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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

I’ve been given some gifts lately by the genealogy spirits. I think they are designed to gently ease me back into the fray after my maternity break of several months. This is another really good one.

I have made many connections over the years with relatives, as we discover we are both researching the same family or community. Last year, I spoke with a new cousin named Jahrod and we found we traced back to the same roots in Somerset County, Maryland. Recently, he shared with me an apparently new link that has recently been made available online. It’s a part of the Maryland Historical Trust, and it is an Inventory of Historic Properties in the state. It’s a beautifully designed website but the data is the true goldmine: all the original applications from historic places in Maryland have all been uploaded and are available to the public! Why did he send me this? I was up until 2:00AM. Trust me, when you have a new baby, that is NOT what you need to be doing..LOL. This is the homepage:

You can search by county, address, property or do a simple text search. Since I have two major ancestral counties in Maryland (Somerset and Montgomery) I was just in hog heaven.This is the search screen:

The beauty of these files is that many of them have pictures of the properties, which may not be standing today. There is good genealogical information as many have a chain of title for the deeds to the properties listed, maps showing specific locations, as well as a brief historical background. The quality of each application varies according to who filled it out. Some were sparse, and some ran more than 50 pages.

The jewel for Jahrod and I was that the entire community in Somerset County where our ancestors lived, which is called “Upper Hill”, was designated a historic site! Using these files, it is possible to recreate the entire neighborhood from right around the turn of the century. These forms were completed in the 1970s. One application mentioned one of my brickwall ancestors, the Rev. Daniel James Waters. He apparently owned land in Somerset County when he died intestate in Delaware in 1899. The land was awarded by circuit court decree to another man named John Waters. I have just ordered a copy of the court case, hoping that it will illuminate some relationship between the two men. I haven’t had a new breakthrough on this line in years.

The community of Upper Hill used to be referred to in the early 19th century as “Freetown”. This is likely a nod to the fact that the area was populated mostly by freed blacks, many of whom carried the surname Waters. The white Waters family was a large, multi-generational slaveowning family. A few members were Quakers and freed slaves in the early 1800s, including my ancestor Joshua Waters, who was the father of Daniel James Waters.

This database also had a large file on one of the houses of the slaveowning Waters family that is still standing. Lots of terrific history in that file. My friend Aaron over at In Honor of Our Ancestors told me last year that he found a file on the slaveowning family in a historical trust database. So I did a short walk around the web trying to see if a resource like this exists for other states. Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio and Arkansas are just a few of the states that seem to have similar databases online. Here are some links you can explore at your leisure (especially the 2nd link):

The National Register for Historic Places (NRHP) has started to digitize their over 80,000 files
Their site also had a terrific link to other states’ inventories that may be online (GREAT list)

Virginia has a 72 page PDF file of its list of properties and the files themselves are available to view at the Library of Virginia. For Virginia, also check here.

North Carolina simply had a list of historical preservation links, may be something hidden here.
Same for South Carolina.
Every resource counts. In my case, this one gave me a significant lead on a brickwall ancestors as well as provided lots of good historical information for my various write-ups. Please email me if you search and are able to find something significant in these records!

 

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I’ve been fascinated recently by the great things being digitized and put online by libraries, archives, museums and other repositories. Although as genealogists we are primarily concerned with the details of specific lives, I think it’s absolutely worthwhile to expand your vision and look at some of the larger themes that applied to and affected our ancestors: slavery, emancipation, jim crow, disenfranchisment, farming and sharcropping, the great migration, etc. To that end, I’m sharing some very interesting slave letters I’ve been reading.

Obviously, there aren’t as many of these available as other sources because so few slaves were able to read and write, or if they did, few survived for future generations to read. One good collection  is housed by Duke University, Special Collections.

Check out these slave letters. They make for fascinating reading:

Some excellent books that contain more slave letters and other types of primary source information from African Americans are:

  1. Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews and Autobiographies” by John Blassingame (portions are available on are Googlebooks)
  2. We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century” by Dorothy Sterling has a chapter on Slave letters (Googlebooks)
  3. Dear Master: Letters of a Slave Family” by Randall Miller (Googlebooks)

Take a look when you can, and enter the lives of our enslaved ancestors. Send me any more links you may know about.

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Hopefully, you are all familiar with the Afrigeneas website for African Ancestored research. I want to bring your attention to a terrific article that resides there, albeit somewhat hidden.

From their homepage, if you click on the link that says Records, and then click Library Records, you will find a collection of articles and other submitted materials by Afrigeneas readers. All of the articles are good & should be explored, but my favorites by far are the ones by author David Paterson.

The title of this post refers to an article of his called “The 1850 and 1860 Census, Schedule 2, Slave Inhabitants” that I first read many years ago. It opened my eyes in a whole new way to the 1850 and 1860 documents because it discusses at length the political wrangling in Congress over what information these schedules should contain. To think that this is the reason why we see no names there today is just mindboggling.

I am going to quote liberally a section of his article (with permission), but only because I hope it whets your appetite to read the entire article, as well as his others. This excerpt is from a Congressional debate over two proposed census forms to use, one that did record slave names and one that did not. It is very long but I think once you start reading you won’t be able to stop. ( I’ve only made very minor omissions because of length):

[quoted section begins]

On 9 April 1850, Senator John Davis of Massachusetts opened the Senate debate over which of version of the population forms would be used. ..

Senator Arthur P. Butler of South Carolina immediately rose with an amendment, saying: “I move to amend, so that instead of requiring the names of the slaves to be taken, the number only shall be required . . . and I now move to strike out the word ‘names’ and insert the word ‘number.’”

Davis: “I believe that the only thing which induced the use of the word ‘names’ in both of the tables [free and slave], was the supposition that a greater degree of accuracy would be thereby ascertained, and any fraud be the more readily detected. However, if gentlemen have any choice on the subject, I am not disposed to object.”

Butler: “The census heretofore taken has only required the numbers of the slaves, and I see no useful information the obtaining of the names can afford. On a plantation where there are one, two, or three hundred slaves, there are perhaps several of the same name, and who are known simply by some familiar designation on the plantation. It can afford no useful information, and will make a great deal of labor.”

[Davis] asked Butler: “If we are only to get the aggregate number of slaves, how are we to ascertain the owners?”

Butler: “By providing that the number of slaves owned by him shall be put opposite to the name of each owner.”

David: “Then we shall lose the benefit of the classification of ages.”

Butler: “Not at all. The age and sex will remain—everything but the name.”

At this point, Senator Joseph R. Underwood of Kentucky rose to defend inclusion of the names…: “If you leave the age and sex of each slave, it will be perceived at once that the master and the census-taker must have his attention directed to each individual slave. Then, as each individual slave upon the plantation must constitute the subject of particular reference at the time, in order to ascertain the age and the sex, and other inquiries which the census table proposes to enumerate, it does seem to me that he must necessarily get the name.”

Senator George E. Badger of North Carolina interjected a mockery of slaves’ names: “What do you want of such names as Big Cuff or Little Cuff?”

Butler: “Or of Little Jonah and Big Jonah?”

Some senators laughed.

Underwood: “I have no particular anxiety to see these classical names that have been suggested, and whether it be Cicero or Cuff, it makes no difference to me. As it is necessary that attention must be directed to each individual, it occurred to me that the census taker could certainly make more progress by putting down the name, instead of being obliged to make a series of calculations. Then all that will be necessary will be, to put down the name, and to carry out the age and sex opposite to it; otherwise, the census taker will have, in the course of his examination, to take a child of one age and put him down, and make a memorandum, and then go on and take another child of another age, and put him down, and so on; and before he can make all the inquiries in regard to each on the plantation, he will have a whole sheet of paper covered with calculations and figures. I do believe the work can be done quicker and faster by making an entry of the names, and passing from one to the other, and thus save all of this calculation. This same process has been adopted in reference to the white population. The old system of proceeding was, to put down the population according to a classification of ages, as between five and ten; and ten and fifteen; and fifteen and twenty; and so on. The effect of that arrangement was, to require the census taker and the head of the family, in the calculation to which I have alluded, to ascertain the particular ages, and what class the particular individual should be enumerated under; and we thought . . . that it would really take more time and labor to make this classification . . . than it would merely to put down the names and ages—the simplest of all processes. I believe, therefore, that instead of imposing additional labor, it would save time and labor.”

Senator Robert M. T. Hunter of Virginia: “Is it proposed to publish the names?”

Underwood: “Not at all; there is a total mistake on that subject. The names of the white population are not proposed to be published, nor are the names of the blacks.” Only the statistical tables produced by counting the names, ages, et cetera, were to be published.

Senator David L. Yulee of Florida could not see the use of recording any names: “I wish to ask the Senator what public advantage there can be in having on the files of the department the names of all the inhabitants of the United States, white or black? What advantage can there be to know that there is a John Smith in New York, another in Kentucky, and another in Georgia? It has never been done before, and will certainly be a work of great labor and expense.”

Senator Underwood patiently repeated his explanation…: “I imagined myself going about with the census taker,” said Underwood, “and how he would talk with the head of a family, and how he would make his memorandums as he went along, and the conclusion was irresistible that he would do the business faster by merely putting down the name and age”.

Senator Jeremiah Clemens of Alabama objected: “There is not a man in the South owning a hundred negroes who knows scarcely any more of the names of the slave children than I do. He would be obliged to send the census taker to the negro quarters himself, to ascertain the information.”

Underwood shot back: “If the slave owner cannot give the name of the children, how is he to give the age?”

Clemens: “He knows how many children there are, and can tell about the time they were born. Say that he has a negro woman of the name of Eliza with four children—he can state about the time each was born. As to their names, he would not know anything about that until the children had reached the age of twelve or fourteen.”

Underwood: “I cannot speak for the large negro owners in the South, but I can of that description of people and the negroes in my own State. And I venture to say that there is no plantation in my quarter, although the slaves are nothing like as numerous as they are in the South, but what the owner can tell you the name of every person on the plantation, and that without hesitation. We generally keep a record of their names and ages. And I should suppose that while the farmers of the South were recording, according to the suggestion of the Senator from Alabama, the ages of their slave children, they could put down something for their names also.”

Clemens: “I did not say that they had a record of their ages, but merely that they could tell very nearly what they were.”

Underwood: “Well, if there was any record of their ages I should suppose it would be connected with their names. If no record is kept of the age, then it has to be guessed at, and the name may as well be guessed at also, for it is wholly immaterial. But you must describe the children in some way, or take and put them down as child number one, child number two, and give the age of each. It will do just as well to designate them by numbers as by name, provided it secures the basis of the calculation which it is necessary to make afterwards. An oath that it is the correct name of the child is not required, and if the age of a child can be given, so can a name, and if all are given the same name it makes no difference. . . .  The idea suggested, that the farmer will not know the names of his slaves makes no sort of difference. He can know as much about the names as the age; and all we can expect is, to come as nearly to what is precisely correct as possible, and that by the safest and most correct means. I have nothing more, I believe, to say on this particular subject.”

Butler: “I cannot see the use of taking the names; in fact, I am surprised that the idea is even entertained. My friend from Kentucky generally has my vote; but upon this matter we see so differently that I am compelled to be at issue with him.”

Senator Butler’s amendment, to replace slaves’ names with numbers, was then put to a vote and passed.

[end of quote]

I was struck when I read this by the racist and ridiculous thoughts about blacks evident in many of the senators comments. There is a point in the article where a senator actually says that the average slave wouldn’t know how many children she had! I think of this debate every single time I look at those slave schedules.

I do hope you will visit the site and read David’s article in its entirety. It gives much more detail and background and more information than I excerpted above and it will enrich your genealogy research in this area greatly.

David also has several other excellent articles posted on Afrigeneas, but two I believe are absolute must-reads: “Georgia’s Slave Population in Legal Records” and “Case Study on Determining Maternity by Correlating Records of Alpheus Beall’s Slaves”.

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Image from Jeffjacoby.com

I’m a big fan of expanding our knowledge about the various kinds of records we utilize, and I found a terrific PDF file on the history of the Social Security Program. I discovered lots of interesting tidbits I didn’t know. The History page of the Social Security website has lots of other details as well, including tallies of the votes cast for this momentous new law, the text of the original 1935 act, and photo galleries.

I hope you’ll enjoy this information as much as I did.

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I have no idea how I’m going to keep my job. The internet keeps offering these incredible websites that beg for hours of exploration.

The American Historical Association blog highlighted the Forum Network website the other day and it is mind-blowing. It’s a collaboration between PBS and NPR to offer free audio and video lectures on hundreds of topics.

forum2

They have 129 lectures in the African American culture series alone. One series, “Slavery and the Making of America” offers the following lectures, among many others:

  • “Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property”
  • “Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom”
  • “Robert Smalls: Yearning to Breathe Free”
  • “Clinging to Mammy: Our Relationship to Slavery”
  • “Complicity: How the North Profited from Slavery”
  • “Modern Slavery: MIT-BBC Symposium”

It doesn’t end there. There’s a series of lectures on the Civil War, Native Americans, the Civil Rights Movement, Ken Burns Jazz, and Abolition—all kinds of stuff. Not just history, there’s science and culture and most any other topic you can think of.

All you need to do is sign up for a free username and password and you’re ready to go. I am in heaven!!!!! Thanks again to the American Historical Association. There are simply not enough hours in the day.

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I find myself thinking about this question a lot when it comes to my family history. It has never for me been about “gathering names” or seeing how far back I can go. I have always grappled with trying to recreate my ancestor’s lives, trying to understand the forces of history they lived through and what drove them. What connects my life to theirs? What’s different? Those issues endlessly fascinate me. I think those are the things that inform us and have the potential to ever so slightly turn the lens of life that we see ourselves and our own lives through. I know who am I and where I am as a young woman today (well maybe not so young anymore) because each branch of family–so different, shaped by vastly different lives—collectively moved the ball forward for me to have greater opportunities.  And I embrace all of that.

I’m always trying to encourage people to take a break from researching long enough to actually write up your research. I know it’s hard and trust me, I have a few lines I still need to write up. But thinking about the details about what their lives were like can provide the meat to make your write-up interesting. No one will read a list of names and dates with much interest, but if you can make it come alive (and you don’t have to be Toni Morrison) you can get some serious credibility with the family. Here are some ideas and questions to ask as you ponder what their lives were like:

  • Many of our ancestors were farmers. What crops did they grow? What kinds of animals did they have? Check the agricultural census. How did that shape their lives? Growing tobacco is very different from corn or wheat. Read up on it or do some research at this cool website on agriculture. Were they sharecroppers or landowners?
  • Some of our ancestors were professionals, such as teachers and ministers, some were business owners. I found out all manner of detail on my great-grandfather who was a Methodist minister through the journals at Drew University, which is the archives for the Methodist church.
  • What was going on in the nation politically, socially, and economically that shaped their lives ? Of course most of us know the enormous role that race played. What was the news of the day? What about locally? Blackpast is one of my favorite sites for researching African American history timelines. I found out long after my paternal grandmother died that there was a lynching in her town of Salisbury, MD while she lived there in the 1930s…I would have liked to ask her about that experience.
  • What kinds of technology impacted their lives? My mother remembers the exact year her family got a television set. My maternal grandmother recalled life before refrigerators, which is still hard for me to imagine. But then I tell younger people that we didn’t have the internet or email when I was in college, they look at me like I’m 100 years old!
  • What games did they play as kids? What did they do for fun? My grandmother talked about going to shows/parties at school (which somehow would never have occurred to me in rural Tennessee) but also about spending lots of time socially at church. Her father told the children folktales that she remembered very fondly, scary stories at that.
  • If they got to go, what did their schoolhouse look like? What subjects were taught and how long did they go for? Did many people in the community get to go to school, or was that something only a lucky few got to do? I found a picture of my grandmothers Tennessee schoolhouse (which burned down in the 1940s) in “Negro School Records” at the State Archives…she would have enjoyed seeing that.
  • What music did they listen to? Did they have a radio? (you can find that data on the 1930 census) What movies did they watch?
  • What kinds of food did they eat regularly? This link talks about foods the enslaved ate. My great-uncle who grew up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, recalled the fresh crabs they caught and the oyster fritters and other seafood treats.

I could go on and on…this is just a small sampling of the multitude of thoughts that go through my head when I am trying to recreate my ancestors’ lives. What questions do you ask yourself when wondering what their lives were like?

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Brown University released a report back in 2006 entitled “Slavery and Justice.” I just read it and found it well worth the time–I encourage you to read it. A steering committee was formed at Brown whose purpose was twofold:

Our primary task was to examine the University’s historical entanglement with slavery and the slave trade and to report our findings openly and truthfully. But we were also asked to reflect on the meaning of this history in
the present, on the complex historical, political,
legal, and moral questions posed by any present day
confrontation with past injustice.

The little tiny state of Rhode Island (believe it or not) had a central role in the slave trade and the Brown brothers, for whom the school is named after, all played roles in the institution. The report goes into great detail using the school’s archives.

It provides a good overview of slavery in New England, and the website includes a database of all the historical documents used in the report. The report ends with several recommendations for the University in terms of moving forward, and the school responded by endorsing a set of initiatives based on the report. Earlier this year, they recommended building a memorial to acknowledge the slaves ties of the University.

I think this is a good thing. Too many institutions today want to forget their historical ties to slavery when the exact opposite is what should be happening: acknowledging the truth and continuing to educate the public. This is true moral leadership and I applaud Brown. The report stops short of offering apologies, but this was a bold and courageous move.

We are still, as a society, struggling with the effects of slavery–all of us. I hope other universities and institutions take heed.

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