Thornton Blackburn

Born into Slavery: An Uncertain Beginning

Image 1.1 Maysville, Kentucky, 1821.

Childhood and Slavery

Thornton was born around 1812 into a society where he had limited control over his own life. He was the third son of Sibby Blackburn, a slave who had lost her first child around 1806 to an unknown illness and her second son in 1812 after he was sold at age eleven.

Thornton was said to have fair skin and light eyes and was described as a “yellow boy” (Smardz Frost, 2007; 30). Although this mixed race heritage was acknowledged by his owners, Thornton was perceived as a Black slave due to the prevalence of the one drop rule (Davies, 1991; 4). The strict codification of racial identity in American society meant that Thornton was perceived as Black and could be visibly identified as a slave.

Although Thornton’s father cannot be positively identified, he was likely Sibby’s owner, Robert Smith.

Image 1.2 Route from Maysville to Louisville.

No Choice of Home

Thornton’s early life was characterized by movement at the behest of others; he could be bought or sold at any moment. Constant movement without his consent was a reality from a very early age. At age three he was sold to George Morton and presented as a gift to Morton’s grandson, George Morton Murphy. Thornton was moved to Washington, Kentucky and was taught how to care for horses and drive carriages at the Murphy household (Smardz Frost 2007; 30). Shortly after his owner’s death in 1824, Thornton was sold to Dr. Gideon Brown in Hardinsburg, Indiana.

Thornton did not have a say in the type of work he had to do. Although his living conditions in Kentucky were different than those on a southern plantation (Coleman, 1940; xii), Thornton’s work and daily schedule were fully controlled by slaveholders.


How does Thornton’s story differ from the other stories in this exhibit? For example, how does Thorton’s position as a slave differ from Peter’s experiences as a child?

A social and legal principle which, during the 19th century in the United States, ruled that any person with even one African ancestor could be considered “Black” and could be enslaved.


 Part 1

 Part 7

 Part 2

 Part 3

 Part 4

 Part 5

 Part 6