Famous Families


I first heard of Robert Stafford from Ken Thomas in the State Preservation Office in Georgia. Stafford was a successful white planter whose Cumberland estate was one of the largest in the Georgia sea islands.

It was here on Cumberland Island about a century ago that a most fascinating account of an interracial relationship took place when Stafford began a liaison with his slave.

Scandalized and affronted by the affection he showered on this woman and by the wife-like position she openly maintained in his home, his neighbors forced him to have her removed from the vicinity. He brought her and their six children to New England where he built them one of the most imposing residences in the area. Although reared with all the upper class amenities available at the time, this family never exactly "passed". Either because they were too dark or because their wealth and their father's connections would have made it too difficult to claim Mediterranean or Native American ancestry, for instance, they registered themselves as "mulatto", a designation then accepted for anyone of color who was not predominantly black.

Besides being well educated, it would appear that by adolescence they had become the center of social life of the community. From what has been gathered, the four accomplished young women of the household entertained quite extensively, not only over dinner but with the type of musical soirees and amateur theatricals that appealed to a more sophisticated class. Indeed, the eldest married a member of the legislature and when that marriage failed took as her next husband a Yale educated doctor. Due to the death of her first husband, the second was also wed twice. Both men were fairly well known artists of the time. The third sister married a naval captain who seems to have enjoyed a certain amount of prominence in New York political circles. The youngest, however, far outdid her sisters socially. She became a countess. Having moved to London, she met and married a nobleman who was then a member of the Russian diplomatic corps residing there.

The history and archeology of the plantation and the legal and economic precautions Stafford took to protect the family he sired with his common law slave wife, are the subjects of serious academic studies. Within the last few years, three books have already been published. The third, printed privately, was picked up by a university press and re-released last year.

Besides all the information and memorabilia on this family that is still being uncovered, the sole scholar of the Stafford saga is herself an interesting story. Mary Bullard is a voluble and personable woman in her eighties. And how she came across the subject of her study is quite interesting. This interracial family received a certain amount of public attention in 1889 when a suit was brought in New York by a number of Stafford's grandchildren to recover 40,000 acres of his Cumberland plantation from Mrs. Andrew Carnegie. Despite their wholly white complexion and features, they were prepared to contest the realtors' ploy to use the grandmother's slave status to nullify their rights as heirs. In exactly what way, I have not yet found out, but it was Mr. Thomas who tipped me off that Ms. Mary Bullard is, in fact, a Carnegie.

Footnote: John F. Kennedy Jr. married Carolyn Besette on Cumberland Island in 1996. The story of Robert Stafford and his family might very well be familiar to both of them. For Ms. Bullard is a relative of the friend of Kennedy and Besette's who was their wedding hostess and organizer.....and a Carnegie too. Thus, their choice of the African Baptist chapel on Cumberland Island for their marriage takes on added interest.
Stafford Descendents:
The Staffords were honest about how they perceived themselves racially, and they were just as punctillious when it came to choosing marriage partners. Of the four that survived, three married white men of the same upper-class social circles to which they themselves belonged in Connecticut.

Mary Elizabeth
m. 1. Frederick A. Palmer, a mortgage broker &
(1838-1879)member of the South Carolina legislature
m. 2. Dr. Charles H. Gaylord, Yale 1868 & 1871

m. l. Benjamin Brady, a celebrated NY calligrapher
m. 2. Frederick W. Engels, a well known NY artist

m. Francis W. Vosburgh, NY (1853-1891)

m. Count Charles Cybulski, Russian diplomat

Somewhat reminiscent of the distinct black and white lines of the Van Salee descent, another family Robert Stafford appears to have originated (after he had settled the first in Connecticut) and has only just come to light within the last year, is one in which a granddaughter became the first woman MD to graduate from Howard.

Researched and Written by Mario de Valdes y Cocom

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