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Archive for the ‘Records and Resources’ Category

My maternal ancestors lived in Tennessee. How the state was formed was illustrative of the westward movement of white conquerors, as they removed the indigenous populations (notice I do not say white settlers). The Shomburg website is one of the most detailed, fact filled and visually beautifully black migration websites online today and I encourage you to take some time examining it. You could spend hours pouring over the histories, pictures and maps. I’m going to highlight just a few of my favorites.

This one shows the African-American enslaved population in the original 13 colonies and its rapid change in the late 17th and early 18th century. Not surprisingly, Virginia and Maryland had the highest numbers:

Slavery in the Colonies

Slavery in the Colonies

The next map reminds us that as this conquest was occurring, whites were bringing slaves they already owned and buying slaves via the domestic slave trade. With the official close of the African Slave Trade in 1808, enslaved families were torn apart as they were sold south and west, many of these people who were by now 2nd or 3rd generation American born. One shows relative numbers while the next shows the transportation routes used–notice that states in green had net gains while states in red had net losses in numbers of slaves:

Domestic Slave Trade

Domestic Slave Trade

Domestic Trade Routes

Domestic Trade Routes

We often focus on the southern states with regard to slavery and forget that it was in the Chesapeake that slavery was born in North America. It was old and tired there by the time of the rise of cotton and the newfound wealth that would later happen in the deeper South in the mid-1800s. It’s a point worth remembering: southern and western slave states and territories were filled primarily with slaves bought or sold from the Chesapeake.

Other maps of interest include this one illustrating concentrations of freed blacks:

Freed Blacks

Freed Blacks

And I really enjoyed seeing these maps of African Kingdoms:

African Kingdoms

African Kingdoms

And Africa before European domination:

Islamic Africa

Islamic Africa

Notice how almost the entire northern hemisphere is Islamic, which is what was shown in the TV series Roots with Kunte Kinta.

Lately, I’ve been reading books by Frank Snowden, Cheikh Anta Diop, John Henrik Clarke and others to gain a better understanding of Mother Africa herself. None of this information is taught in US schools.

I think it’s important for us as we research our ancestors, to place them into the broader context of these migratory experiences. As I mentioned above, many of our ancestors who in 1865 were living in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, etc. had their roots in Virginia or Maryland–we can see that by the 1870 census birthdates in many cases. We should also understand that the Domestic Slave Trade, which transported over 1 million people deeper South and west wrought devastating seperation of families as much as the African Slave Trade had a century earlier.

Check out the website and (if you can pull yourself away) let me know what you think.

PS: I also want to give you all a heads up that NARA has released a new Freedmens Bureau finding aid that is probably the most detailed I’ve seen, and also mention the roll-out some months ago of the online genealogy magazine, The In-Depth Genealogist. It’s got good articles and a sleek appearance. Take a look at them both.

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thecivilwarparlor.tumblr.com

thecivilwarparlor.tumblr.com

Everyone knows court records are my very favorite genealogical record, but a very close second are civil war pensions. The depositions from former slaves are one of the few places you’ll find first person accounts of their lives as enslaved people. So, anytime I go to the National Archives in DC, I spend most of my time pulling pension records. As we all know, applicants had to prove their marriages, children, birthdates, service, etc. and for many former slaves, this was a difficult task. Donald Shaffer’s excellent book Voices of Emancipation points out that black applicants had a higher rate of Special Investigations than did their white counterparts, which makes sense since they would not have had the types of “proof” that white and freed people had for many of these life events.

After surviving the process to get the much-needed pension money, some people had their good thing thwarted by those who “dropped dime” on them.

George Holt, later known as George Marsh served in Co. F, 14th Reg, USCT, and provided a deposition that would be solid gold for any of his descendants. Part of it says this:

“ When I was born, I was owned by Solomon Marsh of Dickson County, Tennessee. He also owned my father and mother and my seven brothers and seven sisters [wow!]. All my brothers and sisters are dead, except two: Abraham Marsh now living in Evansville, IN, and my sister Angeline Porter now living in Turnbull, Dickson County, Tenn. When I was a baby, I was given to Elias Holt of Dickson Cty, Tenn.…I was a slave of Elias Holt until the time I enlisted in the army…I served under the name George Holt because I was last owned by Elias Holt…most people now call me Marsh because my father’s name was Marsh.”

However, the local Postmaster Andrew Black attempted to “drop dime” as evidenced by two letters he wrote to the Pension Agent:

“..yesterday  I read to George Marsh alias George Holt his Pension Certificate..I was informed by several persons…that he never received the Gun shot wound in his left hip while in service to the U.S. …it could be proved that he received said gun shot wound at the hands of the husband of the wife with whom the said George Marsh was in criminal intimacy with. There is a fine respectable old colored lady in this vicinity who can tell of the circumstances. I considered it my duty as a Pensioner to give this information, and let the matter be investigated…As a favor, I wish my name not to be known in the matter, on account of personal and safety [sic] to property, at hands of either him or his colored friends.”

George Holt was receiving a pension as late as 1912, so it appears the Postmaster’s suspicions were uninformed, or at least, unproven. I think it’s funny how he stressed not to have his name used.

Reason Snowden served in Co. D, 30th Reg. of the USCT from Maryland. His wife Ann applied for a widow’s pension in 1878 and it was approved. Her application states that although she still had children at home under the age of 16 at the end of the war, that she never heard from her husband after 1864. The military determined that he had died.

But in 1894, Charles Sellman, of Poolesville, MD, “dropped dime” on Ann in his deposition:

“I am the person that informed a pension official about 3 or 4 weeks ago that there was a woman named Ann Snowden who was living in open adultery with a man by the name of Ewell, and still drawing a pension as Ann Snowden….she has been living with this man…for over 25 years. She has grown up children by this man. She has at least 8 children by this man Ewell. They have been living together as man and wife.”

C.V.  Morrison’s deposition supported these facts:

“I have known Mrs. Ann Snowden for about 7 years now. She lives with a person by the name of J. Wesley Ewell and has quite  number of children by said Ewell.”

Unfortunately, Ann Snowden’s pension status was revoked and the letter to her stated:

..you have violated the Act of Congress of August 7, 1882, having lived in open and notorious adulterous cohabitation with one Ewell since the passage of said law and since the death of your late husband…the penalty for which is the termination of your pension.”

It’s true that fraud was rampant in the pension system, and people had ample reason to manipulate the system for their benefit. Once again, more evidence that human nature essentially hasn’t changed, which is one of the reasons I love genealogy. There were always people ready and willing to snitch!

P.S. Check out Claire’s 2010 article on Civil War Pensions, and also see an article done by the author of Voices of Emancipation .
Dr. Bronson also has one of the best websites for understanding the various pension laws and their requirements–I especially like that he links to the actual statutes.

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Nella Hayes, Hardin County, TN

I recently got a chance to view some pretty cool records. Claire Prechtel-Kluskens gave a lecture on Agriculture Extension Service Reports last year at the NARA Fair. I had never heard of these records before, but after her lecture, I knew I needed to look at them.

Starting around the turn of the century, the Dept. of Agriculture decided to provide a service to “extend” the latest agricultural techniques and processes to farmers. Each state had a state agent and every county (over time) had their own Extension Service Agent. For women of the county, they provided Home Demonstration Agents. They worked with women on everything from canning to interior design. Negro agents were appointed for some counties to do “Negro Work”; they provided the same services to black farmers, just (of course) with less money and fewer resources.

I have always been fascinated with land ownership and farming for our ancestors. Many of our ancestors lived in rural places, which can cause a dearth in information vs. those living in large cities. When combined with information from the agricultural census and local land records, the extension service records can offer us a closer peek into those rural lives.

The Extension Service Agents helped farmers set up cooperatives and demonstration farms to show the effects of certain fertilizers and farming practices. They distributed information on various crops and seeds, and practices to promote healthy farm animals. The records are grouped into “Annual Reports” and  are organized with the Annual Report for the State first, followed by the counties in alphabetical order. What is available for each state varies, but the years covered for each can be found here. NGS Magazine published an article on these records by Mrs. Prechtel-Kluskens and in 1996, Prologue Magazine published another article about these records for Arkansas. Both are excellent.

In addition to providing very detailed records of farming practices, many of the agents sent in pictures from county fairs, pictures of farms and crops and animals and living rooms, and every now and then, an individual picture with a name attached. They started Corn Clubs and Canning Clubs. Some sent in what looked like scrapbooks they were keeping of their activities as well as newspaper clippings. There are numerous references by the agents to individuals in the county. Here are some examples of interesting items I found:

From the 1911 TN State Report
“ The cotton boll weevil has not made its appearance in Tennessee. The army worm and boll worm did damage. Army worms appeared in late August and stopped whole fields of cotton…we fought to get [farmers to] properly space the cotton and corn. We have induced several farms to do special seed selection.”

The Home Demonstration Agent for Anderson Cty, TN , felt compelled to send a 10-page handwritten letter  by Ruth Foster, the state’s outstanding Canning Club member for that year. I’m going to try my best to find any of her descendants:

Ruth Foster letter

In 1915, Hardin County, TN, the agent made the following comments about crops during his report:

“Tobacco is not grown in this county. ..The decline in crimson clover acreage was due to high priced seed, and the tangling of crops by wind storm, which prevented seeding…Soybeans are an entirely new crop to this county… Potatoes are only grown for home consumption. Due to blight, orchard trees did practically no good during the past year… There is no dairy interest or farmers in this county. ..The county was practically free from ticks when demonstration work began….”

Regarding hogs:
“Personally, I have vaccinated no hogs for cholera, but influenced farmers to take up the practice and to consult their local veterinarian…One instance I especially recall was…from Dr. O. Whitlow, of Savannah. He is a cooperator, and he reported that he had 40 or 50 hogs and that he had lost two from cholera. I insisted that he wire at once for serum, which he did, [he] administered the treatment, and only lost 5 hogs.”

Wish Names Were Mentioned !

Images Submitted:

Newspaper Clipping

Pig Club Member

Home Design

It goes without saying that this is good information to include when writing up your family history. It also occurred to me it could explain the timing of why some of our ancestors migrated North when they did.

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I remain convinced that there are still hundreds of thousands of documents that contain information on our enslaved ancestors that aren’t being widely used. Sometimes it’s because we can’t easily get access to the information, and sometimes it’s because the information itself is difficult to peruse and understand (court records and freedmen’s bureau records come to mind).

One of the best sources on enslaved families can be found within the manuscripts that are stored in research libraries, historical societies, state archives and local libraries. Families in many cases donated personal papers, letters, business papers, receipts, diaries, account books, reports and many other types of documentation and ephemera. Many of these families owned slaves, and historians have long relied on these sources to understand “the political, economic and cultural life of the South as a whole.” These Plantation Records (as they are collectively called) give readers an inside view of almost every aspect of plantation life.

In this post I want to highlight the collection known as Records of Antebellum Southern Plantations. In the many years of my own research,  although they are often highlighted in lectures and books on African-American genealogy, I have yet to run across someone who has used them for slave research. This historic effort to compile a selection of plantation records from all over the country in one microfilm publication was undertaken by Kenneth Stampp, one of our foremost slavery historians. Though the original purpose was more scholarly in nature, this microfilm series is a boon to genealogists. Still, you’ll have to locate a major research library in your area to find one that houses this enormous microfilm collection.

The records included in this collection were created in “Series” from A-N, with each letter mostly representing a particular archives or library, for example, Series D covers the Maryland Historical Society while Series E covers the University of Virginia Library. Start your research in these records by utilizing the detailed Series Guides that are available online. A convenient webpage hosted by the University of Virginia Library website includes links to each one:

UVA Website

I’ve downloaded them all, Series A-N, and yes, they are pretty large PDF files. I have scoured each and every one for data not just about my specific family, but also any in the county where they lived. Finding information about what was happening in the county, whether it concerned your family specifically or not, is a great way to add more detail to any narrative about your genealogical research.  Also, most of the guides contain biographies about the particular individual or family that is covered in that set of papers. For the Ruffin Plantation in Marengo County, Alabama (which is covered in Series J, Part 7) a brief biography is included about Thomas Ruffin:

Alabama Records

Ruffin

As another example, there is a “Slave Birth Record, 1801-1861” contained within the Thompson Family Papers, housed at the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The detail in Series J, Part 7 covers the State of Alabama, and it says that this Slave Birth Record covers Russell (now Lee) County, Alabama. Because that is one of my research areas, you can believe I want to see this record:

Slave Births

Author Jean L. Cooper, created a wonderful printed index to this material titled “Index to Records to Ante-bellum Southern Plantations: Locations, Plantations, Surnames and Collections,” ( 2nd. ed). The printed index is expensive, but a quick search at Worldcat (add your zip code) will tell you what nearby library has it. Nearest to me is Georgetown University’s Law Library and the Library of Congress.

This book is an invaluable resource because Ms. Cooper created it specifically for family historians and the way that we research. The records themselves in the Series Guides for the collection are primarily listed in each Table of Contents by family surname, for example, “The Robert King Carter Papers.” It is not always obvious what county that family lived in until you go down to the Reel Index sections. Ms. Cooper’s book makes it easier to find records by county. The westward migration of families, as Ms. Cooper explains, also allows connection of papers from the same family, which are dispersed across more than one state and archives.

It goes without saying that most historical societies, archives or research libraries have their own guides to their manuscript collections. The Virginia Historical Society has a voluminous 200+-page guide specifically created for African-American-related manuscripts and the Tennessee State Archives has a similar Guide available. But, the amount of information available in these types of guides varies by institution. So another way to use these Series Guides is as pointers. I can use Series D, and run right up the road to the Maryland Historical Society. Even though they have their own manuscripts guides, it may or may not provide the detail about slaves and slaveowning families that I need.

Certainly, these records are not exhaustive, and the records chosen for compilation are often the larger, more prominent citizens and families—as the Introduction indicates, “mostly from the larger tobacco, cotton, sugar and rice plantations.” However, some smaller estate papers are represented in the collection.

My readers, how many of you have been successful finding information about your ancestors within these records? Please tell us where you viewed your collection and how you were able to find it. If you haven’t used these records yet, I hope this post will encourage you to peruse the Series Guides for information that may be useful.

Addendum: Please read the response to this post below by “4ourtrees.” The author’s success using these records speaks powerfully to the possibilities!

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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):

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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!

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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?

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Deed Text

This is part 2 of a series of posts I’m doing on land records. I created a new lecture on this topic last year and I’m pretty excited about sharing what I’ve learned. You can read the first post if you missed it before.

My goals are to outline general types of deeds, show examples, and point you to some other resources for further study. There are lots of other sites and other blog posts that cover deeds more extensively, but my current interest in them made them a “must-post” anyway. Of course as with anything in genealogy, there are differences that will exist depending on the state involved.

Land records contain dense and wordy legal language that can be difficult to weed through. I’m going to cut out a lot of the legalese in the examples and just quote the relevant language. Although sometimes complex, they are a rich record set and the patient and diligent researcher can be rewarded with evidence possibly not available anywhere else.

A few basic concepts first: a deed is defined as a formal document that transfers property from one party to another. The seller is referred to as the “grantor” and the buyer is referred to as the “grantee”. Most land records are indexed by both grantor and grantee and when researching, you’ll need to check both indexes. Deeds are also sometimes referred to as indentures.

Deeds will typically contain:

  • the names of the buyer and seller
  • the date it was written and recorded
  • the consideration (fee) paid
  • a description of the land, possibly adjacent landowners or history
  • signature or mark of the grantor and if required, any witnesses, acknowledgement or proof, and
  • a dower release (if required)

I’ll talk about the dower release in a later post.

Some of the most common types of deeds are:

1. Warranty deeds:  This deed warrants (i.e., guarantees) clear title to the land. Look for words/phrases like warrant title or guarantee title. Most deeds will be of this type.

“This indenture made…between A. Gammel and A.S. Brooks…hath sold…all that parcel or tract of land…and the said A Gammel…will warrant and forever defend the right and title thereof.

Of particular interest to African-Americans, try to find the first deed where your ancestor purchased land. Research the person who sold them the land–many times, former slaves purchased land from their former slaveowner. In 1882, in Montgomery County, MD, Isabella Smith purchased land from Margeret Beall, who turned out to be her former owner. Even still, always trace the origins of the land your family owned. If not former slaveowners, you may find other relatives.

2. Deed of Trust (or Trust Deeds): This type of deed secures a debt. Property is usually transferred to a third party called a trustee. If the debt is not repaid, then the property can be sold. These are important for African-Americans; sharecropping agreements can be found in these types of deeds. They also provide a close look  of what life was like for the average farmer. Look for phrases referring to a trustee or third party, and also discussion of a debt and when it is to be repaid (Note: Church deeds were often sold by and to the trustees of the church, and they are usually named in the deed. This is a different use of the word. Thanks Renate!) For many of my Tennessee sharecropping ancestors, the debt was repaid in November, which was when the crop was harvested and sold:

“We, George Holt and wife Leonia…do hereby transfer to Douglas Shull, trustee, the following tracts of land…we are indebted to J.S. Dickey…for $275.40 due November 12, 1928…and this conveyance is made to secure the payment.”

These records will also name the property being used as security, and you’ll see descriptions of animals and crops, as here:

“ I am indebted to KW Welsh by note $106.10 made June 1, 1909 and J.W. Holt as security, also for merchandise and supplies furnished…I have sold unto trustee JH Joyce, 7 acres of cotton and 1 mare named Roxie.”

3. Deed of Gift: This deed conveys property often without a normal purchase price. You’ll often find fathers and sometimes mothers conveying land and/or slaves as gifts to their children using this instrument. You will often find the phrase “for love and affection I do hereby give…” or similar language.  These are very important for researching enslaved ancestors and finding this kind of deed (or a bill of sale) could be the key to breaking down a brick wall.

“Alex English Sr….for love and affection have this day given to my son John’s oldest son James, 1 negro man named Peter, to his second son, Alexander, I give 1 negro woman named Betsey….”

Look for some of the phrases I mentioned above when unsure about what type of deed you are viewing. Like anything else, the more deeds you examine, the easier it will become to recognize the language more quickly. Using a deed extract form when you’re just beginning will be of a great help.

In these posts, I’m only scratching at the surface on deeds. The premier book that every genealogist should have is “Locating Your Roots: Discover Your Ancestors Using Land Records” by Patricia Law Hatcher.

Take a look at any deeds you’ve collected on your family thus far, and see if you can determine their type. In Part 3, we’ll look at more deed types & examples, tips and some related concepts.

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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.

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Have you been sure to check for social security applications for all the women in your family? I have been surprised at the number of women I have been able to find who had SSNs. And look at the wonderful little tidbits of information provided. In the one below for “Cora Holt” , the “OK” in parenthesis meant that her mother lived in Oklahoma.

And the one below is just like my great-grandmother Beatrice: ever the detailed one. Look at all the extra data on this document.

One more for Grace Howard:

Have you found many SS5 cards for women in your trees?

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