Thirty Dollars Reward
Sarah Ann was an enslaved woman owned by the Follin family in Vienna Virginia. On January 30th, 1850 when she was 23 years old and “far advanced in pregnancy,” she disappeared with her unborn child and her 7 year old daughter Mary.[i]
They were never seen again.
Finding Sarah Ann aims to answer several questions, the bulk of which are represented in the following: Where did she go? How could she have done it? Why did she leave the Follin plantation? How do womanhood and motherhood intersect with enslavement? How did Sarah Ann use fugitivity to regain her reproductive autonomy? How does Sarah Ann navigate the land while also being conceptualized as spatial property herself? This story is both new and old and intentionally reframes the geography of land that still exists today amidst a world that has both forgotten and been forgotten.
The theoretical framework for Finding Sarah Ann is grounded in the work of other historians who have found non-traditional ways of uncovering Black stories. Historian Marisa Fuentes, in her book Dispossessed Lives writes a chapter dedicated to a woman named Jane who was enslaved and sought her freedom by running away.[ii] Fuentes tells her story by building off of a singular ad put out in a newspaper when Jane escaped. This ad, written by the white people who owned her, is the only definitive piece of evidence that tells the story of Jane and what her life might have been like. The only thing thought relevant enough to include in this ad was a description of her physical body and all of the scars she bore either from tribal rituals or brutal punishments from her enslavers. The construction of the narrative by Fuentes taking this approach is innovative for two reasons: First, because it necessitates a subjectivity in Jane’s historiography. As an enslaved African woman, Jane has no consistent written or archival record of her experiences, feelings, or journey of escape, and so in order to tell the history of her life and flight, Fuentes had to reconstruct it by pulling facts and possibilities from what the research told her could have been true. For example, while on the run, she would have passed through a particular area of town that had a market open to both white and enslaved Black folks. Fuentes writes, “If Jane was out at night she may have heard the sounds of song and mourning from a group of fellow slaves interring a deceased friend or kin in this marginal land.”[iii] Possible storylines like this are continually presented by Fuentes instead of claiming facts to fill a plot hole. Because she was telling the story of a Black enslaved woman, there was an element to the project that would be about filling in the blanks. Not claiming to know every blank as fact, but simply asking questions about what could have been. The legacy forced upon Jane was one of silence and a lack of historical record. There are some things that we as historians will never know, especially because of her identity, and this fate is shared by Sarah Ann. I know that I will never be able to glean the full story of what happened to Sarah Ann and her incredible escape to save her children. I can, however, insert questions where there are moments of silence and let the audience decide whether these potential answers are feasible.
Secondly, Fuentes’ approach to telling the story of Jane very much centers her body and argues that the body is a conduit to her story as well as a geographical site of oppression. Because the ad for Jane’s retrieval goes into very vivid detail about the scars on her body, both tribal and from punishment, Fuentes uses those details as a road map. The “country marks” on her body indicate her life before enslavement, potentially a community or coming of age ritual, while the more brutal scars noted on her body represent her life in bondage.[iv] Fuentes interprets Jane’s body as a source that otherwise would have been overlooked and claims that her body is also a geographic space, the setting in which her life occurred. This delineation as geographic space is powerful because it both unravels and explains the proposition that enslaved bodies were property. While this geographical interpretation allows historians to center the story around a Black woman’s body it also illuminates their perception by White enslavers as literal real estate. The Black woman’s womb was seen as parallel to land being cultivated, their birth giving ability making them exponentially more valuable and more heavily exploited. I would also argue that this conception of the Black body as a geographic site can be interpreted in an additional capacity. The Black woman’s body was also a location of resistance and joy they cultivated for themselves in spite of the horror of their enslavement. These marks from Jane’s country could have been the only thing left to connect her to her family. Maybe for her, they represented love, kinship, and tradition. Scars from pregnancy or childbirth are another example of this geographic interpretation yielding a more holistic view of Black enslaved women. While not mentioned in Jane’s description, many enslaved Black women would have displayed marks left behind on their bodies from carrying children. While many of these pregnancies were exploitative and non-consensual, these kinds of scars can also be used to tell a story of motherhood and a selfless, protective love as exemplified by Sarah Ann fleeing to ultimately save the lives of her children.
This never-before-told history is the silenced memoir of Sarah Ann, the unsolved mystery of where she disappeared to on that fateful night in 1850 and who helped her along the way. However, Sarah Ann’s life and flight from the Follins stand to tell countless additional stories if only we are open to listening to them. Finding Sarah Ann is about finding her children. It is about all three of their lives, and about the land Sarah Ann refused to define their lives according to. This is a history less about oppression than about the manipulation of oppressive spaces through Sarah Ann’s resilience as a Black mother. In unearthing this forgotten plantation, we discover a conduit to the past, to intersectional motherhood, womanhood, and reproductive autonomy framed by geography. This land, peppered with subdivisions and churches today, was the geographic site of oppression, ownership, and rape, but also resistance and a mother’s sacrifice for her children.
When I moved to the Fairfax in /Northern Virginia area to start my graduate program and position on campus, I also got a second job at a small business in Vienna. For months, I have driven from GMU to historic Vienna on Interstate 123. I pass the historic courthouse and am shaded along the way by trees that tower over the power lines and frame the sunshine that lights the way. When I georeferenced the Fairfax 1860 tax maps to locate the Follin Plantation, I discovered that Mary Follin’s property, where Sarah Ann had been enslaved, had stood less than a mile from where I work and that the road Sarah Ann would have taken to the courthouse the night she fled is what became State Road 123. I had been existing and consistently traveling in the same exact spaces as Sarah Ann for over six months before I knew she had ever existed.
I drove around the property that used to be owned by the Follins, where Sarah Ann was raised, became pregnant, and gave birth to her first child. Now this land has been developed and is covered with a Catholic church and subdivision-style homes, the main road named after the Follins. When you search for “Follin Plantation Vienna, VA” online, nothing of the Follin family farm or enslavement appears. Instead, it is these newly built homes that populate the search results; They are for sale and feature “plantation shutters.” Do any of these property owners know that their land is teeming with a systematically repressed history of enslavement? Do they sense their being haunted by Sarah Ann and the legacies of her and others who were held there against their will? Some of the trees in this neighborhood are massive. They have managed to survive around or within changing property lines. These trees and every other tree that lines the road I take each day are living relics of the past and could very well have been witnesses to the life and escape of Sarah Ann, though they grow and sway silently, framing new stories, unable to share what they’ve seen.
The idea that this project has grown from a singular newspaper ad that I happened to find when researching for something else, and that things have begun to fall so perfectly into place after discovering the precise location of the farm, feels too serendipitous to be an accident. How have the spaces I navigate been haunted with this history and Sarah Ann herself? I feel privileged to be the one who is reconstructing this history and giving Sarah Ann her voice back. And while I know that I have invested time and energy into Finding Sarah Ann, I know I am not doing it alone.
[i] Mary Follin. “Thirty Dollars Reward - Feb 8.” Alexandria Gazette, February 8, 1850. America’s Historical Newspapers 1 & 2.
[ii] Fuentes, M.J. Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive. Early American Studies. University of Pennsylvania Press, Incorporated, 2016. https://books.google.com/books?id=dDE4DAAAQBAJ.
[iii] Ibid. Page 29.
[iv] Ibid. Page 3.