Researching the American South can often lead to unusual discoveries that complicate our understanding of American immigration history. One such experience occurred while reading Gay Montague Moore’s Seaport in Virginia: George Washington’s Alexandria, a local history written in honor of the city’s bicentennial in 1949. The last chapter profiled Melissa Ann (Hussey) Wood and the house that her father, Captain Samuel B. Hussey, gave her and her bridegroom, Robert Lewis Wood, in 1857 as a wedding present. Among the items that Melissa Wood brought to her new home was a collection of objects from her family’s travels. These included “cages of cockatoos, parakeets, parrots” and “a chimpanzee, and a small Chinese slave boy, bought by her father from one of the innumerable sampans in the harbor of Canton.”1
The last phrase startled me. Was this story true? Was there a Chinese child enslaved in Alexandria before the Civil War? What was his actual legal status? And how does this boy’s experiences relate to antebellum debates surrounding “coolie” labor?
To answer these questions, I first looked for more information on Captain Samuel B. Hussey, who had purchased the child. Born in Vasselboro, Maine around 1811, Hussey was the fourth son of Nathaniel (Huzzey) Hussey and Hannah Lovejoy. Nathaniel and Hannah must have been passionate about English and American politics—their sons were named Francis Aaron Burr, Benjamin Franklin, George Granville, and Samuel Bancroft.2 Hussey was most likely named after one of two Captain Samuel Bancrofts, both of whom led prominent military and political careers in Massachusetts during the eighteenth century.3
Little is known of Hussey’s early life. By 1835, he married Sybil Hawkes of Durham, Maine and set up household near his family. By the 1850 U.S. Census, the Husseys, including their two children, Melissa and Francis, were living in Durham. His occupation was listed as a “mariner.”4
Hussey, however, was more than the average sailor. By the early 1850s, he was captaining some of the largest and fastest clipper ships ever constructed in New England.5 These ships were mostly used to bring goods and people from New England and New York to the Pacific and back again. On at least one occasion, it was reported in the press that Hussey transported Chinese indentured laborers, popularly known as “coolies,” from China to San Francisco on an extreme clipper ship known as the Westward Ho. A few months later, the Westward Ho arrived in Alexandria, Virginia, probably with the Hussey family and their “Chinese slave boy” aboard.6
During the 1850s, European Americans debated the pros and cons of introducing Chinese indentured servitude to the United States. Many white planters saw this system—which was growing in popularity in the Caribbean—as a way of fulfilling the South’s labor needs, especially in states such as Louisiana which needed workers for its growing sugar industry. Northern white critics, however, saw the “coolie trade” as another form of slavery and were critical of shipping companies that participated in the transportation of Chinese indentured workers to the U.S. and the Caribbean. Ironically, Hussey would die aboard the Stag Hound, another extreme clipper ship, in August 1860 while transporting such laborers to Havana, Cuba. His son, Francis, who was his second mate on the Stag Hound, had also died a couple months earlier during a mutiny.8 Two years later, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law a ban on American participation in the trafficking of Chinese indentured laborers.9
If Moore had only mentioned the “Chinese slave boy” in passing, it would be possible that the above information would be all that was available. Luckily, she wrote almost half a paragraph on “Chinese Tom” also known as Tom Jefferson. Moore went on:
“Chinese Tom” was reared and educated by Melissa Wood and after the War Between the States she gave him his freedom. For years he was the only Chinaman in Alexandria. Mrs. Wood’s granddaughter remembers the visits of this man to her grandmother. He would station himself at the entrance to her door and a long conversation would go on between the guttural-voiced Oriental and the gentle little “Missey” whom he adored.10
Both the 1860 and 1870 U.S. Censuses included a Tom Jefferson from China living in the Hussey/Wood household. In 1860, he was only eleven years old and, indeed, was attending school.11 His legal status was also clear. The 1860 Census included him between the family and two free black servants with his race left blank. Neither the Husseys nor the Woods were listed on the 1860 Slave Schedule, which (if he had been enslaved) would have included his age, sex, and race (NOTE: the names of slaves were rarely given on Slave Schedules). To date, I have never seen a Chinese indentured servant listed on Slave Schedules. If the Husseys had purchased Jefferson and viewed him as a slave, the local census taker did not recognize his status.
Ten years later, Jefferson was a machinist, probably working for the Orange, Alexandria, and Manassas Railroad.12 Interestingly, the census taker initially listed his race as “C” for Chinese; however, he crossed it out and put “W” for white. The reasons for this decision are unknown; one can speculate that the census taker was operating under the racial categories that were prevalent in Virginia at the time.
Little else is known of Jefferson other than what information can be culled from his two obituaries. Although he was a railroad worker, the Alexandria Gazette wrote two articles on his life and death. No doubt, his nation of origin combined with his connections to the Husseys/Woods made him a local celebrity. In one of Jefferson’s obituaries, it is clear that some viewed him as quintessentially American. An anonymous writer described Jefferson as “in every respect an Alexandrian, knowing no language but English. He was good-natured and played when a boy with the children of his adopted city as though native and to the manner born.”13 This comment contradicts Moore’s description of Jefferson as a “guttural-voiced Oriental,” a phrase that reinforced his supposed foreignness and inferiority. Instead, this author embraced the belief seen in the writings of Christian missionaries during the nineteenth century that Chinese children could become Westernized (and Christian) if they were introduced to Western cultural practices and social mores at an early age.14
The two articles, however, conflict in describing his occupation. The first obituary noted that he “was employed in the house [of the late Captain Hussey] until he reached early manhood when he was apprenticed in the machine shop of the Southern Railway Company and later was a fireman on that road.” After leaving Alexandria, Jefferson had supposedly become a drifter. In a brief article that was published the following day, the author noted that Jefferson had left Alexandria to work as an engineer for the Southern Railway Company in Newport News, Virginia although he frequently visited his friends in Alexandria.15 This latter livelihood was a more respectable one–although still working class–for someone connected to the Woods/Husseys.
Tom Jefferson died on November 14, 1899 at the Alexandria Infirmary from complications related to a stroke. He was buried in an unmarked grave at Bethel Cemetery, a non-denominational cemetery in Alexandria. He had no wife or family.16
1 Gay Montague Moore, Seaport in Virginia: George Washington’s Alexandria (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1949), 262. 2 Clarence E. Lovejoy, The Lovejoy Genealogy with Biographies and History, 1460-1930 (New York: C. E. Lovejoy, 1930), 92; Everett Schermerhorn Stackpole, History of Durham, Maine (Lewiston, ME: Pressof Lewiston Journal Company, 1899), 199. 3 Genealogical and Family History of the State of Vermont: A Record, ed. Hiram Carleton, vol. 1 (New York: Lewis Publishing Co., 1903), 700. 4 1840 U.S. Census, Waterville, Kennebec County, Maine, 4; 1850 U.S. Census, Durham, Cumberland County, Maine, 238; www.ancestry.com (accessed August 11, 2013). 5 Helen LaGrange, Clipper Ships of America and Great Britain, 1833-1869 (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1936), 185; Richard C. McKay, Donald McKay and His Famous Sailing Ships (New York: Dover Publications, 2011), 207. 6 “Alexandria Correspondence,” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) 18 September 1856, 3; “The Slave Trade,” Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA) 24 April 1856, 1. 7 Moon-Ho Jung, Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 11-38. 8 “Death of Captain Hussey,” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) 24 August 1860, 3; “Law Reports: United States District Court,” New York Times 20 April 1861, 2. 9 Jung 36. 10 Moore 262. 11 1860 U.S. Census, Alexandria, Virginia, 129; www.ancestry.com (accessed August 11, 2013). 12 1870 U.S. Census, Alexandria, Virginia, 84; www.ancestry.com (accessed August 11, 2013). 13 “Death of ‘Chinese Tom’,” Alexandria Gazette 14 November 1899, 2. 14 Krystyn R. Moon, Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Music and Popular Culture, 1850s-1920s (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005),18-19. 15 “Death of ‘Chinese Tom’,” Alexandria Gazette 14 November 1899, 2; “Funeral,” Alexandria Gazette 15 November 1899, 2. 16 Wesley E. Pippenger, Tombstone Inscriptions of Alexandria, Virginia, vol. 4 (Arlington, VA: Heritage Books), 127.