Julia Chinn

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Julia Chinn
Caricature of Julia Chinn.tif
Caricature of Julia Chinn, which over-emphasizes her African heritage – excerpted from 'An affecting scene in Kentucky' (see below)
Bornc. 1790
DiedJuly 1833 (aged 36–43)
OccupationPlantation manager; wife
Spouse(s)Richard Mentor Johnson

Julia Chinn (c. 1790 – July 1833) was an American plantation manager and enslaved woman of mixed-race (an "octoroon" of seven-eighths European and one-eighth African in ancestry), who was also the common-law wife of the ninth vice-president of the United States of America, Richard Mentor Johnson.

Early life[edit]

Chinn was born enslaved in Scott County, Kentucky. Her exact date of birth is unknown, according to historian Amrita Myers, yet Johnson family lore places it in the year 1790. However Myers also records that "ex-slaves of the Johnsons say that Julia was only fifteen or sixteen when her first daughter was born." This would make her birth year 1796 or 1797.[1] However, it is recognized that she was raised and educated at the home of her enslaver, Richard Mentor Johnson, by his mother, Jemima Suggett Johnson.[2] According to historian Christina Snyder, local oral tradition maintained that her mother was called Henrietta and was also enslaved by the Johnson family.[3]

Little is known about Chinn's life in the household, but by 1811 she and Johnson were in a sexual relationship.[3] Chinn's personal views have not survived in the historical record, but it was not uncommon for enslavers to coerce enslaved women into sexual relationships at the time.[4] In 2021, the Washington Post wrote on the matter: "as an enslaved woman, Chinn could not consent to a relationship".[4] Their first daughter, Adaline Chinn Johnson, was born in 1812, and a few years later, their second daughter, Imogene Chinn Johnson, was born.[3] Under law at the time, interracial marriage was banned and Johnson was under no obligation to acknowledge responsibility for his and Chinn's children. Nevertheless, he insisted his daughters take his name.[3] He also insisted they were educated at the Chocktaw Academy he established.[4] In 1815, Johnson's father died and he legally inherited Chinn, whom he outwardly, and unusually for the period, treated as his wife.[3]

Blue Spring Farm[edit]

Johnson represented Kentucky in the House of Representatives, which meant many absences from his home and the businesses on his property. While he was away Chinn was in charge, not just of the household, but of the wider plantation.[2] She managed all the business affairs and the workers on the property were to obey her—a highly unusual act since she was an enslaved woman—on Johnson's orders.[3] Letters from Johnson show that he instructed his white employees to obey Chinn too.[5]

It is clear that while Johnson was the owner of Blue Springs plantation, it was Chinn who was in charge of its administration.[1] This included overseeing the enslaved laborers, supervising the house and garden, the tavern on their farm, the mills, as well as planning entertainment and hospitality, which was part of her husband's political life and ensuring the education of their children.[1][3] She reportedly played the piano very well.[6]

Chinn was also responsible for the budgets and credit lines of the estate and essentially worked as Johnson's estate manager, as well as his wife.[3] She was recognized as an authorized user of his accounts, establishing lines of credit to pay for goods in his name.[3] She was also responsible for the cash which Johnson withdrew before leaving for Washington for his political career each year. This money was used to pay white workers in the estate, including teachers at the Chocktaw Academy.[3] As an enslaved woman, this cash relationship in particular, connected her to the world of commerce in ways which were unusual for someone of her gender and background at the time.[3] In her role as plantation manager, Chinn was able to improve the lives of her extended family too: her brother Daniel and his sons worked in the house.[3] Nevertheless their safety could not be guaranteed and in 1821 Johnson mortgaged Daniel and his wife, to raise money to pay debts.[3]

However, not everyone on the plantation welcomed Chinn's supervision: when she was in charge many of the male enslaved field hands skipped work or refused their tasks. She requested that male neighbors whip the resistive men, but none would agree to.[3]

Chocktaw Academy[edit]

In 1825, Johnson opened a school for Native American boys, which was located on their Blue Springs property.[5] Chinn handled the management of the school and the payment of its teachers whilst Johnson was away, and she also acted as its nurse. The paying Native American students did not respect Chinn since she reported on their behavior to Johnson and the school teachers.[3]

Later life[edit]

In 1833, there was a cholera outbreak at the Choctaw Academy, part of a regional cholera epidemic. Chinn nursed many of the boys and eventually contracted the disease herself. She died in July 1833.[1][5] The whereabouts of her grave are unknown.[7] After Chinn's death, their daughters—as the children of an enslaved woman—were technically also her husband's slaves. However, although he never liberated Chinn, he did free their surviving daughter.[5]


'An affecting scene in Kentucky' – racist cartoon by Henry R. Robinson depicting Johnson, Chinn and their daughters. The women's racial characteristics are over-emphasized.

During her lifetime, Chinn worked hard to act appropriately for the wife of a politician. When the Marquis de Lafayette visited the plantation, Chinn helped organize entertainment in his honor, both at the farm and throughout the county. This entailed a high degree of organization, both of the property she was responsible for, as well as the management of relations with white political society in the neighborhood.[3]

However, Johnson's Senate career was ended in 1828 as he was not re-elected to his Kentucky seat. This was in part due to his relationship with Chinn, which it was feared would damage by association the reputation of the future president, Andrew Jackson, with whom Johnson hoped to run. While interracial sex was common, interracial relationships were expected to be hidden—something which Johnson refused to do.[2]

After Chinn's death, Johnson ran once again for the vice-presidency and was elected, alongside the eighth president, Martin Van Buren. However, during the campaign numerous cartoons and broadsides were published which disparaged Johnson because of the relationship he had with Chinn and their two daughters.[5][8] In one cartoon, dated to 1836, Johnson features with both daughters one of whom holds a picture of Chinn and one of the captions reads: "When I read the scurrilous attacks in the Newspapers on the Mother of my Children, pardon me, my friends if I give way to feelings!!! My dear Girls, bring me your Mother's picture, that I may show it to my friends here."[8] In the cartoon, Chinn and her daughters' black skin is enhanced; since Chinn herself reportedly had only one black great-grandparent, it is likely her skin was much paler than pictured.[3] Likewise, her 'otherness' is emphasized as she is pictured wearing a turban.[8]


There are no records remaining that were written by Chinn or her two daughters. Historian Amrita Myers believes that Johnson's brothers destroyed much of his archive after his death for two reasons: the first, so that they might disinherit his daughters whom he named as beneficiaries in his will; secondly, that they were ashamed of his relationship with Chinn.[7]

In 2020, discussion was raised in Johnson County in Iowa, as to whether the county should be re-named, removing its association with Richard Mentor Johnson. The reasons given included Johnson's killing of Native Americans and his enslavement of many people, including Chinn.[9]


Chinn and her husband Richard Mentor Johnson are the subject of the novel, Great Crossing, by Judalon de Bornay.[10]


  1. ^ a b c d Myers, Amrita Chakrabarti (March 1, 2020). "Disorderly Communion: Julia Chinn, Richard Mentor Johnson, and Life in an Interracial, Antebellum, Southern Church". The Journal of African American History. 105 (2): 213–241. doi:10.1086/707944. ISSN 1548-1867. S2CID 224833035.
  2. ^ a b c Maillard, Mary (February 3, 2014). "Julia Ann Chinn (ca.1790–1833)". Retrieved February 6, 2021.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Snyder, Christina (2017). Great Crossings: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in the Age of Jackson. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199399086.
  4. ^ a b c Shafer, Ronald G. "He became the nation's ninth Vice President. She was his enslaved wife". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Archived from the original on February 10, 2021. Retrieved February 8, 2021.
  5. ^ a b c d e "The Lost Story of Julia Chinn". KET. February 20, 2020. Archived from the original on February 10, 2021. Retrieved February 6, 2021.
  6. ^ Company, Johnson Publishing (1964). Black World/Negro Digest. Johnson Publishing Company. Archived from the original on February 10, 2021. Retrieved February 6, 2021.
  7. ^ a b Myers, Amrita (March 3, 2019). "The Erasure and Resurrection of Julia Chinn, U.S. Vice President Richard M. Johnson's Black Wife". Association of Black Women Historians. Archived from the original on February 10, 2021. Retrieved February 6, 2021.
  8. ^ a b c Robinson, Henry R. (1836). "An affecting scene in Kentucky". www.loc.gov. Archived from the original on February 10, 2021. Retrieved February 6, 2021.
  9. ^ "PolitiFact – Fact-checking the history on Iowa county's namesake". @politifact. Archived from the original on February 10, 2021. Retrieved February 6, 2021.
  10. ^ de Bornay, Judalon (2021). Great Crossing. Judalon de Bornay. ISBN 9798201821166.

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