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From Slave Ship to Harvard

Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family

James H. Johnston

Publication Year: 2012

From Slave Ship to Harvard is the true story of an African American family in Maryland over six generations. The author has reconstructed a unique narrative of black struggle and achievement from paintings, photographs, books, diaries, court records, legal documents, and oral histories. From Slave Ship to Harvard traces the family from the colonial period and the American Revolution through the Civil War to Harvard and finally today. Yarrow Mamout, the first of the family in America, was an educated Muslim from Guinea. He was brought to Maryland on the slave ship Elijah and gained his freedom forty-four years later. By then, Yarrow had become so well known in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., that he attracted the attention of the eminent American portrait painter Charles Willson Peale, who captured Yarrow's visage in the painting that appears on the cover of this book. The author here reveals that Yarrow's immediate relatives-his sister, niece, wife, and son-were notable in their own right. His son married into the neighboring Turner family, and the farm community in western Maryland called Yarrowsburg was named for Yarrow Mamout's daughter-in-law, Mary "Polly" Turner Yarrow. The Turner line ultimately produced Robert Turner Ford, who graduated from Harvard University in 1927. Just as Peale painted the portrait of Yarrow, James H. Johnston's new book puts a face on slavery and paints the history of race in Maryland. It is a different picture from what most of us imagine. Relationships between blacks and whites were far more complex, and the races more dependent on each other. Fortunately, as this one family's experience shows, individuals of both races repeatedly stepped forward to lessen divisions and to move America toward the diverse society of today.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. 1-6

When the eminent American portrait painter Charles Willson Peale was visiting Georgetown in 1818, he heard of a Negro living there, said to be 140 years of age. Peale wrote in his diary that he proposed ‘‘to make a portrait...

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1. Yarrow Mamout, a West African Muslim Slave

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pp. 7-21

Yarrow Mamout was born in West Africa in 1736 and brought to America as a slave in 1752. He was Fulani, also called Fulbe and Peul, a nomadic people that had converted to Islam. Although the Fulani were associated...

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2. Tobacco and the Importation of a Labor Force

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pp. 22-40

When the first English settlers made landfall in Maryland on March 25, 1634, a full 118 years before Yarrow came, slavery was the last thing on their minds. One hundred and fifty of them arrived on two sailing ships. One was the 350-ton, full-rigged...

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3. Welcome to America

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pp. 41-51

Annapolis was teeming with visitors on June 4, 1752, a Thursday. A new session of the colonial assembly had convened the previous day, and the town was full of legislators and favor-seekers. In addition, planters and slave traders...

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4. Slavery and Revolution

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pp. 52-60

Yarrow left few historical traces while he was a slave. Years later, Charles Willson Peale, after investigating Yarrow in connection with painting him, came away with the impression that Georgetown was the only place he had lived in America. Another...

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5. Yarrow of Georgetown

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pp. 61-80

Brooke Beall had at least two properties when he succeeded to ownership of Yarrow after Samuel Beall’s death. One was a huge country estate called Beallmount near present-day Potomac, Maryland; the other was a business and residence...

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6. The Portraits: Peale, Yarrow, and Simpson

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pp. 81-100

By the time he met Yarrow Mamout in January 1819, Charles Willson Peale was wealthy, famous, respected, and aging. In addition to being an artist and portrait painter, he had served as an army officer during the Revolutionary War...

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7. Free Hannah, Yarrow’s Sister

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pp. 101-111

Although there is little direct information about Yarrow’s sister, documents and circumstances suggest that she was the slave named Hannah belonging to Joseph Wilson of Rockville, Maryland. Wilson and his extended family...

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8. Nancy Hillman, Yarrow’s Niece

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pp. 112-121

Nancy Hillman was born around 1769, according to a later census. She was nineteen years older than her cousin, Aquilla Yarrow.1 If Free Hannah was Yarrow’s sister, then Nancy grew up in Rockville, and both Hannah...

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9. Aquilla Yarrow

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pp. 122-131

Aquilla Yarrow was Yarrow Mamout’s only known offspring. He was born to a slave mother around 1788. He was quite a bit younger than his cousin, Nancy Hillman, and about Josiah Henson’s age. Although Yarrow called himself...

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10. Mary ‘‘Polly’’ Turner Yarrow

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pp. 132-139

Aquilla Yarrow married Mary Turner, called at various times in her life Mary Yarrow, Polly Yarrow, Polly Yaner, and Polly Jones.1 She will be referred to as Mary Turner, Polly Yarrow, and sometimes Mary ‘‘Polly’’ Turner Yarrow...

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11. Aquilla and Polly in Pleasant Valley

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pp. 140-148

Aquilla and Polly would have found Pleasant Valley to be all that the name implies. Ten miles long and two miles wide, the fertile valley is largely devoted to agriculture even today. It runs north and south between South Mountain to the east...

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12. Traces of Yarrow

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pp. 149-157

The end of Yarrow’s bloodline in America did not end his connections to later events in Maryland, Georgetown, and black history. These are worth noting before turning to the rest of his in-laws, the Turners. Yarrow was long...

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13. Unpleasant Valley

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pp. 158-176

Aquilla’s death in 1832 left Polly, at age thirty-three, a widow. She lived alone and on good terms with her white neighbors. She was not isolated from the black community, though. Her brother was a slave on Elie...

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14. Freedom

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pp. 177-188

Pleasant Valley had changed radically by the time Simon Turner came home from the war. The Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 did not end slavery in Maryland, but the State of Maryland passed a new constitution in November...

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15. From Harvard to Today

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pp. 189-200

Judging by the photograph of her, you would never think that Emma Turner Ford was the daughter of slaves. She looks like any other middle-class woman of her day. Nor would you think she held such passionate beliefs...

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Epilogue: Guide to the Yarrows’ and Turners’ World Today

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pp. 201-220

Many of the tangible things mentioned in this book—the art, the structures, and the documents—are still around. Each has its own story. Some are recognized in the context of traditional American history— that is to say, white...


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pp. 221-267


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pp. 269-275


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pp. 277-281


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pp. 283-302

E-ISBN-13: 9780823246663
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823239504
Print-ISBN-10: 0823239500

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Mamout, Yarrow, 1736-1823.
  • Mamout, Yarrow, 1736-1823 -- Family.
  • Slaves -- Maryland -- Biography.
  • Free African Americans -- Maryland -- Biography.
  • African Americans -- Maryland -- Biography.
  • Slavery -- Maryland -- History.
  • African American families -- Maryland -- Biography.
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