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Dating Harriet Jacobs: Why Birthdates Matter to Historians

In the article that follows British Columbian historian and documentary editor, Mary Maillard, explores the controversy surrounding the precise birthdate of slave narrative author, Harriet Jacobs, and reminds us why precision matters.

Earlier this year (2013), numerous celebrations marked the two hundredth birthday of slave narrative author, Harriet Jacobs, and honored her extraordinary life of courage and activism.  The year 1813, established through the evidence of an 1825 will, is accepted by most scholars as the year Harriet Jacobs was born. Yet Jacobs’ gravestone, inscribed with the birthdate February 11, 1815, hovers in the background like a spectral cautionary figure.  What if the gravestone is right?  Do two years matter?  In an autobiographical work that has no dates, the birthdate matters. If Jacobs’ birth year is incorrect by two years, then so are some of the annotated events in her story, such as the birth of her brother, the deaths of her parents, and the births of her children. If we read Jacobs’ story through an 1815 lens, however, a myriad of discrepancies in her narrative evaporates.

The most compelling evidence that Harriet Jacobs was born in 1815 comes from Jacobs herself. She says in her preface to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, “I remained in a Slave State twenty-seven years.” Jacobs fled North Carolina in June, 1842. The simple math tells us that she was born in 1815. Her obituary notice in the Boston Herald corroborates an 1815 birth. Her gravestone at Mount Auburn Cemetery testifies to it.  Jacobs’ daughter, Louisa, provided the information for the gravestone and we have no reason to doubt her. Louisa Jacobs lived with her mother for at least thirty of her adult years and she was with her during the winter of 1853-1854, when Jacobs began writing her book. If anyone knew Harriet’s story, it was Louisa Jacobs, particularly because it was partly her story too.

Arguments have been made that since there was little or inadequate documentation of slave births in the antebellum South,

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