A recent holiday in Mississippi and New Orleans brought me face to face again with the early history of sickle cell in the United States and how it interacted with the slave trade. Sickle cell disease was not described and named until 1910, when two doctors, Ernest Irons and James Herrick, both working in Chicago at the time, recognised the importance of the abnormal shaped red cells. Several other cases of this “new” disease were reported in quick succession in the United States after this original paper. It remains a remarkable fact, that despite people of African origin being in America for nearly three hundred years, following the arrival of the first enslaved people in 1619, it is very difficult to find any earlier descriptions of individuals with symptoms of possible sickle cell disease. Why did it take so long for doctors in America to recognise the condition?
At a conservative estimate at least 15% of the slaves transported across the Atlantic would have been carriers for sickle cell. Therefore, out of a total slave population of about 2.5 million in the first half of the nineteenth century, there would have been approximately 400,000 carriers. In this scenario, the Hardy-Weinberg equation would predict that 2.2% of the population, or 55,000 individuals would have had sickle cell disease. Now, although the birth of children with sickle cell disease would have therefore have been quite common, most slave children with sickle cell would have died of complications related to the condition early in their lives. But some, with milder forms of the disease, would have survived into early adult life and it is likely that after the abolition of slavery in 1866 survival would have improved. It is clear from the rash of publications in the early years of the twentieth century that there were indeed adults living with the condition amongst the black population. Which brings us back to the question, why were these individuals not recognised earlier?
After the Atlantic trade was outlawed in 1808, slave owners would have had an incentive to maintain a healthy slave population and there was clearly interest in the health of slaves particularly as this impacted on their working capacity. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, descriptions of people who may have had sickle cell disease are very rare in nineteenth century America. The only well attested report is from 1846 when Dr Robert Lebby described the postmortem findings in a black, male slave who was found to be jaundiced, to have an absent spleen and leg ulcers. This case is described more fully in an earlier blog “More on the Early History of Sickle Cell” 30/04/14. Whilst in New Orleans I stumbled across evidence of another possible description of an individual with sickle cell disease, curiously enough from the same year, 1846, that Dr Lebby published his article.
The following advert was placed in the Louisiana State Gazette, a local New Orleans newspaper, on the 10th July 1846. The advert is one of the exhibits in a moving exhibition entitled “Purchased Lives” curated by Dr Erin Greenwald. The exhibition discusses the domestic trade in slaves in the United States between 1808 and 1866 and, in a calm and detached way, is truly harrowing.
“Yellow skin” was the term used to describe people who were only lightly pigmented rather than referring to jaundice. However, despite the mis-spellings, the description of “limb pain sufficient to cause limping when it was raining” and the “suffering appearance” struck me as a clear description of someone with a classic, painful sickle cell crisis. Do we know anymore about Charles Jackson and his owner Chauvin Delery to support this?
Well, not surprisingly, there is no definite information about Charles Jackson, whose life, like that of the other 2.5 million slaves in the American South, went largely unrecorded. We know, from the advert, that he lived originally in Virginia but was sold at some point and transported south to the state of Louisiana. He was part of an enormous movement of slaves in the years between the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in 1808 and the start of the American Civil War in 1860, when over a million individuals were moved from the tobacco fields of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and Washington DC, were the soil had become exhausted, to labour in the rich cotton fields and sugar plantations of the Deep South. Charles Jackson could have been transported in a “coffle” or gang of slaves by sea or river, from which the phrase “sold down the river” comes, but most likely he came on foot, walking hundreds of miles in chains, probably down the Natchez Trace, a long established route from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez on the lower Mississippi river.
Now a pleasant wooded drive through the southern US countryside, the Natchez Trace was then an infamous, slave highway terminating in the two biggest slave markets in the United States, one just outside Natchez itself, at the Forks of the Road, and the other in New Orleans.
It is likely that Charles Jackson was bought by Chauvin Delery in one of the New Orleans slave markets, as the latter’s plantation was just up river from the city. If that was the case he was probably transported down the Mississippi river from Natchez to New Orleans by paddle steamer.
Slaves were traded all over New Orleans but there were three main sites of sale and purchase; firstly, at the edge of the old French Quarter, on the corner of Esplanade Avenue and Chartres, secondly, on the site of the St Louis Hotel and finally, in the Central Business District at Factors Row. Now the Bed & Breakfast in New Orleans where I stayed recently was on Esplanade Avenue and it turned out to be on the opposite corner from one of the major slave trading nodes in the city. In the first half of the nineteenth century there was a house and slave pens here through which, it is likely, thousands of individuals were bought and sold. Now, somewhat appropriately, it is the site of a church, the Methodist Church of the Redeemer (Chiesa di Redentore), which some years ago was converted into residential accommodation. There is nothing to commemorate the human misery that this place witnessed.
In 1848 the average price for a fit, male slave was $950, which in today’s prices equates to just under $30,000 (using the Consumer Prices Index). It is likely that Charles Jackson was sold for something near this figure to Mr Chauvin Delery. Slaves were an expensive investment, hence the appreciable rewards offered for the capture of runaways. We do not know why Charles Jackson absconded but research for the “Purchased Lives” exhibition indicates that it was not uncommon for slaves to runaway shortly after they arrived in the south. The domestic trade in slaves wrecked havoc with the lives of enslaved families, often separating husbands from wives and children from their parents. Runaways often attempted to return to their original homes and the families they had lost. If he did indeed have sickle cell disease it is difficult to imagine how Charles Jackson coped at the best of times let alone on his own, fleeing for his life. It was not uncommon for recaptured slaves to be punished severely; whipped, branded, maimed or forced to wear iron neck collars.
Was Charles Jackson recaptured, did he manage to make it back to Virginia or did he die on the way? We do not know the answer to this question for sure, but there is a tantalising clue in the Slave Schedule of the 1850 US Census. At the time of the census slave owners were legally bound to record all the slaves in their possession; Chauvin and Levois stand out as one of the largest slave owners in New Orleans with 59 slaves registered to their possession in St Charles Parish. Charles Jackson would have been 30 years old at the time of the 1850 census; among all the slaves owned by the several individuals with the surname Chauvin there is only one male slave recorded as 30 years of age and he was owned by Chauvin and Levois. Was this individual Charles Jackson, who had survived being re-captured and another four years of work on the plantations? Of course, the slaves were not named in the census, they were after all seen as possessions rather than people, and as such remained anonymous. It is therefore impossible to know whether this individual was indeed Charles Jackson or not. What about the man who purchased him?
Chauvin de Lery is a very old Louisiana family name. Joseph Chauvin de Lery (born 1671; Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Died 1732; Louisiana, USA) together with his three brothers, Jacques, Nicholas and Louis, were among the first settlers in the early French Colony. They established large land holdings on either side of the Mississippi river north from Lake Pontchartrain, an area which subsequently became known as the German Coast, after the many German settlers who arrived there subsequently. Documents indicate that by 1720 they had 6 arpents of land between them – this equates to about 1,200 feet of river frontage (1 arpent = 192 feet) and extending back from the river by some 12,000 feet. Even in those days the Chauvin de Lerys were important slave owners; in 1720 there were 365 slaves employed in total, on their holdings of about 330 acres. It is not possible to say with any certainty which descendent of the Chauvin de Lery family owned Charles Jackson and placed the runaway advert, nor is it clear why the advert was only placed in the newspaper in July 1848, Charles Jackson having initially gone missing six months previously in December 1847.
What was life like for Charles Jackson on his masters plantation? Louisiana was the biggest sugar producer in the United States.Growing sugar cane involved brute force and was back breaking work but also required great skill in the crushing, boiling and striking of the canes. The canes were planted from January to April and the harvest started in October. Slaves sometimes laboured in the fields for 18 hours a day. Perhaps because of his illness Charles Jackson was spared this and was given less physically demanding work to do, otherwise it is difficult to see how he could have survived.
Whatever his role on the plantation one can speculate that harsh, repressive treatment would have been the order of the day for Charles Jackson and the other slaves. The plantation owners on the German Coast lived in fear of revolution. In 1811 the German Coast had seen the largest slave rebellion in US history, when 200 or more slaves, led by three men, Quamena (Kwamena), Harry and Charles Deslonds, marched on New Orleans. They burnt down plantation houses and killed two white men but, armed with only farm implements, they were easily defeated by the New Orleans militia. The rebellion was brutally suppressed; 95 slaves were killed in total with 44 executed in Jackson Square, New Orleans, after summary trial. Charles Deslonds is reputed to have had his hands cut off and his legs broken before being burnt and eventually shot. Subjugation and terror were the order of the day.
The runaway slave advert may identify another individual with sickle cell disease from the United States in the antebellum (pre-civil war) period. It is of course impossible to prove this now, but it does allow us to gain some insight into the institution of slavery and how it affected the slaves and their owners. Given what we now know of sickle cell disease, the lives of these individuals, and the miseries they must have suffered, unrecognised and uncared for, are difficult for us to comprehend. One thing is for sure Charles Jackson must have been a most remarkable man.
With thanks to; Dr Erin Greenwald curator of the “Purchased Lives exhibition – New Orleans and the Domestic Slave Trade 1808 to 1865”, The Williams Research Centre, Chartres Street and The Historic New Orleans Collection. And to Josephine Amos for additional research and photographs.