I have been researching Giles Holt for 13 years now. He enslaved my ancestor, Malinda Holt. I was reading a blog post by my genea-buddies Luckie and Sandra about how long you should research an enslaved ancestor. I’d had this thought many times about Malinda Holt. I concluded about a year ago that I may never find out where and how Giles acquired her. There’s simply a limit to the written records, and at some point, accepting this and being happy about what I had discovered seemed the right thing to do. I am in the late 1700s, early 1800s, and for many locales (unless you’re lucky enough to be in one of the original colonies) that’s the end of the road for written records.
We can find so much about our ancestors through probate and land records, tax records and court records, and many others. But the reality is that because slaves were considered personal property, they could also be purchased with no surviving record of their purchase. Perhaps there’s an entry in a slave trader’s logbook (a logbook that is no longer extant). Perhaps they were purchased at a slave auction, with no surviving record. The nature of slavery was so colossal and tragic. That feeling never escapes my mind for long.
There’s always the possibility that some clerk searching in a dusty courthouse closet will uncover a trove of unprocessed records, or some person’s passing will result in their family papers being donated to a university archives. Or, that sometime in the future, records closed to the public now will become open. Barring that (which I’ll always hold out hope for) I can be proud of the job I’ve done fleshing out Giles’ very complicated life and part of Malinda’s. I thought I’d share some of the things I discovered about Giles, and in particular what documents helped me in those discoveries.
Giles was born ca. 1790 in Amelia County, VA to Jesse and Mary Holt. At some point in the early 1800s he migrated to Smith County, TN, a popular migration route for the times. Tennessee was still considered “frontierland” and many sons wanted to head south/west and start their own fortunes. Giles was married by 1820, with a large family in Smith County, and still there in 1830. By 1840, he had moved further westward to Hardin County, TN, where he died in 1876. Giles served in the Union army, at odds with many of his sons who served in the Confederacy. He had between 11-15 children.
Because of the spareness of data census records during this timeframe, it was county level records that provided critical details about Giles’ life.
Early on in my research, descendants of the slaveowner provided me the info about his migration and possible parents (who knows how long that would have taken me to find out?) I had to gather the evidence, though, which took years. The hardest part when talking about migration is proving that the Giles Holt in Amelia County, VA is in fact the same Giles Holt in Smith and Hardin County, TN. A power of attorney, recorded in a deed book, helped tie my Giles’ to both his mother and the VA roots. Chancery court and probate records also helped greatly. We need to always be conscious of not assuming identity just because the person has the same name & age. I wrote up a Proof Summary on this dilemma, which helps to organize your analysis as well as the evidence you’ve gathered.
The other problem was the fact that there are other Holt families living near the Giles Holt family both in VA and TN. Deconflicting families is important to show that you are tracking the correct people. I had to show and prove that the families were in fact separate lines. Chancery court records, probate records and tax records helped me to do this. When another Giles Holt appears on the 1820 US census of the same age and family makeup, but living in Connecticut, I had to prove it was not my Giles Holt. I did that because I could show who his parents were (different) and when he died (different).
During this time, my Giles Holt married at least 4 times, divorcing at least once, possibly twice. The wives were difficult to figure–his first wife is never directly named in any document. I had to prove her existence using indirect evidence. None of his marriages had surviving records. However, I uncovered a premarital agreement and a divorce and criminal complaint (along with post 1850 censuses) that helped sort them out.
Several bills of sale listing slaves in 1843 and 1845 were important pieces in identifying Giles’ ownership of my ancestor. Malinda is not living far from Giles in 1870, and she died in 1881. I proudly (and unexpectedly) located her headstone in the local cemetery.
It is obvious to me that the critical period for Giles’ acquiring slaves was his time as a young man in Smith County, TN while he was presumably growing his large family. He moved there with one slave (whom he later sold along with her 4 children), and by 1840 when he moved to Hardin County, he had 10 slaves. Unfortunately, Smith County, TN is one of those counties with many missing records. If there was once thing I really needed to go back on Malinda, it would be more available records in this locality during the early 1800s.
It’ s been quite a journey and I’m working on a lengthy article on Giles Holt to submit to the genealogy journal in Hardin County, TN. I always wanted to find a picture of him, and it doesn’t seem as though one exists. Although I may never find anything documenting how Giles came to own Malinda, I do find solace in the knowledge that I’ve gone this far and brought back the voice and at least some of the details of an enslaved ancestor. I think Malinda would be proud;)