recent research shows cowry shells were used as currency as part of the slave trade. The modifications to our cowries facilitate stringing them into groups of 40. These shells, originally from the east Indian Ocean, traveled to Virginia with their enslaved owners. Evoking memories of their African homeland and heritage, such familiar emblems helped comfort those who remembered a life of freedom and helped them to maintain elements of their culture.

Recent research shows cowry shells like this one were used as currency as part of the slave trade. The modifications to cowries discovered at Ferry Farm facilitated stringing them into groups of 40. These shells, originally from the east Indian Ocean, traveled to Virginia with their enslaved owners. Evoking memories of their African homeland and heritage, such familiar emblems helped comfort those who remembered a life of freedom and helped them to maintain elements of their culture.

Tame’s existence in the historical documents is brief and mysterious. It may always remain a mystery but further research may yet illuminate this man’s story and his long association with Mary Washington. History is indeed an unending journey.

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Lab Supervisor

[1] King George County Order Book 2, p. 670

[2] King George County Order Book 2, Part 1, p. 333

[3] King George County Inventory Book, 1721-1744, p. 285

 

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