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The way my grandfather Hudson talked about her, you would have thought Aunt Sukey Rogers was a major character in his childhood, someone he saw walk out the door day before yesterday.
As I unravel her life story, however, I do the math, and realize that she died over 30 years before Gran was born. Such is the reach, I suppose, of a headstrong woman defiant enough to free an unprecedented number of slaves in a time and place when women had trouble being heard.
Aunt Sukey’s real name was Susanah and as far as I can tell, she’s not an aunt of mine at all, not even a cousin. Only a thread of geography ties me to this independent 19th Century woman. In the decades before the Civil War, Aunt Sukey owned a 403-acre plantation in southeastern Owen County, bound by Eagle Creek and Payne’s Run.
In the 1940s, a century after her death, Gran Hudson expanded his Natlee farm by purchasing 258 acres on the other side of the creek.
All but a little of his newly acquired land had once been part of Susanah Rogers’ estate. Gran’s “Aunt Sukey land” passed first to my aunt, then to my mother, and now it has come to me, begging for Aunt Sukey’s story to be resurrected.
I begin my research, and quickly find the paragraph about her that’s made its way into many Kentucky history books. In death, she still speaks clearly, defying her landed, slave-owning Kentucky background with abolitionist fervor.
Her 1838 Owen County will not only frees her 17 slaves by name, but gives her large plantation to them outright, with the astonishing advice to sell it and set sail for equality and happiness in the African colony of Liberia.
Yet, her will is signed by her mark, indicating that she could not read or write.
How does such a woman, born in the 1700s into a slave-holding family, and isolated in rural Kentucky all her adult life, arrive at this intersection of conscience and compassion? I search for missing records and sift through fragments left from a courthouse fire to seek answers, but I only glimpse tiny pieces of this complicated woman.
Her 1838 will confirms what we locals have always known – that she was a sister to James Herndon, one of the earliest settlers on Eagle Creek. He left clear tracks in early Kentucky records as a public official, businessman, and landowner.
Today, however, he is best remembered by historians as the man who freed his 21 slaves in the 1850s and gave them Mountain Island, a hundred and 10-acre tract completely surrounded by Eagle Creek.
His sister Susanah, however, seized upon the idea of freeing her slaves almost 15 years before James did and left them four times as much land. Surely, it was her example that prevailed in his late in life decision.
It is not clear who their parents were. I’ve long thought, as historian Dr. James Bryant did, that she and James were the children of Lewis Herndon whose Scott County will is dated 1789.
Lewis’ will appointed his son, James, co-executor of his estate. But the document does not include Susanah’s name although there is an allusion to “other living children.”
A number of circumstantial clues, however, convince me that Susanah is Lewis’s daughter. One of the most significant is that Lewis Herndon’s nephew was The Rev. John Herndon Ficklin.
Ficklin was one of Kentucky’s most outspoken and passionate opponents of slavery, and I believe he is the man responsible for setting Aunt Sukey’s conscience on fire.
Then, as now, the church did not speak with one voice on the social issues of the day.
Many Kentucky Christians were strong supporters of slavery, including the powerful Baptist leader, The Rev. Elijah Craig, who owned large numbers of slaves. Yet, some of the loudest abolitionist voices sounded in 19th Century Kentucky came from the pulpit of Baptist preachers like John Herndon Ficklin.
Aunt Sukey would have had difficulty avoiding Ficklin even if he were not her first cousin.
He had multiple connections to her narrow world, not only to the Stamping Ground area of Scott County where her parents settled, but also to her brother James Herndon’s Eagle Creek fiefdom in Owen County. Described as a “fiery” speaker, a man such as Ficklin could have preached Aunt Sukey’s soul to the edge of hell – and then held out salvation, the promised land, Liberia.
While Liberia did not become an independent country until July 26, 1847, American abolitionists had established an expatriate colony for emancipated slaves on the western coast of Africa as early as 1821.
Kentucky’s senator Henry Clay was among its most prominent supporters. Liberia was seen as a compassionate answer to the “race problem” since many of even the most ardent opponents of slavery did not think free people of color would ever be able to enjoy full equality in America. That sentiment is echoed in the language of Sukey’s will: “I recommend them to emigrate to Liberia . . . where they will not only be free but be entitled to privileges of free citizens. . . ”
In addition to slaves and land, the only other worldly goods Aunt Sukey mentions in her will are her silver spoons. She left them to her brother James.
My breath catches a little when I read about the spoons, no doubt smelted from coin silver carried by her parents when they walked into the Kentucky wilderness from Virginia. The spoons had monetary value, yes, perhaps were even her dowry, but they also give me a glimpse of Susanah, proud matron of her country table.
Other Owen County records related to the probate of her will identify her as the widow of a man named William Rogers, but I can find no marriage records for her to Rogers or to anyone else. Nor can I find her mentioned in the will of anyone named William Rogers. Certainly, though, she was a widowed “head of household” living in Scott County by the time the 1830 census was collected. She would live another 17 years, until 1847.
If she had any biological children, I have not found mention of them. Perhaps they died in infancy or in the cholera epidemic that hit the region in 1833. Or perhaps, passed over in youth, Aunt Sukey married in mid-life, too late to bear children, to an older man, perhaps his second or even third wife, and then was left to contend with difficult stepchildren. Indeed, I’ve found an 1828 Scott County will for a John Rogers, 98-years old, who left his widow “Susanah Rogers” a life interest in his land, but nothing outright, all to go to his children at her death.
If this is Aunt Sukey, as I suspect, widowed by a man named both William and John, she may have traded her life interest in his land to her stepchildren in exchange for ownership of his slaves.
From the distance of the 21st Century, I find myself quarreling with Aunt Sukey for not freeing her slaves sooner.
Why didn’t she do it immediately after one of Ficklin’s dramatic sermons convicted her that enslaving other human beings would send her straight to hell?
How did she justify to God her continued use of them until her death?
In my most uncharitable moments, I even wonder if she freed her blacks to spite the imaginary stepchildren I’ve invented for her.
It is dangerous to rewrite history, though, from the high road of hindsight. I can understand that she needed her land to provide for herself, and at the same time, rationalized that she had to give her slaves the plantation -- the wherewithal to survive or emigrate --once she freed them. It should not be ignored that she moved to Owen County in 1837 with her mind already set on finding a way to help her blacks get to Liberia.
With the settlement of a famous 1830s land dispute involving over 40,000 acres in Owen, Scott and Harrison counties – portions of the case reached the United States Supreme Court – the Widow Rogers saw an opportunity to buy 403 acres of land in Owen County on Eagle Creek near the property of her brother James Herndon.
From her will, it appears that James bought the land on her behalf in exchange for five slaves. This transaction seems odd given her intention to free all her slaves, but I assume she had no other means to purchase land. Perhaps, she even elicited a promise from James to free these five at his death.
Whatever, in 1837, she transferred all her slaves from Scott County to her new Owen County plantation.
By October 1838, she had written the will that would free those slaves at her death, and make it possible for them to either immigrate to Liberia, or to remain on the land divided equally among them.
When she died in 1847, there were over 1,100 slaves in Owen County.
Occasionally, an individual slave had been given freedom, but never before had so many been freed in the region at one time.
In 1848, her land was divided and deeded to her ex-slaves.
I have found no record that any of them sailed for Africa as she suggested. Most remained on the land Aunt Sukey had given them, and their community became known as Free Station. Over time, the heirs sold off the land.
Today, only one small parcel remains in the hands of the ex-slaves’ descendants.
In my childhood, a tiny, gentle man known as “Shorty” (Vinegar) lived alone in a cabin there. The dwelling long ago fell in, and today the wooded land is unoccupied, a place for its owners to occasionally camp. It’s surrounded on three sides by the acreage my grandfather purchased in the 1940s, and landlocked, the owners must cross our farm to reach theirs. We have lived in harmony as neighbors, each on our respective piece of Aunt Sukey’s land, for 65 years or so.
A mile or so from our place, Aunt Sukey is buried beside her brother James between two ancient cedar trees on the mainland across from Mountain Island.
I’m told that a large fieldstone marks her gravesite. The only other graves in the country cemetery are those of the black men and women who shared their lives and a few of the ex-slaves’ descendants. I believe – I hope - Aunt Sukey’s soul rests with them in peace.
Special thanks to Joan Kincaid, Owen County Clerk, for her invaluable assistance in my research re: Susanah Rogers.
For additional information about the Herndon-Ficklin connection, or the 1830s land dispute, readers may contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org