This portrait, dated 1819, hangs in the Atwater Kent Museum in Philadelphia. A second portrait depicted a somewhat older ordinary elderly African American man hangs in the Peabody Room of the Georgetown Public Library. It is dated 1822.
Why would the portraits of a seemingly ordinary looking elderly Africa American man exist much less be displayed at two well known locations? The answer to that is that the man depicted, Yarrow Mamout is far from ordinary.
The story of Yarrow Mamout begins in Guinea, West Africa in 1736, long before he became famous for sitting for portraits in the early 19th century or well-known for his skills as a brick maker, basket weaver, ship loading, or even before he gained extensive knowledge of real estate, finance, law, and investments in bank stock (Johnston 2012:51). . Though much is not known about his life before he was sold into slavery at sixteen, Johnston’s (2012:7) research has suggested that Yarrow was a member of the Fulani tribe, a nomadic people originally from what is now Mali, who converted to Islam. Fulani tradition typically mandates that families consult with an Islamic holy man for guidance in choosing a newborn’s name. Following these naming traditions Yarrow, spelled Yero in Islam, was a name given to a woman’s fourth child, while Mamout, spelled Mamadou in Islam, was typically given to a boy born on a Monday ( Johnston 2012:8). Yarrow had a sister, known in America as Hannah, free Hannah, or Hannah Peale, who was enslaved around the same time he was in 1752.
Although the circumstances surrounding Yarrow’s subsequent capture and enslavement are unknown, Johnston (2012) suggests that they could have been similar to those of two other Muslim boys who were captured in Futa Jallon. One of these boys was Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, who was educated in the Quran and able to read and write in Arabic. His father gave him two slaves to sell to Captain Stephan Pike aboard the slave ship Arabella that was anchored in the Gambia River (Johnston 2012:9). Unfortunately, Captain Pike did not offer Diallo enough money and he broke negotiations and exchanged the slaves for cattle in a nearby village. Sending the servants who accompanied him home, Diallo was captured while visiting a friend by the Mandingo people and sold to Captain Pike. Although Captain Pike allowed Diallo to write his father for help, he set sail for Annapolis, Maryland before he received a response. Diallo would later return to Africa before being captured by the French for helping the British and dying in a French prison somewhere in West Africa (Johnston 2012: 11). Despite these missing pieces, Yarrow arrived in Annapolis, Maryland on board the Elijah on June 4, 1752. Yarrow was purchased by Samuel Beall, a wealthy planter from Montgomery County, Maryland, and eventually became his body servant, accompanying him throughout the day (Johnston 2012:48). Beall was active in his community and served in a variety of capacities including, being a member of the Captain George Beall Troop of Horse, a militia group who fought Native Americans and armed men; inspector of the Bladensburg Tobacco Inspection Warehouse; as sheriff, justice of the peace, and part owner in the Frederick Forge, a major iron-making facility in Washington County, Maryland (Johnston 2012:36). Most of Yarrow’s early years with Beall were spent on one of Beall’s properties near Takoma Park Maryland, called the Charles and William tract, which contained 1,100 acres in the slave quarters or at Beall’s water mill on The Gift property in Rock Creek (Johnston 2012:48). During this period he was estranged from relatives, friends, his sister, and others who spoke his language and understood his faith. After becoming Beall’s body servant, Yarrow was put in a position where he could be in the know and be known by some of Washington’s most important men. In 1770, Beall sold the Charles and Williams tract and moved his family and slaves to a 264- acre tract called Kelly’s Purchase a few miles north of Sharpsburg, Maryland. Following Beall’s death in 1777, Yarrow was bequeathed to his son Isaac, but eventually became the property of Beall’s other son Brooke (Johnston 2012:59). Around 1788 or 1789, a year or two after Yarrow’s son Aquilla was born to a slave woman on a neighboring farm, Brooke Beall moved his family and slaves to Georgetown, where Yarrow was loaned out several times.
Yarrow’s freedom came in 1796 with the condition that if Yarrow made bricks for Beall’s new house in Upper Georgetown that he would be freed. Unfortunately, Beall died before he could free Yarrow, but Beall’s widow, Margaret, kept his promise. According to Yarrow and Margaret, Yarrow’s freedom was made for the purest of reasons- a reward for a good and faithful servant (Johnston 2013:73). Before Beall died, Yarrow purchased his son, Aquilla’s, freedom for £20 or £37 from Ann Chambers on February 4, 1796 (Johnston 2012: 73 & 123). Yarrow officially received his manumission papers several months later on August 22nd. Four years later Yarrow purchased the property at 3324 Dent Place in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. from Francis Deakins on February 8, 1800. That same year the 1800 census listed Yarrow and another person (most likely Aquilla) as living on the Dent Place property, which was valued at $30 according to the 1800-1830 Tax Assessments (Johnston 2012: 73). In 1803, Yarrow transferred the property deed to Aquilla, who at that time was 15, so that it could not be seized by creditors (Johnston 2012: 127). By 1815, the property was assessed at $200 and noted a small frame structure. Though the original deed has been either lost or destroyed, a deed book kept by the Recorder of Deeds exists and is housed at the National Archives. It was believed that Yarrow was literate in Arabic because he signed in name in Arabic on the deed (Johnston 2012:74).
Apart from Johnston’s book, the earliest narrative mention of Yarrow appears in David Warden’s A Chorographical and Statistical Description of the District of Columbia, which was published in 1816 and was intended to describe the capital to Europeans (Johnston 2006). In this narrative, Warden recounts what General John Mason of Analostan Island, George Mason’s son, told him about Yarrow on a visit to Georgetown in 1811. According to Mason, Yarrow had acquired a savings of $100, which he gave to a merchant for safe keeping. Yarrow’s savings were lost for the first time when the merchant died insolvent. Despite being in this mid-seventies, Yarrow returned to work, laboring for fixed wages by day and weaving nets and baskets to sell by night. After saving another $100, Yarrow gave the money to another merchant with the same result after the merchant went bankrupt (Johnston 2012: 75). Returning to work a third time and saving $200, Yarrow took the advice of a friend and purchased shares at the Columbia (Bank of Georgetown) in his name. The interest from savings allowed him to live out the remainder of his life comfortably (Johnston 2012: 76).
Yarrow met Charles Wilson Peale in 1819 during Peale’s visit to the city to paint President James Monroe for the collection of presidential portraits at Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia. During his time with Yarrow, Peale recorded his interaction with Yarrow in his diary (Johnston 2012: 92). Johnston speculates that Peale was interested in Yarrow for two reasons. The first is that Yarrow was rumored to be 140 years old and Peale, who had studied longevity and at one time believed that humans could live to be 200, decided that he needed to meet this person who could prove his theory was true (Johnston 2006). Though Peale later revised his estimation of Yarrow’s age, it was still 53 years too old for Yarrow, who was 83 at the time of Peale’s painting. The second reason Johnston speculates that Peale was interested in Yarrow is that, Peale who had once owned slaves and had come to oppose slavery, may have been hoping for an opportunity to paint a prosperous African American to make a point about racial equality (Johnston 2006). Three years after sitting for Peale’s painting, Yarrow sat once again for a portrait, this time for local artist James Alexander Simpson. This is the portrait that hangs in the Peabody Room of the Georgetown Public Library. Peale’s painting hangs in Atwater Kent Museum in Philadelphia and depicts a somewhat younger, livelier Yarrow (Johnston 2006).
Yarrow Mamout died on January 19th, 1823. Hearing of Yarrow’s death, Peale wrote Yarrow’s obituary and sent it to newspapers, including the Gettysburg Complier. The obituary reads:
Died—at Georgetown on the 19th ultimo, Negro Yarrow, aged (according to [Peale’s] account 136 years. He was interred in the corner of his garden, the spot where he usually resorted to pray...it is known to all that knew him, that he was industrious, honest, and moral—in the early part of his life he met with several losses by loaning money, which he never got, but he preserved in industry and economy, and accumulated some Bank stock and a house and lot, on which he lived comfortably in his old age—Yarrow was never known to eat of swine, nor drunk ardent spirits.” (Johnston 2006).
Following Yarrow’s death, tax records indicate that the property at 3324 Dent Place passed to his heirs. Aquilla or another heir continued paying taxes on the property until 1832, the same year that Aquilla died (Johnston 2012:130). The property stayed in Aquilla’s name until 1838, when the city of Georgetown auctioned it off to recovered unpaid taxes of $100 (Johnston 2006). In 1843, Nancy Hillman of Frederick, Maryland, filed a lawsuit in the District to collect an unpaid loan that Yarrow made to a merchant in 1821 to help buy a two story brick dwelling and store house with extensive back buildings on what is now Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown (Johnston 2006). Hillman claimed to be Yarrow’s niece and his only surviving heir and in 1850 she was awarded $451 in unpaid principal and interest on the loan. A year later she died with no heirs—a copy of her will which was filed with the Frederick County probate court indicates that her entire estate was left to two lawyers (Johnston 2006).
A Possible Burial?
In 2012, Dr. Ruth Trocolli, the City Archaeologist for the District of Columbia, was notified by James Johnston, a lawyer from Bethesda, Maryland who authored From Slave Ship to Harvard, that Yarrow's body was buried in his back yard. Since then she, the Historic Preservation Office and Howard University have decided to establish a partnership to conduct archaeological investigations on the property despite a lack of resources and a clear legal mandate to conduct investigations on private property. As of yet, archaeological investigations have not begun, though there is hope that they will begin before the property is sold and development begins.
2012 From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family. New York: Fordham University Press.
2006 Mamout Yarrow: The Man in the Knit Cap. Washington Post 5 February: W16. Washington, D.C.
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