Margaret Garner was born enslaved in about 1833 on the Maplewood plantation in Kentucky. Her desperate choice to kill her daughter rather than return her to slavery became the subject of Toni Morrison’s canonical text Beloved.
Margaret was a domestic servant inside the home of the plantation’s owner, John P. Gaines, and from her early childhood helped to care for his children. At the age of sixteen, Margaret married Robert Garner, who was enslaved on a neighboring plantation. Around the same time, Gaines was appointed governor of the Oregon Territories and sold the plantation—and its enslaved people—to his brother, Archibald Gaines.
Archibald Gaines is believed to have repeatedly raped Garner, possibly fathering three of the four children she bore over the next six years.
On January 27, 1856, Margaret, who was again pregnant, and Robert escaped with a group of families to southwest Ohio. The group crossed the frozen Ohio River and pursued different paths after reaching the free state. The Garners made it to the home of a free relative living outside Cincinnati. There, they were ambushed by US marshals and Archibald Gaines. Robert attempted to protect the family with a gun he had taken from his former slave owner, but was unsuccessful. During the altercation, Margaret attempted to kill all her children and herself rather than return to slavery. She only succeeded in killing her two-year-old daughter, Mary, before being captured and arrested.
The fugitive slave trial that followed pitted Ohio’s interest in treating Margaret and Robert as free people who could be tried for murder against the federal Fugitive Slave Act, under which they were considered property. The judge ordered Margaret and Robert returned to slavery in Kentucky as the property of Archibald Gaines. Authorities from Ohio continued to work to bring Margaret to Ohio and arrest her as part of a complex plan to secure her freedom, but Archibald Gaines moved Margaret from location to location to prevent them from finding her. In one of the moves, the Garner family was sent to Arkansas via riverboat. Their boat collided with another boat and Margaret’s youngest child, the baby Priscilla, drowned in the accident.
Margaret died of typhoid fever in 1858.
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