The year is 1850, and Robert Newsom is a farmer living in Callaway County, Missouri. He’s a father and a proud, financially independent farmer. In the early 19th century, he moved his family—a wife, her name lost to history, a son named Harry Newsom, another son named David Newsom, and a daughter named Virginia—from Virginia out to Missouri, in search of better land. The journey from Virginia to Missouri was probably hard, and the family probably traveled by canoe up the Missouri river.
When McLaurin first introduces him, Newsom seems like a quintessential American archetype: the proud, independent farmer, a man who’s traveled the country in search of a better life. By studying Newsom’s relationship to slavery, however, McLaurin will reveal the ugly side of this archetype. Note also how McLaurin admits from the start that there are large holes in the historical record, and that he has to use educated guesswork to fill in the gaps of his story.
By 1822, Robert Newsom and his family were living in Callaway County, Missouri. Newsom purchased fertile land near a creek, and set to work building a successful farm. Newsom’s story is typical of America at the time, McLaurin says. Many families moved west in search of better land and a better quality of life. They risked their safety to travel across the country at a time when the way was long and uncertain.
In the early 19th century, “going West” was seen as a heroic and even holy undertaking, reflecting the optimism and ambition of the United States at the time. To this day, America celebrates its own legacy of exploration. And yet, as McLaurin will show, this legacy was built on the backs of slaves.
Life in Callaway County can’t have been easy. Salt was hard to come by, and almost all families were forced to hunt for some of their food. Many forest creatures were dangerous, and plants could be poisonous. But over the course of the century, the people of Callaway subdued the wilderness and cleared the land for themselves. They founded churches and city centers, organized militias and schools, and voted in presidential elections. Most of the people in Callaway were humble farmers, who lived off the land and knew how to take care of herds of sheep and cattle.
McLaurin emphasizes the people of Callaway’s hard work and dedication to building a better life for themselves. He’s depicting these people as all-American: brave explorers who risked their own safety to give their children a better life.
The people of Callaway aren’t wealthy, but they’re proud and prosperous. And many of them own slaves. Slave owners tend to be the wealthiest people in the area, and their lands tend to be the most productive by far. Robert Newsom went to Missouri in search of a better life. Every single day he spends in Callaway, it’s obvious to him that owning slaves is a path to a better, more prosperous life.
Here McLaurin punctures the “heroic” image of the Missouri farmer by noting a simple fact: most of these farmers owned slaves. The parasitic relationship between financial independence and slavery is a stain on American history. Even Thomas Jefferson once wrote that American farmers could only remain proud and independent if they were allowed to own slaves.
By 1855, Robert Newsom is a successful man. He owns hundreds of acres, and sells his crops at good prices. He’s also the owner of five slaves, which he’s purchased in 1850. It’s unlikely that Robert feels guilty about owning slaves: he grew up in Virginia, surrounded by slaves, and the laws of the land condone slave owning.
In the 1850s, there were many in America who opposed slavery unequivocally. But there were also millions who tolerated slavery or believed that it was their right to own slaves: they’d grown up around the institution of slavery, and accepted it as an uncontroversial part of their lives.
At the time, Robert lives with his daughter Virginia, for reasons that have been lost to history, though it’s most likely that her husband, a man named Waynescot, has died. Virginia lives with her father and serves as the “mistress of the Newsom home.” Virginia’s three children also live with their grandfather: James Coffee, Amelia, and Thomas. (Virginia has a fourth child named Billy, but it’s unclear where he lives, though he was born after Virginia moved in with her father). Robert’s youngest daughter, Mary, also lives with him.
Robert is, by all appearances, a loving father. He seems to see no contradiction between setting a good example for his children and owning slaves: to his mind, he’s morally justified in owning other human beings. Notice, also, that McLaurin is forced to make some educated guesses about the characters. “Possible” is McLaurin’s favorite word: the historical record surrounding Robert Newsom is pretty thin, and so McLaurin gives a sense for the historical ambiguities surrounding Robert’s life.
The final resident of the Newsom house is a fourteen-year-old slave named Celia. Little is known about Celia’s life before she begins living at the Newsom house. She appears to have received training as a cook, but it’s unclear where she lived or who owned her before Robert.
Celia is, pretty clearly, the main character in this book. And yet McLaurin knows almost nothing about her. At the time, thorough records of slaves’ lives were very rare, because they served little practical purpose for the slaves’ owners. Furthermore, Celia was unable to write, meaning that she couldn’t narrate the details of her own life. Paradoxically, the entire book revolves around Celia, but Celia herself remains a mystery.
At the time when Celia is living with Robert, Callaway has become a large community. There’s an influential Presbyterian church located in the county, twenty stores, and the Missouri state school for the deaf. One of the main beneficiaries of the growth of the Callaway community is a man named John Jameson. Jameson has lived in the community since 1825, when he tried to find work as a miller. He later becomes a successful lawyer, and then successfully runs for the Missouri General Assembly. After retiring from politics, Jameson returns to practicing law, and his reputation helps make him one of the state’s leading attorneys. Like Robert, Jameson has invested in slaves: he owns four of them.
John Jameson is one of the most important characters in the book: he’s the lawyer chosen to defend Celia in her trial. Notice that Jameson has close ties to the political institutions of Missouri, meaning that he’s keenly aware of the political ramifications of his actions as a lawyer. On the surface of things, Jameson isn’t much different from Newsom, however—the fact that he owns slaves would suggest that he doesn't see any moral problem with owning human beings.
John Jameson is among the most respected people living in Callaway. In 1839, he’s elected to serve in the Missouri House of Representatives, and in 1842 again serves in the General Assembly. By 1855, Jameson, now aged 53, has a lovely family, a successful legal practice, and a stellar reputation. He has a wife named Susan, and also a son and three daughters. In his spare time, Jameson is busy trying to obtain ordinance as a Christian minister.
Jameson is a pillar of his community, and a notable success in three fields of human endeavor: family, law, and politics. But Jameson is also a deeply religious man, a fact that (as McLaurin explains it) foreshadows the sympathy he later expresses for Celia and other mistreated slaves.
John Jameson and Robert Newsom are two prosperous, happy men, who seem to be pillars of their community. But “only one was what he seemed.”
The passage ends on a note of suspense. From McLaurin’s description, it’s genuinely unclear which man isn’t what he seems. Both men seem roughly the same: well-to-do, respected farmers who nonetheless have no problem with owning slaves, and in some ways depend on slaves for their economic independence.