Everyone has skeletons in their family history closet, known and unknown. Some can seem quaint and even funny to us today, like my Coles ancestor who had to wear a scarlett “D” for drinking more alcohol than his puritan neighbors liked. But other skeletons can be viewed through current eyes as shameful, outrageous, or tragic.
I have written before about my five times maternal great-grandfather, John DeCamp (about 1743 – 1778), and the fact that he and his wife Susannah enslaved a number of people in Western Pennsylvania where they lived. John descended from Laurens DeCamp, who came to the new world from Holland in 1664. It is believed that Laurens was a Huguenot, born in France, who fled the religious persecution of Protestants in his birth country.
I know from several sources that John DeCamp owned slaves before his death in 1778. Pennsylvania’s slave registry of 1780 listed seven enslaved individuals of the household of John DeCamp and Nehemiah Stokely (at a time when John’s estate was passing into the hands of his wife’s new husband Nehemiah). I learned about a story that John was killed by an enslaved man that he held, and from what little I’ve been able to find about this history, it seems to be true.
The story came to me second or third hand, from a female DeCamp descendent and researcher. She cited a book on the history of Waltz Mill, Pennsylvania, written in the 1930s by a botanist named Oliver Perry Medsger. I’ve searched high and low for a copy of this book, even going so far as contacting a local library, historical society, and a very kind and helpful Medsger descendent. But no luck.
The story told was that DeCamp, a great admirer of horses, owned a particularly fine black horse. One day in 1778, he was found dead on the ground behind the animal. One of his enslaved men later confessed to killing John with a blow from a shovel, apparently after having some sort of dispute with him. The enslaved man said that he lay the body behind the horse in hopes that it would appear that the cause of death was a fatal kicking accident. The book passage ends with the assertion that the enslaved man never faced any penalty for John’s death. That turns out not to be true.
At the time, the area of Southwest Pennsylvania where John DeCamp lived was part of a short-lived county called Yohogania in the state of Virginia. In period Virginia court records, it was recorded that the estate of John Decamp was financially compensated for the loss of “Bazil, a negro man slave, who was condemned and executed for murder”. The compensation came about from a Virginia law dating back to the early 1700s, which provided money to slave owners when the government ordered the transportation or execution of an enslaved person.
The record of Bazil’s execution for murder provides pretty good documentation that something very tragic and unusual happened here. Whether every detail of the story is accurate is another question. Given the culture and accompanying biases of the colonial era, many interpretations are possible for us today. While it seems obvious that John DeCamp did indeed die on that day in 1788, was the man Bazil responsible? Did he confess freely, or was the shovel and horse story (partially or completely) manufactured as a convenience for local law authorities? It’s likely we’ll never know precisely. But there’s no doubt that a tragedy occurred, from many points of view. Two mens’ lives were lost, whether intentionally or accidentally. The established institution of slavery meant that the man Bazil was held against his will in intolerable circumstances, and no matter how John DeCamp actually died, the enslaved would almost certainly suffer the harshest possible punishment. A sad ending to a sad story.
- The Magazine of Early American Datasets, A Just and True Return: A Dataset of Pennsylvania’s Surviving County Slave Registries, James Young Cory 2021
- Personal correspondence with Audrey DeCamp Hoffman
- Virginia Court Records in Southwestern Pennsylvania: Records of the District of West Augusta and Ohio and Yohogania Counties, Virginia, 1775-1780, Boyd Crumrine, 1974
- When Slave Owners Got Reparations, NY Times 2019