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Our Rich History: Shaler family and antislavery in Newport; they believed it would meet ‘inevitable end’

By Paul Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

Part 14 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020”

Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, who later became a noted American geologist at Harvard University, was born in Newport in 1841. He was the son of Harvard-educated Dr. Nathaniel Burger Shaler, a physician and surgeon of the Newport Barracks, and Anne Hinde Southgate.

His maternal grandfather, Richard Southgate, was an early settler of Northern Kentucky and a native of Virginia. Richard Southgate attended William and Mary College, became a lawyer and immigrated to Kentucky. Upon his death in 1868, Southgate had amassed a great estate, valued at “a million and a half dollars, there being at that time probably not half a dozen such successes in the Ohio Valley” (Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, The Autobiography of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler: With a Supplementary Memoir by His Wife Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1909, p. 17).

Shaler described his grandfather as “an excellent sample of the old, long-vanished class of Virginia gentleman,” whose manner and appearance recounted an era that had rapidly faded from view. Likewise, Richard’s two brothers, William and Henry, were remembered by their nephew, Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, as the last of the same Virginia breed, whose “manners and mode of thought were those of the Stuart times, when men felt the life of their neighbors, and dwelt in their hearts” (Shaler, p. 21).

Dr. Nathaniel Burger Shaler was a physician and surgeon at the Newport Barracks, including the duration of the Civil War. He was steadfastly against slavery. Photo from Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, The Autobiography of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler: With a Supplementary Memoir by His Wife. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1909, opposite p. 68).

Shaler regarded Northern Kentucky, with its slaveholding, as less progressive and prosperous than Cincinnati. The two sides of the Ohio River, he claimed, “were widely parted. The one represented the motives of the nineteenth century, the other of the sixteenth. For there is essentially all that difference between the motives of free communities, wherein the one all are of equal rights before the law, and in the other slavery holds” (Shaler, p. 32).

Shaler argued that the distinctiveness of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky “was intensified” by historical “accidents” of settlement. Land in Ohio was, for the most part, surveyed and allotted according to the township system of the Northwest Territory. As a result, land ownership in Ohio became more widely distributed. In Kentucky, where the old Virginia model of haphazard, often conflicting, land grants operated, the land was “held by relatively few men, who let it to tenants.” In other words, “Kentucky inherited from Virginia the mediaeval [sic] theory of a landed aristocracy resting upon a tenantry. North of the river,” Shaler countered. “The conception of the relations of the people to the land was that of the free man working acres which he owned.” Paralleling this development was the belief in Northern Kentucky in a society based upon “three distinct estates, the proprietor, the tenant, and the slave” (Shaler, pp. 32-3).

Of the above three classes, Shaler characterized the tenant farmers as being given to “shiftlessness.” They did not, he attested, generally engage in rotation of crops, nor did most of the landowners require them to do so. Tobacco production soon depleted the soil, and Shaler declared that within “sixty years” nearly “one half of the arable soil of the northern counties of Kentucky, where most of the surface steeply inclined, became unremunerative to plough tillage” (Shaler, pp. 34-5).

Shaler vividly recalled the institution of slavery in Northern Kentucky. Richard Southgate and his family owned slaves, although Shaler noted that his grandfather had often proudly told him that the family “‘had in a century never bought or sold a slave except to keep families together.’” Nathaniel interpreted this statement to mean that his grandfather, along with “the better class of slave-owners in Kentucky,” feared the label of “‘negro-trader,’ the last word of opprobrium to be slung at a man” (Shaler, p. 36).

Shaler related that slavery was not a stronghold in Northern Kentucky, at least not in Newport and Campbell County. Furthermore, he intimated, more than once, its underlying obsolescence. “The slaves were not numerous,” he stated, “and were owned by not more than a score of families in the county.” These slaves, he noted, were “mostly house-servants” (Shaler, p. 36). Shaler’s contentions are corroborated by census statistics. In 1850, Campbell County had 177 slaves of a total population of 13,127 (US, Census Office, Seventh Census, p. 611).

Nathaniel Southgate Shaler. Photo from Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, The Autobiography of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler: With a Supplementary Memoir by His Wife. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1909, opposite p. 226.

According to Shaler, Richard Southgate was a supporter of the “Liberian colonization” of slaves, a subject about which he often spoke. About 1857, when his grandfather’s, aunts’ and mother’s slaves all escaped to freedom one evening, Nathaniel stated that his grandfather refused to pursue them. Shaler further claimed that it “was believed” that St. Clare, “the gentle slaveholder” of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was a prototype of Richard Southgate. Stowe, of course, lived in Cincinnati when she wrote her famous novel (Shaler, pp. 82, 85). It is surprising that Shaler mentions nothing in his autobiography of the viewpoints of his father, Dr. Nathaniel Shaler, who, according to an article appearing in the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, was an abolitionist (“Abolition Meeting in Newport,” Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, 9 February 1864, p. 2).

Richard Southgate’s opinion of the inevitable end of slavery was shared by other Northern Kentuckians and Cincinnatians. The editor of the Daily Cincinnati Gazette, for instance, in 1846, announced confidently that “It must be borne in mind that slavery cannot endure. If not a finger were lifted to extinguish it in Kentucky, it would die out by the unchanged and unchangeable law of nature, itself” (“Kentucky,” Daily Cincinnati Gazette, 16 January 1846, p. 2). Likewise, in 1848, the editor of the Covington Journal expressed, with unmistakable resolution, his view that slavery was “gradually losing its weight and importance in Kentucky” and would “probably” disappear, “in the best manner, at the right time, without the interference” of anyone (“Emancipation,” Covington Journal, 22 December 1848, p. 2).

The cause of gradual emancipation gained adherents throughout Northern Kentucky. By 1839, there existed at least two colonization societies in Northern Kentucky, the Campbell County (Ky.) Colonization Society and the Covington Auxiliary African Colonization Society, both of which seemed to meet at the Methodist Church in Covington (“Colonization Meeting,” Western Colonizationist and Literary Journal [Covington], 12 July 1839, p. 2; Western Globe, 6 December 1839, p. 2; “Colonization Meeting,” Western Globe, 12 February 1840, p. 1).

In addition, Newport was the home of abolitionist William Shreve Bailey, whose Republican antislavery newspaper was the only such press in the entire Southern United States in the 1850s. In next week’s column, we’ll learn more of the heroism of Bailey and his family.
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Parts of this article formerly appeared in Tenkotte, Paul A., Rival Cities to Suburbs: Covington and Newport, Kentucky, 1790-1890 (dissertation). Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1989.
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We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, Ph.D., is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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