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Harriet Jacobs’ narrative mentions no dates or real names (she wished to protect the identities of those who helped her escape) but it is peppered with numerous references to her age.
We learn what she was doing when she was six, nearly 12, 14, 15, in her 16th year, 19, 21, and 27.
If that seems irregular to us today, what did the Horniblow heirs think of it?
Not much, it appears, judging by the fact that they contested the disposition of Jacobs and her family members for at least another eight years.
This tool calculates birth date from the age of death and the date of death on the tombstone, death certificate or obituary.
In the article that follows British Columbian historian and documentary editor, Mary Maillard, explores the controversy surrounding the precise birthdate of slave narrative author, Harriet Jacobs, and reminds us why precision matters.
The most compelling evidence that Harriet Jacobs was born in 1815 comes from Jacobs herself.
She says in her preface to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, “I remained in a Slave State twenty-seven years.” Jacobs fled North Carolina in June, 1842.
Her obituary notice in the Boston Herald corroborates an 1815 birth.
It is doubtful that Jacobs would have gone to the Norcom household before the will was proved.
The codicil that bequeathed Jacobs to the Norcom girl was not signed by Margaret Horniblow.
Arguments have been made that since there was little or inadequate documentation of slave births in the antebellum South, Harriet Jacobs did not know when she was born.
Perhaps, but a lack of available documents today does not necessarily mean a lack of personal knowledge then.
Louisa Jacobs lived with her mother for at least thirty of her adult years and she was with her during the winter of 1853-1854, when Jacobs began writing her book.