The Hidden Figures of Dumbarton House: slavery and servitude within the Nourse household

Ten years ago Chris started as an Education Graduate Intern, researching the question—did the Nourse family have any enslaved workers or indentured servants in their household?  As many historical researchers know, with a project like this, the first place to start is in the museum archives.  Over time, Dumbarton House has collected volumes of correspondence between the Nourse family and community that allows us some insight into the enslaved, indentured, and freed servants who made the Nourse household run.

Slavery in Georgetown 

As the farthest point upstream that ocean-going boats could navigate, Georgetown became a bustling port town in the 1750s, predating the capital and creation of the District of Columbia. It was one of the largest tobacco ports in the country and also a center of slave trade. Black men and women, both free and enslaved, formed approximately one third of Georgetown’s population in 1800. Though no better than life on a large plantation, slavery in urban areas was practiced differently. Archival research suggests the enslaved and indentured servants here at Dumbarton House worked the farm and were hired out to help on other farms in the area. Some lived on the property in cabins, though enslaved domestic workers may also have slept on mats on the floor of the hallway or above the kitchen. Life in the city also provided more opportunities for the enslaved and indentured workers to know people outside of their household, including freed blacks, due to the urban environment.  

Extract from 1800 census (Library of Congress) showing Joseph Nourse’s household at bottom.
Extreme right column title is “Slaves”.

We know from census records and the museum archives that Joseph Nourse had both enslaved and “free colored males and females” working within his household from at least 1785-1840, including the time period the Nourse family lived at Dumbarton House (1804-1813). In researching the lives of the indentured and enslaved people at Dumbarton House, we know very little about their lives outside of the Nourses’ perspective. Dinah, Bacchus, Jane and Juba are just four of about 10-13 enslaved and indentured workers who are part of Dumbarton House’s rich history.

Profiles of Some Enslaved / Indentured Individuals in the Nourse Household

Dinah

Dinah was part of the Nourse household, according to the Nourse letters, for at least 25 years.  She was with the family in Philadelphia and made the trip with them to Washington when it became our nation’s capital.  Most of the letters refer to her cooking and preparing meals, which we believe was her role in the household. We have letters that state, “Richard came down yesterday with a bag of apples which Dinah is pairing to be dined” and “Dinah [is making] fried bacon, an apple dumpling or a rice pudding.”  Letters from Maria Nourse to her son, Charles and husband, Joseph, 1803 and 1804 respectively.

Bacchus

Bacchus was a male who was in the Nourse household from 1785-1809.  He is first mentioned in a letter of 1785, when the Nourses were living in Philadelphia.  This letter suggests the Nourses sent him out on numerous trips: “I am anxious about so much as a Servant, they are so difficult to be had, that I wish Dinah may be sent along with…Bacchus.” Letter from Joseph Nourse to Maria Nourse, Sunday May 15th 1785.

Extract from Joseph’s letter to Maria, May 15th, 1785 (Dumbarton House archives).

In a telling letter to Maria Nourse from Sarah, who we believe is Maria’s sister, they discuss Bacchus and the institutionalized racism of slavery.

Bacchus behaves as well as any Negro can.  I am surprised at the folly of those who expect to see the same virtues give equal luster to their conduct with ours, when they are deprived of the most powerful stimulus to good conduct (with respect to this world) character and the acquirement of property.

Who among us would be industrious if convinced he should always remain poor, who cherish the social virtues convinced of the impossibility of calling them into action or attaining by their means respectability in life?

(Letter, 1797.)

These letters give us a glimpse into the feelings and emotions Sarah had regarding slavery in relation to Bacchus.

Jane

Jane was in charge of many different household duties: cooking, sewing, handling some of the household financial accounts.  In family letters between Joseph, Charles, and Maria we encounter phrases such as “please give Jane half a pack of young small French green beans to pickle before you come away…”And that “Jane counted her cash on hand today, and debts outstanding for butter etc. this week, and it stands at about 19 pounds of butter.”  Lastly, Maria states, “I purchased 10 yards of linen…which Jane has amused herself with making a covering for Dinah’s back and Juba and Frank’s legs.”  These three letters date from 1796 through 1805.

 

Extract from map of Georgetown 1814 (Library of Congress).
During Nourse’s residence, the house was located between Back Street and Mill Street and the property extended to 8.5 acres.

Juba

Juba’s duties, for the most part, occurred outside of the home.  He is mentioned working in the garden, as well as escorting Maria Nourse and her daughter on at least one trip.  In letters between Maria and Joseph, Maria states, “Juba can bring Jane a pint worth of milk every morning from market…” And Charles writes to his mother “I have determined to send you this by your trusty servant Juba…” and “[they] are going to do wonders in the garden—and Juba[‘s] work will astonish you.” These letters are from circa 1804.

New Interpretation at Dumbarton House

This is an exciting time for Dumbarton House because we have been steadily working on interpretation in the museum. During our recent closure for HVAC renovations, staff and volunteers have been working to highlight the lives of Dinah, Bacchus, Jane, and Juba in the interpretation of Dumbarton House. We are excited to weave the stories of these individuals into the interpretation of the Nourse family which will give a more comprehensive view of the history of Dumbarton House.

Christopher Celauro, Docent, Museum Teacher and MA Public Anthropology

Stephanie Boyle, Education Manager