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Reconstructing Molly Welsh: Race, Memory and the Story of Benjamin Banneker's Grandmother

Molly Welsh, oral tradition captured in the nineteenth century tells us, was a white Englishwoman who worked as an indentured servant. The same tradition has it that she owned slaves, although she is said to have married (or formed a union with) one of them. I aim not only to recover the life of Molly Welsh Banneker, but also to consider its various tellings—probing in particular at Molly’s shifting racial status. By examining a multiplicity of social and cultural aspects of life for seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Maryland women, I test whether these various narratives are even possible or plausible reconstructions of the Molly Welsh story. My project thus sheds light on the woman Molly Welsh was, how her story was constructed, what factors contributed to the retelling of her story, and why and at what point various narratives deviate from each other. By comparing the various Molly Welsh/Benjamin Banneker narratives it is possible to uncover or at least posit the most reliable narrative, while at the same time coming to a greater understanding of how such historically undocumented stories are constructed and what part memory plays in their reconstruction. An extensive bias informs many of these narratives, shaped by the various “memories” generated by family loyalty, by the growing tensions between the North and the South over slavery, by Reconstruction, and by new standards in historical accuracy that appeared with the founding of the American Historical Association in 1884. While Molly Welsh may appear to be a near-silent character in her grandson Benjamin Banneker’s story, it is possible that new discoveries will be made that further verify (or refute) the long-standing tradition that Molly Welsh was a white English dairymaid transported to Maryland and that she married one of her own slaves by whom she had four daughters. Recent interest in new ways of approaching history, a greater acceptance of oral traditions as an important historical source, and a renewed appreciation for exploring stories of the untold masses, including women and minorities, may someday locate Molly’s voice and allow her to speak for herself. The chances of uncovering Molly Welsh’s story through documentary sources has improved with the recent emergence of powerful databases and electronic search tools have made many things possible that once were not (ancestry.com, the Old Bailey records for example). And then, perhaps Molly might come to represent other seventeenth-century women who married or had children with African men, like Eleanor Atkins who had a “Molattoe” child and who subsequently received twenty-four lashes for her crime, Elizabeth Day who admitted before the court that she had an illegitimate “Malatto” child by a “Negro man named Quasey belonging to her master,” or Eleanor Price who pleaded guilty to “Fornication with a Negro Man named Peter Belonging to Mr. John Walker,” received twenty-one lashes, and whose child, Jeremiah, was bound out until the age of twenty-one. Through their stories we might come to accept that one of the few choices these women had may have been with whom they had a child, though even this is subject to question. Regardless, Molly Welsh’s story is one that does not appear to stand alone. Through her we might see how women survived their indentures and prospered, or managed at the very least to endure life in Maryland, women whose lives until now never managed to become a footnote in anyone’s biography.