Girl with the Hollyhocks
In many parts of the country there are local figures known through the lore of the area, but perhaps not so well-known otherwise.
One such fascinating piece of local history relates to an Illinois Plains’ hamlet called Mulkeytown. This frontier village became the permanent residence of a girl born into slavery, forced to march The Trail of Tears, and then freed thanks to the intervention of a wealthy Southern Illinois farmer.
Her name is Priscilla; her odyssey from slavery to eventual freedom is a story deserving of remembrance.
Slavery in the United States was not only the concern of its white residents. Native Americans held slaves as well, when their finances and living conditions allowed for it. Although historically Native Americans used captured enemies as slaves, they also occasionally kidnapped settlement children (raising them as their own), or purchased Africans outright as slaves.
Into this world, in about 1824, a girl was born in the extreme western part of North Carolina where it meets Georgia and Tennessee. She was named Priscilla.
Almost all historians note she was classified as a “quadroon”. In the slave trade, blacks were categorized by how much African ancestry was part of their genetics. Genetic descriptors like that were based upon the race of each contributing parent, and changed by factors of two with each generation. Thus, a person with a black father or mother but a second parent of a different race (a “half black” person) was classified as a “mulatto”. A one-fourth black person was called a “quadroon”, the product of a “mulatto” with another non-black person. A further grade of “octoroon” (one-eighth black) was recognized as well. [As recently as the 1970s in Louisiana if one had as little as one-sixteenth African blood in one’s current “bloodline” one was classified as “black” by the state. This rule change had been altered from the previous “octoroon” standard, thus re-categorizing many people who smugly thought of themselves as “white”; overnight many people found they were “black” in the eyes of the state].
In the case of the slave girl Priscilla her “quadroon” status is unclear. It is certain the African part of her genetics came from her mother.
Almost all plantation owners spent time in the slave quarters, raping the female slaves. “Raping” is the correct term for such activities. No slave woman could ever freely engage in any intercourse with her owner and the act not be termed as rape. These women had no power—ol’ massa could have her beaten, maimed, separated from her children or husband (if she had one—many did), or even put to death.
Massa did not always have to use physical force, either—his implied imperiousness was threat enough for these women. Her inability to avoid any coercion qualifies these acts as rape. The same is true of Thomas Jefferson and his relationship to his female slave Sally Hemings. Although Jefferson genuinely cared for her, Sally’s powerlessness in the relationship meant any act of intercourse between her and Jefferson was rape, even if she willingly submitted.
As a result of their more “fruitful” visits to the slave quarters, children were born to the slave women and white owners. Most owners, though not all, brought their half-breed children into the Big House to work as house slaves. It is appalling to consider having one’s own child indentured in such a way, but that was the practice.
Priscilla’s lineage has also been described as three-quarters Cherokee, though, and this is where her origins are murky. This implies she was descended from a Cherokee father and a mulatto (half-black, half-Cherokee mother). This means Priscilla’s mother was the product of a Cherokee male and an African female. It is a tantalizing look into societal dynamics to think of this, but it cannot be confirmed at this late date.
Priscilla’s quadroon status, however, meant in the world of slavery she was a higher priced commodity. The lighter-skinned blacks were more desired to serve in Massa’s home and to tend his children. Some quadroons and almost all octoroons were termed sometimes as “high yella” (meaning their skin tone was shaded toward a more pale tan color). Many of these “passed” for white later.
Priscilla was a just a slave girl, though, born into bondage with no status. Her early life is undocumented. She was certainly born into slavery, but it is believed she was sold, along with her mother, to another owner in about 1828 (when she was 4). She lived in the area known as the Cherokee Nation, a sovereign land (which they called New Echota) set up and initially recognized by the United States government as a homeland for the Cherokee people. This land covered the northwestern section of Georgia and sprawled into North Carolina and parts of Alabama.
The main trail westward to St. Louis from Shawneetown, Illinois (on the Ohio River), ran right past the Silkwood property. This was a well-traveled route known originally as the Shawneetown-Kaskaskia Trail. [Kaskaskia, Illinois, was wiped off the map many years later when a major Mississippi River flood caused the river to permanently change course.]lucrative inn on the route in 1825 (originally a log cabin, then expanded in 1828 to grander proportions). It was first called “The Halfway House” (because it was halfway between Shawneetown and St. Louis). Later, it became known as The Silkwood Inn. The inn had lodging accommodations for stagecoach and foot travelers, and was a popular place to stay on the Kaskaskia Trail.
Barzilla Silkwood’s business interests took him many places, and in 1837 he was traveling in the southeastern US. He stopped at a plantation in North Carolina near the Great Smokey Mountains. His stay was not brief; while there he met and became friendly with most of the plantation’s slaves. In particular he became enchanted by a pretty little quadroon girl who worked in the Big House named Priscilla. She was about 12 or 13 years old at the time, and Barzilla was completely taken by her.
He spent much leisure in watching the slave children play and gambol about. He was impressed by Priscilla’s “cheerfulness” (though it is almost certain her outward cheer was a put-on for visitors). She became friendly with Barzilla, however, calling him “Marse” Silkwood.
Silkwood left for his Illinois home with the memory of this delightful slave girl tucked securely away. Soon after he departed, the owner of Priscilla’s plantation died, and his slaves and properties were sold off at public auction. An Indian chief—possibly Rev. Jesse Bushyhead (1804-1844) of the Cherokee Nation lands in Georgia—bought Priscilla.
This chief’s motivation for purchasing her can never be known. She has been described as pretty; in consideration of her maturation, he may have wanted her for a concubine. Or, he may merely have wanted her as a servant. Regardless, she was forced away from North Carolina to the Cherokee lands in Georgia as the slave of a Cherokee chief.
A poignant element of Priscilla’s story occurred just before she left her old plantation. She gathered up some hollyhock seeds to take along as a remembrance of her place of birth and early childhood. Settled into her new Georgia life, she planted these, and they took root.
Priscilla did not live in peace long in her new Cherokee sovereign homeland.
Gold had been discovered on the lands, and the state of Georgia had agitated to force the Cherokees out of the area. President Andrew Jackson finally signed the Indian Removal Act that would displace the Natives from Georgia. It was President Martin Van Buren, however, who marshaled US Army troops (over 7,000 of them) to force the 15,000 Cherokee Nation residents off their property in 1838.
In routing the Indians the US troops burned many of their homes and simply confiscated their possessions. They were corralled into internment camps in Tennessee, sand with few belongings, they embarked on the thousand-mile march along what is known as “The Trail of Tears”.
This was a death march for many. The soldiers refused to wait for better weather before leaving Tennessee, and ended up marching the Indians through bitter cold starting in late 1838.
Although many died on the trail from exposure, the greater number of them had died before much distance had been traveled at all. The Cherokee Nation refugees had been given thin blankets to carry that had been used in a Tennessee small pox hospital. The pox burned through the group as they set out, and their contagious status meant no town or village along their travel route would allow them in. They had to walk many extra miles to go around settled areas.
Abuses were heaped upon them almost everywhere. When attempting to cross the Ohio River into Southern Illinois, the opportunistic ferry operator charged the Indians almost nine times the regular rate (a dollar, equal to about $22 today). Also, this operator only carried the Cherokee refugees after all other paying white passengers were processed. Some of the Natives, waiting on the Kentucky side for days, were murdered by locals.
Once into Illinois, they began moving westward.
When Worlds Collide
When Priscilla’s new Cherokee owner was forced to start The Long Walk, she gathered up some of her hollyhock seeds and took them along.
The Cherokee Nation ambled through Southern Illinois during one of its coldest winters on record. Most were on foot, with threadbare clothing, in moccasins or shoeless. As the Cherokees were not welcome to camp in any town because of the small pox contagion, they passed through on their way to settle in a place of rest outside the Southern Illinois town of Jonesboro. This site is only a few miles east of the Mississippi River. They made camp along a creek in mid-December 1838.
Barzilla Silkwood was in Jonesboro, Illinois (about 45 miles SSW of The Silkwood Inn), on or around December 15, 1838. His lodgings were at the town’s Willard Hotel, and one morning he stood outside the hotel as the Cherokee refugees passed through town on their way to make camp.
He spotted a girl about 13 or 14 years old pass by in the group. She looked familiar to him, andshe turned and seemed to recognize him as well. Somewhat further up the street she suddenly broke from the pack and ran back to the hotel where Silkwood stood. She asked if he was “Marse” Silkwood; at that moment he recognized her as the slave girl he’d met the previous year in North Carolina.
He spoke with her and found out what had happened to her. Taking Priscilla with him he found a wagon and made the trip to the Indian camp near Dutch Creek outside town. Priscilla pointed out her Cherokee master to Silkwood. He approached the chief, and began bartering for Priscilla. The amount settled upon was typical for a “good” slave: $1000 in gold. [Slaves routinely sold for anywhere from $500 to $800 and more, equal to tens of thousands of dollars in today’s money; Priscilla’s pruchase price was equivalent to nearly $22,000 US in 2014).
Silkwood’s wealth allowed him to make the purchase immediately; when the Cherokee Nation continued their westward trek it was with one less traveler.
Barzilla took Priscilla home to Mulkeytown with him. His wife’s reaction to his returning with the pretty quadroon girl is not recorded, but apparently she did not make much of a fuss. Priscilla was integrated into their home quickly and easily and served more as a family member than as a domestic (although she did her fair share of work). [One of the adoptive children who lived at the Silkwood home when Priscilla was brought there later claimed she had been treated the same as the other children in residence there.] She was legally given her freedom by Barzilla.
Upon Barzilla’s demise Priscilla inherited 40 acres of his property (as did the other 16 orphans the Silkwoods had adopted over the years).
It is difficult to cast aspersions on his seemingly charitable act but Barzilla’s motives for buying Priscilla may be a bit suspect. It should be noted that he had been rather enchanted by this girl when he had first seen her. A thousand dollars was a tremendous sum then, certainly if one was simply buying a slave only to be set free after purchase. He may have had other, less altruistic, ideas in mind when bringing her home.
Regardless, she lived with the Silkwood family for most of her life. She became a member of the Mulkeytown Christian Church. She also learned to read, write, and do simple mathematics. She outlived Barzilla (died June 28, 1876) and Mariah Silkwood, and continued caring for the balance of the adoptive children the Silkwoods had left.
She had been forced to move from the Silkwood Inn after Barzilla died in 1876 (to a place called the Bullock home). The Silkwood Inn site is now in the historic registry. The original structure burned in 1983, and was so heavily damaged that a reconstruction was erected about 150 feet north of the original site. This new structure overlooks a small back road and open, arable plains used as farmland. One can see the declination in the fields where the Kaskaskia Trail once carried travelers to and from St. Louis.
In 1892, Priscilla died, believed to be about 68 years old. The cemetery in which she is buried is called the Reid-Kirkpatrick Cemetery and is about 2 miles NNW of the Silkwood Inn site on a back road named Millionaires Road north of Mulkeytown, Illinois.
She is buried in the family plot near Barzilla and Mariah. Her name on her simple sandstone monument is carved as “Priscilla” with some mention of her Silkwood connection upon it. The stone is extremely weather-worn.
Author’s Note: I first became aware of Priscilla, the Illinois slave girl, in the late 1980s. My curiosity had been piqued; in those pre-Internet days, one operated on scanty information. However, I was able to find the original Silkwood Inn site, the piece of the Kaskaskia Trail that runs near it, and Priscilla’s grave. Standing there at her headstone was moving to say the least—this little slave girl had, indeed, traveled a long way, not only in miles, but in American history as well.
preview of children's book, "Priscilla and the Hollyhocks"
by Anne Broyles
Amazon Price: $12.00 Buy Now
(price as of Mar 26, 2016)