John C. Clark and "Sobrina":

A Working Biographical Sketch

 

© 2020, Alex Colvin

 

Last updated: January 26,  2020

"John C. Clark, who, it was proved, could have married any marriageable lady in the neighborhood, forsook those ladies of his own social standing, and married a woman who, at that time, was generally regarded as greatly his inferior; and so much were such marriages condemned that two years later it would have subjected the parties to a criminal prosecution. And even at this day, when it is hoped the world has grown wiser and better, it would seem a violent presumption to suppose that a man of Anglo-American birth and education would marry a woman of African descent, at that time his slave, his chattel. We may stigmatize this aversion of one race for the other unreasonable, without good sense, mere prejudice, yet all must admit that the fact of this aversion really exists in the minds of most all white men [**20]  to such an extent that the idea of intermarriage of the races is wholly repulsive, even at this day; and how much more must it have been before the African was raised to the dignity of an American citizen." -- W. P. Hamblin, attorney for the appellees, Honey v. Clark, Texas Supreme Court, 1873.

Unlike the stories of most antebellum mixed-race couples which have gone unnoticed, the engaging tale of who the Clarks and their offspring were, as the subjects of a protracted Wharton County, Texas probate case in 1862,  became the stuff of a fascinating treatment by legal scholar, Jason Gillmer in his 2017 monograph, “Slavery and Freedom in Texas: Stories From the Courtroom 1821-1871,” published by the University of Georgia Press.[1] Gillmer’s  richly detailed account shows not only how the courthouse drama played out, but also, (perhaps most compellingly,)  how, in order to secure their inheritance rights, Clark’s  three children had to prove to the court’s satisfaction their parents -- a white man and his negro slave, “Sobrina”  -- were, in fact, married. The case went all the way to the Texas Supreme Court which affirmed all lower court rulings which, contrary to most other such cases, found that John and Sobrina were, yes, legally married. A few years later, a change in judges caused the case to crumble, a turn of events, we’ll return to.

 

Gillmer’s rare monograph  does the subject of interracial marriage in the antebellum era great justice and he endows his tale with supurb research skills and fine story craft. But he never seems entirely convinced that the relationship between John and Sobrina was anything other than yet another depraved example of the wickedness inherent in the institution of slavery. Beyond the cruelty of forced labor, flesh-tearing whippings, and coffles,  perhaps white mens’ most inhumane cruelty, he implies quietly,  was  how they also played at being married to their female slaves. It’s an implication by the author which is also his story’s most glaring weakness. The details are riveting; but in the Gillmer telling, the couple’s marriage is a mockery of the real thing,  a kind of surreal make-believe made possible by Clark’s self-imposed isolation in their very rural plantation setting; in reality,  one party owns the other; one party, in other words,  was subjugated, a concubine in a pretend marriage from which she could not escape. The author simply cannot fathom that the arrangement was possibly one of genuine, reciprocal affection.

 

This longer version of the Clark legal battle was not, however,  Gillmer’s first swipe at this particular couple. Nine years earlier, in 2008, Gilmer wrote of the Clarks in his lengthy essay, “Base Wretches and Black Wenches: The Story of Sex and Race, Violence and Compassion During Slave Times,” for the Alabama Law Review.[2]

 

In both treatments of the Clarks, it never seems to occur to Gillmer John Clark’s indifference toward Sobrina and his children when in the presence of his fellow whites colonists may have been a defensive tactic to protect their union from ridicule and from public admonishment and, more probably, permanent separation. Given the longevity of the intimacies they shared, as told by those who saw them daily, (which becomes clear in Gilmer’s detailed coverage of  the heirs lawsuit,) there is no reason to believe Clark and Sobrina’s affection for one another was not genuine – even on those rare occasions when they were required to play the role of master and slave when in the rare presence of Clark’s white contemporaries. Why such role-playing? Clark’s own contemporary and slave-owner, Edward Collier, explained:

 

 Clark kept a negro woman Sobrina as men frequently did in those days…no one ever thought or was it reported that they were married or husband and wife. Indeed, a man would have been gotten rid of in the community that acknowledged to having a negro wife.[3]

 

The implication here is obvious: role-playing in the rare presence of one’s slave-holding peers was a survival tactic in a culture where white supremacy was expected; an open confession of love for someone who was considered his gross racial inferior would have been an invitation to John becoming a social pariah, an outcast. Given his immense wealth, landholdings,  and so forth,  role playing, was a viable escape hatch and made perfect sense. And those land holdings were considerable. Afterall, John C. Clark, had been a member of that estimable Mexican Texas colonial group, Stephen F. Austin’s, “Old Three Hundred.”[4]

 

 

Parentage and First Generation Heirs:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As for Sobrina, she had been the property of  Preston Gilbert, (1779-c.1840) a neighbor of John’s on the Colorado in what would become adjacent Colorado county. Gilbert, However, bought his land in June, 1827, two years after John bought his.[6]  Court records indicate Sobrina became John’s property in the early 1830s, and prior to Texas independence in 1836.

 

While Gilbert, like Clark  arrived to the colony alone, that may be because his brother and parents proceeded him to Texas in 1824. The Colorado county 1840 tax rolls, for example, show Preston with what is believed to be his brother Jasper Gilbert.[7] And in his land petition to the Governor of Texas, recorded in Colorado county, in 1847,  Jason L. Gilbert claims  he came to the Austin colony at age sixteen with his father.[8]  But in previous years, John C. Clark and Preston Gilbert had been neighbors in Colorado county, according to the 1838 tax rolls where he is listed, like Jasper Gilbert, as heading a separate but neighboring household.

 

 

 

To be continued….

 

[1]           Jason A. Gillmer, “Slavery and Freedom in Texas: Stories from the Courtroom, 1821–1871,” University of Georgia Press, 2017

[2]           Jason A. Gillmer, “Base Wretches and Black Wenches: The Story of Sex and Race, Violence and Compassion During Slave Times,” Alabama Law Review, Vol 59, 2008

[3]           Testimony of Edward Collier, Clark v. Honey,  in Gillmer, “Base Wretches and Black Wenches: the Story of Sex and race, Violence and Compassion During Slave Times,” Alabama Law Review,” p 44. Collier, was a witness for the defense in the case brought by Clark’s three children to protect their inheritance rights. 124

[4]           While there is amble evidence John was among the early colonists, his name is absent from Austin’s  Registry of Families Volume 1 or 2, the originals of which have been preserved with the Texas General Land Office. Nevertheless, Clark does appear in Lester G. Bugbee, “The Old Three Hundred: A List of Settlers in Austin's First Colony,” The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association Vol. 1, No. 2 (Oct., 1897), pp. 111. It’s possible Bugbee mistook the John Clark, a widower listed in Vol 1 as the John C. Clark who appears among the Texas Land Office’s records as a patentee as one and the same person which would go far in explaining  why he appears in Bugbee’s list but not Austin’s. The actual reason is unknown.

[5]           Gilmer, “Slavery and Freedom in Texas,” 39;  [image] digitized original, Clark survey and plat map of  his land in the Stephen F. Austin Colony, July 16, 1824, English Field Note 191 for Grant No. 000001:53, Patent No. 124, Texas General Land Office Land Grants database.

[6]           “Gilbert, Preston,” Texas General Land Office database, Patent No. 588, file no. SC 000005:45. 

[7]           Digitized original, Preston Gilbert , et all, 1840 Colorado County, Texas  Tax rolls, "Texas, County Tax Rolls, 1837-1910," www.familysearch database.

[8]           Ibid,  “Gilbert Preston” “Jasper L. Preston,” and “John C. Clark” entries, 1838 Colorado County, Texas  tax roll database, www.familysearch.org, “Texas, County Tax Rolls, 1837-1910,"              

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Little is known of John’s parentage; most sources agree he hailed from South Carolina, and was likely born ca. 1798 and was a member of the earliest pioneers and frontiersmen who would eventually heed a call in the early 1820s put out by empresario, Stephen F. Austin,  to come to a colony he was establishing in Mexico’s northern territory. Whether it was a sense of adventurism, rugged individualism, or a need to escape his past, John came to Texas; there are no records or diaries explaining his migration. Whatever the reason, John applied for his land grant, claiming to be a rancher and received over three and a half square miles of land, one border of which was the Colorado river. This was not unusual; the conditions of receiving vast tracts of land were such that single men could pair up to make a “family,” or make exaggerated claims of being a “stock raiser,” and thereby obtain a massive parcel worth thousands of acres called a Sitio for himself  for the stunningly low price of 12 cents an acre.[5]