1849: Darius Henry Starbuck to Gerrit Smith

This incredible letter was written by Darius Henry Starbuck (1818-1887), the son of Reuben Starbuck (1787-1880) and Mary Beeson (1789-1840) who raised him in a Quaker family in Guilford county, North Carolina. Darius was a graduate of New Garden College and was one of the earliest lawyers in Winston and helped in the formation of Forsyth county and the building of the first courthouse in 1849. He took up residence in the town of Salem in 1849 when this letter was penned.

Darius H. Starbuck, ca. 1880

He was a delegate to the North Carolina state constitutional conventions of 1861 and 1865. In December 1865, he was appointed to his position as US Attorney for the North Carolina federal district court by President Andrew Johnson. In 1870 he was reappointed to this same seat by President Ulysses S. Grant.

Darius was married in 1856 to Ellen Blickenderfer (1834-1920), a native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who came to love in Salem, North Carolina, when she was 10 years old. Darius and Ellen were members of the Moravian Church.

Starbuck’s letter was addressed to Gerrit Smith, the well-known abolitionist, social reformer, and philanthropist. The letter explains the circumstances of Starbuck’s having become the owners of seven slaves formerly the property of his friend Thomas Adams of Stokes county and having incurred a debt while settling Adams’ estate. He then asks Gerrit Smith if he would be willing to pay the debt so that he might honor his friend’s wish that the slaves be liberated.

Gerrit Smith

Incredible details of this transaction are provided in Wikipedia although Starbuck’s letter makes it clear that Syphax and Letty were siblings, not husband and wife as was presumed. That segment of Starbuck’s biography follows:

On February 24, 1840, Darius Starbuck was written into the will of his “friend” Thomas Adams of Stokes County; Starbuck was also named executor of this will. This was witnessed by Thomas J. Wilson. In the will, Starbuck was named heir to an enslaved family owned by Adams upon the death of his wife Lucy, on the condition that Starbuck would emancipate them “as soon as the law will allow.” They were named Syphax, Letty, and their children Syphax L., Mary Addine (Mary Magdeline), and Sarah Jane (Sally). The will was notarized on 15 July 1843. On June 22, 1844, however, Starbuck purchased the family for $85.20. Mr. and Mrs. Adams were to continue using Syphax and his family for labor until both of their deaths. Under the new terms Starbuck was to instead free the family after they had “worked out the consideration money and interest”. This mandated that the family work as Indentured servants for Starbuck until the price Starbuck had paid for them—with interest—was returned to him either through labor or by payment. This bill of sale also mentions two more children, Emeline (Nancy Adeline) and Lewis. At the time of purchase in 1844 Syphax was aged about 26 and his wife Letty was about 30. This deed of sale was witnessed by John Hasten, who had to confirm this in court in April 1845.[9] The estate files of Thomas Adams were probated in 1848.

According to the Slave Schedule of 1850, Darius owned one male slave who was reported to census takers as being 37 years old. This may have been Syphax Adams who appears by his fluctuating age in written records to have not known his exact age. As Starbuck’s home in Winston was built in 1851, it is possible that Syphax’s labor may have been used during the brick mansion’s construction. On March 15, 1857, Syphax’s daughter, Nancy Adaline Adams, requested to become a member of the Salem African Moravian Church, a month later she began receiving instruction, and by October 11 she was baptized by the church. The church register in October 1857 listed her as, “Nancy Adelia, a single woman, property of Darius Starbuck.”

By the time of the 1860 Census, before the abolition of slavery, Syphax and his family were living as freed citizens of the Broadbay Township in Forsyth County. By the time of Starbuck’s death in 1887 he owned 322 acres—an area referred to in his will as the “Bouer Place”—in the Broadbay township; it is unknown whether the Adams’ ever lived or worked on this property during their residence in Broadbay. On April 14, 1861, Syphax’s daughter, Mary Magdalene Adams (single), was baptized into the Moravian Church on the same day as Lewis Hege (also single). At this time Mary was employed by Traugott Frederick Crist, and Lewis was a servant of George Hege. Lewis also served as an elder of the African Moravian Church in Salem. At some point before 1862 Mary and Lewis were married. As there is no surviving record of the marriage in the church register, it is possible that the couple jumped the broom. On July 17, 1862, Lewis and Mary had a child named Arabella Hege who was baptized on November 30, 1862. On February 14, 1864, however, Mary died of typhoid fever. At the time of her death she was described as “a quasi free woman of color.” Lewis later remarried to Dinah Ann (Malone). Jane, a servant of Louisa Shober Crossland, died on June 26, 1864, at the age of 19; this may have been Syphax’s daughter Sarah Jane “Sally” Adams. On October 23, 1864, Nathan, “a boy in care of D. H. Starbuck,” was baptized by the Salem African Church. A girl by the name of Lucinda, who was a servant of Julius Edward Mickey, was also baptized this day.This Lucinda could be Syphax’s younger daughter Lucy Adams.

On August 29, 1887, Lewis Hege, widower of Mary Magdalene Adams, was named in the land divisions of Starbuck’s estate. A Daniel Hege also owed the estate a personal loan debt of $200 at the time of Starbucks death. The loan was originally lent on July 26, 1859.

Whether Gerrit Smith ever responded to Starbuck’s solicitation is unknown. A search of Smith’s correspondence among his papers housed at Syracuse University does not include any letters to or from Starbuck. Given that the slaves remained in Forsyth county for years to come suggests to me that Gerrit never provided the requested funds but it appears that the temptation to sell the family to pay off the debts incurred in settling Adams’ estate was resisted and that Starbuck partially recovered his costs by their continued labor to him as indentured servants until he eventually freed them.

The hiring of Slaves for twelve months from the estate of Thomas Adams. Document found in the Adams’ Probate Records, dated 12 March 1849


Addressed to Gerrit Smith, Esq., Petersborough, New York
Postmarked Salem, [Forsyth county] North Carolina

Salem, North Carolina
September 29th 1849


I trust you will excuse a stranger for calling your attention to a matter calculated to enlist the sympathy of every feeling heart. It is the freedom of eight slaves.

About six years past an elderly gentleman by the name of Thomas Adams willed to me his slaves (which were his only property) expressing a desire that I should emancipate them. At that time he was much involved in debt. Many of his creditors brought suit & pressed payment. His negroes being his only property were about to be sold to make payment. After applying to neighbor after neighbor to assist him & to no avail, he then applied to me & begged me to intercede in his behalf to prevent the negroes from being sold, promising me a bill of sale for them. I accordingly paid off most of the claims & he made me a bill of sale for the slaves, I not being able to lose the money paid out.

He died nearly two years ago and after a series of continued litigation from that time to the present with his heirs who were nephews and nieces living in Alabama and Mississippi, I succeeded in establishing my title to the negroes. In consequence of this litigation, the costs, together with the demands at present against the estate, with those I have paid off, amount to near a thousand dollars.

From the fact that the freedom of the slaves was a matter which Mr. Adams had very much at heart, I am desirous to get them free if I can have that amount refunded me. The negroes would bring at this moment more than ($3,000.) three thousand dollars if I would sell them but this is something I wish to avoid if possible. But I am not able to lose this amount of money. Hence I shall be under the necessity of continuing them in slavery, or selling part of them to refund me in order to free the balance. Their being all of one family would make this a painful duty to separate them. In order to avoid either of these unpleasant dilemmas, & from your character of unbounded munificence & exalted philanthropy, I have been induced to solicit your aid in their behalf.

If you should feel disposed to aid these slaves in obtaining their freedom, they will doubtless long cherish you as their benefactor, besides being willing to pay you by their labor or other means if thy should ever get able, and I will make you a bill of sale of them or pursue any other course you may suggest for the purpose of freeing them.

If you should desire to correspond with others on this subject, or for the purpose of reference as to myself, I will give you the names of Thomas J. Wilson, Esq., of this place, John A. Gilmer, 1 Esq., Greensboro, Dougan Clark sen. of New Garden—a minister of the gospel in Friends Church, or Thomas Hunt, superintendent of Friends Boarding School at New Garden, N. C. I hope to hear from you soon on this subject.

Yours truly, — D. H. Starbuck

[to] Gerrit Smith, Esq., Petersboro, New York

P. S. Perhaps a more minute description of these slaves may interest you. The two oldest, Syphax & Letty are brother & sister. Syphax is about 35 years old & a free woman of color for a wife who has three children by him. Letty is about 32 years old, has a slave husband and six children, the oldest of whom is about 15 years of age. — D. H. S.

1 Darius read law with John A. Gilmer, Sr. of Greensboro prior to being admitted to the bar in 1841.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s