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black-voting-rights
I attended the National Genealogical Society’s annual conference last week in Richmond, and had a wonderful time catching up with old friends, making new ones, taking classes and eating out every night for dinner which I haven’t done in years! For those of you who haven’t attended an NGS (or FGS) annual conference, I hope you will do so in the future. Now on to my post:

The challenge to find the last slaveowner for those researching African-American ancestry can be daunting. We need to trace our lines back as close to emancipation as possible and the 1870 population census becomes a critical document. If you can’t locate your ancestors in 1870, you can use other documents to record their presence in a particular time and place. Voter registration records are a widely untapped source, and although in most cases they are incomplete, they should always be searched.

For my friend Carole Hyman, we traced her ancestor Arden Hyman to the 1880 census in Edgecombe County, NC, but could not find him in 1870.  However, searching the 1867 voter registration record for Edgecombe County showed us that our Arden was in fact there:

ArdenVoter

It also showed another Hyman—Zion Hyman—noted as living in the same district. Finding those names together uncovered an important link to Arden’s enslaved roots. That “Zion” was likely Arden’s father Zion who was named in one of Arden’s marriage records. That connection helped us identify his likely slaveowner:

Arden mrg

By the end of 1866, Radical Republicans were in control of Congress and wanted to ensure some civil rights for blacks in the defeated south, but the now- President Andrew Johnson (who came to power after Lincoln’s assassination) wanted to deal with the South more leniently, and firmly believed in white supremacist notions of black people’s inferiority. He also wanted little to no retribution for former Confederates, and this clash set the scenes for what would be very familiar to most of us watching Congress today.

Important bills were constantly vetoed by Johnson (like the Freedmen’s Bureau bill and the Civil Rights bill); but the strength of the numbers of Radical Republicans enabled them to override those vetoes. Finally, the Congress decided to impeach Johnson and just get him out of the picture altogether. The House voted to impeach Johnson, but impeachment lost in the Senate by one vote. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (and later 1875) and 4 Military Reconstruction Acts. This divided the South into 5 Military districts each run by a Union General (see map below-click to enlarge). Notice that Tennessee did not go through Congressional Reconstruction and had rejoined the Union prior to enactment of these laws:

image001
As a condition of re-joining the Union, the Southern States were required to ratify the 14th amendment, conferring citizenship to former slaves, and after 1870, also the 15th amendment. Reconstruction, the name given to the period between the end of the war in 1865 and about 1877 (although the opinion varies) was a volatile time period that I’ve discussed here before.

Take a walk around the web and read about the battles between the Congress and President Johnson.  There’s much more to the story that deserves a post of its own.

The brief taste of voting rights for blacks, which beginning in 1870 ushered in the first wave of blacks to serve in the U.S. Congress would not last. Violence and intimidation increased against blacks who dared to vote. The Ku Klux Klan was born. After 1877, Democrats start to take back state legislatures and later re-wrote their constitutions with laws designed to circumvent the 15th amendment, but designed to strip blacks of the right to vote using grandfather clauses, poll taxes, literacy tests and other tactics. Supreme Court cases like Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 and the 1883 cases that overturned the Civil Rights Acts of 1875  all closed the door to black voting and led to the resurgence of white dominance over black lives. By 1900, southern blacks were almost completely wiped out of the electorate.

Some of the voting records created during Reconstruction survive.  Here are some of the voting records that I am aware of for the various states (not available for all counties):

Tennessee, 1891 Voter’s List. Available on Ancestry, gives election district, name, sometimes race, and age.

Alabama: 1867 Voter Registration. searchable online at the AL archives. Some of these include length of time in county. (also check Alabama’s 1866 state census)

http://www.archives.alabama.gov/voterreg/index.cfm

South Carolina: 1867-68 Voter Registrations available for some counties, Clarendon County is online (also check South Carolina’s 1869 state census and militia enrollment)

Georgia: 1867-69 Returns of Qualified Voters and Reconstruction Oath Books. Available on Ancestry.

Texas: 1867-1869 Voter Registration Lists. One of the best resources of its kind, these list how long the person has been in that county, in the state and what state they migrated from. Available on Ancestry. Someone posted a PDF of these records for Tyler County.

North Carolina: A book entitled “North Carolina Extant Voter Registrations of 1867,” by Frances Wynne lists records from 17 counties. This book is what led me to the Hyman discovery. Originals should be at the State Archives in Raleigh.

Louisiana: I find references to records available for New Orleans, but no info for other counties in Louisiana.

Mississippi: their records are strangely missing (?).

Virginia: Search by county in the Library of Virginia’s catalog, and search under the heading “Election records.” Some records exist, although many seem to be from the 1880s, 1890s.

Arkansas: The Arkansas Genealogical Society offers a “1867 Voter’s List” on CD for 25 counties.

Related to these records are the Poll Taxes that many southern states created to try to disenfranchise blacks. If they are available, they are also an excellent source to locate your ancestor between censuses. In one of my research counties, Hardin County, Tennessee, the tax collector wrote valuable notes beside each name like “dead,” too old,” or “gone.” These were found in county court minutes.

Some of these counties have voter registers through the 1880s and 1890s—be sure to check those as well. In various state archives, voting records are often “hiding” under Secretary of State Records. Also, check the online Family History Catalog for your state and county. They have a category called “Voting Registers.”

Please post a comment if you can add to the list above or have a story about how a voting record helped your research.

Note: Some of the richest records relating to the violence during Reconstruction, other than those found in Freedmens Bureau records, are the Congressional hearings that took place on the Ku Klux Klan the violence in places like Mississippi. You can read an excerpt here.

congressman

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Boy, that Familysearch.org is going to eventually crush the major paid genealogy websites. They have been uploading Freedmens Bureau records and this weekend I lost my mind when I found out that they had uploaded the Field Office records for Maryland. My entire week is shot. Look at what they have thus far:

On FamilySearch

I did a post on researching in Freedmens Bureau records sometime ago. NARA also has a page dedicated to links and resources about the Bureau records and they have a finding aid that an intern wrote from the Atlanta branch of NARA that is tremendously helpful for genealogists using these records. You will definitely want to download the descriptive pamphlet from the NARA website for your research state before diving into these records. Making these records accessible online is a major step forward: the records are notoriously complicated and mostly unindexed and unpaginated.

But the rewards are many, even if you find nothing for a specific ancestor. These records illuminate the post-war lives of former slaves and the struggles they faced like no other record set. I stayed up way too late last night paging through the records for Montgomery County, Maryland. Indeed, I did find a record on one of my ancestors, Nicholas Moccabee:

Nicholas Moccabee

Nicholas Moccabee

Nicholas faced one of the most common problems freedpeople had: trying to get paid for the work they did, many times for a former slaveowner. The records are also replete with the violence meted out on freedpeople during the period, a topic I discussed in my post about reconstruction.

The monthly and annual reports of conditions that the officers had to submit are invaluable. The ones I downloaded last night gave the most complete picture of what my ancestors dealt with in the community in 1866-188, and on the efforts of the freedpeople to create schools, and the Bureau in helping them secure their children back from whites who refused to “release” them, which was a particularly bad problem in Maryland. Maryland illegally “apprenticed” thousands of children, in a blatant effort to extend the reach of slavery.

Familysearch ROCKS! Stay tuned as I’m sure they will continue uploaded records from the other states.

 

 

 

Freedmens Bureau

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I’m continuing my tour through the voluminous information that can be discovered about our African-American ancestors in Freedman’s Bank Records. Last week was the first post in this series, and I’m suggesting that everyone take another look by *browsing* through these records. I’m giving examples in this series of all the things we can uncover.

Many of the African-American groups and institutions like churches and benevolent groups that existed during Reconstruction can be discovered by browsing. This information may not be available anywhere else. Here are a few examples:

The Beaufort, SC branch held several cards for the Sons and Daughters of St, Phillips Calvary Society. Several society leaders are named:

Calvary

Calvary

Mary Roach served as President of the Daughters of Zion No. 2 in Beaufort. Other officers are also named:

Zion

Zion

 

Howell Echolls is the preacher at Freedmans Colored Methodist Church in Huntsville, AL:

Church

Church

His card also shows he was literate as he signed his own name. You’ll want to look for this, because the vast majority of the account holders could not write.

You’ll find groups of people, couples and family members with cards, so don’t stop if you find one match. A close look will show that Howell Echols, pastor of the church above, as well as his wife Ann also held a separate accounts at the branch. Also, notice that Howell’s parents are given as Green and Sallie Buford, but he does not have that surname:

Howell

Howell

 

Ann

Ann

The 1870 census locates the couple, and Howell’s occupation is “Presiding Elder”:

Howell 1870

Howell 1870

Brothers Samuel and Henry Cartwright both had accounts in Huntsville. Samuel named the regiment he served with in the Civil War:

Cartwright

Cartwright

They are living right next to each other in 1870, and Henry’s birthplace of Virginia is matched on the census:

Cartwright 1870

Cartwright 1870

Notice the census left out the “w” in Cartwright.

Lafayette Robinson and wife Fannie had a joint account. The card reveals that his sister Frances is the wife of Sandy Bynum, and his niece Sisia and nephew John (children of Sandy and Frances) also had an account:

Lafayette

Lafayette

 

John

John

 

Sisia

Sisia

The two families lived right next door to one another:

1870 Census

1870 Census

The cards uncover that Frances is Lafayette’s sister. The cards also show something else. Children were encouraged to open accounts. John’s card calls him a “schoolboy” and the census shows he was only 5 years old and his sister was also 5 when an account was opened in their names. The census also shows us that the sistyer’s proper name is Mary, and that “Sisia” must have been a nickname.

Stay tuned next week, when I’ll continue my travels through these amazing records.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Flier

Flier

The records of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company, better known as the Freedman’s Bank, are among the most popular records for those researching African-American roots. Established by Congress in 1865, the Bank was primarily designed to be for the use of the nation’s recently freed four and a half million former slaves. It eventually grew to have 37 branches in 17 states and Washington, D.C. While a laudable effort, the Bank closed its doors after nine years due mainly to corruption and fraud.

The National Archives in College Park, MD, holds the original bank records, and their website contains both a general information sheet as well as a lengthier detailed article about their use. The records are comprised of three general types: Administrative Records, Registers of Signatures of Depositors, and Indexes to Deposit Ledgers. The Registers of Signatures of Depositors are the richest collection and have been digitized.

The availability of these records on Ancestry and Heritage Quest has greatly increased the ease of searching these records. However, most researchers type their ancestor’s names into the search template, and, finding nothing, move on to other records. I’d like to suggest taking a closer look at these records, whether a direct ancestor has been located or not. I think a lot of us are missing a potential match in this important set of records.

First, after searching for known ancestors (using different spellings), I want you to try putting just the county and state in the “birth location” search template; leave everything else blank. What will happen is that you will pull up people born in your target county who, were probably sold as slaves and ended up living somewhere else. Here we can see Lloyd Beckett, currently living in St, Thomas Parish, SC, was born in Montgomery County, MD:

Lloyd

Lloyd

Other than that location search, I want to suggest an alternate strategy of *browsing* these records instead. Find the bank branch nearest your ancestors. For example, if you have relatives in northern Georgia, browse the Atlanta and August branches. If you have relatives anywhere in Maryland or DC, check the DC branch and the Baltimore branch.

Browsing Freedman’s Bank records offers a glimpse into the difficult-to-reconstruct life of the enslaved. It also offers evidence and insight into other aspects of slavery, like the domestic slave trade and kinship networks. As you’ll see in the examples, the cards potentially include several other names of relatives; if you search for one of those names, the correct card may or may not display.

Of course, the content of the cards was largely determined by the person who was filling out the information. Some bank employees wrote sparse information about the depositor, while others filled every space on the card with as much detail as possible.

In all cases, substantial information can be drawn about not just individuals but the entire community by closer inspection. In the next series of posts, I want to highlight some of the information we can glean from Freedman’s Bank records, in the hopes of encouraging us all to look again by browsing this valuable resource. To browse, look to the right side of the screen on Ancestry (on Heritage Browse it is on the top) and choose the dropboxes for state and year: Ancestry screen For my first set of examples, we see enslaved people who were sold away from their families, often during the Domestic Slave Trade. That trade transported over 1 million slaves from the North and Upper South to the newly opened Deep South and western territories and states. Leah Calhome of Alabama, says she was born on the “Easter[n] Shore of Maryland” and laments the siblings she left there: Leah Henry Somers in Memphis, Tenn. Was born in Rappahannock, VA, “sold from Va when 5 years old.” He was “raised” in Fayette County, KY, then “was sold from Fayette Cty to Smith [Cty] when his youngest child was a baby”. His card also tells us his wife Rhody died in Kentucky “5 years before the war”. He could not recall the names of his siblings. Also, his parents full names are given–“Phil Shirley” and “Matilda Stencil.” Henry is not using either of those surnames:

Henry

Henry

Mingo Steele of Huntsville, AL was born in North Carolina. He was “removed to Huntsville” when a boy. His mother was “taken away from Huntsville” when he was a child and he had “not heard from her since”. He had “not heard from his father since he left North Carolina.” His parents names are given as “Ned” and “Hannah”:

Mingo

Mingo

Miller Featherston of Alabama was “took to Miss. ten years ago” and had made her way back to Alabama. She “was parted from her husband ten years ago”: MillerFeatherstone
Samuel Edwards of Alabama was born in West Virginia, and “had 4 brothers but don’t know if any of them are living and one sister but can’t say whether she is living or not”. He names his parents as “Bailey” and “Rachel”. He also served as a soldier in the war in the 42nd Regiment, Company E:

Samuel

Samuel

These cards, and thousands of other primary sources, illustrate the tragic consequences and frequency of slave sales, especially the fact that young children were often separated from parents at very young ages. Stay tuned as we continue to take a new look at the wonders of the Freedmans Bank records.

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In this third and final post, I’d like to share a few more items illustrating the riches that can be found in civil war pension records.

I was surprised at the number of former slaveowners (and whites in general) that supplied testimony to assist their former slaves to gain a pension. I would have thought there’d be more widespread anger at slaves who enlisted in the war. I’m not sure exactly what conclusion to draw from this; perhaps after the war was over, they decided to eventually “let bygones be bygones”.

  •  For the pension of Henry Davy, a request to find his birthdate was sent to the daughter of his former owner, who was now married and living in Atlanta, GA. In trying to confirm his age, Mrs. Smith responded that “the family bible has no record of the colored people.” However, another local white man named G.W. Bryant submitted: “I have seen several men that knowed the pensioner all the way from boyhood. One man is now ninety some odd years and one collard man that was raised with him is now 100 years old. These men will all testify that he is over 80 years old. I will ask you to further consider the old darkies case.”
  •  David G. Taylor, of Roane County, Tenn.,  testified for his former slave Frances Sevier. “I bought her at Kingston, Tenn., about 1862, can’t give the date, I bought her from Paul and McGuinn Traders. She had a former husband named Marsh Sevier, a slave on the Sevier farm just outside of Kingston…He asked me to let him have her for his wife and after talking with him on the subject I consented.” [Frances was 13 years old].
  •  Three children of the former owner of Martha Harbour testified as to her marriage and children with soldier Isaac Harbour. James G. and Elisha Harbour testified they were “sons of Elisha Harbour [her former owner] , who died in the year 1863…” They “do not know what record of birth was kept, but their sister Mrs. Gant was present at the births.” Mrs. Gant testified that she “was living at home with her father [and present] when the children were born and the dates of birth [provided] are correct.”

Finding details about family relationships among enslaved people is difficult to obtain. Civil war pensions do not disappoint in this area:

  •  Eleanor Waters testified during her pension application for husband Harrison Waters’ service. Her cousin Tom was living in her home & an accusation had been made that she had broken up Tom’s marriage and was having a love relationship with him. That claim could have derailed her application, so she tried to clarify the relationship. “My owner in slavery was Mr. James Lucas of Annapolis Pike…and my mother Maria Johnson was a sister of Tom’s mother, Emily Johnson and we are about all of the Johnson family left and we don’t like to separate.” Tom himself reiterated that both their “mothers are dead now. Eleanor and I…are from a family which is mighty nigh extinct as I have only one living brother, Nicholas Johnson and no sisters.”
  •  Martha Davy, during her deposition for her husband Henry’s service, revealed details of her family: “My maiden name was Martha Ann Doran. All my fellow slaves are dead or gone. I have no brothers or sisters living. I have a half sister Ellen Benton living here.
  • Lucinda Jones, testifying for a pension for her father Alfred Suggs stated: “[My] parents were Sallie Ann and Alfred Suggs. [They were] married before the war when no record of any kind was kept of the marriages of the colored people.” 
  •  Henny Rideout of Talbot County, MD, testified for a pension under her son John’s service. During her testimony, she provided names and birth dates of her husband, their 4 children, as well as her husband’s mother. She stated: “…these dates are taken from my bible. In 1864 my husband and I were both free. I was freed about 1850 and my husband in 1848. Our old master leaving in his will that we were to be freed at the age of 31 years.”
  •  Carpenter Eskridge, testifying on behalf of Frances Brown, stated: “The present husband[Winston Brown] of claimant is my nephew. His father was my brother, he was named Jesse Eskridge. The mother of Winston Brown was Malinda Brown.”

And finally, Carpenter Eskridge’s testimony also tells a story too good to leave out: “I was formerly a slave to Sam Eskridge who lived 4 miles below Kingston, Tenn. I was hired to James Sevier when the war broke out and continued to live on the Sevier Place…until General [Nathan Bedford] Forest came in here about Aug. or Sep. 1863 and carried me and some others off with him…we were put in the Confederate service. I cooked for a Capt. Higgins, Marsh drove a baggage wagon and Frank drove a forge wagon. We remained with the Confederates 2 or 3 months…we got a chance to run away together and did so. I got back to Kingston by Christmas in cold weather; said Marsh and I went back to the Sevier Place.” 

I hope these three posts on civil war pensions have suggested new ways to use the information they hold. Whether you find an ancestor who served or not, pulling these records for enslaved people from a specific county or community can open a door into lives of all the slaves living there. These records shed light on everything from post-civil war work, migrations, slaveowners, migrations, family relationships, births and deaths, marriages and children, military service and injuries, as well as the relationship with former owners and other whites after the war.

If you have amazing information you discovered inside a pension file, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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I hope everyone is returning from a wonderful holiday season and excited about a bright New Year.

In Part 1 of this post, we began looking at examples of the riches that can be found in civil war pension records. We’ll continue in this post looking at how the lives of enslaved people are illuminated, both before, during and after the war. The name of the ever-important slave-owner is often mentioned. The role of the “slave neighborhood” is illustrated, as slaves often married slaves living nearby and had neighboring slaves testify on their behalf.

Slave “marriages” were not legally recognized but were often encouraged by masters. Names of colored preachers and church affiliations when given in pensions can provide us with new research avenues. Previous marriages and children hint at the instability caused by slavery.

  • Rachel Orr testified in 1899 that she and Edward Orr were “…married long years before the war by Ephraim Brighton, a colored preacher, in my master William Orr’s house in Danville, Alabama.”
  • George Simpson’s widow Annie testified that she “was a slave of the Rev. Anspach who lived at West River, Anne Arundel County, MD. [Her husband] George was a slave of John Gale on an adjoining plantation and [they were] married by the Rev. in her cabin on his plantation, him reading the service from a book.”
  • Martha Harbour was married to Isac Harbour “…in the month of March 1848 by Matthew Broyles, a colored Methodist preacher, at the plantation of his late master Elisha Harbour in slave form by his consent.”
  •  Caroline Allen, of Memphis, testified that Betty and Jacob Bradley were married “…in my room in this city. Brother Martin, our pastor in charge of Collins Chapel performed the ceremony.” Betty herself added that she “had a husband in slave time in South Carolina. I belonged to Mr. Lewis M. Ayre near Sumpterville, SC and Elias Phoenix, a neighbor’s servant was my husband according to slave custom. We had been married only about a year when I was sold to a “nigger trader” and brought to West Tennessee and bought by Mr. Thomas Kilpatrick (now dead) of Tipton County, TN.  I was then given by him to his daughter Mrs. Cornelia Nelson and went to live with her in Bartlett Station.”

We can get valuable dates of death from the pension files, sometimes before deaths were recorded by the state. Often there are receipts or letters indicating the death of the pension applicant as well, usually the wife or child of the soldier. Applicants submitted these papers in the hopes of getting reimbursed for the costs. Deaths after the war sometimes show the dangerous nature of the jobs freedmen had available to them.

  •  Eliza King testified that her father Edward Hays “…died in July 1879, the year following the yellow fever epidemic.”
  •  Eleanor Waters, of Baltimore, testified that her husband William Harrison Waters died “…on or about the 4th day of April 1882 while working on a steam mill at the corner of Pratt & Fremont, the boiler of which exploded killing him instantly.”
  •  In Caroline Allen’s deposition of Jacob Bradley’s death she says, “I know he died because I sat up with the corpse and went with it to the graveyard and saw his body put in the ground. I think he had consumption, because he had an awful bad cough.” Caroline gave the date more specifically as “occurring “during the yellow fever epidemic about 1878.”
  • W.C. Woods, the white clerk of the county court, testified that soldier Isaac Bailey “…lived near [me] on a small tract of land he purchased [from me]. [I] furnished Isaac means during his last illness. The servants on my place all quit work to attend the burial of Isaac.”

As we can see from above, the files contain not just the dates and names we crave, but also tell us significant details about the slave community. Many files include copies of death certificates, marriage licenses and even pages from bibles. The death certificate below for Harry Brown of Kentucky, under the section for age says, ” an old slave no one knows exact age:”

Harry Brown death

Harry Brown death

I’ll do one more post on this topic in the future, showing a few more ways that pension records are the crown jewel of genealogy records.

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Black Civil War Soldiers

Black Civil War Soldiers

Civil War Pensions remain, in my opinion, the crown jewel of genealogy research for those with enslaved ancestors. The first-hand descriptions of their lives given in the testimonies, both before, during and after the war still take my breath away. I do not have any direct ancestors who served (although I have some collateral), but I have researched soldiers in the counties where my ancestors lived and gotten a rich sense of the times that no other source could come close to describing.

African-Americans from the start of the war clamored to join the Union effort, but were initially repelled in their efforts by the Lincoln administration. Not until the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863 did formal recruitment of enslaved people begin in earnest. Even that went slowly, as many black men reacted to the blatant discrimination of having unequal pay and no black commissioned officers (a few were later commissioned). Frederick Douglass gave impassioned speeches for black men to join the war effort and demonstrate their manhood; two of his own sons would join. In the end, almost 200,000 black men fought in the Union Army & Navy.

The large numbers of escaping slaves, combined with the struggling Northern war effort forced Lincoln to eventually recruitment-broadsidehave to deal with the issue. However, Lincoln’s Republican Party had the destruction of slavery firmly in their party’s platform from at least the 1840s on. Lincoln’s rejection of the Crittenden Compromise before the war started, as well as his push to try to get slave states to abolish slavery on their own are just two of many points that place Lincoln on firm ground in his commitment to ending slavery. James Oakes has written a marvelous book called Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 if you are interested in reading more about the struggle. Ironically, it was the South’s secession that removed the legal protection the states had for slavery; the war opened the doors for Lincoln to use “military necessity” as a way to destroy slavery in the states.

Lincoln had initially tried to avoid freeing and enlisting slaves because he was  afraid that the four border states (Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky & Missouri), who were all slave states, would abandon the Union and join the Confederate war effort. He was in a very precarious position and it’s a nod to his political prowess that he read the national mood correctly. He famously stated, “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we can not hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us.” I love that quote. Lincoln certainly had a way with words.

There are some wonderful places online to find out how to research the courageous black men who served our Nation. The National Archives is ground zero, and the various types of Civil War records they hold can be found here. Of course, the massive Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database lists the soldier’s names and regiment(s), but I absolutely recommend reading the 3 post series on Randy’s Genea-Musings blog about using this database. I learned quite a few things I didn’t know before.My friend Michael Hait also wrote a great post on researching black soldiers. And there is an excellent article on Black Sailors at Prologue Magazine.

I also like the website by Dr. Bronson which explains and describes the various Pension Acts that were passed and the provisions of those Acts. Typical pension files often include several different applications; those often occurred when the Pension law changed. Some files will include applications from the soldier and then after his death, applications from his wife or children.

Today, I am starting a series of posts where I discuss some of the amazing stories and interesting facts found in Civil War pension files. Today’s excerpts are from the pension file of Cap Ross, a former slave living in Colbert County, Alabama who served in the 101st USCT.

Various parts of his deposition give us his background:

 “I belonged to Walter Sherrod during slavery time… I was born near Courtland in Lawrence County, Alabama and was a farm laborer. I enlisted at Huntsville and the regiment stayed there about 2 weeks then went to Nashville where we were mustered in. Our company was guarding the railroad at Scottsboro when we had that little fight…I was slightly wounded in my right foot in a scrimmage…the ball did not go deep and our doctor…took his knife and picked the ball out.”

Cap added this about his service:

 “I was first a Private and promoted to Corporal while in Huntsville and then to a Sergeant for a short time…they reduced me down to Corporal again because I left camp without permission and went to the correll where there were a lot of women.”

Cap, like many former slaves, had no idea exactly how old he was, or exactly when he married, or even exactly the birthdates and ages of his children. Most slaves tried to approximate these dates, but since attaining a pension depended on these very things, a large number of black soldiers ended up with a Special Investigator whose role it was to do just that—to investigate the claim. Another common problem with former slaves was their enlistment under one name, and their later going by a different surname. The investigators had to ferret out false claims (which were rampant). When Cap Ross was asked why he enlisted under the surname “Ross” and not “Sherrod,” his answer was telling:

 “I enlisted under Ross because that was my father’s name. I am generally called Cap Sherrod but I was married under Cap Ross and have voted under the name Ross..A good many people call me Sherrod because I belonged to Sherrod but I calls myself Cap Ross.”

That last statement is pretty powerful; it illustrates the desire of former slaves to exercise their newfound rights as freedmen to identify themselves as they pleased.

The constant movement of former slaves to find work, often sharecropping or living as tenant farmers, is shown in Cap’s description of postwar life:

“I was in Mississippi a part of 1892 then I came back here [Alabama] and stayed the balance of that year [1892] and next. I went to Louisiana and lived on Dr. Gillespie’s plantation near Panola and lived there 3 years then came back here and lived on the Felton place 1 year with Mr. Stretcher, with Jim Houston 1 year, with Captain Kelly 1 year on the Abernathy place, and 2 years with Albert Eggleston last year.” 

Cap Ross’ Special Investigator, held the same prejudices of most white men of his era. He referred to Cap Ross as “an ignorant negro,” but also wrote that Cap had had a “stroke in about July 1902 entirely disabling his right side and he can’t get about at all…he owns absolutely nothing and without question suffers for want of food.” When interviewing Cap Ross’ wife Edith about their childrens’ birthdates, the Special Investigator noted that “she does not seem to be smart enough to know that the younger they are, the more pension they would get.” Notwithstanding his prejudices, the Special Investigator did ultimately assist in Cap and later his wife getting a pension.

I absolutely recommend looking at these records for enslaved people from your research county whether you have an ancestor who served or not. They provide invaluable insight into the lives of slaves. I’ll keep looking at the stories in pension records in future posts. Please share in the comments any stories you have found in this rich resource.

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