Last updated: January 31, 2021
Old Bob was an enslaved man who lived at White Haven, the childhood home of First Lady Julia Dent Grant.
Frederick F. Dent, Julia Dent Grant's father, was born (1786) and raised in Cumberland, Maryland. He grew up in a wealthy family that owned enslaved African Americans. Dent became a propserous merchant and trader, and although he was living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the 1810s (a place where slavery had been abolished in 1780), he apparently owned two enslaved African Americans when he decided to move his family from Pittsburgh to St. Louis, Missouri around 1819. Discussing her family's move to St. Louis in her Personal Memoirs, Juia Dent Grant recalled that "they had a flotilla of three rafts made of huge logs fastened together with chains; on each of these rafts were erected snug little frame cabins of two or more rooms . . . the party consisted of papa, mamma, baby John, Mr. Edward Tracy, a friend of father's, also two indentured slaves, Hester and Bob, with men for handling the rafts, etc." There is a possibility Old Bob was born in Maryland and traveled with Frederick Dent to Pittsburgh and eventually St. Louis, where the Dent family purchased the White Haven estate in 1820.
Old Bob's life at White Haven was marked by hard outdoor labor but also music and a deep spirituality. Continuing in her Personal Memoirs, Julia Dent Grant remarked that "Dear old Bob, who sometimes was either frightened or more likely had his dear old tender heart touched by some special kindness, would 'get religion,' as his companions said. He would go away down in the meadow by the big walnut trees nearly half a mile off and pray and sign so we could hear him distnctly on our piazza [at White Haven]. He would give out the hymn, two lines at a time, and then sing it all by himself. How pathetic it all was. I think old Bob went to Heaven.
"It was Bob's business to build the fires for the house, and as this was long before matches came into use, he often, when he was careless and let his fires go out, had to ignite his fires with a flint and a piece of punk, something taken from decayed wood, or else he would have to walk a mile to some neighbors and bring home a brand of fire from their backlog."
While Julia Dent Grant interpreted Old Bob's movements on and off the White Haven property as "carelessness," one can see how Old Bob may have used the story of his flint or punk dying out as an excuse to have greater freedom of movement and to remove the Dent family's gaze from his every movement. In walking through the woods while singing, Old Bob used the power of nature and the power spiritual hymns to find inner peace while living in a world dominated by the oppresiveness of slavery.
According to census records, Old Bob may have passed away, been sold, or otherwise left the White Haven property by 1840. According to that year's census, Frederick Dent did not own any enslaved men older than age 36. Likewise, the 1850 census indicates that the oldest enslaved man owned by Dent was age 35 and manumitted the previous year. Old Bob's presence at White Haven nevertheless serves as a reminder not just of the ways the Dent family built its wealth on the backs of enslaved laborers, but how enslaved people like Old Bob endured and made meaning of their lives despite their enslavement.