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Archive for the ‘Slave research’ Category

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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As I have researched more and more enslaved ancestors, I have become more immersed in researching slavery itself. I have a friend who is a Ph.D. and professor of African-American studies and he has really helped me understand the history in a different way. We’ve clocked tens of hours of conversation about the institution of slavery.

Although what genealogists do is similar, it’s also quite different from what professional historians do. We are more interested in the individuals and the specific while they tend to focus more on trends among larger groups of people. The difference in those perspectives fascinate me.

I wanted to present a short overview of some of the most famous works in the evolution of slavery studies and I highly encourage anyone researching enslaved people to read some (at least one) of these works. I haven’t gotten through them all but I’m working on it!

“American Negro Slavery” by Ulrich Phillips, 1918

Typical of the times, Ulrich’s racism was front and center. He believed in the inferiority of blacks and the fantasy of the “Old South.” He wrote that slavery was not a financially profitable institution and that it was done mainly to benefit blacks and maintain white supremacy. He wrote that slaveowners treated, fed and clothed their slaves well. Amazingly, this was the prevailing view of slavery for almost 30 years although W.E.B. DuBois vocally challenged his findings.

“The Peculiar Institution” by Kenneth M. Stampp, 1956

Stampp, in this groundbreaking work, was the first to counter Ulrich Phillips’ school of thought in several areas. He showed that slavery was not benign but a cruel and brutal system of labor exploitation and control. He argued that slavery was indeed a profitable system. He illustrated the extreme suffering of slaves and he also discussed the many methods of slave resistance. Stampp also discussed how becoming a slave owner was a part of a social system which allowed whites to enter the upper class and gain status in the community.

“Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life” by Stanley Elkins, 1959

Elkins was the first historian to look at the psychological impact of slavery rather than just the economics of it. He compared southern slave plantations to Nazi concentration camps and argued that slavery was so brutal and inhumane that it stripped slaves of their African heritage (i.e., they had a “social death”) and transformed them into docile, submissive figures. His most famous thesis was his conclusion that the system of slavery had infantilized slaves, making them “Sambos”—reduced them by brutality to a dependant, child-like status. Although many of his arguments have now been rejected, this single book caused a firestorm and a huge outpouring of responses by other historians.

“The Slave Community” by John Blassingame, 1972

Blassingame presented one of the first slave studies to be presented from the perspective of the enslaved and contradicted historians like Elkins and his “Sambo” thesis.  Through the lens of psychology, Blassingame used 19th century fugitive slave narratives as sources to determine that in fact, a rich and unique culture developed among American slaves, with plenty of evidence that African practices survived. Historians criticized Blassingame’s use of slave narratives (which are considered biased) and questioned his neglect of the WPA slave interviews but the book remains an important contribution.

“Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made,” by Eugene Genovese 1974

Eugene D. Genovese was a Marxist and this book attempts to decipher, from a Marxist perspective, the world of antebellum slavery. Genovese’s thesis is that slaves created a rich culture, at once both African-American and uniquely southern. He raised some new arguments and presented a truly dizzying array of footnotes and examples. Sometimes he can lose the reader with his ruminations on social theory, but this is an engaging read nevertheless, from one of the most enigmatic and controversial American historians.

“The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925” by Herbert Gutman, 1976

In this classic text on black family life, Gutman argues that slavery did not break up the black family, which had become a familiar refrain as a result of the 1970s “Moynihan Report.”  Gutman was a labor historian who studied workers and social history. Gutman illustrates that that most black families largely remained intact despite slavery and remained that way during the first wave of migration to the North after the Civil War (although he remained open to arguments about black family collapse in the 1930s and 1940s). Gutman’s work was widely praised.

I could go on and on, and mention works by Deborah Gray White on enslaved women (“Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South”) works by Ira Berlin (“Many Thousands Gone”) and John Hope Franklin (“Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation”). There are more than I could ever review here, but I hope if you have not yet thought about reading one of these works you will.

The stories of the people we uncover need to be woven with social history, and perhaps nothing looms larger and more complex than slavery. Pick up some of these at the local library or used book store and shoot me an email and let me know what you’re reading.

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My 14-year-old ggrandmother Martha Simpson was serving in the 1860 Howard County, MD household of William R. Warfield. A special set of records called Slave Statistics available in some Maryland counties connects slaveholders with the names of their former slaves. I was surprised to find this for Warfield (his heirs):

WmRWarfield_PERRY
Warfield owned Martha’s father, Perry Simpson (no. 2 on the list above). Martha and her siblings had been born to a freed black woman, Louisa, illustrating that freed blacks often married enslaved people. We’ve got be open to looking out for this scenario in our research, especially in areas like Virginia and Maryland where there were relatively large numbers of freed blacks.

Using the basic methodology for researching slaves, I checked the probate records of William Warfield’s father and found Perry listed as a young boy:

BealeWarfield1
I can’t say exactly who Perry’s mother is–there are at least 3 women of age to be his mother in the inventory (all the slaves are not shown in the clip above). For many of us researching enslaved ancestors, this is usually “the end of the road”; an inventory in the slaveowner’s estate. That’s it. I’ve shown it here on my blog before. Most of the time, enslaved people will not be listed by family. Sometimes you are lucky enough, and I do mean LUCKY enough to find: personal papers, bible or court records that name or discuss the enslaved family or even freedmen’s bank or pension records that name the mother or siblings of that enslaved individual. Even if you find that mother, again, she’s usually listed in someone’s inventory. Mariann Regan’s blog, “Into the Briar Patch,” discusses the type of record a slaveowner might have that would be priceless for the descendants of slaves. Marian has been kind and generous enough to transcribe and share these extraordinary records with the public. But the vast majority of us will hit a brick wall at that estate inventory.

I had a hard time coming to grips with that reality. There’s a sadness–a melancholy for me in this. I so badly want to know who Malinda’s mother was, who Harriet’s mother was, or who Margaret’s mother was, separated from her at age 13 as she was. And for that matter, who were their fathers? It’s like the fathers never were, the tragic inevitability of a system built on sexual exploitation. Was Sarah, my earliest documented ancestor, born ca. 1750, an African woman? She easily could have been. Was she Igbo, Mende or Angolan? I have so many unanswered questions.

People love to ask how far back you’ve gotten in your genealogy. That isn’t the most important thing to me. For most African-Americans, we’re fortunate to trace roots back to the 1800s and in a truly elite group if we can trace back to the 1700s. I suppose in some sense, everyone comes to end of the “documented” record—even though for many Europeans it may be much earlier, perhaps the 1500’s in Russia, Poland, Ireland, England or some other Old World country.

Someone asked me recently why I do genealogy. What makes it interesting or meaningful (as it was not to the person asking)? I had to pause. What is it that continues to drive me personally to spend thousands of hours through the years in courthouses, archives, libraries, in books and online, in meetings and blogging, learning about resources and methodology, obsessively and compulsively digging for more, more and more? I realized it’s not just any one thing.

Initially, it is the new information, the puzzles we crack, the names we uncover that drives us most. Discovery is always simply thrilling in and of itself. I would have never dreamed of freed black ancestors from the early 1800s or that my Tennessee roots started in Alabama, or even (on the negative side) that I had an ancestor who was lynched and one who died after World War I in a mental hospital.

But its also something much more. Because of the tragedy of slavery, I consider it a radical act to seek out and find the names of and explore the lives of enslaved people.  In that process I am truly “reclaiming” pieces of myself.  It also represents my connectedness and my entry way to history. It is through researching my family that history has been made real for me. Be it African civilizations, slavery, Native Americans, the U.S. and French Revolutions, west ward expansion, the Civil War, emancipation, the Great Migration, industrialization, World War I and II (and on and on) I approach all of those topics from the perspective of my family. I think about:

—Joshua, born during the revolution and before we were the United States;
—Mason, who migrated west with owners and was present at the founding of the state of Kentucky;
—Daniel, an ordained minister with the Maryland Methodist church in the early 19th century;
—John, the former slave who became the largest black landowner & postmaster in the county;
—Luther and Mattie who left Tennessee for Dayton, Ohio to find their fortunes after World War II;
—Doss, whose pride and courage made him stand up and fight during a TN race riot;
—Beatrice,  who attended the Institute for Colored Youth in the early 1910s, which became Cheyney, the first historically black college

All of them fascinate me and connect me to the very fabric of life. They fill me with pride and they increase my understanding of the world. It has filled me with a desire to write up my discoveries and share them with the world, knowing that this history truly is powerful. It also does something else–it makes me look at my own life so very differently than I would have had I not known any of this.

So even though many roads will lead to and end with a name in an estate inventory, it still has tremendous meaning for me. I honor and celebrate the lives that could not be celebrated in their own time and believe their spirits are smiling at the remembrance of their name. The search continues.

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When researching African-Americans, the criticality of the 1870 census cannot be understated. It is called the “Brick Wall” for good reason. Because the vast majority of blacks were enslaved prior to the Civil War, and because most stayed in the area of their enslavement, finding the family in 1870 can be the key that unlocks the door to their enslaved past. As property, slaves were not enumerated by name before 1870.

The upheaval and violence surrounding the civil war does not always make that task easy. Formerly enslaved blacks varied in the reasons for their surnames and after the war there was still a fluidity about surnames. Families can be found in 1870 with one surname and in 1880 with an entirely different surname. Spelling, we all quickly learn, was subjective at best.

Still, the best tool we have to find the ever-important slaveowner is to find the family in 1870. Patience Prather had been enslaved by William Blunt in Montgomery County, MD. In 1870, she was reunited with her husband Tobias, and just two houses away was the William Blunt household:

1870 Patience

1870 Patience

It is not uncommon to see several people of differing surnames living together in 1870. Always be curious about others living in the household–researching them can often lead to finding other family members. Remember that former slaves formed kinship ties with fellow enslaved people. This is one of the mechanisms they used to survive in a system where at any moment blood-family members could be sold, never to be seen again.

Elisha Riggs, also in Montgomery County, MD, owned the following slaves along with others:

Tobias Powell
Mary Powell
Candace Boone
Mahala Boone
Anne Boone
Mary Boone
Arianna Boone
Henrietta Boone

Look at the household of Tobias in 1870, living in Washington D.C.:

Tobias Powell

Tobias Powell

These people had been enslaved together and those ties continued.

Of course, the 1870 census can also cause us to stumble when we forget that no relationships are given in that census year. Relationships are suggested; the census above suggests Tobias and Mary were married and had children Lizzie, Lavinia and Willie. But we have to verify that relationshiop with other records.

There are some lines that may not yield success for various reasons. Some families did live their immediate areas–some were driven out by white violence, others in search of work or family that had been sold. Others stayed where they had been enslaved, but the slavewner may have died or left the area. Some had been forced to move with slaveowners trying to refugee their slaves during the war.

For those who can’t find their family in 1870 on the census, try to get as close to that timeframe as possible. Be sure to check land and court records, and several Southern states had tax and voting records that survive. I found a North Carolina man who was missing on the 1870 census in a 1867 tax record.

The 1870 census remains, for those researching African-Americans, the most critical census of all. But it’s a brick wall that can, with diligent research, come crashing down.

Postscript: I just discovered that my good friend Michael Hait blogged about this exact topic in 2009. Check out his post. Great minds think alike!!!

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I am in a state of genealogic shock.

My ancestor Martha Simpson was the wife of Levi Prather. I’ve been working hard in past years trying to unravel the complicated slave relationships in the Prather family of Montgomery County, Maryland. Finding Levi’s slaveowner was hard work, so I hadn’t focused much on Martha yet. Just recently, I’d started thinking perhaps Martha was freed before 1864 (Maryland’s state constitution in that year freed its slaves).

I’d been able to locate a sister of Martha’s (Leanna) and a brother (James) as freedpeople in 1860, so it was logical to think that Martha perhaps had been freed as well. But there was a better reason for my suspicion: we are fortunate to have a few pages of the Prather family bible, noting exact dates births and deaths of some of the Simpson family:

Bible Page

Bible Page

When I started to really analyze these pages, it occurred to me that it would be unlikely that enslaved people would have known exact birthdates dating from the 1840s. So, I did a search for Martha Simpson in 1860, and voila, that name pulled up living in a white Warfield family—but in neighboring Howard County instead of Montgomery County:

1860 Martha

1860 Martha

The Howard County location surprised me, although it shouldn’t have. We are always supposed to examine neighboring counties. I still wasn’t sure this was MY Martha, even though the age matched. But here is yet another example of how use of the clustering technique can be helpful (i.e., looking for groups of people associated with your ancestors). I knew from studying Martha and Levi’s 1870 census neighborhood in Montgomery Cty that they lived right smack dab in the middle of a bunch of black people with the surname–can you guess?– Warfield. So Martha living with a family of that surname made me feel like I was onto something. I decided to see if Martha was there in 1850, and Oh My Goodness. There they were, Martha and several of the siblings listed in my bible page—nice and neat and living as freedpeople in Howard County in 1850! Even better—they are with (presumably) their mother Louisa. The actual image is bad, so I will transcribe the entry:

Louisa Simpson, 33
Harriet L [Leanna], 11
Mary E, 9
James W, 7
Joseph W, 5
Martha J, 4
Minta L, 3 [?]

I have just found another ancestor and extended my tree with the name of ‘Louisa.’ This was an odd case in that I knew the name of the father–Perry Simpson–and it was in fact the mother’s name who had been lost to history. He may have been still enslaved in 1850, and perhaps that is why his name is not shown in the household.

Chills ran up my spine when I saw this census record for another reason: I live in Howard County! To think that my ancestors lived near where I live now over 150 years ago is just earth-shattering for me. But wait—it gets better. Howard County was formally organized relatively late—1851—from Anne Arundel County. Both Anne Arundel and Howard County have some combination of freedom certificates, manumission and chattel records available on the Archives of Maryland website. Just, WOW. It almost gets no better than that.

Doing an online search of these records, I discovered a manumission from one Ann Dorsey dated August 1816, of the following enslaved people:

Lyd, age 30
Harriot, age 11
William, 10
Mary, 7
Belinda, 5
Eliza, age 3
**Louisa, 18 months

Witnesses to this transaction were Gustavus Warfield and Humphrey Dorsey. It is possible the “Louisa” in this list, who is a baby, could be the same Louisa found in the 1850 census who is the mother of my Martha Simpson. Of course, I’ve got alot of work to do onsite in repositories before I can conclude that because we all know nothing thorough can be done online. My first task is to figure out which Ann Dorsey this was, since this was a large, prominent Maryland family and there were Anns all over the place. For right now, I suspect it was the Ann whose maiden name was —Warfield.

I have also gathered that this enslaved community likely had roots in many of the “first families” of Anne Arundel and Howard County: Dorsey, Worthington, Simpson, Warfield, Chase, Hall, etc. Many former slaves with those surnames are living in the community near my Prathers in Montgomery County in the 1870s. I was also fortunate to find at GoogleBooks a downloadable copy of The Founders of Anne Arundel and Howard Counties” written by Joshua Dorsey Warfield in 1905. There is a phenomenal amount of information in this book, and I’m just beginning to sift through it.

This is such a rewarding and absolutely thrilling discovery. I haven’t been speechless in a long time. Martha was here–right under my nose the whole time.

Martha Simpson Prather

Martha Simpson Prather

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