Slaves of John Threlkeld


John Threlkeld (1757-1830) was a leading citizen of Georgetown. He served as an alderman when Georgetown incorporated in 1789, and was elected mayor in 1793 to 1797. Later, he sat on the Levy Court, which governed the part of the District of Columbia outside the cities of Georgetown and Washington, called Washington County.

Threlkeld’s property extended from near the Potomac River as far north as what is now Nebraska Avenue, and included much of what is now Burleith, Glover Park, and Wesley Heights. It was not a plantation. The uneven terrain, described as “thin and stony” in 1785 assessments, was apparently more suitable for pasturage and orchards than for large-scale agriculture. In fact, it is documented that Threlkeld experimented with raising merino sheep, that George Washington bought English cattle from him in 1797, and Thomas Jefferson received mulberry and peach apricot cuttings from him in 1809.

Various local records show that Threlkeld owned slaves. Near the end of his life he owned at least twenty-five, a number which seems out of keeping with the relatively modest scale of Threlkeld’s agricultural pursuits. It is likely that some of these people came into his hands by way of inheritance––Threlkeld’s grandfather owned 45 slaves at the time of his death––and dowry, and that Threlkeld derived income from hiring out those with particular skills.  (“Inventory of the Goods and Chattles of Doctor Gustavus Brown deceas’d”, May 29, 1762” (Recorded July 20, 1768), Charles County [Maryland] Inventories, 1766-1773, pp. 203-209)

Occasional traces of John Threlkeld’s slave transactions turn up in local records. An 1804 deed, for example, records a manumission: Threlkeld frees Lucy, age 39, “in consideration of her faithful and tender attention to my mother to whom she had always officiated as waiting maid with great attention and fidelity.” (DC Liber L11 (1804), f.37)

Two years later, Lucy made her will. In it she stated that she was “bred with my daughter Betsy and liberated by John Threlkeld of George Town.“ Lucy names Threlkeld to be the executor of her will, and the trustee of the $150 that Betsy is to have when she is 25 (when she will also be free). As Betsy’s guardian, he is not to let her be removed from the District before that time. (DC Will, December 19, 1806)

It is possible that this advertisement –– “Ran away – Lyd, a negro girl.-John Threlkeld, Georgetown. Reward-$20.” –– refers to the same person as this church record: Baptized by Rd. Mr. Epinette, Henry, born March 4, 1810, natural son of Liddy (Brown) a slave belonging to Mr. John Theldkeld, Georgetown. Godmother Jean (a slave). (Intelligencer, December 7, 1808; Holy Trinity Church Baptismal Register, November 18, 1810)

“Baptized Lidia, natural daughter of Ann, slave of John Theldkeld of George Town, born July 9th, 1810; godmother,  Ann (a slave).” (Holy Trinity Church Baptismal Register 1806-1834, September 9, 1810, p.36)

A substantial reward was offered for the return of a slave apprenticed to learn a skill that was potentially profitable to Threlkeld (but which apparently also made him a hard man to keep under lock and key). Sam had already been missing for a year when this item appeared:

150 Dollars Reward. Absconded from Georgetown, where he was bound to a Blacksmith, a Negro Man called SAM, about 24 years old, five feet ten inches high, slender and very black, oval face, a scar over one eye, stands generally with one foot forward, and seems to drag his feet, having a very slovenly walk, notwithstanding is very active and healthy, apt to get drunk, and very quarrelsome; he is a GOOD BLACKSMITH and will probably endeavor to hire as a free man. He is well known to most of the stage drivers, as the man with whom he lived did all the work for Mr. Crawford’s tavern.-He went away 5th July last, and was apprehended at McCoy’s, between this and Baltimore, but escaped the same night; he was again seen and taken, at Gunpowder Ferry, between Baltimore and Susquehanna, about the last of October, but escaped again. I will give 100 dollars if said Negro is lodged in any jail, and information given so that I can get him again; or one hundred and fifty dollars if put in jail at the City of Washington. JOHN THRELKELD, Georgetown.”

(Federal Republican, July 22, 1814)


In a bill of sale from 1812, Threlkeld sells William Grayson four people: Agnes, age 46, Catherine, 26, Eleanor, 12, and James, 11. (Grayson has recently married Threlkeld’s daughter, and the nominal price, five shillings, suggests a dowry. Agnes apparently reverted to Threlkeld’s possession: in 1818 he set her free.)

In this deed Threlkeld assures Grayson that these particular slaves are all descended from Sarah and Kate, two saltwater slaves (born in Africa) that had belonged to his father, so “neither have any claim to freedom.” It is not clear, but Threlkeld may be alluding to the “Irish Nell” case, in which Mary and William Butler, slaves of Richard Boarman, filed successful freedom suits because they could prove descent from Eleanor Butler, an indentured Irish woman.  (DC Liber AC28 (1812) f.410/297; AR42 (1818) f.436/317)


Probably a Threlkeld slave:

“John Threlkeld‘s Grace”, November 30, 1816 a stained wooden coffin”

(William King Mortality Journal)


In 1824 John Threlkeld sells Fanny and Charity “two old women well known in the family”, “Nace the Carriage Driver”, Jerry, Sandy, Harry, Flora and her children, and Nancy and her children to his daughter Elizabeth –– but in trust for the use of her mother, Elizabeth. (DC Liber WB11 (1824-5) 7/6)

The same day Threlkeld, having been indebted for some time to a farmer named Alexander Burrows, makes over to him, as security for the debt of four hundred dollars, a “dark yellow” woman named Jenny, together with her children. Since the deed recites that Jenny was already part of the Burrows household, it is possible that she had been “hired out” to him. (DC Liber WB11 (1824), f.7/5)


In 1826 the Bank of Columbia, of which John Threlkeld was a director, failed, and his estate, Alliance, consisting of 296 acres, was auctioned off to satisfy his debts. (DC Liber WB20 (1828) f.480; WB53 (1835), f.362-4):

Threlkeld’s former tenant Alexander Burrows came away with about a third of Alliance, and his house was the scene of a sale of twenty-five Threlkeld slaves:












Nancy and her 5 children:







Flora and her 8 children:










Threlkeld’s wife and daughter died in the same calamitous year as the bank failure: “Died on Sunday last at Burleith, residence of John Threlkeld, Elizabeth R. Threlkeld, in her 16th year, eight days after mother.” (National Intelligencer, August 31, 1826; January 5,9, December 24, 1827; April 28, 1828)



Twenty-five people went on the block when Threlkeld went broke. Local demand for slaves was not great, but planters from the deep South had Washington agents. Advertisements make it clear that families would be parted.


“Cash for negroes! Likely young negroes between 8 and 25 years. Washington Roby resides at the Sign of Gen. Jackson on 9th Street near Pennsylvania Avenue.” (National Intelligencer, December 3, 1828)


“Servants wanted: I want 45 or 50 likely negroes from 12 to 25 years, to work on my plantation in Mississippi. I will give as much as any other man in the market. Apply at McCandless’ Tavern, Georgetown, or to Ansel Rowley, Bridge Street, Georgetown. – John M. Hendricks.” (National Intelligencer, May 29, 1828)


Died: On Aug. 30, at his residence, on the heights of Georgetown, D.C., John Threlkeld, in his 73rd year. Born and resided during his life on the spot where he died. Before the separation of this county from Maryland, he represented his fellow citizens in the Legislature of that state. Mr. Threlkeld was an industrious and worthy man, with a numbrous family. A few years since, misfortune overwhelmed him, and he was stripped of his property. A few days before his death he was active and in hale health. (Georgetown Columbian Gazette, quoted in National Intelligencer, September 9, 1830)


These “freedom” papers, dated a year after Threlkeld’s death, are presumably renewals of earlier documents:

John Threlkeld, a justice of the peace, swears that Anny Butler, about 38 years old, is free. He states that he has known her at least twenty years and that her mother and all her family have resided near him for twenty years or more and now live in Georgetown. (DC Free Negro Register 930, September 13, 1831)

John Threlkeld of Georgetown certifies that (John) Baptist was born free, and that he knew his mother, Mima, alias Diana, alias Mary Baptist (also free born). (DC Free Negro Register 39, October 3, 1831)

Finally, a mystery: four years after Threlkeld’s death, a priest in Georgetown made an entry in his records: “Elizabeth, col’d, daughter of Robert Parker and Lucinda Sewall, was buried in Mr. Threlkeld’s lot, in the Catholic cemetery; 6 yrs.” (Death Register, Holy Trinity Church, September 7, 1834)

Threlkeld was not Catholic; the lot was for the interment of any of his slaves who were. It may also have been for available for the burial of a child of a slave he had freed. The priest’s use of the parents’ surnames suggests that they were free. They may have had a human connection with the Threlkelds similar to the manumission with which this account begins.

On the other hand, as minors could not legally be freed, the child may still have been Threlkeld property.



(Grace Dunlop Ecker, A Portrait of Old George Town, 1933, pp.85–6; Papenfuse, Maryland Public Officials, vol.1, p.229; National Intelligencer, September 9, 1830; George Washington to Thomas Peter, 14 June 1797: The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, vol. 1, 4 March 179730 December 1797, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998, p. 186; Thomas Jefferson to John Threlkeld, 8 March 1809: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series, vol. 1, 4 March 1809 to 15 November 1809, ed. J. Jefferson Looney. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004, p. 40; Frederick County Land Records, Liber E, f.180-3; Threlkeld and Cox files, 1785 Assessments, Peabody Room, Georgetown Branch Library; Fredericktown Herald, August 11, 1810; National Intelligencer, August 17, 1810; May 7, November 6, 1811; August 31, 1826; January 5-19, December 24, 1827; September 9, 1830; Rev. Thomas Bloomer Balch, Reminiscences of Georgetown, 1859; Abstract of Title to “BURLEITH” in Frederic W. Huidekoper, 1887: ms. 127, Historical Society of Washington; Washington, City and Capital, 1937, pp.369, 745-6; “Mount Hope Lives Again”, John Claggett Proctor, The Sunday Star, February 8, 1942)




Carlton Fletcher

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