Jinny: A Glimpse at her American Story

Walney in photograph from 1896.

American history is shaped by all who participate. That includes the millions of enslaved people who did not always have a voice. The institution of slavery came in many forms. One was the hiring out, or renting, of enslaved people. The Machen family at Walney Farm used the institution of slavery, hiring out and owning slaves, to rise both in society and financially. James and Caroline Machen lived at Walney from 1843 to 1865 with their children Arthur, Emmeline and James. They rented enslaved people from owners like family friend Mrs. Sarah B. Brett (Britt) of Alexandria. After 51 weeks, enslaved people returned to their owners, reunited with family and friends, and learned what was next for them. They would stay or be hired out again, possibly to the same property or to a different one. This system further commodified enslaved people and allowed renters to profit from their work but not invest in their lives.

Jinny (Jenny/Jinney) and her husband Joe were hired out by the Machens from Sarah Brett. Jinny first appears in the Machen letters on January 2, 1852. James Machen wrote to his father, Lewis Machen, “Hiring is over, and we are supplied with, excepting John, an entirely new set: whither the change is for the better will be more easily determined after a few months’ trial. We thought it best to hire Joe, although we had to pay $50 for him. We also have his wife [Jinny] from Mrs. Brett at $45…” Jinny had two sons, who we believe were named William and Wesley, who may have come along to Walney Farm.

On December 3, 1858, James Machen was informed that Jinny and her two boys would be sold by the first of January 1859. Caroline, however, wanted Lewis to purchase Jinny. Caroline wrote to her son Arthur, “I do not see how I can get along without her—to be sure she is not very young…The price they ask is $400 is more than woman (sic) of that age would bring in market, but Jenny is worth more than most woman (sic), and to me she is invaluable; I would make any personal sacrifice to purchase her, and for her sake I would like to buy one of the boys, but I do not see how that could be accomplished $900 and $700 are the price asked for them.”

By 1859, Jinny’s owner, Sarah Brett, sold her to the Machen family, but there is no mention of the boys. The transcription on the receipt below (thought to be from The Machen Papers, Family Correspondence, Library of Congress) is: “Alexandria February 2 1859. Receipt of L.H. Machen per Jas. P. Machen. Four hundred dollars in payment in full for negro woman Jinney, a slave for life.

Sarah B. Brett

J.R. Grigsby Trustee

For Mrs. S.B. Brett” 

By 1862, things were changing at Walney Farm, and this is reflected in Machen family letters. Caroline Machen wrote to Arthur Machen, May 1862, discussing if she should or should not free Jinny. “Eliza has gone, and Martha takes her leave on Sunday, so I have been informed. I have some fears for Jinny; all her immediate associates in the neighborhood, I understand, intend to go, and no doubt will try to influence her. There have been many meetings and consultations on the subject. No doubt, Wesley’s illness has thus retarded their movements. In this state of affairs, I have thought it might be better to tell Jinny that she should have her freedom, if she wishes it, as soon as her services have repaid us for the money we paid for her…. I should feel her loss very much just now.” 

Ultimately, Jinny was no longer discussed in the Machen family letters, suggesting she chose to free herself or was left behind by the Machens when they fled to Baltimore in 1863. We do not know what happened to Jinny or her family. This is a story that historians at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park continue to research. She is part of the history of Walney, part of our American story, and will always be remembered.

This article’s letters come from the Letters of Arthur W. Machen: with biographic sketch Compiled by Arthur W. Machen Jr. and from The Machen Papers, Family Correspondence, Library of Congress

Author Kiersten Fiore is the Visitor Services and Operations Manager at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park in Chantilly, Va.