Current Research in Digital History

Rachel Bohlmann and Suzanna Krivulskaya

Networks of Piety and Slavery among Late Eighteenth-Century Rural Maryland Catholics

Volume: 2 (2019)


The first Catholic Bible published in the United States in 1790 contained a subscriber list: names and locations of people, mostly Catholics, who helped finance the publication. An initial map of these 429 names, created for a 2017 exhibition in the University of Notre Dame's Rare Books and Special Collections, showed clusters of subscribers in Maryland and Pennsylvania. The largest subset identified so far (102 subscribers) was in rural Maryland, and is this paper's focus. Digital tools helped us visualize networks within this community, including historical connections between slavery and piety. We found that a large majority of Maryland Catholics who purchased Bibles were also slaveholders (more than twice the average rate of slaveholding in the South). The densest subscriber locations also trace a discernable path along the pattern of Jesuit plantations in southern and eastern Maryland, a parallel between piety and slaveholding the map made visible. Digital mapping also pulled into focus connections among rural Catholics, as well as relationships between them and the people they enslaved. Archival records revealed dense kinship, religious, and fraternal relationships among subscribers. Records also uncovered enslaved Marylanders who embraced Catholicism, sued or petitioned for freedom, or fled. Slavery and religion formed connective tissue in post-Revolutionary Maryland.

When Edward Queen sued his Jesuit enslaver Rev. John Ashton for freedom in 1791, a fellow priest, the Rev. Thomas Digges from the nearby town of Melwood, Maryland, served as a witness.1 Queen argued that he and his family were descendants of a free woman of color and should have never been enslaved. Queen family members, enslaved by Ashton at his White Marsh plantation, represented almost a third of the priest’s unfree labor force. After a three-year legal fight, Edward Queen won manumission for himself and his family in 1794.

Their victory set an example for other men and women enslaved by Maryland Catholics. On occasion, a single successful manumission suit resulted in other enslavers granting freedom to people distantly related to the plaintiff. Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Maryland, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, voluntarily freed 23 people after yet another man, Charles Mahoney, won his suit against John Ashton in the mid-1790s.2 Religious networks, as well as economic and legal ones, formed ties among Maryland Catholics in post-Revolutionary Maryland.

One such network appears in the historical record in the form of a list. Philadelphia printer Mathew Carey published the first Catholic Bible in the United States in 1790. To finance the project’s significant costs he solicited deposits from purchasers (he called them subscribers) and printed the names of 429 of them in the opening pages of the publication. Taking Carey’s subscriber list as the starting point, this project visualizes connections between religious identity, practice, and slavery among a subset of 102 subscribers who lived in rural Maryland (see figure 1).3 We focused on rural Marylanders because they made up the single largest group of subscribers identified thus far. The second largest group was 100 subscribers from Philadelphia, which will be the focus of future work.4 Our findings are preliminary, as some subscribers do not appear in census or archival records and remain unverified.

Figure 1. Locations of Catholic Bible Subscribers in Rural Maryland in 1790. Use the left side bar to toggle between two different types of maps. The “Enslavers” display color codes locations of subscribers who are confirmed slave owners (with points sized to indicate number of slaves held) and those who remain unconfirmed. The “Location Accuracy” display uses colored shapes to indicate the level of specificity for each subscriber's location.

Several patterns stand out in both the general numbers and the more specific networks we have uncovered. First, these Bible purchasers enslaved people at more than twice the average rate for the South. This small dataset of wealthy, pious Catholics does not represent white Catholics in general, but it shows that a large majority of wealthy Maryland Catholics who purchased Bibles were also slaveholders. This correlation between Catholic identity, practice, and enslaving supports historian Maura Farrelly’s argument that holding people in racialized slavery made democratic republicanism an acceptably safe political system for white Maryland Catholics, who otherwise feared social and political disruptions in post-Revolutionary America.5 Second, the process of identifying subscribers affords a fine-grained look at this very small community of American Catholics and their social and economic networks. It pulls into focus connections among rural Maryland Catholics, as well as relationships between them and the people they enslaved. Slavery touched every Catholic institution and network in Maryland in this period. These connections provide a micro-history level view of conflicts over freedom and slavery that suggest the existence of differing opinions about slavery among enslavers, while also offering a limited view of some of the enslaved people's lives.

Using archival databases, census records, and historical newspapers, we were able to confirm that of the 102 rural Maryland subscribers, 72 held people in slavery (71%). Although the exact number of enslavers in Maryland during this period has not been identified, about one-third of all white Southern families claimed people as property during the first half of the nineteenth century.6 This very high rate among rural Catholic Bible subscribers (more than double the regional rate) does not indicate that Catholics in general held people in slavery at more than twice the rate of their non-Catholic neighbors; the price of the Bible ensures that this was a self-selected group of Catholics who were wealthy as well as pious. But it allows us to conclude that a large majority of these well-to-do and devout people were enslavers. Of these 72 enslavers, 64 were laypeople (three were women), and eight were priests. Altogether, they held 2,422 people in slavery (see figure 2). Just eight enslavers claimed as property nearly half of the enslaved people in this group: 1,171 enslaved (48%). Thirty-eight other subscribers held 10 or more people in slavery, and 20 enslaved fewer than 10 people. For six enslavers, we have not been able to identify the precise number of people they held in slavery.

Bar graph that shows the total number of enslaved people in households, grouped by size.

Figure 2. Total number of enslaved people held by 66 Catholic Bible subscribers in our sample, grouped together by the size of the slaveholders’ households/plantations. The households are divided into categories by the number of people they held in slavery in an ascending order from left to right.

An initial impression of the subscribers who held the largest number of people in slavery shows a pattern of large plantations in Prince George’s and Frederick counties, in the north and west region of Maryland. The Location Accuracy display, however, shows two dominant clusters of subscribers who enslaved: a discernable corridor of plantations in southern Maryland (from the southern tip of St. Mary’s County through Charles and St. George’s counties, up into Georgetown) and on the Eastern Shore, especially in Queen Anne and Talbot counties. In the southern Maryland cluster, 42 of 51 subscribers claimed people as property. For the 36 whose plantation records survive, the majority (20) held more than 22 people in slavery—a massing of wealth that placed these Bible subscribers in the elite planter class.7 The other 16 subscribers held between 7 and 22 people in slavery. On the Eastern Shore, 18 out of 22 subscribers enslaved others, but only seven held more than 22 people in slavery. The majority (11) claimed 13 or fewer people as property.

The two clusters reflect what historians of elites and slavery in Maryland have established: these were areas of intense agricultural production in which a network of well-connected, elite planters defined slavery in the region.8 Southern Maryland remained a tobacco-producing area; growing tobacco demanded year-round labor. Landowners on the Eastern Shore, however, had turned from tobacco to cereals (most commonly wheat) even before the Revolution. Wheat required seasonal labor, which decreased the economic incentive to hold large numbers of people in slavery.9

The clustering pattern of Bible subscribers who were also enslavers, however, suggests more than production and status formation at play. As the Jesuit Plantation Project shows, Catholic clergy had established Jesuit communities that were dependent on the labor of enslaved people, from the southern tip of St. Mary’s County through Charles County and extending to White Marsh Plantation northeast of Georgetown, and on the Eastern Shore.10 The density of lay Bible subscribers in these same areas follows this pattern of Catholic clerical establishment as well as the priests’ unfree labor practices. Out of 51 subscribers in southern Maryland, six were clerics who, as we have confirmed, enslaved at least 202 people among them. On the Eastern Shore, we have identified just two clerical subscribers, who, between them, enslaved 60 people.

While Jesuit establishment helps to explain the two most prominent clusters of Bible subscribers, our project also shows that Catholic settlement and enslaving extended across Maryland, through the northern and western parts of the state. Late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century records (wills, probate lists, parish records, and newspaper ads) reveal dense kinship, religious, and fraternal relationships among these subscribers. As mentioned above, for example, Charles Carroll, whose main residence was in Frederick, tracked the outcomes of protracted suits and made manumission decisions based on them. Many of these demonstrably pious laymen had close ties with Catholic religious, either through kinship, friendship, patronage, or philanthropy. For example, Nottley Young was one of the richest men in Maryland in 1790, with a large estate on the Potomac and 265 enslaved people. He was a close friend to fellow subscribers Rev. John Ashton and George Digges of Warburton. Both Ashton and Digges bequeathed Young land or property in their wills. One notable professional network among the clerical subscribers was their connection to the school at Georgetown (now Georgetown University). Of the 13 Maryland priest subscribers (including Bishop John Carroll, himself an enslaver), seven had ties to Georgetown.

The Jesuit Plantation Project focuses on the lives of people enslaved by Maryland Jesuits. We have tracked the lives of people enslaved by Maryland Bible subscribers. Enslaved people appear in surviving archives as runaways, as legal petitioners, as parties in suits for freedom, and as co-religionists. White Maryland Catholics may have defined their republicanism by holding others in slavery; enslaved Marylanders rejected that alignment. We have identified 302 enslaved people connected to Bible subscribers by name in records dated from 1772 through 1819. The bulk of the records (185 of 302) were made in the two decades surrounding the Bible’s publication (1780 to 1800). They show that 22 people ran away and 20 petitioned or sued for their freedom. Of those who used the courts, 14 were freed by petition and two by lawsuits. Records also reveal that some Marylanders held in slavery embraced Catholicism. They were married by priests and stood as sponsors for children at their baptisms. One woman, Rebecca (no surname), served as a baptismal sponsor for a decade at Trinity Church in Georgetown, the site of Bishop John Carroll’s new college.11

Archival research has uncovered many hidden stories about the lives represented by data points on a map of Catholic Bible subscribers, which was where this project began.12 From bishops to signers of the founding documents of the nation and from freed people to those whose names we will never recover, this project visualizes how slavery and religion operated as connective tissue in post-Revolutionary Maryland.


Braxton, Julita. “Generations a Slave: Unlawful Bondage and Charles Carroll of Carrollton.” From the Stacks (blog), New-York Historical Society Museum and Library. January 15, 2014.

Burnard, Trevor. Creole Gentlemen: The Maryland Elite, 1691-1776. New York: Routledge: 2002.

Edward Queen v. John Ashton.” In O Say Can You See: Early Washington, D.C., Law & Family, edited by William G. Thomas III, et al. University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Accessed December 23, 2018.

Farrelly, Maura Jane. Papist Patriots: The Making of an American Catholic Identity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Farrelly, Maura Jane. “American Slavery, American Freedom, American Catholicism.” Early American Studies 10, no.1 (Winter 2012): 69–100.

Fields, Barbara Jeanne. Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland during the Nineteenth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Leon, Sharon M. Life and Labor under Slavery: The Jesuit Plantation Project. Accessed April 29, 2019.

McCusker, John J. and Russell R. Menard. The Economy of British America, 1607–1789 with Supplementary Bibliography. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Murphy, Thomas. Jesuit Slaveholding in Maryland, 1717–1838. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Oakes, James. The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders. New York: Vintage Books, 1982.


  1. Edward Queen v. John Ashton,” in O Say Can You See

  2. “A list of negroes who obtained their freedom—in consequence of the verdict obtained by Charles Mahoney against the Rev. Mr. John Ashton, May Term, 1799—of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Esq. in May 1799,” in Braxton, “Generations a Slave.” 

  3. See the current working version at This visualization emerged out of an exhibition, “‘Preserving the Steadfastness of Your Faith’: Catholics in the Early American Republic,” displayed in Rare Books and Special Collections, Hesburgh Libraries, the University of Notre Dame, in 2017. Bohlmann and GIS Librarian Matthew Sisk plotted all identified locations of 429 subscribers in the Douai-Rheims Bible published by Carey in 1790. The publication cost six Spanish silver dollars (about $150 today). For the list of rural Maryland subscribers, see the “Subscribers Data” tab in the Shiny app. 

  4. We excluded Baltimore subscribers in this study. The intention of the larger project, of which this is only a first step, is to examine urban subscribers separately. Philadelphia is the largest urban cluster, with 100 subscribers identified so far. Baltimore is the next largest urban group with between 26 and 50 (depending on how many were city or county). More research was necessary to identify these subscribers, which was beyond the scope of this segment of the project. 

  5. Farrelly argues that after the Revolution slavery “made republicanism and individual freedom ‘safe’ for eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Catholics”; a racialized republicanism. See Farrelly, “American Slavery,” 76–77, 85. Murphy also argues that in the colonial period, Maryland Jesuits enslaved others as a way of asserting their status as Englishmen among their fellow colonists, and to defend the Jesuits’ own religious freedoms. Murphy, Jesuit Slaveholding, xv, xxii, 23. 

  6. Oakes, The Ruling Race, 40. 

  7. Enslavers who held 20 or more people in slavery are part of the South’s elite planter class. Oakes, The Ruling Race, 38. Mid-eighteenth century elite Maryland planters (with estates worth £650—the minimum required to sustain gentry status) held an average of 24 enslaved people. Burnard, Creole Gentlemen, 36, 265–66. 

  8. McCusker and Menard, The Economy of British America, 138; Fields, Slavery and Freedom, 4–5. 

  9. Fields, Slavery and Freedom, 5. 

  10. Leon, “Locations,” in Life and Labor under Slavery

  11. See the “Enslaved Data” tab in the Shiny app for more information. 

  12. Future plans include incorporating visualizations of enslaved people and including subscribers beyond rural Maryland. 



Rachel Bohlmann, Hesburgh Libraries, University of Notre Dame,, ORC ID logo0000-0002-4216-9811; Suzanna Krivulskaya, Department of History, California State University San Marcos,, ORC ID logo0000-0002-7724-7103