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Primary Source Exercise #2

HIST 105

Please answer the following question in an essay. Select either A or B to answer. Do not answer both options. Questions follow the documents and are in bold. Written primary sources are in a different font and are specific to each question. Be specific and provide plenty of examples and evidence to support you answer. A complete answer to these questions will require drawing upon readings and evidence from the course. Students’ answers will be evaluated based upon how thoroughly they demonstrate an understanding of the time period, contextualize the provided sources within that time period, and the level of detailed information and evidence provided (with citations!) to support arguments and conclusions. It is not simply enough to repeat what the sources say; you must analyze them and explain how they relate to the time period under study and what information we can glean from them about these time periods. Analyzing primary sources is one of the cornerstones of the historian’s craft. These exercises will teach you the practice of historical inquiry and sharpen your thinking skills. Remember to cite your sources in text and at the end in a Bibliography/Works Cited Page! Good luck!

A. This is an excerpt from a letter from a Cincinnati, Ohio woman:

Letter from Hannah Robbins Gilman to Elizabeth Hale Gilman Hoffman, December 29, 1823

Never my dear Eliza did I so much rejoice, as when I opened my beloved Winthrop’s letter, and discovered your own hand writing. I have thought of you my dear child, with great anxiety since we received Robert’s letter, you suffered so much, the first time you was attacked with that distressing complaint. But the Lord, who hears the cries of his children in distress, and is often seen in the moment of danger, has again appeared for your relief. I trust my dear that you called upon him in your distress, and he has answered your prayers. May you be enabled to give yourself to him, through the blessed Redeemer, which is your duty and privilege. Remember he has said, whosoever shall confess me before men, him will I confess before my father who is in heaven. It is of little consequence whether we attach ourselves to a Presbyterian or Episcopal church, provided they hold to the Deity and atonement of Christ. You my dear Eliza are convinced of these important truths — and O how it would rejoice my heart could I know that my beloved Mary and her husband were also established on these all important points.

Your letter of 14th is at hand. My last was under date of 25th: since which the competition in the Provision Market, has continued increasing. Very prime Pork will now readily command $2.50 & I shall be compelled to pay that price. In general, the pork is not so good this year as usual. I have on hand about 80 bbls. [bbl is an abbreviation for a barrel] Mess, 140 Prime, 200 kegs of Lard, & 25 Hams and Shoulders. The price of the latter, in pickle, as mentioned in your last (7 @ 8cents’ lb) at New York; exceeds my expectations, and would be much better than to sell here on contract at 4 cents — Therefore if you have good grounds to believe that the first quality will command that price, it would be well to omit making a contract, as it will not cost 2cents/lb. to send them from this place to New York, including insurance. I wrote to Captain Pierce requesting him to be at Louisville by the Scioto & Congress, which are to leave this [Cincinnati] the 31st for New Orleans. The River is quite high, no ice, & every prospect of an open Winter. White Beans are 40 cents bushel. I have thoughts of placing a Keg of Lard in the Centre of a bbl of Beans. The plan of putting the article in tin Canisters, is novel, & no doubt will keep it perfectly good for years. There are plenty of Stone Jars here, but I do not like the Shape. For reasons, heretofore mentioned, I have not made any further arrangements with Parsons respecting a Schooner [a type of ship]. If he should build, I could not superintend his Vessel & a Steam Boat at New York. The Rob Roy arrived at New Orleans. I calculate that you will receive the consignment of Tobacco &c, about this time, & shall hope for your report of its quality by the 15th of next month. The bbl of Pork I do not expect will pass the New York Inspection as Mess. I cannot account for the Captain drawing on You for $500 — It was an incorrect measure on his part; and you were wrong in coming under an unconditional acceptance. I hope you will not encounter the same hazard again, for any friend or relative, however dear to You, or respectable. A Gentleman arrived here yesterday, in a Steam Boat from Wheeling 6½ days from Washington City [Washington, D.C.]!

Question: Perhaps now is a good time to mention that Gilman was married to a businessman. Although long and written seemingly haphazardly (hint: all of these prices and numbers are not important unto themselves, but think about what Gilman is doing and how she is doing it), Gilman’s letter highlights an extraordinary number of historical events and developments occurring in American society in the wake of the War of 1812. What characteristics of American society do we see highlighted in her letter? What historical events, developments, and movements is she a part of and observing?

B. This is an excerpt from an autobiographical account of an enslaved man, Henry Watson, who escaped. This book is appropriately entitled Narrative of Henry Watson, A Fugitive Slave and was published in 1848. This excerpt details Watson’s sale in a Richmond, Virginia auction as a young child and the events that immediately followed.

At last everything was ready, and the traffic in human flesh began.

I will attempt to give as accurate an account of the language and ceremony of a slave auction as I possibly can. “Gentlemen, here is a likely boy; how much? He is sold for no fault; the owner wants money. His age is forty. Three hundred dollars is all that I am offered for him. Please to examine him; he is warranted sound. Boy, pull off your shirt ⎯ roll up your pants ⎯ for we want to see if you have been whipped.” If they discover any scars they will not buy, saying that the nigger is a bad one. The auctioneer seeing this, cries, “Three hundred dollars, gentlemen, three hundred dollars. Shall I sell him for three hundred dollars? I have just been informed by his master that he is an honest boy and belongs to the same church that he does.” This turns the tide frequently, and the bids go up fast; and he is knocked off for a good sum.

After the men and women are sold, the children are put on the stand. I was the first put up. On my appearance, several voices cried, “How old is that little nigger?” On hearing this expression, I again burst into tears and wept so that I have no distinct recollection of his answer. I was at length knocked down to a man whose name was Denton, a slave trader, then purchasing slaves for the Southern market. His first name I have forgotten.

Each one of the traders has private jails, which are for the purpose of keeping slaves in, and they are generally kept by some confidential slave. Denton had one of these jails to which I was conducted by his trusty slave, and on entering I found a great many slaves there, waiting to be sent off as soon as their numbers increased. These jails are enclosed by a wall about 16 feet high, and the yard-room is for the slaves to exercise in and consists of but one room, in which all sexes and ages are huddled together in a mass. I stayed in this jail but two days when the number was completed, and we were called out to form a line. Horses and wagons were in readiness to carry our provisions and tents so that we might camp out at night. Before we had proceeded far, Mr. Denton gave orders for us to stop for the purpose of handcuffing some of the men, which, he said in a loud voice, “had the devil in them.” The men belonging to this drove were all married men, and all leaving their wives and children behind; he, judging from their tears that they were unwilling to go, had them made secure. We started again on our journey, Mr. Denton taking the lead in his sulky; and the driver, Mr. Thornton, brought the rear.

I will not weary my readers with the particulars of our march to Tennessee, where we stopped several days for the purpose of arranging our clothes. While stopping, the men were hired out to pick cotton. While in Tennessee we lost four of our number who died from exposure on the road. After the lapse of three weeks we started again on our journey, and in about four weeks arrived in Natchez, Miss., and went to our pen, which Mr. Denton had previously hired for us, and had our irons taken off and our clothes changed; for Mr. Denton was expecting visitors to examine the flock, as he would sometimes term us. There was a sign-board in front of the house, which informed traders that he had on hand blacksmiths, carpenters, field-hands; also several sickly ones, whom he would sell very cheap.

Question: Watson’s account provides an intimate portrayal of slavery in the antebellum United States. What aspects and particularities of America’s slave society are highlighted in this excerpt? Contextualize Watson’s experiences within the broader history of American slavery.


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