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A Texan Keeps His Slaves by
Making Them Indentured Servants
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A creative legal strategy allows this American colonist to Mexican Texas to retain his slaves despite Mexican law.

[SLAVERY]. Manuscript Document Signed. Agreement to Indenture Eighteen Negroes to James Cox of Texas. [Austin, Texas?]. May 10, 1832. 4 pp., 8 x 13½ in. Lacking the first leaf.

Inventory #23309       Price: $1,150

All signatures are present. Witnesses: James Cox, Thos. H. Borden, Moses Lapham, Horatio Chrisman, and William Jack.

Eleven slaves by their marks of “X”: George, Jim, Nat, Haskles, William, Jacob for himself and his wife Damsel and child Jim, Thomas for himself and his wife Amy and child Martha, Rhoda, Jacob for two minors Rebecca and Sarah, Jacob for three minors Washington, Harriet, and Garrison, and Isabella.

Partial Transcript

The majority of the document lists the individuals and the alleged “debts” they incurred that justify their being bound as indentured servants.

“The same provisions and stipulations as those expressed for George and received the obligation of William in the same manner.—and Jacob for himself his wife Damsel and their male child Jim a minor under the age of puberty. declared that Eleven hundred & fifty dollars had been advanced for him & his family. that is for himself 450 dollars, for his wife 600 dolars and for his Child 100 dollars, besides the sum of fifty five dollars for their expenses and passage money. and that by this instrument he binds and obliges himself anc Consents and Concurs in the obligation of his Wife, and they jointly and severally as the parents and guardians of Jim their child bind and obligate themselves & him under the same Conditions and stipulations as those expressed for George...and the said James Cox binds and obligates himself unto Jacob, his wife Damsel, & their child Jim, as before expressed in the conditions & stipulations as mentioned for George and in the same manner admits their obligation...”

Concluding with:

“In faith of all which the parties to this instrument in order to make it binding and effectual grant and Confer full power and authority to the Judges who may take Cognisance [sic] of it, to compel them in the most summary way to Comply with all its Conditions and provisions the same as if it was a definitive sentence of an adjudges case by a competent judge. passed and consented to, and as the first parties do not know how to write have made against their names as written a cross.

Historical Background

At the time of this indenture, Texas was part of Mexico. In 1822, Stephen Austin was the first U.S. citizen to receive a land grant from the Spanish, who controlled the region at the time. After Mexican independence, Americans continued to claim lands until 1830, when President Anastasio Bustamante banned American immigration, which led to the 1832 convention demanding immigrate rights, which in turn would lead to Texas independence a few years later.

Slavery was prohibited under Mexican law, but contrary to policy, American colonists continued to bring their slaves into Texas. However, blacks could be indentured servants. This agreement demonstrates a creative legal strategy for owner James Cox to keep his slaves. It transformed them into indentured servants via a legal fiction. The hapless slaves were forced to agree to terms of indentures to repay Cox for “expenses and passage to this country.” In supreme irony, the closing paragraph admits that the slaves could not write and would sign with their “X” mark but made no mention that they couldn’t read the terms of their service.

Individuals named

The slaveholder is one of two possible James Coxes. Austin’s Register of Families lists an Arkansan James Cox, age 26 and married to Sarah, living in Austin Colony in August, 1830. Texas land records also show a Character Certificate dated April 26, 1832, filed by Kentuckian James Cox, aged 33 years and married to Anne, requesting permission to become a Colonist. [Williams: STEPHEN F. AUSTIN'S REGISTER OF FAMILIES. VOL. I. 1984. Page 70; White: CHARACTER CERTIFICATES IN THE GENERAL LAND OFFICE OF TEXAS. 2001 reprint. Page 44.]

Thomas H. Borden (1804-1877), born in New York, moved to Texas in 1824, settling in Austin’s Colony as one of the “Old Three Hundred.” A founder of the Telegraph and Texas Register in 1835, the first newspaper in the colony, he participated with the Texas army in the Grass Fight and the 1835 siege of Bexar; worked as a surveyor and assisted in laying out the city of Houston; constructed the first windmill in Galveston; and invented a steam gauge for use on river steamboats. [Handbook of Texas]

Moses Lapham (1808-1838), born in Rhode Island, moved to Texas in 1831. He served in the Texas army as a spy for Sam Houston’s army; was a member of Erastus [Deaf] Smith’s party that destroyed Vince’s Bridge; participated in the Battle of San Jacinto; worked with Thomas H. Borden as a surveyor and was also involved in the laying out the city of Houston. He was killed in 1838 when his surveying party was attacked by Comanches. [Handbook of Texas]

William Houston Jack (1806-1844) was born in Georgia, passed the bar in 1828, and practiced law in Alabama until moving to Texas in 1830. He was a leader in the resistance movement against Mexican authority; was one of the writers of the Turtle Bayou Resolutions against the administration of Col. John Davis Bradburn and Anastasio Bustamante; served as a major in the Texas army as “Brigade Inspector;” commanded the troops in the Grass Fight; and later served as the Texas Secretary of State. [Handbook of Texas]

Capt. Horatio Chrisman (1796-1878) moved to Texas in 1822 and settled in Austin Colony as one of the “Old Three Hundred.” He worked as a surveyor; served for a time as an Indian fighter to the Colony, as the first constitutional Alcalde of Austin, and later as a trustee of Rutersville College in 1841. [“Death of Another One of Austin’s Three Hundred,” Galveston Daily News, November 30, 1878; De Witt: A TEXAS SCRAP-BOOK... 1875. Page 25.]

Condition

Good. Tanned, light foxing. Old folds, a few splits along folds [no text loss].


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