Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Robert Williams
MSA SC 3520-16404

Biography:

Born prior to 1783 in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. One known brother: Ceaser Williams. Married Susanna Williams by 1783. Six children: George (b. ca. 1783), Dinah (b. ca. 1785), Rachel (b. ca. 1787), Susan (b. ca. 1789), Ceaser (b. ca. 1791), William (b. ca. 1793). Declared a lunatic by the State of Maryland in 1805. Probably died in 1816.

Robert Williams was a free black man who was born prior to 1783 in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. His wife, Susanna Williams, as well as his children, were the slaves of white Anne Arundel County resident John Galloway until March of 1793, when Robert purchased them as his own slaves. In addition to the value of his family as his property, Robert was able to acquire a large amount of personal property, including tobacco, livestock, farm equipment, housewares, and cash, which amounted to significant wealth that was out of the ordinary for free blacks in Maryland at the time. In May of 1805, the State of Maryland declared Robert insane by a writ of lunatico inquirendo. Initially, Robert was placed under the trusteeship of white Anne Arundel County resident Jerome Plummer, but was later placed in the care of his brother, Ceaser Williams. In 1805, Robert's wife petitioned to legally earn freedom for herself and her children, which she was successful in doing by March of 1806. Robert's trusteeship case in the Maryland Chancery Court would last for over a decade, apparently coming to a close in July of 1816. Robert likely spent his entire life in Anne Arundel County.

Robert most likely grew up in the West River area of Anne Arundel County, near the property of white landowner John Galloway. This is presumably where he met Susanna, who was one of Galloway's slaves. Robert and Susanna were married by 1783. Starting that year and continuing over the next decade, Robert and Susanna had six children. By March of 1793, Robert had acquired enough money to purchase his family from Galloway. However, he did not purchase his family's freedom, but had rather acquired them as his own slaves, which greatly increased his enumerable wealth, although it is unclear whether this was what Robert intended. By the time of this purchase, Robert, Susanna, and their children were living on land that Robert rented from Joseph and Ann Pemberton just outside of modern-day Galesville, Maryland. Joseph was a Philadelphia merchant and Quaker who, along with his wife Ann, owned large tracts of land in Maryland. Robert farmed tobacco on the land, which he used to pay Pemberton for rent.1

By 1803, Robert began showing signs of severe mental illness. According to his neighbors, he had a propensity to lose control of his physical actions, and would often become a nuisance to the community. In April of 1805, his community issued a petition to the Chancery Court of Maryland to have Robert declared legally insane, and the petition was granted on May 7.2 By the request of the community, one of Robert's white neighbors, Jerome Plummer, was appointed as Robert's trustee.3 Plummer, who lived on property to the west of the Pemberton property that bordered the Patuxent River, built a small home on his property for Robert, Susanna, and two of their younger children.4 Plummer's neighbors attested that he adequately cared for Robert and his family, providing them with shelter, clothing, and food.5 In order to supplement the costs of caring for Robert and his family, Plummer requested that the court allow him to sell some of Robert's property.6 At the time, Robert's wife and children were still considered his slaves, and Plummer may have stood to gain a large profit by selling Susanna and the children back into legitimate slavery. In order to prevent this, Susanna submitted a petition to the Maryland House of Delegates to legally manumit herself and her family in the fall of 1805.7 The Maryland General Assembly directed the Chancery Court to free Susanna and the children. She and her children were officially granted their freedom on March 5, 1806.8 As such, Plummer would no longer be able to sell Robert's family, although he was still able to sell off some of Robert's personal possessions, such as livestock and farm equipment, under the condition that he would report all the earnings to the court, and that he would not use the earnings for his own personal gain, but rather only for the welfare of Robert and his family.9

Although Plummer had become firmly established as Robert's trustee by the summer of 1805, Robert's brother, Ceaser Williams, grew extremely dissatisfied with Plummer's methods of caring for Robert. As such, by the summer of 1806, Ceaser illegally entered Plummer's property in Anne Arundel County and absconded with Robert to the town of Brookeville in nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, where Ceaser had been renting a farm from prominent Brookeville resident Caleb Bentley for ten years prior to the opening of Robert's insanity case.10 Along with Susanna, Ceaser claimed that Plummer had been abusing Robert and his children by frequently confining Robert in chains as a result of his lunacy, and by making Susanna and the children work as slaves on the Plummer property, although Plummer did not actually own any member of the Williams family. Ceaser and Susanna submitted a petition to the Chancery Court of Maryland to remove Plummer as Robert's trustee, and for Ceaser to become the new trustee.11 

Initially, the Chancellor declared that he did not find sufficient evidence in the petition to grant trusteeship to Ceaser, but he did allow depositions for both Plummer's and Ceaser's sides of the case in the following months.12 Several of Plummer's neighbors attested that Plummer sufficiently fed, clothed, and sheltered Robert and his family, although they did confirm that Plummer would often confine Robert in chains. Along with Plummer himself, several of the witnesses also attested that Ceaser was a man of bad character, and that he should not be allowed to take over Robert's trusteeship.13 To counter these statements, several prominent Brookeville residents, including Caleb Bentley, Richard Thomas Jr., Samuel Brooke, and John Thomas all attested that Ceaser was a man of good character, that he was quick to resolve his debts, and that he was a "sober, honest, [and] industrious man."14 On September 23, 1806, after several months of testimony from both sides of the case, Chancellor William Kilty removed Plummer as Robert's trustee, and appointed Ceaser in his place.15 However, this date would not mark the end of Ceaser's troubles with Plummer. The court ruled that Plummer was to hand over all of Robert's possessions and personal property to Ceaser, but Plummer initially refused to settle Robert's accounts. Eventually, by 1809, Plummer resolved the financial issues that arose from the case, and likely provided annual account statements pertaining to his time as Robert's trustee.16 Overall, this case was very unusual for the time period, as it was rare that free blacks were able to obtain the amount of personal property and money that Robert Williams possessed. In addition, it was extremely difficult for both slaves and free blacks to obtain representation in court, and successfully gain guardianship as Ceaser did.

After the major issues of his insanity case were resolved, Robert returned home to his family in western Anne Arundel County. His brother Ceaser and his oldest son, George Williams, remained in Montgomery County until the final months of 1819, when they most likely moved to Susanna's home.17 Robert's case remained active in the Chancery Court of Maryland until July of 1816, when he most likely died.18

Kyle Bacon, DAR Research Fellow, 2012.

Notes:

  1. ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY COURT (Land Records) March 30, 1793, John Galloway to Robert Thomas [Williams] Bill of Sale for slaves Sue, Dinah, Rachel, and Ceaser (Robert's wife and children) [MSA CE 76-34,NH 6, p. 537]; According to court filings, the Williams family lived on land rented from Joseph Pemberton near West River, in southern Anne Arundel County. Pemberton, a Quaker from Philadelphia who owned farm land in Maryland, owned about 1400 acres of land, all part of “Westbury,” a patent that encompassed present-day Galesville and the surrounding area; see a modern map here. Jerome Plummer owned land nearby, to the west of Pemberton’s holdings; CHANCERY COURT (Chancery Papers). Anthony Smith, W. Murray, Isaac Owens, Philip J. Thomas, and O.S.S. Hawood vs. Robert Williams alias Negro Bob. June 14, 1805, Account Record of Robert Williams, submitted by Jerome Plummer; ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY COURT (Land Records) May 12, 1784, John Plummer to Ann Pemberton, several tracts of land in the West River Area of Anne Arundel County. Liber NH 2, p. 16 [MSA CE 76-30]; LAND OFFICE (Certificates, Patented, Anne Arundel County) Patented Certificate 1672, Plat, and information regarding the Pemberton property known as "Westbury" in the West River area of Anne Arundel County. [MSA S 1189-1751, 1/26/3/16]; As was typical for African Americans during this time period, Robert and Susanna's marriage was not recognized by the Maryland state government.
  2. CHANCERY COURT (Chancery Papers). Anthony Smith, et. al. vs. Robert Williams. April 15, 1805, Request for a writ of lunatico inquirendo for Robert Williams. MdHR 17,898-4015-1 [MSA S512-4133, 1/36/4/9]; For a discussion of this case as an example of treatment of mental illness, see: Robert Schoeberlein, "Mental Illness in Maryland: Public Perception, Discourse, and Treatment, from the Colonial Period to 1964" (PhD diss., University of Maryland, College Park, 2006).
  3. Ibid., May 7, 1805. Chancellor Alexander Hanson declares Robert Williams insane, appoints Jerome Plummer as his trustee.
  4. Ibid., October 22, 1807, Plummer's brother attesting that Plummer built Robert a house on his property; The following records indicate the location of the land that Jerome Plummer lived on at the time of Robert's Chancery Court case, known as Browsly Hall. This land is located to the West of Pemberton's land, along the Patuxent River: ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY COURT (Land Records) March 28, 1804. Benjamin Lane to Jerome Plummer, tract of land known as Browsly Hall, adjacent or close to the Pemberton land that Robert and his family were living on prior to the Chancery Case. Liber NH 12, p. 316 [MSA CE 76-40]; ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY COURT (Land Records) April 29, 1799. Richard Hopkins to Jerome Plummer and others, tracts of land in the West River area of Anne Arundel County. Liber NH 9, p. 534 [MSA CE 76-37].
  5. CHANCERY COURT (Chancery Papers). Anthony Smith, et. al. vs. Robert Williams, November 14-17, 1807. Various neighbors of Plummer's attesting to his good treatment of Robert and his family.
  6. Ibid., August 26, 1805. Petition by Jerome Plummer requesting permission to sell a portion of Negro Bob's property in order to pay for trusteeship expenses.
  7. Journal of the House of Delegates. Votes and Proceedings, November Session, 1805. Archives of Maryland Online, Volume 553, p. 61.
  8. Anne Arundel County Court, Manumission Record, 1797-1807. Archives of Maryland Online, Volume 825, p. 259Session Laws, 1805, Chapter 56. Archives of Maryland Online, Volume 607, p. 32.
  9. CHANCERY COURT (Chancery Papers). Anthony Smith, et. al. vs. Robert Williams. August 26, 1805. Petition by Jerome Plummer requesting permission to sell a portion of Negro Bob's property in order to pay for trusteeship expenses. MdHR 17,898-4015-1 [MSA S512-4133, 1/36/4/9].
  10. Ibid., July 20, 1806. Deposition by Jerome Plummer in which he states that Ceaser took Robert from his property illegally; Ibid., August 6, 1806. Deposition by Caleb Bentley in which he states that Ceaser had been renting a farm from him for ten years, as well as a testament to Ceaser's good character.
  11. Ibid., June 21 1805. Petition of Susanna and Ceaser Williams to revoke Jerome Plummer's trusteeship of Robert Williams, and for Ceaser to become the new trustee.
  12. Ibid., June 21, 1805. Chancellor Alexander Hanson's declaration that he will allow character witnesses for both Jerome Plummer and Ceaser Williams.
  13. Ibid., July 20, 1806. Deposition of Jerome Plummer and others that attest to Ceaser's bad character.
  14. Ibid., August 6, 1806.Deposition of Caleb Bentley, Richard Thomas, Samuel Brooke, John Thomas attesting to Ceaser's good character.
  15. Ibid., September 23, 1806. Final ruling by Chancellor William Kilty, Ceaser Williams is awarded trusteeship of Robert Williams.
  16. CHANCERY COURT (Chancery Papers). Anthony Smith, et. al. vs. Robert Williams,1805. MdHR 17,898-4015-2 [MSA S512-4133, 1/36/4/9]
  17. 1820 United States Federal Census for Ceaser Williams, District 5, Anne Arundel, Maryland.
  18. CHANCERY COURT (Docket) 1816-1817. Anthony Smith, et. al. vs. Negro Bob. MdHR 17,967 [MSA S527-27, 1/34/5/20].

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