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Getting better at genealogical research involves many things. One important skillset is understanding and learning how to find relationships when no document states the relationship. The early years of genealogy are filled with the “low hanging fruit” of census records, marriage and death records, online documents, etc. When that fruit runs out—which I assure you it will—are you equipped to keep uncovering relationships in your family? That skill involves learning new methodologies and ways of approaching your research, as well as finding little clues and piecing them together through analysis. Elizabeth Shown Mills calls it “harvesting clues.” Here’s a good, short example from my own research.

My 2nd great grandmother Martha Simpson was born a freed woman in Anne Arundel (later Howard) County, MD. I found her and her siblings living with their mother in 1850. She married Levi Prather in Montgomery County, MD, birthed 12 children that survived to adulthood and lived there the rest of her life.  I had a few pages from a family bible that recorded both Martha’s siblings names and some of her own children:

Prather_BibleB

Bible Page B

Bible Page B

When Martha’s husband Levi died in 1894, Martha purchased 75 acres of land in 1897 from a man named Nicholas Moccabee and his wife. Martha lived in the same house with Nicholas and his wife in 1880, and lived next door to a widowed Nicholas in 1900, probably because she’d purchased some of their land.

1880martha_clip

1900martha_clip

These kind of connections should always arouse suspicion and curiosity in the diligent genealogist. Who is this couple–Nicholas and Harriet? Nicholas was also buried in the same cemetery as my ancestor Martha. So I decided to delve into Nicholas’ life more deeply. An obvious impediment was his name, “Moccabee” which was spelled umpteen different ways. But take a look at what I found in land records–(these are the year and the grantor/grantee):

1876, Willie R. Griffith to Nicholas “Macbee” and wife Leanna
1896, Nicolas “Mackabee” to Harriet L. Mackabee
1897, Nicholas “Mackabee” and wife Harriet L. to Martha J. Prather
1897, Harriet Leannah Mackabee and husband Nicholas to Sandy Spring Bank

His wife’s full name—her first and middle name—is only ever given in the last 1897 deed record above. His wife’s name was “Harriet Leannah.” With this critical clue, I unlocked the puzzle. I remembered Martha named one of her daughter’s “Harriet (Ann) Leanna.” If you go back to the bible records above, you’ll also see the name of “Leanna McAbee” on both pages. All of this provides evidence for one conclusion: Nicholas married Martha’s sister, Harriet Leanna Simpson. Later, I found an obituary for Nicholas Moccabee that provided the full (misspelled) name of his wife-“Harriett Lena Simpson”:

Obituary

Obituary

Notice that no record told me directly that Harriet Leanna, Nicholas’ wife,  was Martha’s sister. But I could draw that reasonable conclusion from the compilation and analysis of the relevant evidence. Later when I went back to the cemetery, I also found “H. Leannah McAbee’s” headstone right next to her husband Nicholas, and in the same group of Simpson family headstones.

Learn how to do this by reading genealogical case studies and learning how to extract clues from various records. I also recommend Thomas Jones’ book, Mastering Genealogical Proof.

A few months ago, I joyfully discovered a descendant of Harriet Leannah who still lived in Maryland. He and his family surprised me by accepting my invitation an attending our family reunion which was a few weeks ago. I thought I would cry right there! Since then, I have gotten to spend time with their wonderful family and share all the things I have discovered. They shared priceless historical photographs, and the one I was most happy to see was the photograph below of Harriet Leannah. The two sisters have finally been reunited!

Another ancestor–reclaimed! Readers, in the comments, I’d love to hear stories of how you pieced together a relationship through clues you found in the documents, when no document stated the relationship.

Harriet Leanna

Harriet Leanna

Martha

Martha

Slave Distributions

One of the most important pieces of information those of us researching enslaved ancestors need to know is how the slaves are distributed after the owner’s death. If we’re lucky, there’s a will that tells us to whom each slave is bequeathed. Most of the time, there’s not. There are many wills that simply say to my “wife, child, etc., I leave all of my estate both real and personal….” If luck is on our side, we’ll find at least an inventory, but that won’t tell us which child got which slaves. For that, we need to find the estate distribution. For an estate that includes slaves, that document should give us the information we need. Here’s a good example I recently found in Montgomery County, MD. This is the portion of the inventory showing the slaves of Nicholas Griffith, who died in 1814:

N. Griffith

N. Griffith

There are 20 slaves listed with monetary values and no indication of families, which is common. In the same probate book, I found the distribution of Nicholas’ estate between his wife, who by law is entitled to 1/3, and his 6 children (I have cropped just the entry showing the slaves):

GriffithSplit1_clip GriffithSplit1_clip2 GriffithSplit1_clip3 GriffithSplit2_clip1 GriffithSplit2_clip2 GriffithSplit2_clip3 GriffithSplit2_clip4 GriffithSplit2_last

Sadly, the primary goal was to make sure each child received approximately the same value in property. Most of Nicholas’ children inherited 2 young slave children. I’d like to believe Nicholas’ widow, who inherited 7 slaves, had at least taken 29 year old Milly with 4 of her kids, ages 8 months to 9 years.

I haven’t researched this family, but the hope is that they lived near one another such that the families of slaves were not entirely broken. But as the probate, land and other sources demonstrate over and over again, very young children were very often sold away from parents, and couples were very often split apart .

 Look for these estate distributions when you are researching enslaved ancestors. They are difficult to find. I personally have many more cases where this information could not be located in records. Sometimes they can be found in original probate loose papers, so be sure to examine those where they exist.

I’ll also share another interesting thing I’ve seen a few times in probate records. Where testators willed that slaves be freed at certain ages, the birthdates were sometimes copied into the probate records so the appropriate date of manumission could be established. Richard Thomas came from a prominent and wealthy Quaker family, and they founded the town of Brookville. They were famous for having freed their salves very early on, and creating an enclave of free blacks, churches and school long before the Civil War.

How fortunate any researcher connected to this family would be. Thomas recorded the birthdates of his slaves in the probate book:

ThomasWill1_volH_clip Slave research, as I’ve said before, is not for the faint of heart and often feels like a game of chicken. But be a diligent researcher and rest assured that you may uncover something, if only a name of an ancestor long silenced and whose memory was lost to time. Even if I can’t find a birthdate or a family group, I always feel a sublime satisfaction at uncovered the name of an enslaved ancestor.

Readers, tell me: have you uncovered any slave distributions, and if so, where did you locate them?

Note: If you are in the Metro DC area, don’t forget to check out my good friend Tim Pinnick tomorrow at 1:00 at the Suitland Family History Center. He will be speaking on “Finding African-Americans in Historic Newspapers,” a subject that he is an expert on.

We all have those lines that seem to withstand all of our greatest efforts to uncover, and one of those lines for me has been my maternal ggrandfather Walter Springer’s line. I know the names of his parents–Lou and George Springer–but have only ever found Lou Springer, widowed, on the 1900 census. That is an *awful* census to be the only clue one has. In 1880 and 1910, Lou disappeared into the ether. Born in Alabama, she and George could still be there in 1880–who knows. I never found George Springer on any census record.

The one meaningful lead my grandmother provided in interviews before her death was her memory of her father’s half-sister Mary Neal.  She remembered her coming to visit, and especially that she looked “mixed,” with long, fine hair. Mary Neal indeed was the informant on her half-brother Walter’s death certificate in 1944, with an address in Lawrenceburg, TN. For 15 years now, I had been unable to find her with any certainty. I did find a death certificate for a “Mary Neal” years ago, with “Springer” parents, but I knew I didn’t have enough data to be sure it was her.

With the 1940 census release, I finally found a Mary Neal in Lawrence County, with husband Felix Neal. A search for a marriage between a “Mary Springer” and Felix Neal came up short. Felix married a “Mary Lyles” in 1934:

Neal Marriage

Neal Marriage

I’ve posted before on the need to be mindful of women’s multiple marriages, so I searched for a “Mary Springer” who married a “Lyles.” No such marriage was found. Now I was stuck. Of course, I searched multiple counties and name spellings. However, after spending long hours analyzing the evidence I had gathered–which consisted of mainly vital records and census records–I came to a valid conclusion: Even though the record above says “Mary Lyles” that record was mistaken. Her correct name was Mary Lowery. This illustrates that even original sources like marriage records are prone to error. People wrote down what they heard. In a county with several “Lyles” families, it is reasonable that the clerk may have thought that was her name.

This is how I uncovered the error: I found a marriage record between “Mary Springer” and Thomas Lowry in Hardin County, a few counties over:

Lowry Marriage

Lowry Marriage

Mary was found with her husband Thomas in the next 3 census records, in Hardin and Wayne Counties, TN:

1900 Hardin Cty

1900 Hardin Cty

1910-Hardin Cty.

1910-Hardin Cty.

 

1920-Wayne Cty.

1920-Wayne Cty.

The couple is living in Lawrence County when Thomas died:

 

Tom Lowry Death

Tom Lowry Death

In 1930, the newly widowed Mary “Lowry” is shown in the 1930 Lawrence County census, notably living amidst several African-American Springers (Caldonia, wife of Bill Blair was also a Springer):

1930 Mary Lowery

1930 Mary Lowery

It is at this point that Mary Lowery met and married Felix Neal–not “Mary Lyles.” Turns out the Mary Neal death certificate I found so many years ago was indeed the correct Mary Neal. Her parents are revealed as Frazier and Lou Springer:

Mary Neal Death Cert

Mary Neal Death Cert

At all times, but especially when researching people who lived in different places over time, we have to be careful that we are proving a person’s identity and not just matching names. This Mary can be tied together through the records above in several ways. Her 1920 census entry in Wayne County reveals one daughter Pauline, who is the informant on her mother’s death certificate above. That death certificate identifies her as the same Mary who married Felix Neal. Mary was first married in Hardin County, hardly surprising since it is the same county where her half-brother (my ancestor) married and lived. Mary Lowery’s 1910 Hardin County household reveals a Springer “sister-in-law”. All of these people were also buried at West Point Cemetery.

All of this hasn’t led me yet to Lou Springer’s pre-1900 origins, but to even have some success in a line long out of success stories is very meaningful to me. It’s also another lesson in the power of learning to analyze and make sense out of all the records we uncover, which can be loaded with half-truths, secrets, mistakes and out and out lies;)

I am so lucky to be a Tennessee researcher. I think their Tennessee State Archives and Library (TSLA) is one of the country’s best, and the service I have received over the years from its dedicated employees has been magnificent.

They just finished digitizing and uploading hundred of bibles in their collection. I spent some time perusing through the files. They are organized by surname. Any family that finds these records is a truly fortunate.

I hope that more African-Americans will submit copies from their family bibles. But consider that there is another valuable way we can use existing collections: researching the slaveowning family. Some slaveowners recorded the births and deaths of their slaves into their bible records. I was surprised as I perused these bibles just how many did just that.

The  Frazier Titus family recorded the births from slaves named Emaline, Ann and Julia, and recorded the death of Harriet:

Titus

Titus

 

In 1870, Frazier has relocated from Nashville to Memphis; just a few doors away is a black woman named “Emaline”—perhaps his former slave?

Titus 1870

Titus 1870

 

The James Wood bible includes entries noting the birth of three children of Judy. There is also a faintly visible message, called “Relative to the origins of our servants”. That section includes bible verses in Genesis and also about Hagar. This is a reminder that whites often used the Bible to support the idea that blacks were inferior and that slavery was ordained by God.

Wood

Wood

 

The George Hale (and Henry) family of Blount County, TN, included two pages (with the quaint title of “Servants”) of at least 3 generations of their enslaved people.

Hale

Hale

Lastly, the Overton family tracked the births of “Negro Mary’s” 3 children:

Overton

Overton

 

Seek out bibles at other state archives, and also in historical and genealogical societies as well as library and university manuscript collections. I know that NGS has a large collection of family bibles accessible by members. Readers, tell me, have you used bible records in your own research?

Petition for Letters

I have posted before about the need to search every step in the probate process, as opposed to just viewing the will and the inventory.

One of the first steps in the probate process is that an individual needs to petition the court for the authority to probate the estate. Depending upon whether the deceased had a will, the petitioner will ask the court for either “Letters Testamentary” or in cases where there was no will, “Letters of Administration.” The petitioner is usually a family member, but could also be a creditor of the estate. Sometimes these records are mixed in with other probate records, but they can be also found bound together in a single book.

The value of these records is that they *usually state the existing heirs at law of the deceased individual.* Remember: besides the fact that most people did not create a will, when they did, they did not have to name all of that person’s heirs. Like many other records, earlier ones were handwritten into the court records, while later in time we start to see pre-printed forms. Here are just a few examples:

From my previous post, Leanna Peaker’s petition in Kent County, MD named all her deceased husband’s siblings; it was especially valuable because it shows his sister’s married names and also the cities where they lived:

Peaker

Peaker

 

Nellie Kneesi’s 1932 petition in Montgomery County, MD likewise did the same:

Kneesi

Kneesi

This is Cora Craycroft’s 1944 petition in Macon, Illinois:

Craycroft

Craycroft

I really enjoyed this terrific post from Matt’s Genealogy Blog that “walks” through a set of probate papers, including a petition for administration:

http://matthewkmiller.blogspot.com/2014/06/doran-probate-and-property-records-in.html

As with anything, sometimes the hardest part is finding these documents. If they survive, they can be buried inside a book called “Administrations,” “Probate Records,” or any of the other myriad titles given by the various states. Also, and this is key: you don’t want the actual “Letters of Testamentary” or “Letters of Administration.” Those documents are the RESULT of the *Petition* that was filed. Those are very often kept and very often bound together, but they will NOT include heirs. Here’s an example:

Actual Letters Testament

Actual Letters Testament

I find that this is a rarely mentioned document, so be sure to try to search for these where they exist. This is just one more  record that can unlock the doors to the secrets of our ancestors.

Figure11Familysearch is rolling with Freedmen’s Bureau Records. They now have Field Office Records digitized for Alabama, Arkansas, District of Columbia, Maryland, Delaware, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia! I have been looking at Alabama, which is one of my research states, and I am struck by several things.

Labor Contracts are one of the first categories of records that researchers should browse within Freedmen’s Bureau records, if they exist for that particular location. I posted awhile ago a suggested process to follow while searching these exasperating records. I have been searching through contracts in the city of Tuscumbia, Alabama. Most were for the calendar year of 1866. Contracts are very valuable because they were most often made between slaveowners and their former enslaved laborers.

After reviewing about a hundred of these agreements, I realize they tell us something more about the experiences of our enslaved ancestors.

There was no standard labor agreement; some were short where others went into great detail. What is apparent is that white planters were most interested in returning if not to slavery, than as close to slavery as possible. These agreements illuminate why it was so difficult for former slaves to achieve anything close to economic independence. Social equality was of course, off the table. What’s also clear is the devastation of freeing 4 million slaves who for the most part had no property of their own, were illiterate, and had no land when farming was the only skill most of them had. It was a recipe for disaster.

Slavery studies tell us also that freedmen wanted to get their wives out of the fields and refused to work as long and hard as they did during  slavery. Most agreements spell out that planters would provide the land, tools, animals, and seed, while freedmen would cultivate and gin the crops. Some planters paid the freedmen in cash, but most paid freedmen by giving them ½ or 1/3 of the crop. Agreements vary on who would provide clothing, medicine, and food. The restrictions on their behavior was what struck me most, as well as the ability of the planter to unilaterally cancel the agreement for supposed bad behavior.

Most added that freedmen were not allowed to either leave the plantation or have visitors without consent of their employer. What kind of freedom was that about? While freedmen tried to get more flexibility, planters all but forced them into year-long agreements instead of shorter timeframes. The language used in the agreements show the lengths some planters went to maintain not only their workforce but their absolute power and supremacy over that workforce:

  • Fred Sherrod, in addition to providing land, tools, animals, feed, cabins, meat and meal required the freedmen to  “commence work at daylight and work the entire day except for half hour for breakfast and dinner, to work six days out the week, and to work at night if necessary.”
  • D.W. Hicks added that freedmen would “abstain from all impudence, swearing or indecent and profane language to or in the presence of employer or his family.” Other planters added that freedmen had to be “respectful, obedient and submissive at all times.” That is a very interesting word choice…..submissive.
  • Kirk and Drake demanded in their contracts that there be “no general conversation to be carried on during work hours.”
  • Joseph Thompson wasn’t leaving any detail to chance. His lengthy agreements spelled out that freedmen would “do fair and faithful mowing, patching, hauling, plowing, howing, reaping, chopping, making rails, & boards, making and repairing fences, gates, houses, cribs, barns, shops, sheds, gin houses and all labor necessary for successful cultivation & management of plantation…Commence work at sunrise and stop at sunset reserving one hour in spring, fall and winter months and one and a half hours in summer for dinner…freedmen are not to leave the plantation w/o permission and they labor for Thompson at all times except the afternoon of  Saturday which is reserved to them for working their own patches…but…when the crop is behind or when any extraordinary occasions occur which requires their services on the afternoon of Saturdays it is to be rendered faithfully and cheerfully.” Thompson’s view of the freedmen is evident when he further states “anyone failing to work for any cause will be charged 50 cents/day and if any freedmen shall become habitually idle, worthless and troublesome then he or she will be discharged and sent from the plantation never to return.” He also noted that a journal would be kept of all start and finish times, quality and quality of work.
  • William Hooks may have been more progressive than other planters as he added in his agreements that he would see to it that “peace, harmony and good feelings prevail and equal rights are given.’ That was a rarity.

My guess is that these agreements reflect what the former slaves’ lives were like with that particular owner. By 1870, many of these former slaves would be still living near their former owners. They had few choices. William Ricks is shown below, from the 1870 Colbert County, AL census. His high real estate value suggests prior slaveownership:

1870 Wm Ricks

1870 Wm Ricks

Here is a portion of his labor agreement with several freedmen:

Ricks Contract

Many of his contracted freedmen (Jack Ricks and William Fort) are still living near him in 1870:

Freedmen

Freedmen

This was about the control of labor, plain and simple. It was also about trying to enforce dependence, and continued racial subjugation. That the US Government choose to perpetuate servitude and dependence at that moment in time is one of the greatest, in my mind, tragedies of U.S. History. Let’s not forget that many of the planters broke these agreements: Bureau Complaints are filled with refusals to pay the freedmen when the crop came in, violence against them, or just plain kicking them off the plantation after the crops were in.

Take a look at these valuable records. Seeing original historical documents still has a powerful impact on me, a strong emotional impact. They tell us much about our ancestor’s plight and the hardships that “freedom” brought.

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