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William O'Neal, 1827-1907
Life and History of William O'Neal, or, The Man Who Sold His Wife
St. Louis, Mo.: A.R. Fleming, 1896.


According to his Life and History, William O'Neal (1827-1907) was born in Woodville, Mississippi, the property of a planter named Alec Gray. In 1828, three-month-old O'Neal and his mother were sold to a Mr. Scott, who owned a plantation in Rapides Parish, Louisiana. Eight years later, O'Neal and his mother were purchased by Alonzo Roberts of Cheneyville, Louisiana, where they worked in the Roberts household as servants. As an adult, O'Neal was hired out to nearby planters and manufacturers, working such varied jobs as engineering the construction of a "sugar-house," or processing facility, farming sugar cane and cotton, and also barrel-making (p. 27). In 1850, O'Neal married an enslaved woman named Ellen. When Ellen's mistress died, O'Neal purchased her freedom. A short time later O'Neal's master offered him the chance to buy his freedom, and O'Neal—after ensuring that the purchaser would resell his wife to him for the same sum—sold his wife back into slavery to raise the funds for his own purchase. Ellen's purchaser, Mrs. Johnson, kept her word and she was eventually freed at the end of the Civil War. After Emancipation, O'Neal and his wife remained in Louisiana, and he became a successful farmer, merchant, and property owner.

Although William O'Neal is listed as the official author, the Life and History appears to be a biography written by an anonymous third person. Although the name of the actual writer is not listed, textual details indicate that O'Neal's story was told to another and then reproduced as a novelized biography. Not only does the narrative refer to O'Neal in the third person throughout the Life and History, but it quotes him at times and suggests that it will "use his own words" to relate particular incidents (p. 34). Such details suggest that an individual interviewed O'Neal and wrote his life story, adding many of the literary references and fictional conventions found in the text. Scholar Sue Lyles Eakin discovered an incomplete, unpublished version of O'Neal's book that was originally titled the Life of Robert Whitman. In her 1988 Introduction to the Life and History, she argues that a white woman of the planter class named Annie Grace Burges was O'Neal's biographer and that he paid her twenty-five dollars to write the narrative on his behalf.

Life and History begins by introducing the child O’Neal and his mother and describing the circumstances that lead to their purchase by Mr. Scott. It then skips over O’Neal’s childhood and resumes when Mr. Scott sells him and his mother to a Mr. Roberts. It continues by describing O’Neal’s experiences in the Roberts household, which keeps only two servants. O’Neal’s mother serves as a cook, and O’Neal himself is an errand boy until he grows old enough to become a manservant. The Life and History indicates that he generally receives kind treatment from the Roberts family. Although the text offers no descriptions of violence, O’Neal desires his freedom and resolves to run away. He asks a neighboring slave named Russ to escape with him, but Russ ultimately fails to follow through, and O’Neal abandons his plans.

After the narrative introduces the child O'Neal and his mother and describes the circumstances through which they are purchased by Mr. Scott, it quickly passes over O'Neal's childhood until they are sold by Mr. Scott to a Mr. Roberts. The narrative does spend significant time describing O'Neal's experience in the small Roberts household, which keeps only two servants. O'Neal's mother serves as a cook, and O'Neal himself is an errand boy until he grows old enough to become a manservant. The Life and History indicates that he generally receives kind treatment by the Roberts family and offers no descriptions of violence on their part, but O'Neal desires his freedom nevertheless. O'Neal resolves to run away and solicits a neighboring slave named Russ to escape with him. However, Russ ultimately fails to follow through, and O'Neal abandons his escape attempts.

In the spring of 1848, O'Neal is hired out to a sugar planter named Dr. Hawkins to help build a sugar house. This labor brings him into contact with northern workers who convince him that "he must work out his own freedom, if ever he is to be free" (p. 27). Although it is difficult to find opportunities to save money, because all of his time and work belong to his master, O'Neal is determined to find a way. He continues to be hired out for sugar house construction projects and gradually acquires a reputation for engineering expertise among the area planters. Yet after he is hired out to his master's brother-in-law, Mr. Cook, he is returned to work in the fields. Still aspiring to save money and purchase his freedom, O'Neal trades his pony to Cook in exchange for lessons on how to be a cooper (or barrel maker). This arrangement enables O’Neal to become a successful cooper and earn the money he needs to buy his freedom. It is during this period that O’Neal meets Ellen, the woman who becomes his wife, and the “summer and fall passed away in love-making and working at the cooper's trade” (p. 33).

After O'Neal spends several years managing the largest cooperage in Bayou Boeuf, Ellen's owner dies. O'Neal fears separation, but Mr. Roberts agrees to purchase Ellen to keep them together. However, O'Neal is so afraid that Ellen might be sold away, he approaches a friend to loan him the money to free her. In the fall of the same year, O'Neal is unexpectedly offered the opportunity to purchase himself. In order to raise the funds, O'Neal sells his wife back into slavery after selecting a purchaser for her "from whom he could purchase her at any time he could raise the money" (p. 37). It is this circumstance which likely made his story famous. The narrative provides neither censure nor insight into this turn of events: "It can readily be seen that Ellen had unbounded confidence in her husband, else she would never have consented to this arrangement, which placed her in the power of another owner besides the man whom she loved and admired above all others" (p. 38).

O'Neal is thus able to procure his own freedom, though he pays nine-hundred dollars more than the agreed-upon price after his master cheats him. Ellen returns to slavery, working for a Mrs. Johnson who appears to treat her well. In fact, when O'Neal goes off to serve in the Civil War, "Ellen and Mrs. Johnson being such close friends, he left her with Mrs. Johnson until after the surrender. Afterwards he proved his gratitude by sending one of Mrs. Johnson's sons to school" (p. 42). After the Civil War, O'Neal overcomes betrayal by whites who cheat him out of land and money to become a successful landowner and businessman. With Ellen at his side, O'Neal "has amassed a considerable fortune in all these years, and numbers among his customers both white and colored. No man stands higher in reputation for integrity and fair dealing than William O'Neal" (p. 53).

Works Consulted: Eakin, Sue Lyles, Introduction, The Life and History of William O'Neal, The Man Who Sold His Wife by William O'Neal, Bossier City, LA: Everett Companies, 1988, 1-42.

Jenn Williamson

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