Slaveholding in the German Community: the Sarver and Harder Families of Sumner County, Tennessee

A few months ago, I visited a Civil War-era historical site in Winchester, Virginia. It was a slow day, and the hoopskirted docent was feeling chatty. She confidently told us that her folks were German, and as everyone knows, “Germans didn’t own slaves, they just had lots of children to work their farms.”

Oh, the stories we white Americans tell ourselves…

I have just one German line in my family that I know of, the Sarvers and Harders on my Kelly side.

Henry Sarver was my 5th great-grandfather. Born about 1741 in Botetourt County, Virginia, he was the son of Swiss-German Protestant immigrants, Casper Sarver and Barbara Merkj. He and his brother, John Samuel Sarver, first moved to Orange County, North Carolina, then to Sumner County, Tennessee around 1810, probably to take advantage of land grants made to Revolutionary War soldiers.

Both Sarver brothers were German-speaking as were their wives. In fact, according to family stories that I found online, they never learned to speak English well and lived as part of a small German-speaking community in Sumner County for the remainder of their (very long) lives.

John Samuel Sarver was a farmer. He is reputed to have lived to 104 or 105, and only passed away in 1842 after drinking dye that he thought was whiskey. He is found on the 1840 census as a white man 100+ years old with 17 slaves.

My ancestor, Henry Sarver, made it age 87 before passing away in 1828. He owned a good deal more land than his brother, and was also a miller, establishing the first flour mill in Sumner County on Drake’s Creek. He and his wife, Thamer Halle, a German speaker from Alsace-Lorraine, had a large family of 8 children—not because they were German, but because nearly everyone had a large family in those days!

Henry and Thamer were slaveholders. Though I have not found many records of the people they held, Henry was listed with 8 enslaved individuals on the 1820 census and is recorded with 4 adult males on the 1824 tax list (which only recorded enslaved adult males, no women or children were counted).

In 1823, Henry deeded land to two of his sons, Henry II and George “for the good will and affection that I bear…and for their obedience to me.” (Two other sons, Jeremiah and Samuel, were presumably less biddable.)

After Henry I’s death, Henry II bought out the rest of his siblings’ shares of the estate, and took over both the grist mill and the slaves that were held by his father. In 1850, he is found on the slave schedule with 11 slaves, and in 1860 he is found with 15, most of whom are children. Several children in both years are listed as “mulatto” which may well mean that they were his own children or grandchildren.

Henry Sarver II on the 1850 slave schedule (click to enlarge and view)
Henry Sarver II on the 1860 slave schedule (click to enlarge and view)

In 1853, Henry gifted three “negro girls” to his white children. These were deeded to them “for love and affection” as was the usual term for gifts of land, slaves, or other property.

Charlotte, age 12, was given to his daughter, Mary Ann Butler.

Latitia, age 8 was given to his daughter, Martha Elizabeth Sarver.

Adlade (Adelaide) age 9, was given to his son, Elmore Sarver.

(All three listings are found in Sumner County, Tennessee: Land Slaves and Other Courthouse Transactions 1808-1863 (Abstracts) available at the Sumner County, Tennessee archives.)

Henry II’s sister, Elizabeth Sarver, was my 4th great-grandmother. She married Jacob Harder, another ethnic German, in Orange County, North Carolina before they both moved to Williamson County, adjoining Sumner County, Tennessee.

Jacob’s father, John Nicholas Harder, who also moved to Williamson County by 1806, was a slaveholder. In his will, dated 1816, he mentions “one negro woman by the name of Lucy, and also one man by the name of Boss” to be left to his wife for the remainder of her natural life. However, two other individuals, David and Janey, were “along with my waggon and gear to be sold at my death.” Even Lucy and Boss were sold, as a later document indicates that Jacob’s son William sold them off contrary to the provisions of the will. The estate inventory also names another boy named Sam who was sold to Jacob’s brother, James Harder.

John Nicholas Harder’s Will (click to enlarge and view)

(The above probate record can be found in Williamson County, Tennessee Wills Vol 3, pp 46-47 on

Interestingly, while Jacob and Elizabeth Harder owned quite a bit of land, including valuable town lots in Franklin, Tennessee, neither of them are listed as holding slaves on any census or tax list. It appears that they wisely chose to invest in real estate instead.

This may not have been simply a financial decision, they may have actually been anti-slavery. At least two of their sons, John Lafayette Harder and Alvis Snodgrass Harder both served on the Union side in the Civil War. And their daughter, Marinda Harder, my 3rd great-grandmother, married James Logan Shaw, a blacksmith, who left no record of slaveholding that I have found.

Perhaps Marinda laid down the law in that household: her daughter, Jane Maria Shaw Kelly, my 2nd great-grandmother, was a formidable woman who ran her own tailoring business—a true German shopkeeper.

Jane Maria Shaw Kelly

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