Sallie Cleage

Woman looking out of door

For this year’s April A-Z Challenge I am blogging a series of sketches about the free people formerly enslaved on the Cleage plantations in Athens, Tennessee and their descendants. Click on any image to enlarge.

 The first thing I noticed about Sallie Cleage as I started writing about her life, were the wildly differing birth dates.  They ranged from 1817 to 1841. I believe the death record saying she was born about 1823 is closest to the truth.  If she was born in 1841, her oldest child would have been born when she was 4 years old.  If she was born in 1817, she would have been 103 when she died in 1914.

Sallie Cleage was born into slavery about 1823 in Tennessee. Her mother’s name was Silver Baver.  Sallie and Clinton Cleage had fourteen children together, most of them born during slavery. By 1900, only five were living. I have already written about three of them – Amanda Cleage, Nelson Cleage and Lydia Cleage.

1870 Census
1870 Census via

Clinton died about 1869.  In 1870 Sallie lived in Athens TN with six of her children. None of them can read or write. Lydia, the oldest child still at home, attended school.  Sallie owned no property and her personal property was worth $250.  She was keeping house. Nobody in the household is listed as working outside of the home.

1880 census
1880 Census  via

In 1880 Sallie and seven of her children are living together in the same house. Roger William Sherman, who later married my great grandmother, lived next door.  Nelson worked as a laborer. Mary was the only literate member of the household. None of the children were attending school and nobody else had a job.  The 1890 U.S. Census was destroyed in a fire so we have to skip to the 1900 census.

1900 Census
1900 Census  via

In 1900 Sallie owned her house free of mortgage.  Her son Robert, his wife and son, along with Sallie’s granddaughter, Rossie Smith, shared her home.  Robert worked as a dining room servant. He was literate.  Sallie and his wife were without employment. Rosie attended school for 4 months. Robert’s son, Thomas Cleage, was not old enough for school.

Sallie’s daughter Sallie Cleage Waterhouse, lived down the street.  All of the children in her household attended school.  She and her husband Thomas were able to read.  Thomas and his oldest son worked as laborers.

sally marsh cleage death certif
Tennessee State Library and Archives; Nashville, Tennessee; Tennessee Death Records, 1908-1959 via

On April 1, 1914, Sallie Cleage died of bronchial pneumonia.  Her daughter Amanda Cleage was the informant. Sallie was 93 years old.


When I started writing Sallie Cleage’s life, I thought that it was a full one because she appeared as mother on so many death certificates. As I wrote, I began to feel that I had been wrong because nothing really seemed to happen. I was wrong, she did live a full life. It was full of her family. She lived to be free and to see her children and grandchildren learn to read and write.  Her husband, Clinton, died so soon after freedom. She gave birth to 14 children and saw nine of them die before she did.   It is easy to overlook what those deaths must have meant to her when we have no record of when or how they died.

7 thoughts on “Sallie Cleage

  1. Too bad the picture is not her, it is a very beautiful lady 🙂
    I agree with you on full life – sounds like it was a large family, probably full of those small day-to-day things families do. And it is inspiring to see her come out of slavery and watch the next generations come up 🙂

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  2. Now that was a woman who was a master of lying about her age… 😉

    Is it possible that it is multiple Sallie’s? That the differing dates were actually for different people?

    Either way, she lived a full life and must have affected many more, mothering so many children. It’s a shame that virtually nothing remains to remember her…

    1. I think it was the same one because she was always listed as mother to the same children in the same area. I think she wasn’t sure about her age and we don’t know who gave the information to the census enumerator. Especially that really early date.

  3. I wonder if Sallie took in laundry to make ends meet? 250$ was a lot of money for her day for a woman who never attended school. I like Sally’s strength and tenacity. Thanks for sharing with us, I am following this blog challenge right along with you even if I don’t participate. You are a wonderful writer and historian Kristin!

    1. Thank you Victori. I think whenever they took in laundry it was for expenses. All the children and grandchildren attended school and I wonder if sometimes it was for school fees.

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