This post is part of the Trask 250 series which documents the lives of more than 250 formerly enslaved of the Trask and Ventress families of Louisiana and Mississippi. It’s also available as a podcast.

May 10, 1839 was Eliza Lawrence Trask’s wedding day in New York City. Her father, Israel Elliot Trask, was not there to walk her down the aisle or to celebrate, dying four years earlier in their native Springfield, Massachusetts. A range of thoughts and emotions likely crossed her mind. Moving across the threshold meant more than just participating in a holy sacrament of Christianity or a name change. It also meant that her legacy, and that of her soon to be husband, John Gallison Tappan, were forever tied to a level of duality and contradictions that Americans experience to this day. 

Just as the honeymoon vibes had settled in, on July 2, 1839 members of the Mende of Sierra Leone refused captivity and actively rebelled against enslavement aboard the Amistad. Their legal defense was organized in part by Eliza’s new uncle in law, Lewis Tappan. Six years prior, the same Uncle Lewis, his brother, Arthur Tappan, and Theodore Dwight Weld formed the American Anti-Slavery Society whose sole goal was the “entire abolition of slavery in the United States.” Eliza’s new Tappan family were on the front lines of abolitionism, even harboring fugitive slaves like Anna Maria Weems whose descendants, along with a grandson of Lewis Tappan, were featured in the recent Ancestry and Sundance TV film, Railroad Ties.

But, there was a certain type of life Eliza knew. Her childhood was spent straddling two distinct existences: one in a bastion of liberalism, abolitionism, free people of color, and active stops on the Underground Railroad in Western Massachusetts, the other displaying the spoils of wealth and opulence funded by the legal but morally oxymoronic toil of enslaved people in Wilkinson County, Mississippi. Like an ardent supporter of President Trump’s Mexican border wall who actively buys produce from businesses that employ undocumented immigrants or an opponent of mass incarceration whose 401K is skyrocketing thanks to investments in for-profit prisons, Eliza’s world was really but a living example of the contradiction that is the foundation of the country she lived in…the United States.

Publication of the marriage of John Gallison Tappan and Eliza Lawrence Trask. New York Daily Herald (New York, NY), May 10, 1839, page 3.

Abolition Actually Married Slavery

The nuptials joining the Tappans and the Trasks was like taking sledgehammer to each family’s cornerstone principles encased in glass, fortified by anti-slavery on one side and support and active participation in the institution on the other.

Arthur Tappan, 1786 – 1865.
Source: Library of Congress
Lewis Tappan, 1788–1873.
Source: National Park Service
A broadside created by the American Anti-Slavery Society condemning the sale and keeping of slaves in the District of Columbia.
Source: Library of Congress

Four months before her marriage to John Gallison Tappan, Eliza, while living in the North in New York City, lent today’s equivalent of $400,000 to her uncle James. James Lawrence Trask secured the debt with land and the personhood of 198 enslaved people, the Trask 250. James had secured an additional loan amounting to more than $280,000 in current value from his sister in law and Eliza’s mother, Elizabeth, on the same day He used the same land and personhood of those 198 people as collateral. Eliza and her mother Elizabeth were set to earn 7% interest on their investment, but if James defaulted, they would stand to claim dominion over more than 4,000 acres and those same 198 enslaved people, my ancestors.

The reality of the situation is jarring now. Why would New Englanders finance slavery? The thought completely goes against what popular culture says about the north’s role in slavery. Northern states were the first to abolish slavery, and like to hang their hat on that even today, but most times the emancipation of their formerly enslaved was not immediate and the necessary change in culture following abolition was not instant.

Eliza Lawrence Trask Tappan, 1813-1894.
Source: American Antiquarian Society

January 1, 1839: James Lawrence Trask of Wilkinson, MS obtains a loan from his niece, Eliza L. Trask, of New York, NY, in the amount of $17,000, due in 4 notes with 7% interest. As collateral, James put up LaGrange Plantation (4,100+ acres) and the lives of 198 enslaved people. Source: FamilySearch. Wilkinson County, MS Deed Book L, pages 413-415.

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It’s Just Business

The Trasks furrow into the system of slavery started with Eliza’s father Israel. Historical accounts say that he was advised by Alexander Hamilton to head down to the Mississippi and Louisiana Territory to practice law. Israel followed that advice and was allegedly the first American to practice the vocation in New Orleans. By 1811, he had amassed land holdings of over 1,000 acres dispersed between St. James Parish in Louisiana and Adams and Wilkinson Counties in Mississippi. His holdings also included more than 25 enslaved people, my ancestors. Later, his brothers James, William, and Augustus ventured down to fortify the family’s plantation empire, expanding it to Concordia and Feliciana Parishes in Louisiana. He and his family would spend a portion of their year in Massachusetts and the other down in Mississippi. By 1822, Israel was out of the slavery business, but only after amassing more than 4,000 acres of land wealth and 150 enslaved people with an immeasurable amount of soul value to work those acres.  His removal from the business was only direct. Six years previous, he took over the Brimfield Cotton and Woolen Manufacturing Company. Not a soul has to wonder where a major source of his business came from.

Israel’s wife, Elizabeth Carter Trask, received household furniture, plates, horses and carriage provisions, firewood, hay and grain and the equivalent of more than $700,000 today upon his death in Massachusetts in 1835. She also received all real estate in Springfield which included the house they lived in valued at nearly $250,000 today and currently ran as the Elias Carter House, available to crash in for up to $225 a night. Their children Israel C., William E., Edward, Eliza, Sarah and their heirs received “the residue and remainder of [his] estate both real and personal;” held in trust until each child reached the age of 25, with interest paid to them annually. The most valuable yet insidious notation on Israel’s estate inventory was not the property listed, shares in the Ohio Life and Trust Company, or even the pews endowed at the First Parish of Springfield, a known abolitionist ministry, but what was hiding behind words written on two lines on a secondary page. Bare eyes see $140,000 in debt due to Israel by his brother James. But a true vetting and grit and grind genealogy research behind that debt, which is equivalent to $3.2 million today, shows that the money was used to maintain their family plantation empire. Israel had been directly out of the business for 13 years, but like the mafia or even the Rolling 60’s Crips he was never truly out. It was for life. The debt was property of Israel’s children, including Eliza, and proved to be the most lucrative part of the inheritance they received. In later years, their legacy accounts had ballooned to the equivalent of $640,000 today.

Israel Elliot Trask (1773-1835), father of Eliza Trask Tappan. Former slaveholder in Mississippi and Louisiana, lawyer and businessman in western Massachusetts, trustee of Amherst College.

Profile, care of History of Amherst College During It’s First Half Century, William Seymour Tyler, 1873

May 31, 1822: James Lawrence Trask, of Wilkinson, MS secures a bond for $140,000 due to his brother Israel E. Trask of Springfield, MA, due in 10 notes with 6% interest, fulfillment of repayment by 1832, collateral of LaGrange Plantation and 150 enslaved people. James did not paid back the loan by the time Israel died in 1835. This would have meant that the 150 enslaved would have become the property of Israel in any other circumstance.

Source: FamilySearch. Wilkinson County, MS Deed Book C, Pages 250-253

1836: Estate Inventory, Israel Elliot Trask, June 13, 1836, with a second page that notes the $140,000 debt of James Lawrence Trask. It’s equivalent to more than $3.2 million today.

Source: Hampden County, Massachusetts. Massachusetts, Wills and Probate Records, 1635-1991,

1849: Administrators account for the estate of Israel Trask notes several “legacy” accounts established for the children of the deceased living in the north, funded by slavery in the south. Notation of “Cash paid Mrs. Eliza L. Tappan balance of legacy, $1,752.72.” 

Source: Hampden County, Massachusetts. Massachusetts, Wills and Probate Records, 1635-1991,

Risky Business


It wasn’t always good though. Within a year of her marriage, John Gallison Tappan’s firm, Townsend and Tappan, had gone belly up and creditors were seeking their coins through the Suffolk County Massachusetts courts. A Harvard drop out, life member, and benefactor of the New England Historic and Genealogical Society, John’s businesses choices were risky. From rubber to cotton, he was your guy for whatever turned a profit, even from the cotton produced by the very people his Uncles Lewis and Arthur were trying to free. His picture is likely permanently stationed next to the definition of fail up.

Regina Shober Gray, a resident of Boston, recalled some of the misfortune that befell John, and thus Eliza, and their family in 1878:

“A terrible cable dispatch announces the defalcations of John G. Tappan of Boston as treasurer of some Belting mills; he has used a half million of the corporation’s money, & gives up all he has in the world to meet the liabilities, of course; but what is to become of his poor wife & his daughters, all accustomed to luxury & ample means; proud girls, too, to have such a blow fall on their heads, as the loss, not of money, that is a small thing in comparison, but of character & repute & honorable position for their father.”

John Gallison Tappan (1808-1876), husband of Eliza Trask Tappan, nephew of Lewis and Arthur Tappan, abolitionsts.

Eliza died on November 1, 1894 of old age and intestinal issues. She was 81 years old, had given birth to six children, and was the subject of lawsuits in conjunction with her husband due to debts he amassed as part of his Boston Belting Company business. Financial woes aside, it seems as if the consequences of the duality that Eliza and John lived continued to catch up with them once the free labor of the enslaved no longer abounded. Sure, the larger legacy of the Tappan family will always be remembered for the good works they did on behalf of those who had no voice, such as establishing Oberlin College in Ohio for both genders and races, and benevolence toward the cause and plight enslaved people, but the weight of being connected to the Trasks tips the scales toward a forced acceptance of nuance in the overall story. Unfortunately, nuance isn’t one of America’s strong suits.

1835: Will of Israel Elliot Trask, October 12, 1835, noting payment of $30,000 to his wife, Elizabeth Carter Trask. Further down, provision is set for his his children Israel Carter Trask, William Elliot Trask, Edward Trask, Elizabeth (Eliza) Lawrence Trask Tappan, Sarah Trask Onderdonk. 

Source: Hampden County, Massachusetts. Massachusetts, Wills and Probate Records, 1635-1991,

1894: Death record for Eliza Lawrence Trask Tappan in Brookline, MA, noting her parents, Israel Elliot Trask and Elizabeth Carter, and her husband, John Gallison Tappan. 

Source: Massachusetts, Death Records, 1841-1915,

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