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Uncovering Hidden Lives

Uncovering Hidden Lives

Can the lives of America's enslaved ever be recovered? Starting from a line on a ledger, Nicole Penn illuminates the life of Scylla.

Nicole Penn

“How often do you think about the Roman Empire?” is one of the viral TikTok questions du jour. I can’t speak for any of my male friends, but for my part, it’s a bit complicated. In addition to the Roman Empire, quite a few chunks of history generally live rent-free in my head. But ever since I signed up for an unusual class in George Mason University’s History department this past spring, I’ve had one specific historical figure top of mind. Though her name was drawn from the classics, her story is an American one. 

Introductory graduate classes are frequently reading courses organized around a long list of secondary sources. The class I took this spring was very different. Taught by GMU historians Cynthia Kierner and George Oberle as a class partly on digital history, the “Mason Legacies” course focused on researching, digitizing, and annotating a single primary source housed in GMU’s Special Collections library: a 230-year-old account book belonging to the extended family of founding father George Mason.  

The Mason family account book details the lines of debt and credit accumulated over the lifetimes of Stevens Thomson Mason and Armistead Thomson Mason, George’s nephew and grandnephew. In addition to serving as senators from Virginia, Stevens and Armistead were some of the wealthiest landowners and slaveowners in Virginia’s Loudoun County, which enabled them to act as local creditors. The account book they shared from the 1780s through the 1830s not only lists their personal records, but the debts and credit accumulated by family, friends, neighbors, employees, and even some enslaved laborers as well. 

Written out by hand in columns of scratchy, abbreviated cursive, their account book does not make for easy or compelling reading. It hardly offers a complete portrait of the early American republic, either. Nevertheless, it is a treasure trove of fragments. Behind the bloodless lists of names and dates, pounds and dollars, goods exchanged, and services rendered, are the real lives that indelibly shaped a corner of this world.

One course assignment was to take some of these fragments—a name, and the lines of debt and credit framing it—and to contextualize the life behind it. The name assigned to me was pulled from antiquity, and it belonged to an enslaved woman. Her name was Scylla. 

In Greek mythology, Scylla was a six-headed, snakelike creature who alongside her dreadful counterpart Charybdis guarded straits that Odysseus and his crew crossed during their legendary voyage home. In Ovid’s telling, Scylla was a human transformed by the goddess Circe, who had become jealous of the romantic attention paid to her by the sea god Glaucus. To be “caught between Scylla and Charbydis” is another way of saying that one is between a rock and a hard place—or, as Thomas Jefferson once put it, to “have the wolf by the ear.” Studying the ancient classics was considered an indispensable part of an elite education in the early Republic, which partly explains why enslavers often gave the men and women they enslaved Greek and Roman names. I found myself wondering whether Scylla’s original enslaver had Homer or Ovid’s poem in mind when they decided to name her after a monster. 

Besides the classical origins of her name, one of the first details that struck me as I began digging into Scylla’s life was that her labor was listed under an account held by two young girls. This was a notable deviation from the men who held most of the credit and debit accounts with Stevens and Armistead. Under the credit column for a “Miss Elizabeth & Mary Armistead in act with Armistead T Mason their trustee,” I learned that Scylla had been “hired out” to others in the years 1813, 1814, and 1815—a common way to extract value from enslaved laborers once Virginia turned toward the cultivation of wheat, which was less labor-intensive than tobacco. I also learned that although Scylla had been hired out in early 1816 to a “Mrs. Scott,” her lease had been terminated suddenly. As the account book flatly noted, Scylla died “early in that year.” There was no official death date, but by comparing the abbreviated earnings Scylla pulled in for her mistresses in 1816 to her annual rate of thirty dollars, I was able to narrow down the date of her passing to sometime that March. 

A name, a pair of child owners, and an approximate death date. It wasn’t much, but it was certainly more information than the account book offered on other enslaved men and women. There was also another important clue: an account belonging to “Robert Armistead” that also mentioned Scylla. Robert received Scylla’s earnings from her loan in 1813, and had belatedly passed them on to Armistead in 1818. But what relationship did he have with Scylla?

When it comes to studying the lives of the enslaved, nothing is as valuable as a last name—even if it belongs to a White family. The Armisteads were a large, wealthy, and well-connected Virginia dynasty, their lineage carefully preserved in ink. Unlike other parts of Virginia, Loudoun County’s court records largely survived the Civil War, which meant that I had wills, deeds, trusts, and even a meticulously-researched genealogy book at my disposal to study this family’s history. 

Mining these sources, I figured out that Robert was Armistead Mason’s maternal uncle. Following the death of his wife Lucinda in 1804, Robert created a trust for his two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, to be administered by his nephew Armistead before they came of age. In addition to land, an important part of the wealth held under this trust included a family of eight enslaved laborers that Robert had inherited from his late wife: Scylla, her mother Esther, and six other siblings. It is likely that Lucinda had in turn been gifted Esther and any children she produced from her own mother, Alice, who had inherited all her husband’s slaves following his death in 1796. 

As important as this context was to understanding Scylla’s origins, it didn’t really tell me anything about what her everyday life may have been like in Loudoun County. Digging further, I tried to learn more about the individuals who had hired Scylla. One of them was a neighboring landowner, who probably put Scylla to work as either a domestic or as a fieldworker. But who was the “Mrs. Scott” who had leased Scylla from 1815 until her death in 1816? 

The answer came in the “debit” column of Mary and Elizabeth’s account. In January 1815, Armistead had recorded $30 in “Cash pd Mrs. Scott their tuition”—the same amount he leased Scylla for that very year. With the help of a classmate who was also researching the Armistead family, I discovered that Mrs. Scott ran an academy for “young ladies” in Leesburg, celebrated by the local press as “the best female school in this part of the country.” And suddenly, it clicked. 

Armistead Mason had used Scylla to finance his cousins’ schooling. Because of Scylla, Mary and Elizabeth received an education in reading, writing, geography, French, science, and other “accomplishments suitable for the Sex” (as the academy advertised) that would have been unaffordable for white girls outside their class. Such an education was also largely unthinkable for enslaved girls, for whom access to basic literacy depended on the whims of their enslavers (Virginia also formally banned slaves from attending schools by 1819).

It is entirely possible that the same building where Mary and Elizabeth leafed through The Odyssey or practiced conjugating avoir was the one in which Scylla spent her final year, scrubbing floors, cooking meals, and cleaning after her young mistresses and their classmates. If she passed away at the academy, the victim of illness or an accident (or something unimaginable), I could find no answers either in the account book or in any other sources. How old she might have been when she died, whether she had married or had children, or if she ever saw her mother and family again after Armistead sent her to Leesburg—the historical record is maddeningly silent there too. 

It took me about two months of running down historical rabbit holes to eke out the three pages on Scylla’s life that I handed in to my professors. For many historians, this is par for the course. History makes no distinctions regarding the relative worthiness of studying “great lives” over “hidden lives,” even when the work to recover traces of the latter is made much more difficult from a paucity of records. Of course, there is much to learn from studying those who led lives that produced great texts, such as statesmen who guided a nation during a time of crisis, reformers who fought against injustice, or artists and intellectuals revered for uncovering new ways to understand beauty and truth. But the historian remembers that these famous men and women lived alongside people like Scylla, and that their lives were in many ways bound together.

Although I wish there were more I could have uncovered about Scylla’s life in particular, the remnants I could lay my hands on can tell us some important aspects about the society she lived in. Scylla and her family were caught in a distinctively matrilineal line of slaveholding that became increasingly common at the turn of the 19th century, when slaves became one of Virginia’s most profitable exports and therefore a valuable source of independent and portable property for upper-class women. That her labor was exploited at a school for girls is a painful reminder that even the triumphant arc of female education in American history contains bends that intertwine with the horrors of the slave system. Her very name, even if it suggests a perverse degree of self-awareness on the part of her enslaver, is also evidence that a classical education could be mobilized to produce window dressing for an institution as monstrous as slavery even as it supplied blueprints for our system of government and rhetorical ammunition for abolitionists

My colleague Jonah Goldberg has offered one of the more compelling defenses for why Rome continually occupies so much of our mental bandwidth, arguing that it provides “a prism for looking at modern society.” In that same spirit, I would point out that Scylla’s life helps us to understand the society she inhabited, and therefore the one we have inherited. She lived, and worked, and loved, and suffered, and in the process indelibly shaped a corner of American history. Even if the best historians can hope for is to recover a sliver of her life from an old account book—to resurrect a shadow of her ghost—a humane civilization understands that her life is a worthy subject for the art of a close reading that is so particular to the discipline of history. 

Nicole Penn, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, is senior program manager for social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a doctoral student in American history at George Mason University.

Image: Cut paper entitled "Slave Belonging to Mrs. Oyley," by Auguste Edouart, 1844. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Glenn Tilley Morse Collection, Bequest of Glenn Tilley Morse, 1950)

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