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George Teamoh 1818 to after 1887 LOC photo

Photo of George Teamoh, circa 1865

George Teamoh (1818 to after 1887) was born enslaved in Norfolk, Virginia. He worked at the Norfolk Navy Yard, Fort Monroe and other military installations. Teamoh later wrote his autobiography and served in the Virginia Legislature during the Reconstruction era.[1][2] Teamoh's candid autobiography is remarkable for his clear rebuke of the military's use of slave labor and the federal government's role both in perpetuating slavery and failing to protect newly emancipated blacks.

"I have worked in every Department in the Navy Yard and Dry-Dock, as a laborer, and this during very long years of unrequited toil, and the same might be said of the vast numbers, reaching to thousands of slaves who have been worked , lashed and bruised by the United States government..."
[3] His narrative also contains important information on post Civil War Virginia, for he was a elected to and participated in the Virginia Reconstruction era government.

Early lifeEdit

George Teamoh writes he was born enslaved in 1818 in Norfolk Virginia. His owners were Josiah and Jane Thomas and when he was about ten years of age he was moved with the Thomas's to Portsmouth Virginia.[4] His autobiography contains only limited information regarding his parents though he states his mother "bore the common name "Winnie". She died when I was quite small."[5] In another document dated 1863 for his second marriage, Teamoh gave the names of his parents as David James Teamoh and Lavinia Henrietta Evans.[6][7] Teamoh had two younger half brothers Thomas Teamoh born circa 1835 and John William Teamoh born circa 1832.[8] He informs readers, he was orphaned prior to adolescent.[9] Teamoh recalled slaveholder Jane Thomas fondly she "harbored and and "gave comfort to a fugitive for the space of fifteen months" and assisted free persons of color she was known as "good old Miss Jane.".[10] In 1832 while working in a brickyard Teamoh taught himself to read and write by listening to white children. He would sing the alphabet and identify words on handbills and posters.[11] In later years, he found a copy of John T. Walker's A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language which helped him gain an extensive vocabulary.[12][13] He was an admirer of William Shakespeare's plays and enjoyed going to the theater and the poet Lord Byron.[14] He also came to love the forms of the Church of England and learned much of The Book of Common Prayer.[15] In the late 1830's he began to keep a journal in which he recorded "what transpired in this City and the Vicinity. In 1839 that whole year , I carried to record every hour of sun-shine,rain, cloud and thunder storm, marriages, births and deaths; distinguished visitors; ministers of the Gospel and where they hailed from;...In indeed I put every thing that ear could hear an eye could see or hand might reach, under contribution to serve my ends." Unfortunately,these early journals have not survived.[16] Teamoh was proud of his hard won literacy and on the front cover of six of eighteenth school exercise book that he penned his autobiographical manuscript carefully wrote"written by himself."[17] His literacy quickly marked him out as other slaves requested he write or read for them, but he quickly found it made whites uneasy or suspicious.[18] Literacy among African Americans was a prized possession. Thomas Smallwood a former slave who worked at the Washington Navy Yard in the 1840's, remembered how amazed whites were to learn that he could read: "What little I know of the letter was obtained in the following manner, for I never had a days schooling. The gentleman before mentioned, as my master, and his wife, learned me the English alphabet, and to spell in two syllables. When that became known to his neighbors they were amazed at the fact that a black or coloured person could learn the Alphabet, yea, learn to spell in two syllables. I appeared to be a walking curiosity in the village where I then lived, and when passing about the village I would be called into houses, and the neighbors collected around to hear me say the Alphabet and to spell baker and cider, to their great surprise … "[19]

As a slave Teamoh was hired out during the 1830's until 1853 as a caulker, laborer and ship-carpenter at the Norfolk Navy Yard, Fort Monroe and private business's in the greater Norfolk area. By the 1830's, Norfolk Navy Yard then known as Gosport Navy Yard and other naval shipyards began to experience difficulties securing qualified ship caulkers. In the letter below, Captain Louis Warrington writing to the Board of Navy Commissioners, acknowledged qualified ship caulkers were essential and in short supply at Norfolk and requested to hire caulker apprentices. While not stated in Captain Warrington's message, ship caulking had become a trade predominately associated with African Americans. By the 1840's there were fifteen black caulkers and five white caulkers at the shipyard. "By the time I was of age – 21 – and had learned a branch of mechanics known as ( caulking- ship work) …when I took a "job" of caulking at the same place on one of the government flats.". Caulking was hard and dirty work, consequently often one by enslaved or free blacks. Typically caulkers worked done with a special hammer or wedge, then hot pitch was poured on the oakum and a hot caulking iron applied tar to seal the seam. Some slaveholders and apparently Jane Thomas, allowed their bondsmen to seek work on their own and to negotiate with potential employers. Frederick Douglas who as a slave worked as caulker in a Baltimore Maryland shipyard provides the crucial details regarding how the system worked:

I was to be allowed all my time; to make all bargains for work; to find my own employment, and to collect my own wages, and, in return for this liberty, I was required, or obliged, to pay...three dollars at the end of each week, and to board and clothe myself, and buy my own calking tools. A failure in any of these particulars would put an end to my privilege. This was a hard bargain. The wear and tear of clothing, the losing and breaking of tools, and the expense of board, made it necessary for me to earn at least six dollars per week to keep even with the world. All who are acquainted with caulking know how uncertain and irregular that employment is. It can be done to advantage only in dry weather, for it is useless to put wet oakum into a seam. Rain or shine, however work or no work, at the end of each week the money must be forthcoming.[20]

Gosport Navy Yard Portsmouth circa 1840 Historical Recollections of Va Henry Howe 1852 LOC

Gosport Navy Yard Portsmouth circa 1840 about the time George Teamoh first worked at the shipyard. Note vessels and ship houses. Image from Historical Recollections of Va, Henry Howe 1852,p.401 LOC

In the 1830's when Teamoh first came into the shipyard white shipyard workers were resentful of enslaved labor and fearful that free blacks might inspire the enslaved to revolt. Commodore Lewis Warrington in an 1831 letter to the Board of Navy Commissioners felt it necessary to response to three petitions Dry Dock workers and local residents, regarding their fears of enslaved labor. A large goup of white stone masons had quit their positions and accused project chief engineer,Loammi Baldwin Jr. of the unfair hiring of enslaved labor in their stead. In their 6 January 1830 petition they wrote:"' On application severally by us for employment we were refused, in consequence of the subordinate officers hiring negroes by the year under the immediate cognizance of the chief Engineer, and placing them at stone cutting for which they are incompetent to the injury of we the undersigned who are men of families – and placed in the peculiar circumstance in which we stand, we view it as a most grievous imposition, detrimental to the laboring interests of the community and subversive to every principal of equality. We respectfully ask your interposition.”

Warrington replied "White laborers cannot, be readily I apprehend obtained, and when obtained, will not certainly be procured "'on terms as advantageous to the public, as those now given to blacks” – The price of white laborers is from 75/ 100 to 87/100 and that of the blacks 62 ½ /100 - white laborers do not perform more labor then the blacks per day - So far from it, that in my opinion the latter , in this climate, perform the most - of course as there is no except of work on the part of the former, to compensate except of wages –The blacks are not difficult to govern in the Yard, and I have heard of no "'insurrectionary” "'disorderly or refractory” spirits exhibited by them - There are about two hundred and forty six blacks employed in the Yard and Dock altogether; of whom one hundred and thirty six are in the former and one hundred ten in the latter – We shall in the Course of this day or tomorrow discharge twenty which will leave but one hundred and twenty six on our roll – The evil of employing blacks, if it be one, is in a fair and rapid course of diminution, as our whole number, after the timber , now in the water is stowed, will not exceed sixty ; and those employed at the Dock will be discharged from time to time, as their services can be dispensed with – when it is finished , there will be no, occasion for the employment of any –'
[21] Louis Warrington was wrong, for slaves continued to be employed at Norfolk Navy Yard, consequently the atmosphere was often tense.[22] Teamoh recalled "Slavery was so interwoven at that time in the very ligaments of the that to assail it from any quarter was not only a herculean task, but on requiring great consideration caution and comprehensiveness." He goes onto say "At that I was occasionally at work in the Navy Yard, and with hundreds of others in my condition felt to remain there rather than being worse situated or sold.[23] Despite the hardships Teamoth learned his trade at Norfolk Navy Yard with master ship caulker, Peter Tebo. Teamoth was paid about a dollar and sixty two cents a day, he noted white caulkers were typically paid two dollars a day. Still Teamoth was able to save some money. He continued to work at the Norfolk for many years.[24]

In 1809 the United States Congress passed a law requiring bidding for contractual services and that the Government publicly announced what it wished to buy and everyone was given an opportunity to bid on the work. Although not specifically directed against the hire of slaves on naval shipyards and army installations it was often interpreted as such. Consequently verbal contracts, "Gentleman's Agreements" and other subterfuges were used to surmount this barrier.[25] One of the most egregious methods was to place enslaved workers as "Ordinary Seamen' on the shipyard employment rolls of "the ordinary". The ordinary was where naval ships being refitted or taken out service were held in reserve. African Americans Charles Ball and Michael Shiner were some the many enslaved workers navy yard enumerated on the military muster as "Ordinary Seamen".[26][27] This subterfuge was wide spread at Norfolk Navy Yard, Teamoh wrote, " I was again hired by the U.S. Government to work in its ordinary service. - was there some two years [1843-1844] on board Ship USS Constitution lying in ordinary off Norfolk Navy Yard..."[28] Teamoh was even issued a discharge dated 10 September 1845, certifying that George Teamoh Ordinary Seaman was "regularly discharged from the United States Ship Constitution in Ordinary at Navy Yard Norfolk, and from the sea service of the United States."</ref> Teamoh was not fooled, "that branch of the U.S service,so far as hirelings were concerned, was but little different from letting out to a building contractor, varying only in point of punishment - whipping post and cow hid - gang-way and cat-o.nine tails." [29]

Marriage and FamilyEdit

In 1841 Teamoh was married in Portsmouth by Methodist minister, and chaplain to the Norfolk Navy Yard ,the Reverend Vernon Eskridge to an enslaved woman named Sallie. The couple had at least one son John and two daughters Jane and Josephine.[30][31] In 1853 Sallie and the children who were the property of another slaveholder Olice Amidon were sold,despite Teamoh's pleading, she was sold to a slave dealer in Richmond Virginia where she was eventually purchased by a Richmond resident "Henry Smith a low liquor dealer." Teamoh states Smith was had a "morally depraved appetite" and makes it clear Smith abused both wife and daughter.[32] On 6 May 1863 Teamoh married Elizabeth Smith in Boston Massachusetts.[33] This was according to Teamoh "An unhappy marriage of twenty four months..."[34]

Escape and Life as FreemanEdit

In 1853 according to Teamoh, Jane Thomas had promised his mother. to manumit him at some future time. The laws of of the state of Virginia made such manumissions difficult and expensive so Jane Thomas apparently signed Teamoh as a carpenter on the merchant ship Currituck bound for Bremen Germany.[35] On the return voyage he decided to jump ship in New York City "where he hired a lawyer to secure his back-pay, declared himself formally free and then came to New Bedford, Massachusetts about 1 December 1853."[36][37] As a fugitive and freeman Teamoh received some help initially but quickly learned " notwithstanding their repeated manifestations of kindness. I was doomed to share a hard lot in that wealthy city of New Bedford....while seeking employ, I was often shifted from side to side of ware houses groaning under the weight of life's luxuries in order to catch some warmth from the sun."[38] Teamoh found that seeking shelter in Bedford, meant living in a city with large number of fugitives all looking for work. For a brief period he found work as a caulker, but with a hard to New England winter, he was laid off and increased competition for laboring jobs, reduced him to snow shoveling,with no winter clothes, loading and unloading coal, consequently he moved to Boston where he was able to find work with his half brothers John William and Thomas.[39]


  1. Gottlieb, M. S., & The Dictionary of Virginia Biography. George Teamoh (1818–after 1887). (2015, November 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
  2. Teamoh, George God Made Man Man Made the Slave: The Autobiography of George Teamoh, edited by F.N. Boney, Richard L. Hume and Rafia Zafar (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1990)
  3. Teamoh, p.81.
  4. Teamoh, p.63.
  5. Teamoh,pp.67-68.
  6. Marriage George Teamoh to Elizabeth Smith 6 May 1863 , New England Historic Genealogical Society; Boston, Massachusetts; Massachusetts Vital Records, 1911-1915
  7. Teamoh, p.173n8.
  8. Teamoh, p.187.n78.
  9. Teamoh, p.33.
  10. Teamoh, p.69.
  11. Teamoh, pp.69-73.
  12. Teamoh, pp.72-73.
  13. Walker, John T. A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language Charles Ewer: Boston, 1828 accessed 25 November 2017
  14. Teamoh,p.97.
  15. Teamoh, p.73.
  16. Teamoh, p. 74.
  17. Teamoh, p. 45.
  18. Teamoh, pp.75-77.
  19. Smallwood, Thomas. A Narrative of Thomas Smallwood, Colored Man) Giving and Account of His Birth – The Period He was Held in Slavery – His Release - and Removal To Canada , Etc.: Together with An Account of the Underground Railroad . James Stephens: Toronto, 1851.p14.
  20. Douglas Frederick, Autobiographies, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr., New York: The Library of America, 1994.pp.342-342.
  21. Lewis Warrington to the Board of Navy Commissioners 12 October 1831, Records of Board and Commissions, Record Group 45 Records of the Board and Commissions 1819-90. Commissioners Letters Proposals Reports and Estimates Received from the Commandants of Navy Yard and Naval Stations March1814 –July 1842, Entry -314, Gosport Navy Yard.
  22. Starobin, Robert S. Industrial Slavery in the Old South,Oxford University press: New York third edition 1972, p.32.
  23. Teamoh,pp.84-85.
  24. Sharp, John G. Employment of enslaved workers in the construction of the Dry Docks 12 October 1831 Accessed 24 Nov 2017
  25. Hulse, Thomas Military Slave Rentals, p.516.
  26. A Narrative of the life and adventures of Charles Ball, a Blackman , John T. Shyrock: Pittsburgh. Western Publisher,1854 p., 20 -22.
  27. The Diary of Michael Shiner Relating to the History of the Washington Navy Yard 1813-1869 Sharp, John G editor Naval History and Heritage Command 2015 accessed 25 November 2017
  28. Teamoh, George,pp 82-83
  29. Teamoh, George, p.83.
  30. Teamoh, pp.87and 182n47.
  31. Gottlieb, M. S.
  32. Teamoh, p.89.
  33. Marriage George Teamoh to Elizabeth Smith 6 May 1863 , New England Historic Genealogical Society; Boston, Massachusetts; Massachusetts Vital Records, 1911-1915
  34. Teamoh,p.115.
  35. Teamoh, p.96 and pp.184 -185n58.
  36. Grover, Kathryn The Fugitives Gibraltar Escaping Slaves and Abolitionism in New Bedford, Massachusetts University of Massachusetts Press: Boston,2001, p.234.
  37. Teamoh, p.102.
  38. Teamoh, pp.108-109.
  39. Grover, p.237.

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