Vanished: Mary Carver & Daughter, Found: GWC
The Separation of Enslaved Family Members
The separation of enslaved parents from their enslaved children, relatives, and extended family or vice versa was commonplace. During the slavery era in the United States. Sometimes the separation was caused by the kidnapping of slaves by raiders. Or to breakup a romance between an enslaved female and a relative of the slave owner. As well as the removal of the enslaved children that resembled the slave owner or his male sibling(s). Because their presence on the plantation created a dilemma for the owner, his wife, and their relatives.
But generally the separation of enslaved families occurred as the result of the indebtedness of a slave owner or the death of a slave owner. Which triggered the selling of the slaves off the plantation. Or their transfer to the deceased slave owner’s relatives. Usually these individuals resided in another state. Consequently, the slave family unit was dismantled. Its members scattered. And more often than not they lost contact with one another.
Prof. Heather Williams, "Help Me Find My People"
The Union Scout Only Found George
A well-known slave kidnapping involved two-week old George Washington Carver (who became an American renowned botanist), Mary Carver his mother, and his sister. From Moses and Sarah Carver’s farm near Diamond Grove, Missouri, towards the end of the American Civil War. Where Union and Confederate soldiers were battling it out, civilian militias and outlaws were on the prowl, and ongoing skirmishes flared between the Union Army supporters and the secessionists along the Missouri-Arkansas border.
The Union scout hired by Moses Carver to rescue the trio only found a sick George with a surrogate family. He was fortunate to have been alive. Since slave traders and slave owners from time to time murdered infants. The traders did so in order to keep moving. A slave owner did so to secure the sale of the mother to buyers. That were not particularly interested in purchasing an enslaved woman with an infant in tow.
A report documenting such an incident was recounted by Parthena Rollins, a former slave, in Heather Andrea Williams’ book, help me to find my people, The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery. Hence, the sickly George was probably viewed as a liability and left behind. How he ended up with the surrogate family remains a puzzle.
Was Mary Carver Dead?
Unavoidably, the the scout’s return to the Carver’s farm with George ignited speculation that Mary was dead. Or was she? The hearsay indicated slave raiders took Mary and her daughter, probably a toddler, to Arkansas. Another account of her whereabouts surfaced that had Mary heading North with some soldiers. There supposedly was a sighting of her in Kentucky. Nonetheless, the whereabouts of Mary Carver and her daughter after the kidnapping remains a riveting mystery frozen in time.
Moreover, in the book, George Washington Carver, In His Own Words, edited by Gary R. Kremer, GWC’s 1897 biosketch discloses his mother, sister, and himself were sold in Arkansas. He noted the claims made by some that observed Mary Carver and his sister traveling North with soldiers. He also mentioned having three sisters and one brother at that time.
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However, in GWC’s A Brief Sketch of My life circa 1922, he mentioned the kidnapping of his mother and himself by the ku klux klan. Curiously, his sister was removed from this account of the kidnapping story. He also indicated efforts were continued to locate Mary Carver. But it appears nothing tangible ever materialized. And he stated his two sisters expired at this time.
Yet in Christina Vella’s book, George Washington Carver. A Life, an interview is cited that took place in the 1930s, wherein GWC told the journalist he had one sister. And that she died while he was being rescued. Apparently at this point in his life, GWC had deleted two of his sisters from his lineage and his public relations materials as well.
Incidentally, the exact number of children delivered by Mary Carver cannot be verified. Due to Moses Carver’s careless record-keeping. But numerous books and magazine articles indicate George and Jim had ten sisters. Unfortunately, these alleged siblings expired prematurely.
Did Mary Carver Assume A New Identity
On the other hand, maybe Mary managed to escape her captors by the intervention of the Union soldiers. Obviously, it was too dangerous for her and the toddler to return to the Carver farm. Given the strife and turmoil in Missouri at that time.
Since George was sick, it would have been nearly impossible for her to take care of him. While she was on the move. Maybe that’s why the scout found him with the surrogate family. Taking into consideration Jim Carver, her six-year-old son, had escaped abduction. It's plausible her reasoning might have been to let Moses and Sarah Carver raise him. Thus, she would have been comforted knowing responsible parties were raising her two sons. Perhaps with the intention of recovering them after the Civil War ended. But somehow she was unable to do so.
Or maybe the twenty-three-year-old Mary Carver assumed a new identity and got married after the Civil War. And then she started raising another family with her daughter in tow. Thereby severing her ties with George, Jim, the Carvers, and Diamond Bar, Missouri. Since Giles, her mate, from a nearby plantation there and George’s father was deceased.
Thus, she no longer had an obligation or a commitment to stay true-blue to Giles. Perhaps the prospect of being able to legally marry appealed to the newly freed Mary Carver. The very idea of not having to request or obtain permission from Moses Carver to do so. Must have been overwhelming besides empowering to her.
Without question, Jim Carver must have provided a great sense of comfort to George. As well as a tangible link to their missing mother and sister. While the brothers resided with Moses and Sarah Carver. It's mentioned in his biography that GWC would often gaze at Mary's spinning wheel as a child. It appears her absence had a haunting effect over the farm. It is also claimed when GCW asked Sara Moses for information about his mother that she would always breakdown. Therefore, he was unable to gather any intimate tidbits about her from Sarah.
Naturally, he was devastated by the news of Jim Carver's death in 1883. Furthermore, Mary Carver would have been 41-years-old if she were alive at that time.
Leaving the Past Behind
GWC revised and chiseled his backstory numerous times throughout his life. Electing to erase from his memory and the printed page whatever he felt infringed upon his homespun public image. Did a possible living female sibling threaten said image?
It is unknown whether Jim Carver or GWC attempted to locate their mother and sister. When they became adults and financially able to do so. Or if their missing sister ever attempted to contact either of them. It is somewhat baffling that she remained unnamed by GWC as well as by historians.
If Giles was her father, she may have resembled GWC. Perhaps she noticed their uncanny resemblance to each other. And in turn, she queried her surrogate family about her background (if indeed Mary was dead). Given that George Washington Carver was covered in the newspapers from time to time. It is plausible.
Consequently, if his missing sister contacted him after 1922, he may have denied her claim. Since he indicated his only sister expired at the time of his rescue during the kidnapping. Or could she have been paid off to leave him alone?
After the American Civil War ended, the newly freed former slaves placed hundreds of advertisements in African American newspapers seeking information on the whereabouts of lost relatives and friends. These types of advertisements appeared in black newspapers well into the early 1900s.
Perhaps GWC and Jim Carver lost hope of ever reuniting with their mother and sister. And like so many other former slaves, they forged ahead with their lives, leaving the past behind.
HAS SOMEONE VERY DEAR TO YOU EVER DISAPPEARED FROM YOUR LIFE?
1. Williams, Heather Andrea, help me to find my people. The African American Search of Family Los in Slavery, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2012.
2. Carver, George Washington, George Washington CARVER. In His Own Words, Edited by Gary R. Kremer, University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London, 1987.
3. Edwards, McMurry, Linda, George Washington Carver, scientist and symbol. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
4. Bolden, Tonya, George Washington Carver. New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2008.
5. Dubois, Shirley Graham and George D. Lipscomb, Dr. George Washington Carver. New York: J. Messner, Inc. 1944.
© 2013 Irma Cowthern