Holy Rood Cemetery, Section 19, Lot 172
Died June 2, 1850, Age 71
Peace to thy soul eternal be thine,
And light celestial now upon thee shine
And if thy prayer now be heard above
Who blessed thy children with a mother’s love.
Who was the person commemorated by these words? Henrietta Steptoe makes only a handful of appearances in local records. It is certain that she was was in Georgetown by 1805, when the death of a child is recorded: “Henrietta Steptoe’s child” (William King’s Mortality Book, December 20, 1805).
Collector’s Sale: Lots, and parts of lots, in Georgetown, to satisfy the Corporation of Georgetown, D.C. for taxes due: Henrietta Steptoe, part of lot 60 in Peter, Beatty, Threlkeld and Deakins’ Addition, 56 ft., 66 inches on First st., small brick house: 1828, $550 assessment, tax $2.75.––John Holtzman, Collector, Georgetown. (National Intelligencer, June 15, 1829)
Henrietta Steptoe sold land on 4th Street near Market Street, abutting the house of “Andrew Barker, late the husband of Rebecca”. (DC Liber 116 (1845) f.447/436)
“Died: on June 2, in Georgetown, D.C., Henrietta Steptoe, aged 71 years. Near 50 years of her life were devoted exclusively to nursing the sick. Her funeral will be from the residence of her daughter, Mrs. Barker, 4th st. in Georgetown, today at 10 o’clock.” (National Intelligencer, June 5, 1850)
Orphans Court of Washington County, D.C.––The case of Henry C. Matthews, administrator of Henrietta Steptoe, deceased. The administrator and Court have appointed December 2 next for the payment and distribution of assets in the hands of the administrator.––Edward N. Roach, register of Wills. (National Intelligencer, November 13, 1851)
As early as 1830 the Directory of Georgetown had listed “Steptoe, Henrietta, midwife, First street, opposite Catholic church,” and it is in that role that she was still remembered many years later.
“[I] began practice in this city when a trained obstetric nurse could not be obtained except as a special favor of one or two physicians who had educated a few for their own employment. It is true there were a few venerable and antiquated old prodigies, garrulous with gasconade and portentous advice, who would only honor an engagement among people of “quality”. Aunt Phillis and Henrietta Steptoe had risen to the dignity of Madame Lachapelle, and their vernacular and oracular dispensations were implicitly believed and accepted as the rule of conduct in the lying-in chamber of high life.” (Samuel Clagett Busey, Personal Reminiscences and Recollections of Forty-six Years’ Membership In the Medical Society of the District of Columbia, and Residence in this City, Washington, D.C. 1895, pp.343-4)
Dr. Busey’s scorn may be interpreted to suggest that, in the competition for upper-class clientele, Henrietta Steptoe enjoyed a mysterious advantage––one that seemed to put her on a level with the celebrated French obstetrician, Marie Louise LaChapelle. The reference to the protagonist of the novel Aunt Phillis’s Cabin, or Southern Life As It Is (1852) is Busey’s indirect way of saying that Steptoe was black.
In fact, both the 1830 and the 1840 censuses list Henrietta Steptoe as “Free Colored”, and her name appears in the District of Columbia Free Negro Registers, when she acknowledges a natural daughter named Mary Ann Tritt, born about 1808.
John Marbury of Georgetown swears that he has known Mary Ann Tritt for about ten years, and her mother, Henrietta Steptoe, for about twenty-one years. Both women are light colored, and both live in Georgetown. Mary Ann is about thirty-one years old. Henrietta has recognized Mary as her child and “both have passed and are universally received and known by the inhabitants of Georgetown as free persons”. (Dorothy S. Provine, District of Columbia Free Negro Registers, 1821-1861, Vol.3, p.165, Certificate of Freedom No. 1722, recorded October 29, 1839)
The question of Henrietta Steptoe’s race would appear to be settled, were it not for uncertainty about the race of the daughter mentioned in her obituary. Although the 1860 census lists Rebecca Barker as mulatto, age 65, born in Maryland, the 1880 census lists Rebecca Barker as white, age 88, born in England, of two English parents (1860 US census, 4th Ward, Georgetown, p. 193; 1880 US census, Georgetown, E.D. 9, pp.36-7). It also appears that Rebecca Barker’s son, William H. Barker, carried freedom papers that stated that his mother was white.
Lewis Carbery certifies that he has known the late Andrew Barker, a very bright mulatto and formerly of Georgetown, and his wife, a white woman, for the last thirty-eight or forty years. William H. Barker is their youngest son. His family has always “been recognized & held as free people by that white community as I have never heard of the truth of their freedom being disputed or called into question”. Carbery also states that he knows that William’s brother had his free status “established on oath” [on August 11, 1856]. (Dorothy S. Provine, District of Columbia Free Negro Registers, 1821-1861, Vol.5, p.58, Certificate of Freedom No. 2454, recorded April 20, 1856)
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