The Story of the Enslaved Cooks of Burlington’s Tousey House Tavern

On October 19, 1862,  Erastus Tousey, owner of what is now the Tousey House Tavern in Burlington, Kentucky, received a letter from his son-in-law.   He was  Dr. Benjamin Stephens, Surgeon General of the 22nd KY Union Infantry, and the man who would found the GAR, the Union Veterans organization.  He described goings on with his unit and apologized for not writing or being able to visit the Touseys earlier.     In closing, Dr. Stephens said, “Remember me kindly to all the family, and I embrace in that category, Aunt Lydia and Martha.”     It was a sentimental, but weird closing, considering Aunt Lydia was the enslaved cook of the Tousey family, and Martha, her enslaved daughter, unfortunately for her, born in Kentucky.     President Lincoln would issue the Emancipation Proclamation in January of the upcoming year, but it wouldn’t immediately free the slaves of Kentucky and three other slave states that didn’t join the Confederacy. Strike two for Martha.

In October of 1862, Lydia was about 72, and her daughter Martha was into her 40s.    This is what we can piece together from unnamed slave schedules of Boone County.    Also part of the enslaved family were Jefferson and Tommy.    We can only hope that at 72, Lydia was more of a overseer in the kitchen with her daughter, than one who lifted pots and stooped over the hearth. These were the days before the birth of the Kentucky Hot Brown, and the cuisine they cooked for the Touseys would have had a distinct Catskill Mountain influence, which is where Lydia was from.

Jefferson and Tommy operated the smokehouse out back, and did other work, perhaps travelling with Erastus on his numerous business trips to Connecticut, New York, and the Northeast.    All four of the Tousey’s enslaved were former slaves of Erastus’ father, Zera Tousey.   Erastus would take ownership of the four at his father’s death in 1833. Erastus’ up and coming nephew, Zera Craig, also of Burlington, would receive from his grandfather, his other slaves Rachel and all her children – Harriet, Rebecca, Moses, Albert, Spencer, Anderson, Tombulen, and Allen.

The Boone county historical society has several love letters Erastus Tousey wrote to his wife in the 1830s and 1840s, that were recently written about in the Cincinnati Enquirer.    Apparently they had a very heated and spicy relationship.  And, of course they did, as Mrs. Tousey wasn’t so tired as other housewives – she had a cadre of enslaved women to cook and clean house for her.

Erastus’ father Zera, and his two brothers, Thomas and Moses, had immigrated to Boone County Kentucky in 1804, from Durham, New York, and founded the now forgotten town of Touseytown near Petersburg, Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Lawrenceburg, Indiana.    They were entrepreneurs and grew tobacco and hemp, which they stored in a big warehouse on the river and which river traders also used to weigh, store and inspect their goods, that would be shipped further downriver to Louisville.   Hemp was the cotton of the northern slave states.     It provided rope, twine, and netting to package the cotton of the south, as well as supply the steamboat industry.  In order to staff the intensely laborious production of hemp and tobacco, the brothers brought with them from New York a large group of slaves to do the backbreaking work.    It was all a very profitable endeavor for the Touseys.       Erastus grew up in this environment, but in 1822, decided to move south of his family’s enclave to Burlington, Kentucky, and build his house, which now serves some of the best Kentucky southern cuisine in the area.   One of the richest versions of the Kentucky Hot Brown is to be had at Tousey’s.

Lydia was born in New York, and her son, Thomas had as well, the year that the brothers Tousey immigrated to Kentucky.     Lydia carried an infant on horseback, on foot, and on flatboat from New York to Boone County Kentucky – no rest for the weary.  We think of slavery as mostly a Southern thing, but New York had embraced slavery as early as the 1600s when the Dutch East India company brought slaves to the New Amsterdam colony.   And, most of the early enslaved population in the Northern Kentucky counties of Boone, Campbell, and Kenton counties had come with their owners from Virginia, as part of the Travelling (Baptist) Church that immigrated to the area to escape persecution of their Baptist beliefs in the Piedmont of Virginia.

As a slave born in New York, Thomas was the lucky one- if any luck can be derived from the institution.   In 1799, New York passed a law for gradual abolition.   It declared children of slaves born after July 4, 1799, to be free, but would have to work as indentured servants for the masters who owned their mothers, until age 28 for men and age 25 for women.   According to Zera Tousey’s will, Thomas would turn 28 in March of 1833, and he was a freeman.    His sister Martha was born later in Kentucky, so even though her mother was born in New York, she was not eligible for emancipation.      The Tommy that was part of the family in 1862, was not the Thomas, son of Lydia, but probably the son of Martha.   A Boone County Birth record of October 1, 1853, lists an unnamed boy slave child born to Martha or Malvina, owned by Erastus Tousey.   Martha probably named her child after her older brother in tribute.

Zera Craig, Erastus’ nephew died suddenly in 1848, without heirs, so for a few years, Erastus owned the family group of Rachel and her children.    After about 1853, they are gone from his tax list, so it’s not known if they were sold or emancipated.    The most probable result was they went to whomever bought or inherited the farm that Zera Craig got from his grandfather.   Zera Tousey’s brother Moses had at his death in 1834 slaves Bill, Willas, Daphne, Eliza and her child, women Vicey, Agness, and Ellen, and children Mason, Joshua, Jack, Jeff, and Jane.

Zera and Moses Tousey owned another slave cook, Henrietta Woods, who had an interesting story.   Henrietta was born in Touseytown in about 1822, but was sold by the Touseys to Henry Forsythe, a riverboat captain  of Louisville, Kentucky, who then sold her in about 1841 to William Cirode, a wealthy French hide and fur merchant of Louisville.  When William died, his wife Jane Marie Cirode, who inherited Henrietta, moved to Cincinnati and gave Henrietta her freedom.    When Jane died in 1857, her kids Maria Louisa and William, still thought Henrietta part of their inheritance, so devised a plan to have her kidnapped and sold into slavery into the South.   Their mother hadn’t left them much, and valued at $300, the sale of Henrietta would give them the in inheritance they thought they deserved.  Henrietta was the cook at Mrs. Boyd’s Boardinghouse in Cincinnati, and was lured to Covington, where she was kidnapped and sold.     She was enslaved to work on a plantation in Mississippi for 10 years, returned to Cincinnati about 1868, sued the kidnapper and won $2500 in damages in 1878 – pretty unheard of for a black female!

As a trained hemp producer and rope maker, Thomas, son of Lydia, might have hired out to one of the ropemaking factories of nearby Covington or Newport, or may have wanted to stay close to family.      His whereabouts after becoming a freeman are unknown.

Erastus Tousey died in 1863, and his wife outlived him for several decades until she went to the great beyond in 1895.    The very sentimental story that is posted on the restaurant’s website is that Mrs. Tousey freed her slaves in 1863 and they decided to stay with her for many years and everyone lived happily ever after.    Well, Kentuckians all saw the future after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, so there’s not a whole lot of nobility to have waited for the Proclamation to free your enslaved.     Lydia, after a life of cooking for her mistresses, probably didn’t live much into Reconstruction, and was buried on or near the Tousey family plot in the old Burlington Cemetery, in an unmarked grave.


from Dan Woeller, the Food Etymologist