July 22, 1851 was the day that a slave called Prince left Savannah Georgia for East Florida. The manifest describes him as being 28 years old, 6 feet tall, and “black”…which in this case means that he had very dark skin. The man who received Prince was my ancestor, Louis Henry Rossignol. Two months later, according to the Bureau of Land Management, Louis acquired the first property for his timber operation. Louis, whose family was already considered wealthy in Georgia due to marrying into some gold mines, becomes even more successful while in Palatka Florida. This couldn’t have happened without the slave called Prince.
But first, some history…
The following is a brief summary of who the Rossignols are and where they come from.
The name traces back to French mathematicians and cryptographers; code writers/code breakers. The name means nightingale and skeleton key (yes, just like in the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim game…the name Rossignol shows up in the game credits).
They gained royal favor in 1626 when Antoine Rossignol quickly translated a coded letter that was intercepted during a siege at Réalmont. Antoine, a well known mathematician and cryptographer, broke the cipher very quickly; revealing that the besieged force was in bad need of ammo. The following day, the besiegers delivered the translated message back to the city.
In a single afternoon, his work broke a code and the siege, forcing the Huguenots surrender. Not long after Antoine and his son, Bonaventure, created the Great Cipher…a code so insane that it would take centuries for it to be broken once Antoine’s grandson, Antoine-Bonaventure dies and it falls out of use. Antoine was also part of the Cabinet Noir, France’s intelligence bureau. Antoine earned the title “King’s Counselor” under Louis XIV and the family seems to have remained close to the crown for generations. So close in fact, they were forced to flee France during the French Revolution; eventually settling in Saint Domingue, modern Haiti.
Like every other aristocrat, or wanna be aristocrat, they owned slaves. They got rich off the blood and toil of the enslaved. And then they paid the price for their avarice. The family was one which was specifically targeted for annihilation during the Haitian Revolution. Very few members of the family were spared by the revolutionaries. There are stories of intense brutality being meted out to former slave owners. Mobs of revolutionaries marched through the streets with the heads of the infants and children of their oppressors on sticks. Relatively few of the elite families managed to escape the violence. This is how Paul Rossignol and James Rossignol end up in Georgia (via Canada or Pennsylvania) after both were born in Saint Domingue; I think they were brothers but they may have been cousins.
While the information available online about the family’s life in Georgia is scant, there is slightly more available concerning Paul than James. Paul marries a cousin, a Dugas, who’s family is in the gold business in Georgia and spends some short time as the superintendent of the Dahlonega mint. A website devoted to Georgia’s gold rush history had this to say about him:
“In April 1841 Paul Rossignol replaced Superintendent Singleton, due to the inauguration of Whig President William Henry Harrison.
Coincidentally, the amount of bullion being deposited increased significantly. Rossignol, from Habersham County, and of French descent, was 53 years old when he became superintendent. He seemed somewhat out of place in the frontier community. Continuing concerns about the possibility of the mint’s closure plagued Rossignol. He also incurred the wrath of depositors who were not promptly paid; some had to wait for over a month for their Dahlonega pieces. The increase in deposits, spurred on by a very rich strike at the O’Bar Mine in May 1842, caused a strain on the ability of the mint to respond to the increased demand. Although Rossignol was accused of profiting from his office, stemming from the delay in paying depositors, a close examination of the facts revealed that his worst “crime” was being a foreigner.”
That assessment is only part of the story. What’s less commonly known is that the United States originally tried to block the Saint Domingue refugees from landing here at all. This is why there is a larger concentration of Rossignols in Canada instead of the US.
France also used the three-caste system of slaves, free blacks, and rich whites, that I’ve already repeatedly described as being used in the Spanish colonies. (See also: Jane Landers Black Society in Spanish Florida) And just like I’ve described happening in the Spanish colonies, there was a lot of racial blending happening in Saint Domingue too. Meaning that the US didn’t want to risk having mixed race persons coming into the country and stirring up a(nother) slave revolt here too.
So Paul Rossignol’s troubles weren’t just because he was a foreigner…it was also because they were afraid he might have actually been “black” instead of white. The area where the mint was built was considered a frontier area, and it’s mentioned that Paul seemed not to fit in. This was around the same time when another Rossignol, Dr. Henry Rossignol (another brother or cousin to Paul and James) was having some difficulty being granted a license to practice medicine because of concerns about his race, so one can imagine why Paul wouldn’t fit in.
James Rossignol was also born in Saint Domingue and settles in Savannah, Georgia. He later becomes a prominent brick merchant who supplements his income through renting slaves. The slaves themselves may have actually been owned by Paul, but some were managed and housed in Savannah. When you think about it, that’s a good investment, especially for James’ business. He sells you a ton of bricks, then rents you the labor to lay them. While James was not considered one of the elite slave owners, he owns more than many of his neighbors.
Although Georgia as a whole was not very welcoming of ethnic blending, Savannah was a little more relaxed. Years of port to port contact with Spanish East Florida may have influenced their social view of such things. Just like St. Augustine, there was a small, wealthy, group of men who were open about their relationships with their slaves and even provided for the offspring of their unions. Many of these families had extended relations in various parts of southeastern Georgia and Spanish East Florida. Just in tracing my own family line we have discovered a web of like-minded families who were interconnected through trade and eventually through marriage.
We believe Louis Henry Rossignol was a younger son of James Rossignol. He was a first generation American who was raised among Savannah’s inter-cultural elite. He likely went to Florida with his future brother in law.
Louis is who receives the slave called Prince.
Louis Henry de Rossignol de Beleanse (possibly de Grandmont)
The Rossignols are essentially stupidly wealthy until they reach the US as refugees. Then they first had to leave France for Saint Domingue to escape the French Revolution; and not long after had to leave Saint Domingue in escape of another revolution. Running for your life is a little expensive. The Rossignol family would make a trans-Atlantic break for it twice in a single lifetime…they had to travel all the way up the Atlantic coast from Haiti to finally find a welcoming port. Literally traveling the length and breadth of the Atlantic ocean was a significant drain on their funds. They weren’t poor by any means, but they were definitely starting to feel a pinch.
This is likely the motivation behind Louis’ move to Florida. Some of this is guess work, but we believe that Louis came to Florida in the company of a man about his age named John Samuel De Montmollin II. It’s possible that the two families are related, and both come from Saint Domingue. The 1840 census places John in Duval County, Florida. The only other person listed in the household is another white man around the same age. I believe this is Louis. John marries Louis’ sister not long after this and they name one of their sons Louis Henry. So it’s very likely that the men were close.
Prince first shows up as belonging to Louis on the 1850 census. Through the records I’ve been able to examine so far, it seems that Prince was born to one of the family’s slaves a couple of years before Louis. It was common practice, for those families who could, to gift your children a slave. As cruel as that is, for the wealthy child it was similar to having a trust fund.
For the part of the children themselves, they would often spend early childhood building a bond through play. For a family trying to make a living on a frontier, privileged or not, there were not a lot of daily options for socializing. Giving your child a slave was the same as giving your child a tablet or iPhone today, it gave them something to play with.
There are multiple stories in the WPA Slave Narratives that mention slave children spending early childhood, and beyond, in close contact with planter children. Sometimes the children would become co-conspirators in testing authority…and would be punished together for it as well.
A story told by former slave Douglas Dorsey illustrates this well. Dorsey was a slave for a family named Matier; the mistress of the family was notoriously cruel. Dorsey relates that one of his tasks was walking the children to and from school and carrying their books for them. During the long walks home, one of the boys would tell Dorsey what he had learned to a point where Dorsey eventually learned to read and write from the conversations. When the mistress discovered this fact, she beat both the slave child and her own child in the same manner and with the same level of brutality. Following the beating, the Matier child would steal grease from the kitchen. The boys would then take turns soothing each other’s wounds with the grease.
It should also be remembered that these relationships did not all have positive outcomes. More often these interactions had tragic results. A child emulates what they see.
The 1850 Census for Palatka shows Louis as the owner of 3 slaves, including a 28 year old black man. 1860 shows us that he now holds 11 slaves, including a 37 year old black male. This is likely Prince.
Again judging only from what I’ve gathered, it seems that the Rossignol family had adjusted their thinking about slavery. They still owned them, because they were a lucrative investment, but they were wiser in their treatment. They do not seem to be as reliant on slave labor as they had been either. However, this could also be a sign of a decrease in wealth instead of an increase in conscience.
In Florida, Louis will eventually find himself in a unique situation when he begins a life with the prominent free woman of color, Susan Clarke. Susan is the granddaughter of the former Lt. Governor of Spanish East Florida. Her grandfather had been an associate of unusual planter elite, Zephaniah Kingsley. Her family had extensive connections among the elite class. The fact that Susan’s father had been a slave did not seem to bother Louis. This was likely because Louis would have already been familiar with the idea since France and Spain were employing a similar 3 caste system in their colonies.
Since Susan is considered a free black, she cannot do anything without a white guardian overseeing it. Louis usually fills this role for his common law wife and their children. The couple also cannot legally marry since you couldn’t marry outside of your race at this time. The fact that their skin was the same color didn’t matter, her blood said she was black.
By 1860 Louis is part of Susan’s thriving free black community. Their neighbors are other wealthy white men who recognized the communal financial good of ignoring certain laws. Other neighbors include several of Susan’s extended family members. The son of her grandfather’s second wife lives in their home, and his mother lives in the care of his sisters nearby. There were also those closely connected with the other powerful, ethnically blended, families living in the little port community as well.
A letter from the 1850’s was written between her brothers that mentions the fear one of them is experiencing over his slave, Peter, and his safety in the United States. The letter also talks about the rest of the family’s plans to leave Florida, including plans to have Susan leave as well. Being the one of the last members of her family still in north-central Florida, the slaves Louis had may have been family members, or the slaves of family members, who would have more legal protections as slaves than they did free. It was socially unacceptable to abuse someone else’s property; but it was perfectly acceptable to brutalize free blacks. This is likely why in 1860 we find Susan’s brother still holding a 33 year old male slave; said slave is very likely the slave called Peter.
In his book, Heaven’s Soldiers, Dr. Frank Marotti describes Susan as the matriarch of a thriving settlement of about 30 free blacks by 1860. Many of these are family and extended family members. This is also one of a scant handful of free black settlements that are still located along the banks of the St. Johns River in the years preceding the Civil War. By this time, most other free blacks had been run out of the state, arrested, or sold back into slavery. So it’s likely they were owned simply because it was safer for them.
It’s equally likely that slaves were a good investment so they purchased more of them. Both Susan and Louis’ families believed this to be true and encouraged investing in slaves and land as the best ways to secure a productive financial future. George J. F. Clarke even goes so far as to request in his will that his second wife, Anna Benet, be freed and given a portion of his estate to use specifically to invest in slaves. As well, Louis and Susan’s settlement was timber and agriculture, plus a sawmill and some steamboats…these would have needed labor and slaves could provide that labor at the lowest cost.
The Slave Called Prince
I have to admit, I do not feel comfortable saying that this man was “named” Prince. I do not know how much control his parents had over his naming, so I don’t feel comfortable saying he was named Prince. This is why I am saying that he was “called” Prince instead. I would also like to make it clear, at this point, that I know I’m not going to sound very enlightened when I say the following…
Prince was a slave that would have made Louis’ neighbors jealous. Prince is listed as being six feet tall, which is taller than many white men at this time. There is also a belief among some planters that said darker slaves were better at labor. At 28 years old, a man like him would have been in high demand. He’s in his prime. It’s likely he is a tradesman as well. Not to mention that Prince would have been considered a “stallion” “stud” or “buck”…a man meant to significantly increase and improve your breeding stock. (That sentence actually hurt to write) His physical description alone starts his price around $2,500, everything else from there just increases his price. In short, Louis has a high end luxury model.
Understanding all of this makes things even more awkward. Without Prince, my ancestor would not have been nearly as successful. I’d like to daydream that the two men were friends. That Louis and Prince began as childhood friends and remained close throughout their lives. I’d like to think that because I’m more comfortable with it. The most likely reality is much less appealing. They probably did have a working relationship, and Louis seemed to believe he could trust Prince. The trip to Georgia and back says that Prince was at least trustworthy enough to do that much. However it is outright foolishness to pretend that Louis ever considered Prince an equal, or even a friend. Prince was seen as property and was most likely treated as such.
Several books mention that Susan and Louis headed a profitable little, ethnically diverse, community from the 1850’s on. This, as well, would not have been possible without Prince’s contribution. Prince and the woman I suspect may be his wife were with Louis for at least 15 traceable years, possibly longer. As I said, I believe Prince was born of a slave already owned by the Rossignol family. All signs, so far, also point to Prince being an integral part of Louis and Susan’s community.
I believe that the 1860 slave schedule shows Prince’s family. In 1850, we have 3 slaves listed as Louis’. 28 year old male, 18 year old male, and 25 year old female. I believe the 25 year old female is Prince’s wife. By 1860 Louis’ has 11 slaves. The way they are listed implies that Prince and his wife had at least three children. The listing is as follows:
53 year old male, 37 year old male, 35 year old female, 12 year old female, 6 year old male, 1 year old female, 30 year old male, 30 year old male, 22 year old male, 17 year old male, 15 year old female.
Breaking things down you can see smaller units within the larger listing. For example, the 37 year old male that I suspect is Prince is followed by the 35 year old female that I suspect is his wife. They are then followed by three children who I believe are the children of the couple. It’s even possible that the 17 year old male and 15 year old female are theirs as well.
Aside from the 53 year old, all of the other men listed are prime working age. It’s most likely that they are part of Louis’ timber operations. The relatively small number of slaves means that Louis was not required to have a white overseer. In fact, in Putnam county in 1860 there were only two men who list their profession as overseer; and one of those works for two planters*. This is in contrast to neighboring Alachua County which has 46.
By all accounts, Susan was the one with the connections and clout, while Louis was the one generating the capital.
Because of Susan’s familial connections I can make some assumptions as to how Prince was viewed and treated…although this still doesn’t change the fact that he was considered property. Susan’s family was part of a group of slave owners who followed the ideals laid down in Zephaniah Kingsley’s Treatise on the patriarchal, or co-operative system of society, which states “The idea of slavery, when associated with cruelty and injustice, is revolting to every philanthropic mind”.
Susan was raised in a world where slavery was a temporary position that one could work their way out of. Her own father had been born a slave who was manumitted by his white father at birth. Manumission was difficult, but it happened more often in Susan’s area than it did in other places in Florida.
As well, Susan’s grandfather and her uncle both marry slaves. Her grandfather, George J F Clarke, repeatedly stated that he saw his former slave wives as his equals in all things. His associate, Zephaniah Kingsley, says of his first wife, Anna, that none equaled her fortitude and intellect. Most of the men in this social clique had trusted slave men who oversaw their plantations, usually in concert with their wives. There was a lot of misplaced and unwanted paternalism, but overall Susan’s family and their friends did not view race or slavery in the same way as their contemporaries. They didn’t automatically view being black as a flaw…that perception would have to be beaten into the family later.
Susan’s family, as well as several of the other slave owners in the area, believed in using the task system instead of the more brutal gang system. The task system allowed slaves greater autonomy and more leisure time. Before Florida became a state, this system was more common. It allowed slaves sufficient time to earn the money to purchase their freedom and the freedom of their family members.
After statehood, however, the gang system becomes more prevalent and manumission becomes all but impossible; nearly eliminating the ability to grant a slave’s freedom without heavy fines and other restrictions…even if you wanted to. This was why fewer slaves are able to purchase their freedom in the run up to the Civil War. The more autonomous task system was the closest thing they could get to freedom at the time.
If I take these assumptions at face value, then it’s likely that Prince was actually the guy in charge of the labor and perhaps even more. He may have even been the one to act in Louis’ stead when occasion arose. Kingsley and others had slaves who did the same, so the precedent exists.
Louis’ slaves were mostly work age males suggesting that this was their only purpose. The two females were likely used as domestics while the males were cutting trees or tending the fields and groves.
Unfortunately, slaves at lumber camps were often required to spend months away from their families. Louis’ timber property was not quite as far away from Palatka as others, but this doesn’t mean Prince was able to see his family as often as he would have liked. The family’s agricultural interests, and their orange groves, were also located away from the city…where the family’s main home was located. Even with all of the altruistic stuff, Prince was still considered a tool to be used.
I’d like to know what happened to him following the Civil War. I haven’t been able to see if he shows up on Florida’s Civil War census or not and I would love to know. My living family has never spoken of owning slaves other than to say that they did. I also haven’t been able to find anything that says Louis had to be forced to free him; so I can only assume that he did so willingly…or at least non-violently.
Nothing my family managed to accomplish in the years leading up to the Civil War would have been possible without Prince. This is why I want to know who he was instead of just knowing: Male, 28, 6 feet tall, black.
Was female 25 black his wife? Were those their children? What were their names? What name did they choose after freedom? Did they stay in Florida? Where did they go if they didn’t? Did they leave on their own or did the laws and general atmosphere of Florida run them out like it had done so many of my free black ancestors? Did they leave the country entirely? Did he choose to enlist in the Union Army? Or was he with his family in Palatka when Union soldiers attacked?
I have so many questions that I would love to ask his descendants. But thinking about it is kind of…
Going over the census records there are both whites and free blacks listed as working in timber and agriculture….as in this was work they were being paid to do. Maybe Prince and his family were getting some kind of compensation too. Susan and Louis’ community was full of former slaves and other free blacks, Louis was actually the only white person living at their port, so I don’t think he would have gotten away with the normal brutality.
Susan’s family joins the Union side in Key West and St. Augustine almost as soon as they land; as well as joining up in New York and other locations. In addition, it appears that Louis was drafted into service during the Civil War…but doesn’t show up on the muster rolls for his unit. But none of this tells me which side they were in during the war.
My family wasn’t opposed to slavery, but they did oppose treating someone badly by basing your assumptions about them on their race. They treated slaves (relatively) well because it made better financial sense than wasting materials. My family actually liked having slaves because they were a lucrative investment with a high return. With less than a dozen slaves on hand, it did not make financial sense to punish a slave to the point where they were unable (or unwilling) to work.
The task system was employed because it was less of a financial burden on the slave owner. Everything in Kingsley’s Teatise was designed to create an economical system of slave management. Their decisions to treat their slaves with a greater sense of decency was not a decision made of altruistic compassion. These were decisions made from white superiority for the greatest economic gain.
Allowing slaves time to raise and otherwise process their own food, clothing, and whatever else they needed, lessened how much the slave owner had to provide for them. Allowing Africans to maintain tribal practices and keeping family units together gave them less reason to runaway. Allowing slaves unions to be socially, if not legally, recognized and allowing slaves to choose their own mates served the same purpose. Allowing them to own some few possessions, as well as keeping families mostly together, gave them a reason to defend the plantation against attacks.
What all this means for me is that, even though my ancestors treated their slaves more kindly than many of their contemporaries, they still thought of people as property. Granted, this was not the world they created, only the world they were born into. The world they were trying to survive within.
Which sounds great…until you remember that Susan and Louis were carrying on a completely illegal relationship with the help of the very men who were writing the laws they were openly ignoring. Meaning that it’s fairly obvious they had no problems with picking and choosing which laws to follow when it suited them.
So what makes this awkward for me is that I am essentially wanting to ask someone “How has your family fared since mine stopped owning yours?” Which kind of seems like a really weird question.
Maybe this is why, as a society, we never really talk about it.
Maybe it would be an easier thing to consider if my family had actually chosen definite side. But we didn’t. We purchased slaves, while believing cruelty was wrong. We supported manumission, while being against abolition. We were slaves and slave owners. Masters and servants. Black and white.
We, as always, were in the middle.
*Unrelated Side Note: The WPA Slave Narratives have a story mentioning the Bellamy Road near Grandin Florida. Former slave, Neil Coker, tells us that this road was the considered a sign that a runaway slave had reached sanctuary and would soon reach the freedom of Seminole territory. He also tells us that runaways sometimes “would pause on their trip at some plantation, ascertain the name of the ‘meanest’ overseer on the place, then tie him backward on a horse and force him to accompany them. Particularly retributive were the punishments visited upon Messrs. Mays and Prevatt, — generally recognized as the most vicious slave drivers of the section.”
Mays was the name of the family of another ancestor of mine married into. Archibald Cole fathered two children with Susan before she met Louis. After the relationship ends, Archibald marries a woman named Annie Lamar Mays. The man who was overseer for two planters worked for the Mays and Cole families…my family…I speculate that my great, great, great, grandfather Cole was gracious enough to loan his in-laws the use of his overseer whenever the situation arose.