What is a “Negro Wench?”
Nehemiah Dunham used that phraseology in a legal document–his 1801 will–to refer to one of his slaves. That made me curious. What exactly did he mean when he used the phrase?
The “Negro wench” phraseology appears to have been common in the 18th and 19th centuries, including in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. See, e.g., Mary Domciz, “African American Labor in the 18th Century, ” in Woven with Words: A Collection of African American History in Berks County, edited by Dr. Laurie Grobman & Dr. Gary Kunkelman (Penn. St. Berks 2006) (quoting two late 18th-century advertisements in the Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper offering negro/negroe wenches for sale). Another example is found in the New Jersey Bureau of Labor’s 1886 report to the New Jersey Legislature, in which the Bureau described New Jersey slavery at the 1804 passage of the Gradual Abolition Act. According to the report, at “this time and long afterwards, the local papers were full of advertisements, closing with the stereotyped direction, ‘for terms apply to the printer’ [editor], and announcing ‘for sale’ . . . ‘a likely negro Wench twenty-ﬁve years of age.’ . . . Nor was it less common for the sheriff, who had levied on a judgment debtor’s property, to make a return like the following: ‘By virtue of the within writ I have seized and taken a Wench named Rachel, two beddings, one cow.'” Report of the Bureau of Statistics of Labor and Industries contained in Vol. II Documents of the One Hundred and Tenth Legislature of the State of New Jersey and the Forty-First Under the New Constitution Documents 10 to 23, Inclusive, at 259 (Courier Publ’g Assn. 1886) (citations omitted).
In a review of various slave-sale and runaway advertisements from that era, “negro wench” seems to be used most consistently with a slave of at least child-bearing age. This is consistent with the the often-derogatory nature of the term wench as implying a young female servant, such a “bar wench” or a “kitchen wench.” In addition, the term is laced with sexual connotation and can also be used to describe a prostitute. While I have seen a few references in prose to “an old negro wench,” these appear to be much less common.
While this is not a comprehensive posting, it does represent a sampling from the years 1732 through 1824. These samples refer to negro wenches and also identify the ages of the girls and women slaves. They range from age 15 to age 38.
- Age 15 Years Old. The Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia, B. Franklin ed.) at 4 (Nov. 17, 1731) “has had Small-pox”
- Age 17 Years Old. The Independent Gazetteer (Philadelphia) at 1 (Feb. 4, 1783) “understands cooking and all kinds of house-work”
- Age 17 Years Old. American Watchman and Delaware Advertiser (Wilmington, Del.) at 3 (Jan. 27, 1824) “healthy and stout”
- Age 18 Years Old. The Independent Gazetteer (Philadelphia) at 1 (Feb. 4, 1783) “With a child one month old”
- Age 18 or 20 Years Old. The Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia) at 3 (Dec. 2, 1746) “used to country work”
- Age 19 Years Old. The Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia) at 3 (Jan. 22, 1756) “fit for town or country business”
- Age 20 Years Old. The National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser (Washington D.C.) at 3 (Aug. 31, 1804) “apparently far advanced in pregnancy”
- Age 25 Years Old. The Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia) at 3 (Jul. 12, 1775) “with a Female Child, about 4 Years old”
- Age 30 Years Old. The Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia) at 4 (Apr. 15, 1779) “was lately bought at Cambridge in Talbot County, Maryland”
- Age 38 Years Old. The Independent Gazetteer (Philadelphia) at 3 (June 14, 1783) “short stature, pretty lusty, and supposed to be with child”