Moses Elias Williams: From enslaved laborer to master butcher and planter

The enslaved laborers gained their freedom in 1848, but for the bulk of them it did not mean that their living conditions improved. However, there was a small group that succeeded in fighting their way to wealth and status. Moses Elias Williams was one of those who succeeded, even though his fate became tragic.
The market square in Christiansted, St. Croix.
The market square in Christiansted, St. Croix. Postcard from around the year 1900. Maritime Museum of Denmark, file no. 000011334.

Moses was born a slave in November 1841 on the plantation Castle Nugent in the warm and dry district called East End A on St. Croix. His mother Catherine (Caty) was a enslaved laborer on the plantation and his father was probably the house slave Augustus Williams from the plantation Boetzberg, which was located a couple of kilometers north of Castle Nugent.

The fact that enslaved parents lived on different plantations was not uncommon, but in 1843 the family was separated in earnest. Moses was sold with his mother, siblings and grandmother to the plantation Blessing, which was located eight kilometers from Castle Nugent. At the time, the internal slave trade in the Danish West Indies was still legal, even though the importation of enslaved laborers from Africa was abolished in 1803.

Butcher in Christiansted

In 1848, Moses and his family at Blessing were emancipated like all other enslaved laborers, when Governor-General von Scholten declared all enslaved laborers in the Danish West Indies free. Now the question was, what would the family live off. But two years later, we find the family, now with father Augustus, in a house at Kompagnigaden (Company Street) no. 7 in Christiansted. At that time, Augustus worked in his former owner’s butcher shop in the town.

In 1855, father Augustus had become an independent butcher with his own shop at Østergade (East Street) no. 57. The family also lived in the building. Moreover, the building was owned by mother Catherine. In other words, things were apparently going well for the family. At that point in time, Moses presumably had already begun to assist in the shop, because five years later, as a nineteen year-old, he was registered as a butcher. And in 1865, age 24, Moses obtained certificate of citizenship as butcher in Christiansted.

Owner of Estate The Sight

In 1868, Moses purchased the estate The Sight, which was located in the same vicinity as Castle Nugent and Boetzberg and only about five kilometers east of Christiansted. The next year the now twenty-eight-year-old Moses married Lucretia Wilhelmina Stridiron. Lucretia was the daughter of a enslaved woman and a free colored man and was also born a slave on Cotton Valley, another of the plantations on the east end of St. Croix. Moses and Lucretia moved into The Sight and settled down with a cook, stable hand and fourteen workers to run the enterprise.

For a man with his own butcher shop, it was probably an economic strategy to ensure the deliveries of meat by purchasing an estate such as The Sight. At the time of taking over, the property produced a little cotton as well as cattle and sheep, but Moses converted the production to only cattle, sheep and goats. The sales of meat and hides must have provided a profit, for in the period 1878-1888 Moses bought up a number of properties in Christiansted.

The right to vote and witness regarding the rebellion in 1878

The blooming business and the rental income from the properties gave Moses an opportunity to expand his commercial interests. In 1881, he was given a trade license as a “detailhandler” (shopkeeper) and in 1884 as a “købmand” (merchant). The wealth also made him into one of the small handful of men who were entitled to vote in the elections for the Colonial Council, St. Croix’s highest authority.

Moses had become a respected local businessman and was called as a witness for the Danish commission that investigated the worker rebellion in 1878 also known as the Fireburn. As a response to the commission’s questions, he proposed, among other things, repealing the hated labor law of 1849. But he also recommended a tightening of the vagrancy legislation and recommended the importation of Chinese laborers.

Deaths and suicide

Despite wealth and success, however, all was not pure happiness in Moses’ life. His wife Lucretia died a mere seven years after they were married, and some months later their only daughter also died, at just two years of age. After a few years as a widower, Moses remarried with Mary Carmelita Marsan, who was born free but whose grandmother had been a slave.

But the unhappiness returned. After five births, from which two children survived, Carmelita died in childbirth after the last birth in May 1889. Apparently it was a devastating blow for Moses. He never married again, and his business and cattle herd wasted away. In 1894, he sold his estate.

On February 9, 1895, one could read in the newspaper St. Croix Avis that the well-known butcher and owner of The Sight, Moses E. Williams, had shot himself in his home on Company Street in Christiansted. The motive was and is still unknown, but it cannot have been financial difficulties, because there were sizable amounts to obtain for the heirs.

Moses broke the mold

Whatever the reason for Moses’s suicide was, he became in his life one of the pioneers for the Afro-Caribbean population in the Danish West Indies. Through hard work and a sense for business, he broke through the strong barriers between classes and races that still existed in the colony long after the abolition of slavery.


This article is based on: George F. Tyson, “Reaping the Whirlwind: Ex-Slave Planters in Post-emancipations St. Croix, Danish West Indies.” In Arnold R. Highfield and George F. Tyson (eds.), Negotiating Enslavement: Perspectives on Slavery in the Danish West Indies. St. Croix: Antilles Press, 2009. pp. 95-118.

Kongensgade i Christansted, St. Croix.
Kongensgade (King Street) in Christansted, St. Croix. Postcard from around the year 1900. Maritime Museum of Denmark, file no. 000027276