Posted by: Kathleen Cross | June 18, 2008

James Breeden’s “Negro Woman”

On February 28, 1825, a white Tennessee farmer appeared before the Hawkins County Court with his black slave and two children he sired with her, with the intention of petitioning for their freedom. As required by Tennessee law, James Breeden posted a bond of $500 (roughly equivalent to $9,000 today) so that he might be allowed to convince that body of white men that his “negro woman” and her offspring should no longer be considered his property.

Breeden’s argument apparently satisfied the court. Recorded that day was their decision:

“it is therefore considered…that said Negroes…be emancipated, freed and set at liberty.”

Thus, Charlotte Breeden was granted her freedom along with her two young sons, Lelan and Pleasant. When Pleasant reached adulthood he left Tennessee for Jerseyville Illinois where he purchased 40 acres of land, married a black woman named Cordelia Hinton and produced a free-born daughter, Charlottie Breeden, my great-grandmother.

As I am aware of the economic, social, educational, pyschological and other benefits received by my family, I can say without reservation that the act James Breeden committed before the court on that day more than one hundred and seventy five years ago was good, but I have no idea if he was. He did, after all, own my great-great-great grandmother.

I don’t know if James purchased Charlotte on an auction block, or inherited her from a relative — she might have been a gift from a friend, along with a wheelbarrow and some farming implements. Or, perhaps he bought her from an evil neighbor to save her from a life of torment. There is a heavy ache behind my ribcage as I ponder the possibilities, and concede to the reality that I do not, and probably cannot ever know.

Historical records indicate that James Breeden never married nor sired children with anyone other than Charlotte. In his will he provides for her upkeep,

I will to my negro woman Charlott (that I have freed) one cow and calf for
her support, also one sow and pigs to her own use.

but I don’t know if he loved Charlotte, or held for her any feelings of respect or esteem. I do not know if the sexual act that led to my eventual existence was forced or consensual, torturous or tender.

What I do know is that at a time in American history when it was perfectly legal for James Breeden to do with Charlotte whatever he pleased, he stood before that body of his peers and argued for her freedom. I am grateful to him for that act. Grateful—a word I choose deliberately, fully mindful that I am offering thanks to a white man who both is, and owned, my ancestor.

grateful: grāt fül) adj. 1. Appreciative of benefits received; thankful.

In writing those words, I feel the need to duck and raise one arm protectively in front of me (metaphorically, of course) as I expect someone (who knows the insidious divisions such favors created among the enslaved) to hurl the epithet “house slave” my way.

The first horn lifts its arm over the dew-lit grass
and in the slave quarters there is a rustling—
children are bundled into aprons, cornbread

and water gourds grabbed, a salt pork breakfast taken.
I watch them driven into the vague before-dawn
while their mistress sleeps like an ivory toothpick

and Massa dreams of asses, rum and slave-funk.
I cannot fall asleep again. At the second horn,
the whip curls across the backs of the laggards—

sometimes my sister’s voice, unmistaken, among them.
“Oh! pray,” she cries. “Oh! pray!” Those days
I lie on my cot, shivering in the early heat,

and as the fields unfold to whiteness,
and they spill like bees among the fat flowers,
I weep. It is not yet daylight.

(The House Slave, by U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove)



  1. Powerful post, thank you. Yes, a hero, of sorts, and it’s understandable why your feelings are so mixed.

  2. Thanks for the visit, and the comment. I have become somewhat of a geneaology geek over the years, and have come across many interesting stories in my family history. Charlotte’s story is one that sometimes keeps me awake at night. I want to know more about her and the man who “owned” her. I’ve managed to find most of what I do have through internet research and the postal service. I will definitely have to travel to Hawkins County at some point to dig deeper into this mystery.

  3. In my own research of women’s history in Hawkins County, I came across your piece and find it absolutely fascinating. Having lived in Hawkins County most of my life, I can tell you that in the present, women are still considered something less than men. While it is beautiful here, it seems somewhat oppressive to me even in these modern days and perhaps it helps me to see rays of goodness throughout your story. I can tell you that it is probable that there was love between your ancestors for I cannot envision a man from this place at that time facing his peers for her freedom and acknowledging his children. That he provided for her in his will is very telling in my eyes. Looking from where I am, I can see love.
    I do hope you come visit someday so you can see for yourself.
    Best Wishes!

  4. Hi Jennifer, I’m so glad you found this blog, and I appreciate you taking the time to leave your comment.

    Yes, I can see the “rays of goodness” you speak of. The possiblity that James Breeden loved Charlotte is one one the scenarios I’ve considered. I also thought he might have grown attached to his sons, and wanted to make sure they wouldn’t be sold or mistreated after his death.

    I don’t know how many children Charlotte had in total, but according to Breeden family lore, James gave her three sons. So, either after he freed her and his two babies (they were approximately one and two years old in 1825) he continued his sexual relationship with her and had another child with her, OR there was another son born earlier who possibly didn’t survive??

    Another interesting fact is that James actually wrote his will in 1815, thirteen years before he went to the courthouse to free Charlotte. In that document he states:

    “It is my will and desire that my negro woman Charlott be, and I do hereby set free and liberate my negro woman Charlott after my decease. I give and bequeath unto the before named children of John Rutherford and Betsy Rutherford his wife, and to those they may hereafter have, all the children my said negro woman Charlott now has or may have before my death…”

    and again in the same document

    I will to my negro woman Charlott (that I have freed) one cow and calf for her support, also one sow and pigs to her own use.

    It seems odd that he wanted to make sure she was freed after his death (he mentions her freedom twice in the will as though to make sure no one mistook his intention to free her), but he made no provision for the children she had to belong to her (at least not back then).

    I don’t know what to make of that. I don’t know why he didn’t set Charlotte’s children free in the will — I suppose it is possible he willed the children to his nieces and nephews so they would be cared for; so Charlotte would not have the financial responsibility for them.

    So many questions…. Yes, I definitely will come to Hawkins County to do some sleuthing! I want to find out what ultimately happened to Charlotte. I’ve never found any record of Charlotte’s death or a burial place for her.

  5. It’s family legend that my great-great-great grandmother is the daughter of the master’s son. I’d like to research this, but I don’t know how. do you have any tips?

  6. I used ($fee) and (free) for much of my online research. When I first began the search that led to Charlotte Breeden, I knew only my father’s name and birthplace. I didn’t know my grandmother’s maiden name or where she was born. In only a few weeks time I found the name Breeden on my grandmother’s Social Security application. It’s really exciting to watch the mystery unfold little by little.

    It took many trips to the library to search census records (census records are now viewable online at and a lot of online sleuthing to find more info. A great resource is your local Church of Latter Day Saints genealogy library. They have volunteers to help you search, and they welcome non-church visitors.

    Don’t underestimate the value of Google in your research. I have made many exciting finds simply typing an ancestor’s names and the county they’re from in Google.

  7. Roxie and all:
    What a great story and all that it reveals and doesn’t.
    A bittersweet story of love, in my opinion. When someone has children with someone, it’s a no-brainer, that they’d want their children and the person that bore them to be on the same footing. The system of placage, (pla-sahge). An arrangement where the mother of the girl, “sets her up”, with a wealthy white french or spanish man, mainly in Louisiana, before slavery was abolished, where a marriage, could never happen, so it’s no surprise to me.

  8. @ Sharon,
    I’m not quick to assume there was love or the idea that every slave owner had an emotional bond to offspring he created with his slaves.

    There are plenty of cases of slaveowners selling their own mixed-race babies to far away owners so their wives would never discover the babies’ physical resemblance to massa.

    James Breeden might have loved Charlotte, but for me there will always be a huge question mark.

    I cannot afford to romanticize their relationship. The possiblity exists that my gr-gr-gr grandmother laid beneath a man she feared when her children were conceived. I cringe at the thought of dishonoring her by reaching for the romantic story, while the other possiblity still lives.

  9. James Breeden (Breeding) was not my direct ancestor, but his sister Winifred Breeding Grigsby 1757 and their parents John Breeding (c l7ll) and Winifred Ashby are. I would be glad to share info about that part of the family.
    James Breeding lived with his sister Winifred w/o John Grigsby in Rockingham co Va and has himself and one horse for the tax census in l787. James moved with his sister and brother in law and several other families of Rockingham ( Lauderback, and possibly Roark) to the Dodson Creek Hawkins area by May 5, 1789 where James eventually owned l,000 acres. When James died he left l/3 of his land to his niece Elizabeth Grigsby Rutherford. In 1822 Elizabeth and her husband John Rutherford and their daughter Polly now married to Bayless West head to Scott county Missouri by l830. In 1830 in Scott county they sold a slave named Moore aged 24 for $450. In 1831 they sold another slave to Charles Friend recorded deed book 2;55 May 30, 1831 recorded August 5. I don’t remember if the slave is named. About 1839 (3;64 deed) they sold another slave to pay debts of John Rutherford. I did not find mention of Ester and Simon which they had received from James Breeding’s will. I did not see a way to tell how old Charlotte was when she birthed Pleasant (c 1824) or Leland 1814, which would give us a hint whether she came with them in l789 from Rockingham Virginia. I suspect she was not with them as the Grigsbys and Breedings lived in that part of August Rockingham where slaves were few. James sold his father and grandfather’s land in 1778. It was 420 acres on Pass Run in present Page county, VA about 2 miles north of Luray. While James Breeding was living with his sister and brother in law John Grigsby in Rockingham county in the l787 have no slaves, nor did James.
    Apparently a similar situation to Charlotte existed with John Grigsby (also of Dodson Creek area) in that in his will 1826 he gives slaves Will and his family Susan, Frank and Gibson to wife Winifred. Slaves Ede and Alcy to daughter Lucy Murrell (Harrell) and to grandaus Louisa and Minerva Smith a slave Rose. But of greater interest is his slave Willis is freed after the death of John Grigsby and wife Winifred. “He shall be allowed to live with any of the children as he pleases or with anybody else.” Willis is buried in the family cemetery on the Grigsby/Arnout land at Dodson Creek Hawkins Tn. In l839 Wm Grigsby “free man of color” wife Susan, three children Sarah, Frank and Gipson. has a will with Wade H Smith to be ex. with witness John Reynolds and Edmond Firtzpatrick. I had always felt that William/Willis Grigsby was a son of John Grigsby, the plantation owner.
    I am glad that the times (and people) have so changed that we can now openly discuss these issues, and the pain which they produced on families who lived in slavery, knowing that they were the offspring of slave masters.
    I would be glad to share any family info on the Breedings and Grigsbys and hope that more lost history can come to light.
    Bayless West mentioned above had for his father James West and his mother was Nancy Grigsby, daughter of John above. in l834 Hawkins will of James he left slaves Joe, Cate, Scud, Sull, Anderson, Laoney, Jeff, Bets, Lisa and Sook to his wife and then divided among the children.

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