Life in the 1850s: Margaret Garner

Margaret Garner, whose story was the inspiration for Toni Morrison’s book Beloved, was an enslaved woman. She was born around 1833 on a farm called Maplewood, near Richwood (then Richwood Station), Kentucky. At 15, she married her husband, Robert. It was in January, 1856 that the events that brought her to national attention occurred.

That January was apparently exceptionally cold, enough to freeze the Ohio River solid. Margaret (who was pregnant at the time), Robert, their four children, Robert’s parents Simon and Mary, and nine other enslaved people stole a large sleigh and two horses to pull it one Sunday night, and made for freedom. They drove all night, arriving at Covington, Kentucky near daybreak, and crossed the river. Then the party split, Margaret’s family going to the house of Margaret’s uncle, Joe Kite, who was a free man living in Mill Creek, near Cincinnati. The remainder of the party made for safe-houses in Cincinnati itself, and eventually escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad.

Unfortunately for the Garner party, they’d made several inquiries to find Joe Kite’s house, and been seen by people who were not sympathetic to their flight. This made it all too easy for pursuers to find them. Levi Coffin, an abolitionist whose aid had been sought by Joe Kite (Kite was at his house making plans when pursuers arrived at the Kite house in search of the Garner party), described the final confrontation in his Reminiscences, published in 1876:

The fugitives were determined to fight, and to die, rather than to be taken back to slavery. Margaret, the mother of the four children, declared that she would kill herself and her children before she would return to bondage. The slave men were armed and fought bravely. The window was first battered down with a stick of wood, and one of the deputy marshals attempted to enter, but a pistol shot from within made a flesh wound on his arm and caused him to abandon the attempt. The pursuers then battered down the door with some timber and rushed in. The husband of Margaret fired several shots, and wounded one of the officers, but was soon overpowered and dragged out of the house. At this moment, Margaret Garner, seeing that their hopes of freedom were in vain, seized a butcher knife that lay on the table, and with one stroke cut the throat of her little daughter, whom she probably loved the best. She then attempted to take the life of the other children and to kill herself, but she was overpowered and hampered before she could complete her desperate work. The whole party was then arrested and lodged in jail.

The contention afterward, in the courts, centered on whether Margaret Garner was a woman who could be tried for murder in Ohio, or a piece of property, to be tried under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The fondest hope of her allies was the first, as it was assumed that after her conviction the Governor would pardon her, leaving her a free woman. Allies of her owner, Archibald Gaines (as well as Gaines himself) wanted her sent back into slavery. In the end, the presiding judge ruled that Federal law had precedence over state law, and sent Margaret and her family back into slavery under the Fugitive Slave Act.

Ohio authorities did finally manage to get a warrant for Margaret’s extradition on charges of murder, but Gaines first kept her moving between cities in Kentucky to make it impossible to find her, then loaded Margaret, Robert, and their infant daughter on a boat bound for Arkansas. On March 11, that steamboat collided with another vessel and began to sink. Margaret and her infant daughter were thrown overboard, the child drowned and Margaret attempted to take her own life but was unsuccessful.
In 1857, Margaret and Robert were sold together to Dewitt Bonham, who owned a large cotton plantation that was worked by over 160 enslaved people. It was there, in late summer 1858, that Margaret was killed by a typhoid epidemic. According to Robert, her last words to him were that he should “never marry again in slavery, but live in hope of freedom.”

Links:
Excerpt from Reminiscences by Levi Coffin

A Historical Margaret Garner, by Steven Weisenberger

The Margaret Garner Archaeological Project

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Published in: on 22 July, 2009 at 04:43  Leave a Comment  
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