James Key appears on folio 107 as the owner of an enslaved worker named Bob, who was apparently leased for a period to Mary Mason for $25. Renting slaves was common in antebellum Loudoun, with hundreds hired out each year.[i] Typically, rental periods for enslaved workers began in January and lasted the entire year, but shorter leases were not uncommon.[ii] Given that the transaction on folio 107 took place in August 1816, it is possible that Bob was not rented to Mason for the entirety of the year.
This entry in the Mason family manuscript account book is not the only time that an enslaved worker named Bob and a slaveowner named James Key appear together in the historical record: in 1792, a James Key of Alexandria took out an advertisement offering a $16 reward for the return of two escaped slaves, Bob and Billie.[iii] This Bob was born around 1769 and fled with his companion from the brig Matty, owned by merchant and slave importer George Meade, when it arrived from Barbados at the Alexandria port of Colonel Robert Townsend Hooe.[iv] The advertisement describes Bob as “black,…5 feet 6 inches high, strong and well made, with a scar on the right side of his neck.”[v] He and Billie apparently were not fluent in English; this may suggest that they were originally from Africa, though they may have been Barbados-born speakers of the island’s English creole, which was well-developed by the late 1700s.[vi] Either way, they were no doubt familiar with slavery and with being treated as chattel.[vii] That the two chose to run away together suggests they may have formed a close bond in Africa, Barbados, or on onboard the Matty.[viii]
If the Bob in the runaway advertisement is the same Bob in the Mason family account book, he would have been about forty-seven in 1816, with more than half his life spent in Virginia. By this point, he would have been fully acculturated to Loudoun County, and part of a substantial network of other slaves and white planters like the Masons.[ix] He may have even been an especially trusted member of this community; “favored” slaves were allowed by some masters to earn money on their days off, and on folio 106, Mason records a $5 payment to Bob for hauling shingles.[x]
Aside from his ownership of Bob, little is known about James Key. He does not appear to be the James Key, born in either 1740 or sometime before 1725, who married Judith Keith (whose mother was a Randolph, a First Family of Virginia), as that man moved to Kentucky in 1795 and died there in 1817.[xi] However, the two did have a child, Mary Isham Key, active in Alexandria in the 1780s, so it possible that the James Key of the runway advertisement and perhaps of the Mason family manuscript account book was related to the family.[xii]
By Adam Nubbe
[i] Brenda E. Stevenson, “The Nature of Loudoun Slavery” in Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South (Oxford University Press: 1996), 184.
[iii] James Key, “Sixteen Dollars Reward,” Virginia Chronicle, August 11, 1792, https://infoweb-newsbank-com.mutex.gmu.edu/apps/readex/doc?p=EANX&t=state%3AVA%21USA%2B-%2BVirginia&sort=YMD_date%3AA&f=advanced&val-base-0=%22james%20key%22&fld-base-0=ocrtext&fld-nav-0=YMD_date&val-nav-0=1792%20-%201792&docref=image/v2%3A10CE1201F3E6AEA0%40EANX-10F595D18C7DD870%402375798-10F595D30CA48AB0%403-10F595D5310D4BF8%40Advertisement&firsthit=yes; “Key, James (of Alexandria, Va.),” People of the Founding Era, accessed May 2, 2020, https://pfe-rotunda-upress-virginia-edu.mutex.gmu.edu/v1/documents?uri=333868.xml.
[iv] Ibid.; Susan E. Klepp, “Meade, George (1741-1808), merchant and Roman Catholic layman," American National Biography, February 1 2000, accessed May 2, 2020, https://www.anb.org/view/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.001.0001/anb-9780198606697-e-0101287; Charles L. Chandler, "Catholic Merchants of Early Philadelphia," Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia 64, no. 2 (1953): 100, www.jstor.org/stable/44210305.
[vi] Frederic G. Cassidy, “Barbadian Creole: Possibility and Probability,” American Speech 61, no.3 (Autumn 1986): 203, https://www-jstor-org.mutex.gmu.edu/stable/pdf/454663.pdf?ab_segments=0%2Fbasic_SYC-5152%2Ftest&refreqid=search%3A4f1f866ec7fbdc790387719ee39c9f84.
[vii] Stevenson 167.
[viii] Ibid. 169.
[ix] Ibid. 174.
[x] Ibid. 186.
[xi] Louise Pearsons Dolliver, Lineage Book, National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (Washington: 1906), 179, https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/interactive/61157/46155_b290157-00190/1953411#?imageId=46155_b290157-00190; “James Key,” Early Settlers of Southern Maryland and Virginia’s Northern Neck Counties, accessed May 2, 2020, https://www.colonial-settlers-md-va.us/getperson.php?personID=I080095&tree=Tree1; “Judith Keith Key,” Ancestry, accessed May 2, 2020, https://www.ancestry.com/genealogy/records/judith-keith-key-24-q5lrnd; “Judith Keith Key,” Find A Grave, accessed May 2, 2020, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/48625040/judith-key.
[xii] “James Key.”