UnEarthing the Enslaved at Locust Grove

Today’s post comes from our Spring 2019 intern, Rebecca Wishnevski. As part of our ongoing efforts to interpret the lives of the enslaved at Locust Grove more fully, Rebecca’s intern project required her to research slave life, at Locust Grove and beyond, and develop a plan for re-interpreting an enslaved residence at Locust Grove. Within the scope of this project, Rebecca hoped to find ways to return dignity and agency to the men, women, and children who were enslaved at Locust Grove and to tell their stories. Here’s Rebecca with a reflection on her goals and her research.

rebecca wishnevski sits on stairs

Rebecca Wishnevski, Locust Grove Spring 2019 intern


When I first began my internship at Locust Grove, I had no idea that it would lead me to a warehouse full of boxes of artifacts in the bowels of the University of Louisville’s archaeology building. That’s where I was in early May with Mary Beth Williams our Curator of Education and Collections, and Hannah Zimmerman, our Marketing Coordinator. We were touring the University of Louisville’s new archaeology building in Portland.

As a graduate intern at Locust Grove, I am gaining experience as a docent and interpreter, but most importantly, I am conducting research. My specific research project focuses on the narrative of the enslaved; what their daily lives looked like, what the interior of an enslaved dwelling would look like, and how to approach the delicate subject of the institution of slavery here at Locust Grove. After all of the research, I created an updated interpretive plan of an enslaved dwelling for the space which is currently interpreted as the woodshop.

black and brick building with lettering reading "Anthropology"

The University of Louisville Anthropology building in the Portland neighborhood.

For months most of my internship consisted of sitting behind a desk sifting through dissertations, the Croghan’s inventory records, oral histories from the Waters family, and the records of the archaeological digs of the enslaved dwellings conducted in the summers of 1987, 1988, and 1989. The University of Louisville’s archaeological field team, under the supervision of Dr. Joseph Granger, conducted these excavations. Each summer focused on one of the three remaining enslaved dwelling sites labeled now as the South, Central, and North enslaved cabins. After looking through the writings and talking with archeologists such as Lori Stahlgren and Dr. Jay Stottman (who actually participated in one of the enslaved dwelling digs at Locust Grove), I gained a deeper understanding of how important the artifacts recovered during these digs would be in the updated interpretation of the enslaved dwelling.

Because the digs were conducted by the University of Louisville’s field team, and ocust Grove’s limited collection space, the artifacts from the digs are housed at the University of Louisville. As a graduate student at the University of Louisville, I asked individuals in the History department where one could access these artifacts. After talking with Dr. John Hale, a field archaeologist and professor at the University, I was introduced to Dr. Thomas Jennings, the director of the new archaeology center in Portland.
After aligning schedules, Mary Beth, Hannah, and I were finally seeing Locust Grove’s immense collection of artifacts. While the collection is vast, with the help of Dr. Jennings we were able to decipher which boxes were relevant to the 1987-1989 digs, searching specifically for items that would have been unique or significant to the Locust Grove enslaved community. Even though we looked through plenty of shattered glass, ceramics, and plate shards, we were also able to find items that historians and archaeologists alike believe to have been extremely significant to the enslaved. One of these items was an old Chinese coin with a square hole in the center of it. Coins of this nature could have been worn as charms or amulets, and because they were not United States tender, would not have been offensive to white masters or overseers. We also found a silver teaspoon clearly marked with an “X” on the base of its handle. Items such as spoons, stones, and coins marked with an “X” have been found on sites where enslaved individuals dwelled.

Historians believe this “X” to be a sacred cosmogram related to the BaKongo religion of West Africa. The “X” markings use the cardinal directions to show the intersections of the living world (North), spirit world (South), birth (East), and death (West). Artifacts with the “X” markings have been found on other enslaved sites in the Louisville area and across the United States where slavery was prevalent. While we cannot prove definitively that the enslaved at Locust Grove were solely practicing the BaKongo religion from these artifacts, these items do show that the enslaved had something many of their white overseers and masters did not believe possible: individual agency.


One of my favorite things about this project is its implications about the enslaved at Locust Grove. While holding that silver teaspoon in the archaeology building in Portland, I was reminded of how amazing and remarkable the enslaved were here at Locust Grove. Even within the psychological and physical torment of the institution of slavery, the enslaved at Locust Grove were able to maintain their individuality, create life ways for themselves and their families. These community connections gave them resources that could not be broken, even in bondage, and may not have been understood by a white master or overseer.

I know it’s tough to tackle the issue of slavery, especially with the public. But it is a subject that desperately needs to be discussed, especially at historic sites like Locust Grove. While it can be easy to mentally disregard the enslaved individuals at Locust Grove as a product of the time or part of the backdrop of the historic home, Locust Grove would not have been what it was without their contributions through cooking, craftsmanship, childrearing and forced labor. This is an extremely exciting time for our historic house museum because another chapter of our history is currently being revealed! The narrative is changing, and the exciting part is that Locust Grove is committed to changing with it. In the words of Dr. Ibrahima Seck, Director of Research at The Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, “Shame about the past too often fills the space that should be held for knowledge. Knowledge of the past, must play its part in our liberation from the bonds of the past.” As for myself, I consider it an honor to have uncovered a few lines of the story of the enslaved through my internship here at Locust Grove. I hope to walk alongside you as we continue in our search for knowledge, and liberation from the past.


Rebecca presents her research to staff and volunteers at Locust Grove.

Rebecca, thank you for your time, tenacity, and commitment to researching the enslaved at Locust Grove and for suggesting new ways to share their stories. Some of the artifacts from the Locust Grove archaeological collection are currently on view in the museum gallery.

If you are interested in learning more about the lives of the enslaved in the United States and at Locust Grove, join us for the Slave Dwelling Project at Locust Grove on August 23 and August 24. Joe McGill, an educator and interpreter and founder of The Slave Dwelling Project, will conduct a campfire conversation and overnight on Friday, August 23 at 6:30 pm that will consider what can be learned from the lives of the enslaved, particularly when sleeping where slaves slept and standing where slaves stood. On Saturday, August 24, McGill will hold a public lecture discussing his work with the Slave Dwelling Project, the economy of slavery, and the ways in which individuals and historic sites can change the narrative.

For more information or to make a reservation for these programs, please call 502-897-9845.

Out of History’s Shadow: The Story of Alfred Croghan, Part 1

Two actors portraying enslaved workers through a window

Alfred and Rose, portrayed by Sidney and Xavier, in the hearth kitchen at Historic Locust Grove in Louisville, Kentucky. – Photo by Heather R. Hiner/Fox and Rose Photography.

Today, volunteer and researcher Heather Hiner continues to share her research into the enslaved community at Locust Grove with the first in a series on the life of an enslaved man named Alfred Croghan. Her previous post tells the story of another enslaved man, also named Alfred who was most likely sold by the Croghan family of  Locust Grove as punishment for an unknown act. 

For the most part, the enslaved people who lived and labored at Locust Grove in Louisville, Kentucky are poorly documented. When I started this research project, Alfred Croghan was documented better than most. But “better than most” is a low bar. I knew his first name, the approximate year of his birth, and that he had spent part of his adult life at Mammoth Cave. After many, many hours of research and with the help of librarians, archivists, and others, I am excited to share that Alfred Croghan has gone from being poorly documented to being the first enslaved person owned by the Croghan family that we can trace from a child at Locust Grove to his death as a free man in Louisville.

Alfred’s first documented appearance may be in the 1820 Census. According to the census, half of the enslaved people living at Locust Grove were 14 or younger. I cannot be entirely sure that Alfred is one of the children listed in the census because the only person listed by name is the head of the household, Major William Croghan. Major Croghan’s family and the enslaved people he owned are not listed by name.

1820 census document

1820 Federal Census for William Croghan (highlighted in yellow). Alfred Croghan may have been one of the eight male enslaved children seen in the census (highlighted in orange).

I have not come across any records of births of enslaved children at Locust Grove. However, I am pretty confident that Alfred was born in 1820 based on some wonderful photographs I will share in a future post about Alfred. The census was taken in August of 1820, which means if Alfred was born before August, he is one of the eight enslaved male children living at Locust Grove who were recorded on the census.

Portrait of mid-19th century man

Portrait of William Croghan, Jr. by James Reid Lambdin

The only real glimpse of Alfred’s childhood that we have is a letter written by William Croghan, Jr. to his three-year-old son, William Croghan III in 1828. In fact, it is the best account of enslaved children in general that we have and is a treasure trove of information.

“Locust Grove, Fall, 1828

…If you were only here now to see the dear little calves, & the lambs & little pigs – You never saw so many pigs & only to think how you would find the ducks & your eggs. Little Abe & Al, find the most & Al comes in & says “here old mister here is egg, now give me cake” & then away he runs & then Abe he comes in with his – Little Tommy & Susan live at the river, but they come up here of a Sunday to see us all” –

Little Harvey wants to go with me to Pitts; he says he belong to you. Little Bob lives in town & is learning to be a barber. He lives with the black Barber than once cut your hair –”…

Excerpt, William Croghan Jr. to his three-year-old son, William Croghan III – Locust Grove Manuscripts

Portrait of mid-19th century woman

Portrait of Mary Croghan Schenley by James Reid Lambdin

Based on a birth year of 1820 and with no other records pointing to another man around the same age with the same name owned by the Croghans, it is a near certainty that “Al” is an eight-year-old Alfred Croghan. It’s an account that shows an exuberant boy who is bold enough to be a bit cheeky with William, Jr.

William Croghan, Jr. inherited Locust Grove from his father in 1822 and continued to live there until the death of his wife in October of 1827. Devastated by his loss, William and his children moved to Pittsburgh where he could manage his late wife’s estate. He wrote the above letter to his son in Pittsburgh one after the death of his wife while he was visiting Locust Grove.

Pittsburgh also became a part of Alfred’s story. John Abbott met Alfred during a visit to Mammoth Cave in 1854 and shared that “Alfred formerly belonged to Miss Mary Croghan [daughter of William Croghan, Jr.]… After she went to England, she gave Alfred to some of her relatives, and he belonged to Dr. Croghan at the time of his [Dr. Croghan’s] death…”

Being moved to Pittsburgh to serve William’s daughter, Mary, followed by being passed between other members of the Croghan family would have been an experience Alfred shared with other enslaved people owned by the Croghans. It was a common practice for the Croghans to loan, buy, or sell, enslaved people who belonged to their family amongst themselves.

Under the ownership of Dr. John Croghan, William, Jr.’s, oldest brother, Alfred would become one of the enslaved guides of Mammoth Cave. Working alongside the storied Stephen Bishop, Materson Bransford, and Nicholas Bransford, Alfred would leave his own marks at the cave and become a part of its history. And that’s a story for the next blog post, so stay tuned!

You can follow Heather’s continued research on her blog, The Past in Focus. 

Untangling the Past – Alfred’s Story

We are fortunate to have several talented researchers among our volunteer corps. Heather R. Hiner is one of them, and she has spent a great deal of time and energy unraveling the stories of Locust Grove’s enslaved community. Today, she introduces us to Alfred, an enslaved man who is introduced to modern researchers in a letter dating from 1825.


Two interpreters portraying slaves Rose and Alfred in the hearth kitchen at Locust Grove

First person interpreters, Sidney and Xavier portray Rose and Alfred in the hearth kitchen at Historic Locust Grove. (Photo by Heather R. Hiner of Fox and Rose Photography.)

There are several letters in the Croghan family papers that mention an enslaved man named Alfred. These letters span many years and until recently, it was assumed they were all part of the story of one enslaved man.  However, as I started cross-referencing the Croghan family letters with documents I had found in other repositories, it quickly became apparent that there were actually two men of different ages being discussed. While untangling the lives of these two men has answered some questions, many more have bubbled to the surface as new, tantalizing details emerge.

This post will share the story of the first of the two men, who was simply known as Alfred.  There are no documents that list a last name for him. Upcoming posts in the series will share the story of a man who did take a last name for himself, Alfred Croghan. The stories of both men give us insight into different roles enslaved men played in the Croghan household while also exposing the lack of control they had over their own lives.

Alfred’s story begins abruptly in May of 1825. While it may change in the future, we currently have no information about Alfred’s life before this time.  He is first mentioned in a letter from Ann Croghan Jesup, who was living in Washington DC, to her mother Lucy Croghan at Locust Grove, near Louisville, Kentucky.  Ann was not the only person from the Croghan household to relocate from Louisville to Washington DC when she married Thomas Sydney Jessup. Leaving behind friends and possibly family, at least three enslaved people owned by the Croghans, including Alfred, also went with Ann to help establish her new household.

1828 map of Washington D.C. showing location of the Jesup home.

An 1828 map of Washington DC. According to the 1827 Washington Directory, the Jesups lived on I Street, NW between 16th and 17th streets. Ann relates in a letter that the Jesups lived close enough to the President’s House to be able to see it from their home.  (De Krafft, F. C, W. I Stone, and John Brannan. Map of the city of Washington. [Washington, D.C.?: John Brannan, 1828] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress])

Our first reference to Alfred is tantalizingly small, but we can still glean some of his personality from it.

“Old Mrs. Calhoun has been here, no kind of wether [sic] stops her, I don’t know which she talked most about her Methodist coachman who has run away and gone she thinks to New York “the cunning fellow to wate [sic] until his new cloth were finished & then march off with himself” – or her grand daughter that is a month old today “tis a wonderful fine child” I had a mind to ask as Alfred did, “if she was cutting teeth” the one before this is six weeks younger than Lucy Ann, & is not near so large nor can’t walk one step.” (Ann Croghan Jesup to Lucy Croghan, May 19, 1825, Croghan Family Letters – Filson Historical Society)

1825 letter fragment mentioning Alfred

A letter mentioning Alfred dated May 19, 1825. (Croghan Family Letters – Filson Historical Society)

Ann, the proud mother of Lucy Ann, seems to enjoy Alfred’s sarcastic response to the doting grandmother proudly expounding upon (and possibly exaggerating) the qualities of her latest grandchild. However, there is always a line that could not be crossed and while it doesn’t seem to be an issue here, this may ultimately play a hand in Alfred’s fate.

1830 census showing Jesup household

The 1830 Federal Census reveals a free white woman, four free persons of color, and two enslaved people shouldered the domestic work in the Jesup household.  Because Alfred was moved back and forth between the Croghan and Jesup households, it is not known if the enslaved man listed in the census in 1830 is Alfred or another man named David.

A short four months later, we find Alfred back in Louisville and Lucy Croghan is visiting her daughter, Ann, in Washington DC.  While she is away, Lucy’s eldest son, Dr. John Croghan is overseeing things at Locust Grove. Ever the dutiful son, Dr. Croghan includes news of how things are going at home in a letter to Ann’s husband, Thomas Sidney Jesup.

“Inform her [Lucy Croghan] that every thing goes on here exceedingly well. The women have dried a great deal of fruit, and are at their houses spinning wool or cotton or something of that kind. Old Nanny officiates for me in the cooking department. Two churns are going daily. Alfred goes to market almost every day & gives the profits to Larriway.” (John Croghan to Thomas Sidney Jesup, Sept. 8, 1825 – Locust Grove Manuscript Collection)

We don’t know why Alfred was back in Kentucky, but it was a common occurrence to move enslaved people between Croghan family members.  We can glean from this letter that Dr. Croghan trusted Alfred enough to carry goods to be sold in town and transport the profits from selling those goods.

What happens next is still a mystery to be solved and Alfred’s story ends as abruptly as it began.  Nine years of his life pass without documentation and what we do have is frustratingly only a small part of the story.  The final two letters we have show us that Alfred is back in Washington DC with Ann Croghan Jesup and her family.

1834 Letter about Alfred from John Croghan to Thomas Jesup

Letter from Dr. John Croghan to Thomas S. Jesup about Alfred.  (John Croghan to Thomas S. Jesup, September 29, 1834 – Library of Congress)

“As it respects Alfred I am in hopes that you will that which you deem best.”  (John Croghan to Thomas S. Jessup, September 29, 1834 – Library of Congress)  

We learn that something has happened with Alfred and that Dr. Croghan trusts his brother-in-law’s ability to handle the situation.  Dr. Croghan will quickly send a second letter a few days later, that includes his mother, Lucy’s feelings on the matter.

Letter from Lucy Croghan to Thomas Jesup concerning Alfred

Instructions from Lucy Croghan to Thomas S. Jesup in regards to the “improper” behavior of Alfred. (Library of Congress)


“…In obedience to your request I send you the enclosed from my Mother in relation to Alfred.  He has acted so improperly that he deserves no quarters…

Yours truly

                                                                    John Croghan

P.S.  Dear General,

        By your letter to John I find Alfred is unwilling to return to Ken; I, therefore, have no objection as he evinces so little gratitude, and as his conduct has been so improper to dispose of him.

                                                                    Affectionately yours,

                                                                    Lucy Croghan ”

(John Croghan to Thomas S. Jessup, October 31, 1834 – Library of Congress)  

While I continue to search, we currently have none of the letters or any other records describing what Alfred did that led Lucy Croghan to instruct her son-in-law to “dispose of him.”  We also lack Alfred’s version of the events. The earliest letter referencing him hints at a sarcastic wit, but we currently have no way of knowing what it was that the Croghans found so “improper.”

However, this last letter gives us a prime example of a slave owner, in this case, Lucy Croghan, wielding the threat of selling an enslaved person in an attempt to force him to be grateful and follow her orders.  We can deduce that the Croghans and Jesups felt Alfred should show gratitude for the opportunity to return to Kentucky and possibly be punished in some way once he was there and that they weren’t pleased when he chose not to return to Locust Grove.

Alfred isn’t mentioned in any of the Croghan family letters that we have past this point in time.  While Alfred may have changed his mind about coming back to Kentucky after learning of Lucy Croghan’s willingness to sell him as punishment for his actions, the lack of him being mentioned further hints at the possibility that he was indeed sold.  

While this is all I have to share of Alfred’s story for now, research into his life is ongoing.  I am currently continuing to search for mentions of him in correspondence from and about the Croghans as well as working with the Library of Congress to research Thomas Sidney Jesup’s financial records in an effort to learn if he was indeed sold by General Jesup. If I do uncover anything new, I will be sure to share an update in another post.

Thank you for sharing Alfred’s story, Heather. You can find more of Heather’s work at The Past in Focus. We will be sure to share more of Alfred’s story here.

This post has been shared from The Past in Focus with the author’s permission.