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I gave a lecture last Saturday on researching the enslaved at the Montgomery County Historical Society. I had a great time. My relatives
seen in the picture that heads this blog are Prathers and they are from Montgomery County, Maryland. During the research for that lecture, I
reviewed some of my research and found new information as well.

I found a lot of Montgomery County Runaway Ads online through the Maryland State Archives’ Legacy of Slavery webpage. This database is jam packed. One night I stayed up until 1 am just looking at Runaway Ads, which I’ve discussed here before and have a particular fascination with. Here are some of my observations from perusing the various ads:

1) Slaveowners knew a surprising amount of information about their slaves’ families. These also speak to the extended kinship communities that slaves formed:

William Belt

William Belt

Robert Clagett

Robert Clagett

This one even names the slave’s father:

Roberts

Roberts

Some of the ads demonstrate that slaves had surnames they were known by, although certainly many didn’t print them in the ads. I think it’s interesting that they say “he calls himself”:

Basil Burgess

Basil Burgess

Richard Wms

Richard Wms

There are also common themes of the slaveowner’s belief that the escaped slaves were headed to Philadelphia and also that they were aided or had free papers from a free negro. Maryland had over 83, 000 freed blacks by 1860 and these show the slaveowners high level of distrust of them:

Nathan Magruder

Nathan Magruder

This one must have been the most popular slave in Maryland!:

Thomas

Thomas Rawlins

Evidence abounds of the violence slaveowners exerted to hold slavery in place. This man received a burn on his face “for his villainy”:

William

William

This one’s back is “very much cut for his rogueness”:

Sam Magruder

Sam Magruder

In this one (like the others), I felt myself rooting for the “gang of six.” They made it all the Pennsylvania, and the slaveholder derisively mentions the “abolition magistrate” that let them go:

Gang of Six

Gang of Six

Runaway Ads all by themselves explode several myths of the slaveowner’s mind, such as:

1) the slaves did not form the emotional attachments to their family in the same way that whites did. This was the one they often used to defend the buying and selling of human beings. If that were so, why is it that so many slaves escape and are headed back to their wives, parents, etc.?

2) that the natural state for negroes was slavery; they needed white caretakers; that they were happiest this way. If so, why do so many run away again and again, even when the odds were overwhelmingly against them? Why do they run away even when they already wore the marks of painful physical punishment?

I’ll end with one that took my breath away. It’s a little harder to read than the others, but it describes Susan, a runaway who was”far advanced in pregnancy”:

Thomas

Thomas

What must have happened to Susan to take off on a journey that would almost certainly fail, especially in her state? I imagine it must have been something horrific.

This was what slavery was everyday, and I never forget that.

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Recently, I solved a genealogical mystery that I’d had for many, many years. As fellow genealogists, you can imagine how immensely satisfying this was. The solution utilized many tools, but black newspapers and the ease with which we can now search some of them deserves the biggest praise for solving the puzzle. My friend Tim Pinnick, who offers a class in newspapers at Family Tree University and a free e-newsletter, has been preaching and teaching about black newspapers for years.  He has even written a book on the topic, which I would highly recommend for your personal library.

The puzzle starts in Hardin County, TN, where one branch of my research is centered. The 1880 census showed two black men named “James Holt”, around the same age. One was living with his brother, one was newly married and living with his wife. For years I thought they were the same man, and the census taker had made an error. Only through deed records did I realize they were different men. The marriage of the 2nd James was not shown in marriage records, but his wife is listed in the land records when he is selling land, thus delineating him from the other James, who had a different wife at the same time. To further confuse—the 2nd James married the sister of the wife of the 1st James. But I digress.


About 4 years ago, I found this 2nd James living in Obion County, TN in 1900. I was pretty sure it was the same man (his kids had names like Phlenarie, Ferdinand & Ollie), but he had a different wife (Alora). His occupation was listed as a minister. And that’s where my trail ran cold—again. I simply could never find him again and realized he was probably moving a lot with the church. This is the 1900 entry for him & his family:


A family relative had saved oral history, pictures & other memorabilia with regard to this family. One photo showed a well-dressed black couple labeled “Mr. and Mrs. George and Ollie Knucklis.”

A separate postcard was addressed to “Aunt Nannie” and was signed Ollie. Perhaps this Ollie was the daughter of James Holt listed in the 1900 census? That hunch turned out to be right. The photographer’s studio from the picture was located in Chattanooga. It is there in 1930, and 1910 that I found the couple living. However, in 1920 I found them in Indianapolis, IN (Ollie was misspelled as Dollie). Hmm.

I used the Indiana records at Familysearch.org (marriage & death) to try to look for Ollie or any of her siblings in Indianapolis & I found a Ferdinand Holt who looked promising as her brother. Ancestry had indexed the Indianapolis Star newspaper, and a search in that paper turned up a court case (my specialty) between George & Ollie Knucklis. James Holt was listed next to Ollie’s name—could that be her father? It had not occurred to me to look for him in Indianapolis. I don’t know why–I suppose I was focused on the children by now.

A census search for him found a James Holt, born in TN, living in Indianapolis in 1920 & 1930 but the wife is different (now Harriet) and his occupation is lawyer. Well, this couldn’t be the man I was looking for—he was a minister after all…right? Short answer, of course it was him. My GenealogyBank subscription finally got put to good use, and I searched the black newspaper The Indianapolis Freemen which is archived on the site. Searching James Holt (and later J.M. Holt) turned up numerous articles on this popular, politically active man. I learned that he had been a prominent minister—then went to law school at Central in Louisville & became a lawyer! A profile in the paper even turned up a picture of him—genealogy solid gold:

Articles described his ministry in other states (he was all over the place) including his stint in Jacksonville, FL which is where he was in the 1910 census. I was able to eventually find his subsequent marriages and also his death certificate in Indianapolis. The marriage record for his son Ferdinand made everything conclusive when it noted his parents were James Holt and Mintha Barnes. Wow.

Part of what also helped is simply growing in my analytical skills over the years. I don’t think I could have solved this five years ago. I wrote up a five-page PDF file of this research and my approach to solving it, if you’re interested email me and I’ll send you a copy.

This is the part of genealogy that just makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up! The story the newspapers outlined about this James Holt—the son of an enslaved woman—was fascinating. Without the Indianapolis Freemen newspaper, I would never have realized this was the same person…there were just too many changes.  Just another chapter I have reclaimed from the annals of our precious often-times lost history.

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There are two terrific websites I want to tell you about, very appropriate for this year’s 150th celebration of the start of the Civil War.

The first is Last Road to Freedom. The site creator and founder Alisea McLeod has put together this website as a resource about Contraband Camps. This is a sometimes-mentioned, but rarely well-understood topic and it is central to the African-American experience during the Civil War since so many enslaved persons took their own freedom by escaping behind Union lines. Ms. McLeod provides a wealth of information here, but the icing on the cake is her downloadable register of the over 3,000 people who lived at one of the camps in Memphis, Tennessee.   What initially blew my mind was the column containing the name of the former slaveholder! As genealogists researching African-Americans, this information is critical to getting to our ancestors before 1865 (if they were still enslaved). Ms. McLeod contacted me because individuals with one of my surnames (Harbor) showed up on the register, as well as more than 20 people from one of my primary research areas (Hardin County, Tennessee). The register also notes where the individuals had come from, and so you can see counties from Northern Alabama and Mississippi as well as other central and western Tennessee counties–gives you a good sense of from where the enslaved had fled. The hope is that other registers exist and may be found and transcribed.

The 2nd website I want to highlight is a blog called Civil War Memory that is done by historian and teacher Kevin Levin. I found this site by googling something one day and subsequently spent hours reading his various posts. He has a special interest in the topic of “Black Confederates” and I suggest you poke around when you have some time. He has done a tremendous amount of work not only gathering resources but also pointing out and battling present day sources of mis-information in this area. The vast majority of blacks who were given pensions by the Confederate Army (actually the individual states gave the pensions) were either impressed as laborers, or served as personal servants to their masters. They were allowed pensions because of this. They were not considered “soldiers”—only a very small number at the very end of the war were considered soldiers. But read his posts on the subject as he says it much better than I could. He’s got so much good information on this blog, I try to catch up on a few old posts every day. He also did an interesting post recently on Lionel Ritchie’s segment on the show  “Who Do You Think You Are?” Here are a few more posts I enjoyed, but there are lots more:

I hope you enjoy these sites as much as I did and spread the word

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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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Well, it’s been awhile since I posted and that’s because I had a bouncing baby boy in August who has been keeping me happily busy. I haven’t had much time to do genealogy, to say the least. But I think in the next few months I can start putting a toe back in the genealogy waters every now and then.

This was actually one of my major genealogical finds of 2010, but I didn’t get a chance to post it.  Back in July 2010, I was cleaning out my office (in typical nesting mode) and ran across some print outs I’d made years ago from one of the Southern Claims Commission Indexes. I had never found any relatives when I searched these before, but I’ve posted about the great finds that are possible . The particular indexed name I had was a white man who, oral history said, had fathered a child with my 4th great grandmother, Margaret Barnes in Hardin County, Tennessee. His name was Ben Rush Freeman. I had never found anything in many years of researching, so I didn’t think much of it, but I figured since Footnote had most of the Southern Claims Commission files online, I might as well look before I chuck that piece of paper.

I can’t adequately explain to you the utter astonishment and then rush of excitement as I pulled up Ben’s 45+ page file and found that Margaret was one of his witnesses!!! This was stunning first and foremost because I only have information about Margaret from one court case, oral history, and census records. She was born in the early 1800s, so I had sort of given up the hope that I would find anything significant about her.

The Southern Claims Commission was set up to repay loyal Southerners who had had property taken or destroyed by the Union Army during the Civil War. One had to have witnesses to attest to the damages, and many times, for slaveowners, they had former slaves as witnesses. Margaret testified to the fact that hogs were slaughtered, horses taken, and some other parts of the crop. It gave her age, and stated that she was not owned by Mr. Freeman but worked for Mrs. Barnes.

Margaret Roberts had been a freedwoman in Hardin County, or a “bonded slave” as they referred to her. She was “purchased” by John Barnes in 1838, and appeared on the census in his household in 1840 and 1850. By 1860, she had taken on the surname Barnes, John had died and she was living with his widow Elizabeth. Margaret was listed as a mulatto woman with several mulatto children. She last makes an appearance in the census in 1870.

Another thing that makes this file critical to my research is that her son, Campbell Barnes, also testifies! Campbell was listed on the census record with his mother in 1850, but I only could locate a “Cam Barnes” living in neighboring McNairy County in 1880. I thought this might be her son—and this file confirmed that it was, when it noted that he lived in McNairy County. His testimony also stated that he went away with and joined the Union Army, and returned after the war (I haven’t found him listed formally as a soldier). When asked who he had been owned by, he reiterates that he was never a slave, but that his mother had been a free woman and was purchased by John Barnes as a young girl. Again, this confirmed information I had already discovered. This find also, in my mind, greatly increases the chance that Ben Rush Freeman was indeed the father of at least one of her children. She states in her file that she was sent over frequently to help him by Mrs. Barnes. Having her in such continual close proximity makes sense.

Here is copy of the first page of Margaret’s testimony. You can see “col’d” is listed after her name, identifying her as a colored woman (click on the image to see it enlarged).

I never found Margaret here in the past because the Southern Claims Commission files weren’t online when I first looked at them and I didn’t think to pull Ben Freeman’s file at the time. But what I’ve learned, and hopefully you can benefit from, is to also search these files for neighbors, relatives and associates of your slaveowner. I thought it interesting that many of Ben’s close family members and friends also filed claims. Of course, there were just tidbits here about Margaret, as the primary purpose of the testimony was to ascertain the facts about the lost goods. But every bit counts. I kept wishfully thinking, “Why don’t they ask her parent’s names???!”

 

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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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The slavery period remains the one of the most difficult for African-Americans to research. Maybe this is why that period is a particular point of interest to me, and why I spend lots of time on this blog on that subject. Recently Family Tree Magazine did a very good article on another research tool I use often: Online Books (August 2010 issue).

I have found this to be very useful in researching slaveowners. The article points out 6 major sources:

  1. Ancestry.com (Stories, Memories and Histories)
  2. BYU Family History Archives (free)
  3. Google Books (free)
  4. HeritageQuest Online (only through subscribing libraries)
  5. Internet Archives (free)
  6. World Vital Records (paid subscription site)

I’ll show you a few examples.

I was researching possible slaveowners in Lawrence County, Alabama, specifically the Sherrod family. I went to Ancestry, their Stories, Memories and Histories Collection which I have marked as a Quick Link. Using their search template and searching on the name ‘Ben Sherrod’, I quickly pulled up the following book: “Recollections of the Early Settlers of North Alabama,” which was originally published in 1899:

Starting on page 233 was a fairly lengthy biographical sketch of the exact family of which I am interested in. The text doesn’t reproduce well here, but here is a page:

This gave me valuable clues and starting points; now I knew what dates to search for probate records. I was also able to understand the connections between the Sherrods and the other names I had seen on the 1870 census, especially the wive’s maiden names and father’s names which we all know also need to be checked as possible sources for slaves.

In the second example here, I used Google Books. I searched for the terms “Hyman” and “North Carolina” as that was the family of interest. This turned up the excellent book, “The Southern Debate Over Slavery: Petitions to Southern Legislatures, 1778-1864.” This book contained a petition from one of the slaves of the slaveowning family I was researching. He had a fascinating tale of his own, but he also provided details ( such as who he was owned by and sold to, when the person died, who the administrator was,  his master’s wishes for his freedom, etc.)that helped me reconstruct the family:

I searched World Vital Records (their Social, Regional and General Histories collection) on Michael Holt from North Carolina, voila, I found a 700+ page book entitled, “The Descendants of Michael Holt.” Keep in mind, however, that information for the family you need may be included in collateral lines covered in a book that is NOT in the title of the book, so be sure to do full-text searches when you can. The title of the book may just say “The Potters and Allied Families” and the surname focus of your search may be hidden in that ‘Allied Families’ referred to in the title.

Ancestry has a pretty good search function. I have to say both BYU and the Internet Archives websites do not have very good search functions, and will take considerably longer to search, although Internet Archive has a beautiful interface for actually reading books online. HeritageQuest, although only accessible through some libraries, has an excellent search function and downloadable PDF files of the books. Google Books, as we all should know by now, does not always provide views of the entire book, and doesn’t always allow easy download (I basically do screen captures when this is the case.)

It is true that the larger and more prominent slaveowners will be the best represented when searching, but that doesn’t mean there is no useful information on smaller slaveowners. There is. In the difficult quest for the slaveowning family, we’ve got to make diligent use of all resources at our disposal, and I rarely find the search in online books discussed or mentioned. I hope to encourage you to add this to your arsenal when researching locations and possible slaveowners.


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