Harriet Eliza Ashley and Enslaved Nursemaid

Harriet Eliza Ashley and Enslaved Nursemaid

Artist: Unknown photographer
Type: Ferrotype
Year: circa 1860
Size/Dimensions: 3 ¾ x 3 ¼ in.
Origin: Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Sterling Cokcrill
Accession Number: On loan to Historic Arkansas Museum

US Senator Chester Ashley (1791-1848) was one of the first lawyers to settle in “the little rock” in 1820, and his land holdings eventually made him the richest man in Arkansas. This remarkable photograph features Chester Ashley’s granddaughter, Harriet, and an unknown enslaved nursemaid. According to the 1860 census, little Harriet lived with her grandmother, father, and extended family, as well as 22 enslaved individuals, on the Ashley family estate near what is now the southeast corner of Scott and Markham. Ostensibly a portrait of Harriet, who would have been 3 or 4 years old at the time, the photograph also serves as rare documentation of the life of an enslaved nursemaid. In addition, it contains clues about the complex relationship between enslaved individuals and the white families who depended on their forced service and labor. “Nurse and child” daguerreotypes and ferrotypes were common because relatively long exposure times (15-30 seconds) required an adult to hold the child as still as possible. But there is a more disquieting reason for including the child’s enslaved nurse in this photo: depiction of a well-dressed slave signaled a family’s wealth and status and served as a record of a prized possession.

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Harriet Eliza Ashley and Enslaved Nursemaid