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The Lost Story of Julia Chinn

Julia Chinn had a major impact on politics in Kentucky and America in the 1800s, but few people will recognize her name or the role she played.

“She’s literally been erased,” says Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, Ruth N. Halls Associate Professor of History and Gender Studies at Indiana University. “We don’t even know where she’s buried. We’ve literally lost a vice president’s wife, but because she was enslaved, no one cared.”

Chinn was of mixed race, and had been owned by Col. Richard Mentor Johnson’s parents. When he left home, she went with him as his housekeeper, and was still enslaved.

“By 1811, Richard Mentor Johnson and Julia Chinn had started a relationship. Their first child was born shortly thereafter and they had another child a few years later,” says Christina Snyder, author and McCabe Green Professor of History at Penn State. “Interracial sex was common in antebellum America, but she would have had very little – if any – say in whether or not she wanted to take part. In other words, it might have been impossible for her to say no in that context, and that’s something that we need to remember when we’re thinking about the context of slavery.

“The thing that does make their relationship exceptional is that Richard Mentor Johnson did acknowledge the children that they had together as his children,” Snyder continues. “They took his last name. They inherited property from him and he liberated them. He never liberated Julia, and we don’t know why, exactly.”

While there are a lot of missing pieces to Chinn’s story, it is clear that she had a great deal of responsibility and authority over Johnson’s Scott County estate while he was away for most of the year for his duties as a congressman. Letters from the time show Johnson instructed his white employees to respect Chinn’s authority as the manager of his estate in his absence.

Chinn is credited with organizing an elaborate celebration in honor of Marquis de Lafayette, who visited Kentucky as part of his tour of the United States, visiting those he had served with during the American Revolution.

“It was a magnificent affair,” says Myers. “Her daughters are dressed to the nines, and they perform on the piano for Lafayette. And people talk about what an amazing job Julia does. She’s able to organize not just the domestic staff at Blue Spring, but she really helps to coordinate all the women throughout the county, because it takes everybody.”

Around 1825, Col. Johnson provided a structure on the Blue Springs property to serve as a school for Native American boys, which became known as Choctaw [sic] Academy.

“Julia and the household staff incur a huge burden of responsibility when Choctaw opens up,” says Myers. “They are responsible for the day-to-day running of the academy. She herself has great physician and nursing skills, so when the students fall sick, she’s the one who takes care of them.”

In 1833, there was a massive cholera outbreak, which eventually reached Choctaw Academy. As a primary caretaker and medical care provider for the students, Chinn was exposed to the disease and ultimately died from it.

As Johnson’s political profile rose, the history of his interracial relationship became fodder for his rivals.

“Racism becomes worse over time,” says Snyder. “The sectional divides in the decades leading up to the Civil War are becoming stronger, and so what we see over time, especially as Johnson becomes a national political candidate, is the politicization of that family relationship.”

“There are pamphlets and broadsides and cartoons denigrating her and denigrating her daughters,” says Myers. “They’re humiliating Richard and his family in order to make a mockery of their life together to try and make sure he and Martin Van Buren don’t get elected.”

Julia Chinn’s contributions to the history of the region, like those of many women and enslaved people, has been eclipsed by those of the men who took the public roles of the time. But historians are uncovering her story and helping to build a more complete picture of America during the early 1800s.

“She was a mother. She was a partner. She ran Choctaw Academy,” says Myers. “She was a nurse. She was a member of the church. She ran that plantation. She did so much and I just think it’s so important that we bring her back front and center to the story, because without her, none of these stories are complete.”

This segment is part of Kentucky Life season 25, episode 14, which originally aired on February 15, 2020. Watch the full episode.