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Judy Gaskins: an American Life

illustration of old woman rocking in chair
Judy Gaskins: “I’ve chopped one hundred and fifty rails a day, for my master to count.” (Illustration used here is not Judy Gaskins, of whom there is no known likeness.)

The following newspaper interview from the Philadelphia and Lancaster Journal, August 11, 1880, has been transcribed by Bronwen Souders. The interview is with Judy Gaskins, a formerly enslaved woman from Virginia, who moved to Ohio. At the age of 104 she gave a brief account of her remarkable life. Gaskins was helped along toward her life’s happy ending by Lincoln, Virginia Quakers. They are familiar to readers of this website: Samuel and Elizabeth Janney and the indomitable William Tate.

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William Tate (1796-1884) “He was a very determined man not afraid of taking risks.” – quote from Tate’s niece, Carrie Taylor. Photograph of Tate (in a hat big enough for a rabbit) Courtesy of Swarthmore College Friends Historical Library

Readers of Nest of Abolitionists recognize William Tate, involved in many abolitionist and humanitarian activities. To name just one, he was in the risky 1845 effort to free kidnapped Kitty Payne and her children. According to Judy Gaskins’ testimony he ran on the Free Soil ticket of 1848. The website AmericanAbolitionists.com has a brief “Free Soil” political party definition: Free Soil Party was founded August 1848, in Buffalo, New York.  It included members of the Whigs Party, Democrats and the Liberty Party.  The motto was, “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor and Free Men.”  Its main purpose was opposing the expansion of slavery into the Western territories acquired after the war with Mexico.  The party argued that free men on free soil was a morally and economically superior system to slavery.  The party agreed with the Wilmot Proviso, and tried to remove existing laws that discriminated against freed African Americans.  The party was active from 1848 to 1852.  Its support came largely from the areas of upstate New York.  The party membership was absorbed by the Republican Party at its founding in 1854.”

Loudoun County, Virginia court records show that William Tate not only purchased then freed Judy Gaskins in 1849, he seems to have done the same for several of her children. (The table shown here can be viewed on a screen by holding down and scrolling over the image.)

Loudoun County Clerk’s Office Historic Records Free Negros 1844-1861

NameRaceAgeEmancipated ByPhysical CharacteristicsMisc. Names & Relationships
Gaskins, AreanaBlack16 yearsWilliam Tate5 feet 2 1/2 inches tall of a brown color with a scar 1/2 inch long on the left cheek, a short scar on the right cheek, and is quite fleshyProved to be free by the affirmation William Tate
Gaskins, ElisaMulatto39 yearsWill of Jon Oneall in 18065 feet 4 inches tallWife of Harrison Gaskin, proved to be free by the oath of Thomas Fred, and mother of William, Nelson, Margaret, and Joseph Gaskins
Gaskins, James- child of Amy GaskinsBlack12 yearsBlack colorProved to be free by the oath of Hampton R. Brewer and child of Amy Gaskins
Gaskins, Joseph- child of Elisa GaskinsMulatto13 yearsHas a scar on the back of the left handProved to be free by the affirmation of Thomas Fred and the child of Elisa Gaskin
Gaskins, JudyBlack63 yearsWilliam Tate5 feet 3 inches tall with a scar just in the center of the forehead and two small dark scars on the first and second knuckles of the right handProved to be free by the affirmation William Tate
Gaskins, Margaret A.- child of Elisa GaskinsBright Mulatto14 years5 feet 2 inches tallProved to be free by the affirmation of Thomas Fred and the child of Elisa Gaskin
Gaskins, Moses- child of Judy GaskinsBlack12 yearsWilliam Tate4 feet 7 1/2 inches tallSon of Judy Gakins and proved to be free by the affirmation of William Tate
Courtesy of Loudoun County Office of Historic Records and Deeds, Loudoun County Courthouse, Leesburg Virginia
old quaker lady with bonnet
Elizabeth Janney (1802-1893) of Lincoln, Virginia, Photograph Courtesy of Swarthmore Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore, PA Judy Gaskins: “Oh, I tell you Honey, Mrs. Janney was a precious woman!”

From Gaskins own account, she spent her time as a free woman in the Samuel and Elizabeth Janney household. Elizabeth Janney and her daughters, Cornelia and Mary, would have been Judy Gaskins’ companions in the home. There is research to be done on Gaskins and unaswered questions: who was her husband? Where were her children living? How was the decision made to move to Ohio? Many former enslaved men and women left Virginia during the antebellum years; the state had a law requiring free blacks to immigrate out of Virginia within a year. Those staying had to receive special dispensation from the House of Delegates (Virginia’s state legislature.) Perhaps she finally left Virginia because of this law.

Judy Gaskins had a long and resilient life. According to her newspaper interview, she felt blessed and fortunate. With that spirit and positive attitude, think what she might have accomplished if she had been allowed an education and treated with equality and respect! This woman deserves more research.

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