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Women’s work on a plantation

by BROOKE GREENBERG | March 5, 2023 at 2:31 a.m.

"The night after the death of our baby, Elizabeth had a little Negro born, which was named by some of the Ladies Mississippy, Virginia, after the river and boat."

That comes from a letter Amanda Beardsley Trulock began from a boat on the Chattahoochee River in December 1844, and concluded from a rented frame house near Pine Bluff, Arkansas, on Feb. 2, 1845. James Hines Trulock, whose mind was "very changeable," according to his wife, had sold his land in Blakely County, Ga., and purchased 555 acres of rich land along the Arkansas River southeast of Pine Bluff.

The Trulock household that relocated to Jefferson County consisted of 40 enslaved people owned by James Hines Trulock, including 17 whose names have survived in the historical record: Tim, Ann, Israel, Silas, Jim, George, Ephraim, Mary, Vina, Jinny, Elbert, Jane, Reuben, Eliza, Caroline, Henry, and Orrin.

The household also included the "white family" (Amanda Trulock's words): James and Amanda Beardsley Trulock and their children Victoria, Van Buren, Burton, and infant Eugenia, who died on the steamboat, as well as James' sister Elizabeth Trulock.

Amanda's statement that "Elizabeth had a little Negro born" means that Elizabeth brought at least one enslaved woman to Arkansas; I do not know if Amanda counted that woman among the "40 souls" the Trulocks brought to Arkansas, nor do I know what became of her or of the baby named Mississippi Virginia by some white ladies on the boat.

Amanda was a free woman with a dead infant, and the mother of Mississippi Virginia was an enslaved woman with a live one. For all the contrast of circumstance, they were both expected to perform that central part of women's work through the ages: the production of children.

It was dangerous work. Within a few years of landing in Arkansas, Amanda gave birth to two more children, and they lived to adulthood. By March 1846, in spite of the malarial climate of the uncleared Arkansas Delta, Vina gave birth to a boy named Miles who lived until at least 1859, when his name appears on Amanda's slave inventory.

But in November 1847, Amanda wrote to her sister in Connecticut: "We have lost a Black woman, and Infant." The woman, Jinny, had been serving as the Trulocks' cook while Eliza, the regular cook, suffered from illness. Jinny "was about 21 years old, she died with the Child bed fever, she lived only about 36 hours after her confinement."

Elizabeth Trulock, who married in September 1848, was in good health in April 1849 but, according to Amanda, "complained of being a little sick at the stomach occasionally." Elizabeth died in September 1849 after giving birth to a daughter. Elizabeth's husband remarried and his new wife took over raising the child; Amanda, no sentimentalist, remarked in 1853 that the new wife was "decidedly much more intelligent, and smarter in every way than his former wife was."

That remark is striking because since her own arrival in Georgia in 1837, Amanda had only praised "Sister Betsy" (Elizabeth Trulock) and expressed gratitude for the care she received from Elizabeth during her own illnesses and parturitions. Elizabeth had "superintended" Amanda's "domestic affairs" during one protracted illness, and it is clear that, during the many years that Elizabeth lived in her brother's household, she and Amanda labored (or directed labor) side by side.

During the 1970s, notions of sisterly solidarity crept into historical writing about free and enslaved women in the plantation households of the United States South. The degree of alliance or affection between any two women will vary case by case, or even day by day, but I want to be clear that when I write of Black and white women working together in antebellum Arkansas, I do not mean to suggest that the unfree party enjoyed it.

That said, by 1845, Amanda Tru-lock had been the mistress of a plantation household for over seven years, had absorbed the condescending language (and thus thought) of Southern paternalism, had become comfortable directing and relying upon slave labor, and worked closely with enslaved women.

The move from Georgia to Arkansas had caused such illness and low-spiritedness among the Trulock slave community that during the first year, Amanda had to work, with assistance, in her own kitchen.

She wrote to her sister:

"I must tell you sis, what I done the other day when we took Caroline to the Doctor. Elisa, our Coock, went with her, and the girl I took to Coock had the Chill, and Fever, so the boy Mose and my self got supper, and breekfast, which is the first time I ever done the like. I suppose you would like to know what we had for breekfast. Well, I will tell you, we had hot biscakes, an Corn bread, and fried Venison, Bacon, and fried Irish potatoes, and toasted Cheese, and Coffee and cream to put in it. What do you think of that."

Sometimes from the exception we can get a sense of the rule. Though Eliza was away at the doctor's with Caroline (her daughter), from Amanda's account of her own labor we can see what kind of breakfast Eliza was expected to prepare for the "white family." Caroline's health remained uneven over the years, but as Eliza's health declined, she took over many of her duties and eventually gave birth to at least one child of her own.

Brooke Greenberg lives in Little Rock. Please send email to

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