Polly Bruce is my 3x great grandmother. What does that mean? She is my mother’s, mother’s, father’s, father’s mother. She is the mother of Sandy, who is the father of Henry, who is the father of Henrietta, who is the mother of Sallie Ethel, who is the mother of me. She’s the matriarch of an extraordinary family that was enslaved, first in Virginia and next in Missouri. I don’t just say this family is extraordinary because it is mine. History reveals it to be true. Let me share with you the things I’ve learned about Polly.
Polly was born into slavery in the year 1804. I don’t know the names of her parents…yet…and I don’t know if the family that owned her at the time of her birth is the family whose last name is inscribed on her headstone. I do know that as a young girl she was the house servant of Lemuel and Rebecca Elizabeth Bruce. He fathered her first three children. My 2x great grandfather was Polly’s first child, born when she was 19 years old, in the year 1823 near Farmville in Prince Edward County, VA. Polly gave him the first name of “Sandy”, with his last name being Bruce. There was a river nearby called the Sandy River. The church where the master worshipped was the Sandy River Church. From time to time, he allowed his slaves to worship there on Saturdays. I’m guessing Polly chose to name her firstborn after this church. Interestingly, Sandy Bruce grew up to serve as minister to his fellow slaves. At the time of this post, I do not have a photograph of Sandy. I am excited to know there are at least two photographs in existence of Polly, and if things go as planned, I will have them soon!
Since slaves were considered to be nothing more than property in the eyes of society and government, they weren’t enumerated by name on the early census schedules. Their existence was recorded simply by age and gender. It is a rare occurrence to find enslaved people recorded with their names prior to 1870. The 1870 United States Federal Census is the first instance where I see Polly’s name as part of an official record. She is shown to be living in Leavenworth, KS, with her son Henry.
So many things transpired between the time of Sandy’s birth in Virginia and Polly’s move to Kansas. A book written by one of Polly’s sons, Henry, gives snippets about their daily lives. What follows is a combination of those snippets and a tapestry of my musings.
Polly’s days were spent at the main house where she cooked, cleaned and cared for the master’s family. The white Bruce family consisted of Lemuel, his wife, Rebecca (Bailey), and their two small children, William Bailey Bruce and Rebecca Susan Bruce. This means when her first child was born Polly was taking care of three toddlers and still cooking, cleaning and keeping the household running. Keep in mind that she was nineteen years old. I’m sure there were times when Polly worried that she and her baby boy might be mistreated by Mistress Bruce because Mr. Bruce was the baby’s father. That may very well have been the case early on, but as time went on Polly and Mistress Bruce must have had some form of affection for one another. This is borne out by the fact that Polly and her subsequent children were never separated — not from each other and not from the Bruce family.
I will write more about these early days in Virginia, but it will have to be on another day.