- The Origins of the African-Born Population of Antebellum Texas:A Research Note
Click for larger view
View full resolution
[End Page 216]
Sometime in 1834 or 1835, a sixteen year-old boy named Ojo disembarked from a small sailing vessel on the San Bernard River and scrambled up the muddy bank to a camp carved out of the forested bottomland. The camp—“plantation” would be too grandiose a word—belonged to James Fannin, recently arrived from Georgia, now a landowner and slave trader in Texas. Ojo was one of a few dozen newly arrived African-born men and women that Fannin had smuggled into Texas from Cuba, and in due time would become one of a community of what was probably several hundred Yoruba-speakers on the lower Brazos River. Ojo had managed to survive the final, chaotic collapse of the Oyo Empire where he was raised, only to experience capture and what was likely the first of many sales over the next few years. He endured the physically and emotionally painful march to the coast and a wait of unknown duration in the squalor of the barracoons near a lagoon on the Bight of Benin. He lived through the Middle Passage and may even have survived an outbreak of cholera en route to Texas from Cuba. But Ojo thrived as well as can be expected under the bleak conditions of Texas plantation society. In 1845, ten years after landing, he was married to a woman named Mary and was the father of five children ranging from one to eight years of age. Seventeen years after that, in 1862, Ojo and Mary appear to have been still together, and living with at least three of their children on the same plantation. After that, Ojo disappears from the record.1 [End Page 217]
Historians have long known that the population of African-born slaves in antebellum Texas was quite sizable, in proportion perhaps larger than any other southern state. The first professional historian to write about them was Eugene C. Barker in 1902, who interviewed several eyewitnesses who had encountered the Africans in the 1830s. Since Barker, a number of scholars have collectively demonstrated that the illegal introduction of African-born slaves to Texas by way of Cuba occurred sporadically right up to the Civil War, but that the majority arrived during the Texas Revolutionary period. In all, Texas historians have succeeded in documenting an activity whose clandestine nature has foiled countless researchers elsewhere.2
Yet for all this success in documenting the smuggling of African-born slaves and their presence on Texas plantations, the geographic, linguistic, and cultural origins of the people themselves have been difficult to uncover. The necessary evidence simply did not survive, largely because they arrived via the intra-Caribbean slave trade, resulting in an extra degree of documentary separation from ports of embarkation in Africa to their final destination in Texas. One piece of evidence, a “vocabulary” of everyday words compiled by William Fairfax Gray, who encountered groups of Africans on several occasions in 1836, could have helped answer the question, but this wordlist has not survived. A tantalizing reference to African origins was documented in a case heard by the U.S...