James Taylor's Slaves


The Court Battle Won by General James Taylor's Slaves


A Biographical Sketch, His Heritage, His Will,


The Court Battle of his Slaves

General James Taylor - A Biographical Sketch

General James Taylor was born in Caroline County, Virginia in 1769, and in 1795, he married Keturah Moss, widow of David Leitch. They had daughters Anne, Keturah, and Jane; and one son, Colonel James Taylor.  The General arrived in Kentucky in 1792 to develop and sell a large tract of land at the mouth of the Licking River that his father owned. Most of modern-day Bellevue, Covington,  Dayton, and Newport were included in this original tract. Beginning in 1792, Taylor founded and laid out the town of Newport, and in 1793 marked the trail that has become U.S. 27 to Lexington. In 1798 he donated land for the establishment of the Newport Academy, and a two-acre tract for the construction of a courthouse and jail on Fourth Street, between Columbia and York Streets. With assistance from his cousin President James Madison in 1803, Taylor persuaded the federal government to move the Fort Washington military post from Cincinnati to Northern Kentucky. He donated five acres at the mouth of the Licking River on which to build a military post and in return the government rewarded Taylor with a  contract to construct what would become the Newport Barracks. During the War of 1812 he held the rank of Brigadier General and was captured by the British in the Detroit Campaign but was soon paroled.  Other business interests of Taylor included investing in rental properties in downtown Cincinnati, Covington and Newport, operating ferries across both the Licking and the Ohio Rivers, founding the Newport Bank, investing in the Newport Manufacturing Company, operating both sawmills and gristmills along the Licking River, as well as owning both a salt works and a tanning business.  He quickly replaced his original log cabin residence built in the 1790s with a frame house which was destroyed by fire in 1812.  General Taylor built a new brick mansion which was completed in 1837 and was his residence in later years. The house still stands at 335 East Third street in Newport, occupied by the law firm of Gerner & Kearns Co. It Operated after Taylor’s death as an underground railroad  station, providing shelter to slaves escaping to the north and continuing to serve the cause of freedom.  On November 6, 1848, General James Taylor died at this home. In addition to his operations already mentioned, he owned thousands of acres in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. He was at that time considered the wealthiest man in the State of Kentucky.

General James Taylor’s Heritage

General Taylor’s great great grandfather James Taylor, I was born in 1635 in Carlisle, County Cumberland, England. He emigrated to Virginia in 1665 and settled in Caroline County on Chesapeake Bay. James I married twice, and by his first wife Mary Frances Walker, he had four children including James Taylor, II. James I died in 1698 in King William County where he had received a Land Grant in 1666. General Taylor’s great grandfather James Taylor, II was born in 1670 in Orange County, Virginia. In 1721, he married Martha Thompson. Two of their nine children became grandparents of United States Presidents. James II was Burgess of King & Queen County from 1702 to 1710, Surveyor General and  Justice of the Peace. James & Martha built the house “Bloomsbury” near the town of Orange, Virginia and after later giving it to their son James, III, they built another house, “Greenfield” also near the town of Orange, Virginia. James II died there in 1729 and both he and Martha are buried in the family cemetery behind the “Greenfield” house. General Taylor’s grandfather James Taylor, III was born in 1704 in Orange County, Virginia. He married Alice Thornton Catlett and they had three children. As heir to his brother George Taylor who died in 1711, James III obtained 1,000 acres about 14 miles above the Falls of the Ohio, and another 1,000 acres on Harrod’s Creek about 7 miles from the Ohio River. James III died in 1784. Both he and Alice are buried on the grounds of “Bloomsbury, Orange County, Virginia. The 1782 Orange County, Virginia census recorded the James Taylor, III family with 2 whites and 40 blacks.           

The father of General Taylor was James Taylor, IV was born in 1732 in Caroline County, Virginia, and in 1758, he married Ann Hubbard. They had 10 children. James IV was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, an Ensign in the French and Indian War, a Justice, Sheriff and Virginia Senator, and served with his friend George Washington in Braddock’s Campaign. He was a Colonel in  the Caroline County, Virginia Militia during the Revolutionary War, For his service in the French and Indian War, James IV received a Bounty Land Warrant for 2,000 acres on Boon’s Creek in Fayette County, Kentucky. James Taylor, IV died in 1814 in the town 0f Midway in Caroline County, Virginia. The 1782 Orange County, Virginia Census recorded the James Taylor, IV family with 6 whites and 22  blacks. 

General James Taylor’s Will

The Will of General James Taylor including two Codicils is seven pages long, executed on July 1, 1848, with official copies bound in leather. Most of this Will consists of directives for managing his vast estate for the benefit of his daughters Keturah, Ann and Jane; and his son Colonel James Taylor who was also named the sole Executor. In addition, he provided inheritances for his grandchildren.  Section 35 on pages 5 and 6 of the Will stipulates provisions for his estimated 40 to 50 slaves. After serving his children, all male slaves except Thomas Fields were to receive their freedom at age 30 and his female slaves at age 28. Those already at these ages received their freedom at the end of the year of Taylor‘s death. These provisions and others occurred thirteen years before the American Civil War, and from a man whose father and grandfather had owned slaves with no provision for their freedom. The Will contains special provisions for specific slaves. His faithful servants Mingo, James Smith and his wife Milley were to receive their freedom upon General Taylor’s death. Mingo and the Smith couple each were to receive a life interest in 5 acres plus lumber, glass, nails and hinges to build a cabin; plus a cow, a horse a sow and pigs, 50 bushels of corn, 1 barrel of flour and 300 pounds of pork. These three slaves most probably were elderly and unable to do heavy work, but were being set up to establish a retirement homestead. General Taylor’s Will also stipulated that the slaves Edmund, Henry, Horace, Lucy, Hannah, Molly and Jane Smith each were to receive 50 acres of land. Blacksmith William with his wife and two children were to have 100 acres of land. The Will further directs that any freed male slave plus two specified female slaves who wish to go into farming receive a horse, a cow and a sow. Every freed  female slave was to receive $25.00. Taylor finally commands that “Said slaves are to be treated humanely in every respect by my children.” General Taylor singled one slave out for special servitude as follows: “The slave Thomas Fields, by some called Thomas Curry, is to serve my children until he is forty years of age, when he is to be set free, provided he never returns to the State of Kentucky, and if he does, he is not to be free.” As mentioned, Taylor had a large house built in Newport in 1812, but it was destroyed by fire reportedly set by a disgruntled slave, and this may have been the slave Thomas Fields who incurred such special punishment.  Another type of slavery existed in America decades earlier, and was especially prevalent during the 1700s. Any adult who wanted to emigrate from Europe to America but could not pay the cost of passage would sign a Contract of Indenture which required that person to serve whoever purchased him or her for a fixed term of years in order to pay the debt. If a passenger died on the voyage before half-way, there was no charge. However, if over half-way, the full cost was charged to the survivor. Very young children were required to serve until 21 years of age. Many parents were forced to trade away their children like so many head of cattle, and as a result, some never saw their children again. Upon completing the term of indenture, the servant received a new suit of clothes, and if stipulated, a man could receive a horse and a woman a cow. Compared to this type of indentured slavery, General Taylor’s provisions for his slaves were very liberal and humane. 

The Court Battle by General Taylor’s Slaves

The court battle by General Taylor’s slaves reached a final conclusion nearly 43 years after Taylor’s death. This battle was recorded in the Kentucky State Journal. 
The Kentucky State Journal, August 21, 1883, page 1: After General Taylor’s death in 1848, his slaves waited patiently for some 35 years to receive the land promised them in Taylor’s Will. From time to time, they asked for the land, but without any success. Finally, in 1883, 35 years after Taylor’s death, two former slaves brought a suit against the estate for recovery of land near Alexandria which  they claimed the General had bequeathed them. This suit by slaves set an astonishing precedent. 
The Kentucky State Journal, May 11, 1889, page 3: Six years later, in 1889, the case of William Lumpkins and others came up for hearing in the Chancery Court. This was a case where Lumpkins and others, who were slaves of General Taylor, were suing for 25 acres each, left to them by the General in his Will for their faithful service which they never received. 

The Kentucky State Journal, Tuesday, May 14, 1889, page 3: Only three days later, on May 13, 1889, Chancellor J. W. Menzies decided the case in favor of General Taylor’s former slaves. Among the plaintiffs were the Lumpkins boys who were at Taylor’s death under 25 years old, and had been bequeathed 25 acres each, upon condition that they serve Taylor’s children until reaching the age of 30.Soon after Taylor’s death, his children formally exonerated the slaves from any and all services, nevertheless, these slaves stood ready at all times to render services whenever called upon. Around 1858, some 31 years earlier, Colonel James Taylor, executor of his father’s estate had in a suit admitted and stated that his father had given these boys 25 acres each. The general public was delighted with the decision in favor of the slaves and their descendants. 

The Kentucky State Journal, June 9, 1891, page 3: Two years later, and nearly 43 years after General Taylor’s death, the Kentucky Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the Campbell Chancery Court in the case of the slaves of General James Taylor against the trustee and heirs of the Taylor estate. This was a final decision in a lengthy and bitter litigation, and was considered a victory of  justice.  The following quote from The Kentucky State Journal accurately sums up this case: “It will be great gratification to every lover of right and justice to know that after the expiration of nearly forty-three years, the kind and benevolent desires of General Taylor towards his slaves will be carried out through the instrumentality of the justice of the Courts of Kentucky. And that such sham and unconscionable defenses as were attempted in this case by the trustees of Colonel James Taylor and the heirs of this estate have received the seal of judicial condemnation.”


By Charles Whalin. This article previously appeared in the Kentucky Explorer, and is used here thru gracious efforts of the author. Thanks, Charles.