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Archive for the ‘Records and Resources’ Category

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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I’ve always known that maps are an underused but vital part of genealogy research. I think the difficulty in finding them and correlating them contributes to this for most people. Recently, I had an example where maps helped me to better understand connections between enslaved ancestors.

My Prather family is from Montgomery County, Maryland and I have been studying them alot recently, trying to make sense of the mountains of data I have acquired so I can finally write this line up properly. One thing I’ve learned (the hard way)and believe is that even though most of us spend years gathering data, the real rewards come when you spend MORE time analyzing and assessing what you have. That is a skill that improves the more you read case studies, especially the ones in peer-reviewed journals like NGS Quarterly which I’m a big fan of. I can’t tell you how many things I realized I already had the answers to, once I sit my tail down
and actually look at things. It also helps to have new and fresh eyes look at your research which is why it helps to have good genealogy buddies.

I went off on another tangent which I am prone to do, but back to maps & my Prather family. Montgomery County has a few unique records that help to uncover enslaved ancestors. Maryland ended slavery in 1864, and in 1867, slaveowners were hoping to be reimbursed for those slaves the way that D.C. paid slaveowners. That didn’t happen, but the counties compiled
a record of slaves that each slaveowner owned back in 1864. These are great records because they list surnames and ages of slaves, and also note which ones had “run off” to the military.

Two other records that were priceless were a series of tax records in Montgomery County that named slaves along with their ages from 1853-1864 (not every year), and the D.C. Emancipation records I mentioned above included many Montgomery County families who were hiring out their slaves in D.C. In the D.C. records, the slaveowner had to note how he got title to the slave and you can see all the many ways that happened. (Those records are now on Ancestry).

I said all that to say, I finally found slaveowners of several family members & related families, but I really couldn’t get a feel for why they were spread out amongst so many different people until I looked at an 1865 and an 1866 map of the area. My ancestor Levi and his probable brother Wesley were owned by Dorothy Williams. Dorothy was the former Dorothy Belt who married Walter Williams. When she became elderly, her son James Williams is shown as owner of her slaves.

I’ve spoken of Levi’s father Rezin Prather in another post, but he turned out to be owned by Nathan Cook. Nathan had inherited Rezin from his wife who was a member of the Magruder family. I’m still not exactly sure who owned Levi’s wife
Martha Simpson, but I am leaning towards the Griffith family. The Blunt family owned the wife and children of another Prather (probable) brother, Tobias. When I looked at the 1865/1866 maps shortly, you can see “James Williams” and “N Cook” (Cooke) live in close proximity. Also nearby are the Belt,Griffith and Magruder families, and the Blunts are to the far left of the map. Now it all made more sense.

1865 Map

This speaks to the prevalance of slaves living in “abroad” families, i.e., forming kinship relationships amongst slaves living on nearby farms. A great book about this is “Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South” by Anthony Kay.

After slavery, a deed showed the sale of land from former slave Vachel Duffy to a group of trustees to build Brooke Grove Methodist Church, where my ancestors worshipped and were buried for decades. Those trustees included Levi and Wesley Prather, Wesley Randolph, John Ross,and  later Rezin Prather & others. The 1880 census shows these men living in close proximity, and the 1879 map also shows Duffy, Resin Prather (“R. Prater”)and Wesley Randolph (“W. Randolph), along with the church (“Brooke Ch”). Vachel Duffy’s name is mistakenly rendered as “Rachel Duffy”.

1879 Map

 Two of the maps I purchased from the Montgomery County Historical Society and another I bought for $35 online at a historic map company because I wanted a large full size one. I see the Maryland State Archives map collection has several in the 20th century I’d like to look at to see if I can better locate the old family house, which is no longer standing.

Have you had any luck with maps in your research yet?

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