Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Reconstruction Era’ Category

I recently got around to transcribing my gggrandfather John W. Holt’s will. John lived in Hardin County, TN, and spent his childhood enslaved by Giles Holt, along with his mother Malinda and siblings. By the early 20th century, John W. Holt was said to be the wealthiest black in the county, owning hundreds of acres of land. At one point, he was Postmaster at the town bearing his name (Holtville), had a school named Holtville, and he was a merchant who owned a country store. This is a photo of John and his wife Mary Garrett:

John and Mary Garrett

His standing in the community is also evident by the number of times he was named in other wills as executor, and served as security in numerous land records. He first purchased over 200 acres of land with a brother and possible cousin only six years after the end of the Civil War. I suspect, but have no evidence, that his father was a white man.

His will, written in 1911, is one of the most detailed I have ever seen in all the years of my research. John died in 1925 and his will had 15 individual items and ran over six written pages. The level of specificity is what is most notable. He clearly had been well-schooled in estate and land matters, although where and how he attained that knowledge remains a mystery.

He names his son Troy as executor but wisely places his vast estate within a trust that is set to last for twenty years:

“Out of the rents and income of the estate, the trustee will,
 during the said period of twenty years, pay all taxes assessed
against the estate, will keep the real estate in reason-
able repair…”

Troy was also the trustee, and was to use the proceeds from the trust to care for his mother Mary and other siblings, all who were named. John even detailed the meaning of his words, so there would be no doubt as to the purpose of his trust:

“…My object being to provide first, from the
income of my estate, a support for my widow and
minor children, that is for my widow as long as she
lives and my minor children as long as they or any
one of them are minors (whenever the word support is
used it is intended to embrace and include all necessary
food and clothing)…”

John W. Holt had a bout with infidelity, which produced a son named Hundley. Hundley is mentioned throughout the will, his inheritance being only one half of what the other siblings would receive:

“…the remainder of said rents, profits and
income in his hands be distributed by him annually
amongst all of my children, equally, except that Hundley
Holt shall be paid only one half of a child’s share in
said annual disbursements during said period of twenty
years…”

John also directed that the trustee was not empowered to:

“sell, mortgage or otherwise dispose of any of the real estate for any purpose, and any such attempted disposition shall be void.”

The repercussions were clear for disobeying this directive:

“…None of the beneficiaries under this will shall
possess the power or authority to dispose of any part
of my estate, herein willed and devised within said
period of twenty years. No deed or bargain and sale
can be made by either of them, no mortgage deed
of trust or other transfer can be made, and no
conveyance or alienation of any kind in anticipation
can be made by either, but such power is expressly
withheld, and any attempt on the part of
either to so dispose of the same will operate as an
immediate forfeiture of the interest in my estate.”

Oral history when I first started researching this line was that the land was in fact, quickly sold out of the family. I’d like to research whether or not his son Troy followed the letter of the will, which would mean that no sale or mortgage could take place until 1945.

Whatever the case, this remains an extraordinary example of the heights some of our formerly enslaved ancestors were able to reach because of education, industry and their own will to succeed.

Read Full Post »

All of us know about the horrid history in this country of slavery, racism, white supremacy, Jim Crow and the types of discrimination that persist to this very day. Violence was at the core of those systems. Without violence, those systems couldn’t exist. Far from being passive or willing subjects, African peoples and their descendants fought back in myriad ways (so did Native Americans). That’s why slave rebellion plots were often dealt with by using ever-increasing levels of depravity, such as burning bodies and cutting off heads.

The practice of lynching is what I call the original American brand of terrorism. I see a clear difference in these types of murders; they were meant to send a message to the community and to elicit a set of behaviors that maintain white rule. This is evident in the detailed files on  lynching that the NAACP kept (and their subsequent push for legislation), as well as the efforts of brave journalists like Ida B. Wells-Barnett. It must have been a frightening time in general, but especially to our ancestors who risked their lives to try to vote, buy land, educate blacks or any of the other things that whites believed looked too much like being an actual citizen. I am glad I live in a time and place where I can have friends and family of all colors, ethnicities, religious beliefs and pretty much anything else.

Early in my research, oral history from Tennessee ancestors noted the lynching of one of my Holt ancestors. Never did I think I would find documented proof, but I did. The local paper, which in the 1880s and 1890s was replete with mentions of race riots and lynchings in other parts of the country wrote the following in May, 1887:

“George Holt, col., who lived near Sibley met his fate by the rope route last Friday.”

George Holt

I was shocked by the sarcasm and  brevity of it, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. They had the audacity to write “Suicide” as the header, which of course it was not. George, I later discovered, was the brother of my gggrandfather John W. Holt. He owned hundreds of acres of land at the time of his death, and he had a young wife and children. This was a  rural West Tennessee community that never had a large black population. Though slavery and racism existed, this small African-American community must have been rocked and terrified y the act of terror. The reasons for the lynching are lost to time, although some of George Holt’s descendants believe it had to do with a dispute over his land.

Did he know his assailants? How did his family go on after that? I don’t know how. Do you leave the area? How do you rebuild? Is revenge ever an option? His brother John W. became one of the most prominent blacks in the county– land wealthy, a merchant and former Postmaster. But even his own brother was not untouchable. How did John react? I am in awe of their strength and endurance.

These are questions for which I’ll never know the answer. Our ancestors take many of their secrets with them, never to be discovered. Years ago, while searching through the local black cemetery in the community, I dug through the bushes and came face-to-face with George Holt’s headstone. I remember the vines and roots had come out of the ground and were wrapped around the headstone, eerily reminiscent of the way he died. I got chills up my spine. When I find that picture (one of those prehistoric pre-digital pictures) I will post it here.

Today, I am remembering George Holt and all the others, named and unnamed, who met their fate “at the hands of persons unknown.” May they rest in eternal peace.

PS—Check out the Project HAL database—Historical American Lynchings

Read Full Post »

Joseph Harbour

Every family tree, whether we want to own up to it or not, has its share of criminals, vagabonds, shysters, thieves, polygamists, deserters, roughnecks, liars and cheats. While lots of things change, human behavior doesn’t.

One of my shadier ancestors was Joseph Harbour, my 4th great grandfather, who was born in September 1852 in Hardin County, Tennessee. He actually even looks like he was up to no good, doesn’t he? In the early years of my research, he was a mystery. He only appeared in the 1880 census, married to Hannah Barnes, with two children, Doss and Odie. I assumed he died after that.(I’ve since learned that we must always remember our assumptions and be ready to revisit them in light of new evidence.)

I’ve blogged before about various types of court records, and in my lecture on court records, Joseph is the star. Only when I finally got up enough nerve to venture into local court records did more details about his life emerge. It was amazing to me that this behavior was done during the era of Reconstruction, where racial hatred and violence rose to unprecedented levels.

Joseph Harbour appeared in the criminal court records from at least 1882 to 1897. In 1882, he had been charged with profanity. The court minutes alleged that he stood out in front of a church house and said:

“…let any [insert profanity] man report [me] that wants to and by God it won’t be good for him…I am a [more profanity] on wheels…I dare any man to report me…”

I guess someone called his bluff and actually reported him! Sounds like he may have been drinking to me. The records go on to show that Joseph left his first wife and children to marry another woman, Rachel Shannon. Before his marriage to Rachel, the court charged them both with Lewdness (my mind can only imagine what they were caught doing). Our ancestors were truly reality shows before reality shows came to be! For the next decade, Joseph proved to be a constant presence at the courthouse:

Amazingly, Joseph escaped all the charges with fines, even the more serious charge of attempted manslaughter.

Joseph’s escapades must have caused Rachel to contemplate whether taking Joseph from first wife Hannah was a good idea. By July of 1895, Rachel filed divorce papers against Joseph with the Circuit Court. Their divorce papers detailed a violent and troubled marriage with both charging the other with adultery. In addition, Rachel stated that Joseph “threatened to kill her,” while Joseph responded that “the child born during their marriage was not his child.” Their divorce was granted in 1896, after testimony from witnesses on both sides. I have heard of some crazy divorces in my time, but my goodness!

After the divorce, Joseph Harbour disappeared from the written record in Hardin County, however, some of his descendants remain living in the county today. Let me state for the record, they are lovely, lovely people;)

Now I understand why his first wife Hannah, when asked her marital status in 1900 answered that she was a widow (leading me to believe that for many years). I guess he was dead to her, LOL.

1900 census

Read Full Post »

Some months ago, another interesting record set appeared on Ancestry: “Alabama Convict Records, 1886-1952.” I lecture on court records, so these types of records always get extra attention from me. If you watched “Slavery By Another Name” which aired on PBS in February, these type of records will come to mind. If you missed it, you can watch the whole episode online, but I highly recommend reading the book itself, which is much richer. I blogged about this book sometime ago. Also, Bill Moyer’s interview with the author is quite good.

Alabama was one of the worst perpetrators of convict leasing in the decades after the Civil War. Now that I’ve traced my Fendricks and Springer ancestors back to Alabama, I’m on the hunt for record sets to review.

Ancestry includes a some information on the source; these records are state records, ledgers that were filled in by hand with varying degrees of detail. I perused these records for quite sometime. There were whites and blacks convicted, but I’d be curious as to whether the percentage of blacks convicted was higher. I saw a few women and some young teenagers that today, of course, wouldn’t be incarcerated with adults.

Some of the records contain case numbers, and just to satisfy my curiosity I may one day try to find out more information about the crimes they were convicted for. I saw lots of larceny, grand larceny, assault, attempted murder and a few first degree murders. There were men convicted for running distilleries, which must have been rampant. I also saw a young black man convicted of rape, and his entry includes a date of death: I wonder if the rape was for a white woman and whether or not he was lynched? Most of the ones I viewed were eventually released. The prisoners are also referenced as being in certain “camps.”

If you have Alabama ancestors that “disappeared” for a few years, check out these records. There is also a related database on Ancestry called “Alabama Death Record of State Convicts, 1843-1951”. I didn’t find anyone in my family (not yet anyway), but these were still a valuable part of the social history and landscape of our ancestor’s lives.

Here are a few examples of the records I found (click on the image to see it magnified):

Read Full Post »

My Face is Black Is True

Recently, Ancestry somewhat quietly rolled out the Ex-Slave Pension database which contains Correspondence and Case Files from the National Archives. I was excited because I had always wanted to take a look at these records but hadn’t gotten around to it yet over the years. I first heard about these records when Mary Frances Berry wrote a book about them in 2006, called My Face is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations.”

In short, it is about the movement to secure pensions from the U.S. government to former slaves. The idea for the movement was inspired by the military pensions that were provided to Civil War soldiers; some thought that the government should play a role in also helping ex-slaves, many of whom were infirm and destitute. Several groups were formed that functioned somewhat like other beneficent groups of the era, with their primary purpose being to lobby and influence the government to provide pensions. The National Archives published an excellent article on these records in their Prologue magazine.

This is one of those things that I couldn’t believe wasn’t covered or taught in schools, but I have since abandoned that silly notion anyway. We simply have to educate ourselves and hopefully others. The Ancestry site provides a brief historical background, but I encourage those interested to read Ms. Berry’s book on the subject. This is a fascinating piece of history and I wanted to just share some of the interesting documents I found.

For a small number of very lucky people, you might uncover the name of that elusive slaveowner. This page is from a register of one of the groups–these people are mostly from Boone Cty, Missouri:

Register of slaves

The government received thousands of letters about the pensions. This is a letter from William Brent of Henderson, KY and names his slaveowner as well:

William Brent letterThe government eventually used an enormous amount of time and energy to go after, arrest and crack down on these ex-slave pension groups, who they largely believed to be fraudulent and criminal. Here are three examples:

Letter 1

Letter 2

To a suspected agent

Isaiah Dickerson was one of the prominent officers who was targeted and eventually tried. If you were one of this descendants, wouldn’t this deposition be wonderful?

The document below was submitted from one of the ex-pension groups listing birthdates of former slaves:

Take a look at these incredible records. If anyone finds a direct connection, please share it here to inspire others!

Read Full Post »

Freedmen’s Bureau records are a good example of “needle in a haystack” records for those doing African-American genealogical research. They are voluminous and rich, but they are notoriously difficult to approach. Most aren’t indexed; heck, most aren’t even paginated. That they were governed by the military, and arranged as such— is itself another obstacle. The National Archives won a congressional grant years ago to microfilm the originals, which was long overdue, but they still remain an uphill challenge to navigate.

Because of this, I usually recommend to my students that these be one of the last record types to search. They are an important resource, but most of the time you will be forced to read each page of the microfilm and that is not for the feint of heart. If you find something, it’s usually something really worthwhile. I myself have never found anything about my ancestors directly, although I’ve searched hundreds of pages in many different states. I offer here a process for those of you just starting to tiptoe into the murky waters of Freedmens Bureau records.

1. Start with the Field office records. You can download a copy of the descriptive pamphlet for your state on the lower right hand column of this page at the National Archives website.  Each pamphlet will tell you exactly what each roll of film contains. These booklets also provide excellent condensed histories about the Freedmen’s Bureau operations in that state and they also contain great pointers to other relevant books and articles. Pay close attention to the descriptions of what happened in that state. This period of time is very important in the lives of our ancestors, so we want to mine this resource for as much information as possible.

2. Next, print a copy of a map of your research state—you’ll need to find one online that has major cities identified. Using the Freedmen’s Bureau pamphlet for your state, find the sections that identify the locations of the field offices. On the map you printed out, mark each city that had a field office. For example, I’ve marked field office sites for Alabama on the image below.

AL Freedmens Bureau

The tricky part is finding those cities that no longer exist today; Google searches enabled me to find locations for those former cities that are now ghost towns. Also, realize that the closest office to your ancestor might be in the next state over if they lived close to the border. My ancestors from Hardin County, TN often got married in Corinth, MS, because it was closest to where they lived.

3. Now you can start with the place where your ancestor lived, and start looking at records in the nearest field offices. For example, my ancestors lived in Lawrence and Colbert Counties, Alabama—so I have focused first on field office records in Tuscumbia, Athens and Huntsville.

4. Every field office had a different set of records. Use the descriptive pamphlet and read the descriptions of the type of records available for those field offices. Look first for any labor contracts. You can see examples of these at the wonderful Freedmens Bureau online website. Former slaves often had contracts with former slaveowners. Beware that there was no “standard” contract, so some were clear and detailed, identifying entire families, while others looked more like chickenscratch on a napkin.

4. After labor contracts, check to see if there are any local marriage records. Many of those were sent to the headquarters office in Washington D.C. Read this article to find out more details about Freedmens Bureau marriages. Many of those are starting to pop up online, like this one indexing marriages in Mississippi, and here’s an index that I transcribed for freedmen in Wayne County, TN:

5. I next check letters received and/or sent, but only *if* they are indexed by surname. If not, I save them for last and instead like to look for any rations or provisions issued to freedmen or transportation or employment records. After these, look for any hospital records, school records, or census records taken. For example, the Huntsville office took a census of blacks there in 1865, that includes their name, age, sex, former residence and former slaveowner!

6. After researching these types of records, look through the murders and outrages. Reading of the horror that the freedmen experienced really humbles me. Some areas were worse than others, but imagine having to feel the wrath of the Southerners who had just lost this war. There were so many stories of freedmen who were killed, whipped, raped, those who worked until the crop came in and then were kicked off the farm without pay, those who couldn’t get their children out of the slaveowner’s house…just on and on. I read  story once in an Arkansas record that told of a slave having his penis cut off by the owner—in fact he made another slave actually do it! Horrendous stuff. I read these records to get a feel for the level of violence in the local area. The Freedmen’s Bureau tried to do what they could to adjudicate, but many times the crimes were committed by “persons unknown”. The Freedmens Bureau online site contains some of what you can expect to find in outrages. Put this together with the zeal of the freedmen for education and land ownership, and I believe I can make a case that these former slaves were truly the Greatest Generation.

7. If my head is not spinning yet and my eyes crossed, I may go back and search more diligently through the letters. I rarely check the general or special orders, and/ or circulars.

8. Once I thoroughly examine all the field office records, I work my way up and check any of interest at the State Level (i.e., the Office of the Assistant Commissioners, Quartermaster, Disbursement Officer, etc.), and then lastly I check the Commissioner records at the Washington Headquarters for that state.

Its all an exercise in extreme patience. Some of these records are starting to get transcribed and indexed, but it’s going to be some time before their accessibility is improved to any great extent. I do believe Virginia has their entire series of Freedmens Bureau Field Office records online at Ancestry. I also want to point you to the terrific Powerpoint slides that David Paterson created about searching through Freedmens Bureau records. You can download it at Afrigeneas, under the heading “Resource Guides”.

One final point–don’t neglect to read some of the monthly reports about the local area from the local leadership. Although they are summaries and don’t often list individuals, they are invaluable in helping us better understand the climate in terms of education, violence, and finding work.

I continue my search through these records and dream about the day I find something for my family directly. Tell me—what kinds of genealogical discoveries have you made in Freedmens Bureau records?

Read Full Post »

I was at the Reginald Lewis Museum in Baltimore this past September, presenting my first lecture on using land records effectively. Because it’s  a museum dedicated to African-American history, I wanted to focus not just on genealogical use of the records, but also the unique history between land and African-Americans and its relevance to our family histories.

I started with the failure of Reconstruction to provide former enslaved laborers with  land ownership, dooming most to decades of sharecropping and tenant farming. In spite of that, by 1910, African-Americans had amassed 15 million acres of land, a figure that astonishes me even still today. The great migration north, along with continual discrimination in agricultural subsidies and loans have decimated those numbers today. Obama signed the law in December 2010 that fully funded the landmark Pigman vs. Glickman case, which we should all know about. The Department of Agriculture admitted to historical discrimination, and black farmers were awarded billions in the largest class action settlement ever.

The subject fascinated me more and more as I researched in preparation for this lecture. As an agricultural nation, land was central to our experience. Heck, it’s why we were brought here to begin with. In some of my slavery studies, I have found that some former slaves felt emotionally tied to the land they worked; some determined that it was as much theirs as their owners.

Think about how it wasn’t enough to just buy the land: who was going to provide seed & fertilizer? How were you going to get animals and tools? Like everywhere else, the South moved on credit.  These things lead you to see how hard a proposition it was  to even approach independence. Never mind the racism and violence and illiteracy on top of all that.

I think about my 3rd great grandfather, John W. Holt, who was the largest black landowner in Hardin County, TN in the early 20th century. His first land purchase (with his brothers) was only 6 years out of slavery. All of this and at his death, his son sold most of that land out of the family. Also, consider that many families who later migrated North were simply not as connected to the land as their parents, and many lost it to tax sales or simply sold it because of that.

One thing that particularly struck me was the use of partition sales by speculators and developers to wrest control of inherited land from heirs. The majority of black farmers who owned land did not leave wills, so their land was inherited by spouses and children. All someone had to do was buy one share from one of those parties, and they could now force a sale of all the land. Some of these sad stories will take your breath away.

I don’t think I’ll ever think about land the same way again. Take a look at some of the links below, but more importantly, think about the history of land as it relates to your family lines. In what ways did it make or break their fortunes? Did some choose to stay on land owned by previous owners? For how long? Which lines were able to eventually purchase land, and did they end up losing it? Do you have pictures of the old homeplaces that no longer stand? What crop did your ancestors grow?

Black Farmers Win Settlement; Congress passes legislation

Black Farmers Losing Land

Homecoming: Black Farming and Land loss

Timeline of Black Land Loss

A Vanishing Breed, Black Farm Owners in the South, 1651-1982

Tell me, what stories about your ancestors relationship to the land have you discovered in your research? If you haven’t searched the records fully yet, what has been your biggest obstacle?

In Part 2 of this blog post, I’ll provide some basic definitions and examples of deed types that we can build upon in future posts.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 89 other followers