Maria was probably born in 1789, as that is the year she was baptized in the Lutheran (colored) mission congregation in Christiansted on St. Croix. It is unclear who her mother and father were, but given that she was still an enslaved laborer at that time and was classified as “mulatto”, she was probably the daughter of an enslaved woman and a free white man.
Maria’s surname, Yard, can perhaps provide a hint of who her father was. When enslaved laborers bought their freedom or were given their freedom, they often took their former master’s surname – or their father’s surname, if the father was a free man. In Christiansted around the time when Maria was born, there were two men in the Yard family who both may have been her father. They were Benjamin Yard and his nephew James Yard, who both came originally from New Jersey.
Certificate of manumission
On May 23, 1800, Maria received her certificate of manumission and with that her freedom, from Governor-General Lindeman. It is unknown who paid for the manumission. Some years later, in 1804, Maria had established a connection to a person who would be important for the rest of her life, namely, the judge in Christiansted, Johannes Woldbye Mouritzen (1772-1839). At that time, Maria lived on a property owned by Mouritzen, along with the five enslaved laborers she already owned at that time: a woman, a boy and three girls under the age of 12.
In the following years, Maria gradually expanded her businesses. They consisted of three parts. First, she was a seamstress, second, she was a slave owner, and third, she rented out properties. The enslaved laborers worked for her in cottage industries, for example, as a seamstress, or as a seller at the market, or they were rented out as servants or craftsmen. The tenants on her properties were often also craftsmen, free coloreds or whites, and her enslaved laborers often worked in the house with the tenants.
Maria the “Housekeeper”
The properties Maria lived in and rented out often had a connection to Johannes Mouritzen. In 1839, Johannes died, but from his will from the previous year it appears that Maria was his housekeeper and that he left her the properties numbered 1, 2 and 3 on Fisher Street, along with a considerable annual pension of 1100 rigsdaler. The title of “Housekeeper” and the large inheritance could indicate that Maria and Johannes’s relationship involved more than just business. Johannes was unmarried, and it was common in the Danish West Indies that unmarried white men lived in a marriage-like relationship with a free colored woman, who was officially their “housekeeper”.
Status among the free coloreds
Maria was a respected person in the free colored community in Christiansted. That is evident, for example, from the church registers for the Lutheran congregation. Several persons from the elite among the free coloreds acted as godparents for enslaved children owned by Maria. Maria was also herself a godmother for children of the free colored elite, and she donated money to the congregation. Both of these reflect the status which she must have had in the congregation and in the free colored community in general.
On September 12, 1851, Maria Elizabeth Yard died. Perhaps she lost a large portion of her livelihood, when her enslaved laborers, like all others, gained their freedom in 1848. But during her life she managed to break through as a successful, free colored businesswoman.
Elizabeth Rezende, Cultural Identity of the Free Colored in Christiansted, St. Croix, Danish West Indies 1800-1848. PhD thesis, University of the Virgin Islands, 1997.
Svend E. Holsoe, Virgin Islands Families: Yard. www.vifamilies.org/images/Yard.doc (accessed December 3, 2014).