Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Former President's Slave "Driven Away"

(Accessed from Family Search, Grenada Mississippi Field Office Reel 19 Image 25 out of 128)
Miscellaneous Complaints, Grenada Mississippi Field Office
National Archives Publication M1907, Reel 19, Registers of Complaints

"Adlen Willsen (col'd) 78 years of age formerly servant of James K. Polk late President of the United States, for whom he worked 35 years, has now in his old age been driven off, being of no further use, is destitute and unable to support himself and wife applied for medical aid and assistance."

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned lands tells many stories. Records from this agency known commonly as the Freedmen's Bureau, reflect the years of struggle and survival of many people once enslaved, trying to find their way through a hostile south, that now despised them. This was especially especially the case once freedom was declared and the practice of chattel slavery was abolished. The Bureau records reflect some of their struggles, and among many, are the stories of the elderly and how they fared after the war, and in their early days of freedom.

Amid the documents from Grenada Mississippi Field Office of the Bureau, an unusual notation appeared among a list of complaints. An elderly man found his way to the Grenada Mississippi Field Office. According to the notations made, the man was once affiliated with a former president of the United States.

He had been enslaved for many years by President James K. Polk. It is well known that Polk held slaves while he served in office but it is not known how many. Upon his death, in 1849, it is said that Polk stated in his will that slaves were to freed upon the death of his wife. Since she did not die until well after the Civil War, those people held as slaves by the former president would have been freed at the end of the Civil War, upon the abolishing of slavery. 

But at the time of Polk's death in 1849, were all of them retained after the president died? Were some of them sold away and only those attending his wife left behind? Was Mr. Wilson the enslaved man, among those still attending her after his death?  Those questions remain unanswered.

The fate of many slaves of presidents has been documented in various places, but finding a document among records of the Freedmen's Bureau, was surprising and also disheartening. The story was simply that Adlin (Alden) Willsen (Wilson), was enslaved in the household of President James K. Polk. But details of his life are not clear and how he ended up in Mississippi is not stated, but the document speaks for itself. He was now an old man, and he had been dismissed from the Polk household, no longer of use to the estate.

Many questions arise:
1) After slavery ended were all of the former slaves driven away, were only those for whom there was "no use" sent away?
2) Since the president's wife Sarah did not die until 1891, were those who were able-bodied, required to stay with the Polks and tend to her "needs"?
3) Were any of them kept later as paid servants after the war ended?
4) Was Alden Willson sold after the death of the president?
5) Would that have explained his presence now in Mississippi in 1867?

In some cases there are stories of a close relationship forming between house slaves and their slave masters. Did Polk have such a relationship with Alden Willson? When was he actually "driven away" from the Polk household? Was it during a time before old age affected him or earlier? As he was stated to have been a personal servant to the former president who was long deceased, clearly any personal fondness towards Mr. Wilson by Polk himself, may have been long gone by the time they had to officially release their "servants" from bondage.

Though much is not well known and little is gleaned from this records, clearly, there is clearly a story to be told.

This record reflects one of the many tragedies that many faced former slaves, particularly those unable to work due to advance age. He had worked for 35 years for James Polk, but what of his family? Or did he have other relatives to whom he could turn? Were there, perhaps, grown children?

The records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen & Abandoned Lands reflect many of these sad cases of the difficulties faced by many during those post-Civil War years. It can only be hoped that Mr. Willson and his wife were reunited perhaps with grown children and later able to live out their remaining  years with some degree of stability, safety, and care.

1 comment:

Kristin said...

A sad tale with many questions to be answered.