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Archive for the ‘Slave research’ Category

I read an article a few weeks ago that I think every single genealogist should read, and I was excited about sharing it with you all. It is a special issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly from September 2001 (Volume 89, No.3). This issue was completely devoted to discussion of the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings affair that I’m sure everyone has already heard about. If you are a member of NGS (which I highly recommend) you can log in to their website and download this article from their NGS Quarterly archives immediately.

The esteemed Helen Leary, who is an extraordinary genealogist, tackles the subject in an article entitled,Sally Heming’s Children: A Genealogical Analysis of the Evidence,” which starts on page 165.  It is a 40-plus page article, long, but well-worth taking the time to print out and read. Helen illustrates use of the Genealogical Proof Standard to one of this country’s most enduring mysteries: Was Thomas Jefferson the father of Sally Heming’s children?

In Helen’s gifted hands, the evidence is laid out (truly massive amounts of evidence), every hypothesis tested, each conflict addressed and a clearer conclusion you won’t find anywhere. Helen is a masterful teacher, and a thorough researcher. I feel like I grew as a researcher just seeing how she approached the topic and addressed each and every concern. I will continue to apply these methods to my own research.

DNA testing performed in 1998 matched Sally Hemings youngest son Eston’s DNA to that of a Jefferson male. Along with the other evidence, I particularly enjoyed how Helen illustrated handling of bias on the part of researchers, and how that bias can negatively affect results. This article also showed how you can’t the play the game of “XYZ coulda happened” with research. Genealogy is not about coulda, woulda, shoulda.

I’ll leave you with a clip from the 1870 census that this article discusses that just blew my mind. In 1870, a census taker in Ross County, Ohio, enumerated Sally’s son Madison (most of whom went on to live as white people) and wrote the following notation into the census next to his name:

“This man is the son of Thomas Jefferson!”

1870 census

Now, that has got to make you say Wow. I’ve never seen anything like that before. I hope you’ll go read this article, come back here and let me know what you thought. I encourage you to read the entire issue: an article by Thomas Jones dissects the “official” report done by the Thomas Jefferson Scholars Commission (who continue to deny the pairing), and there is an excellent article by Gary B. Mills about proving children of master-slave relationships.

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My ancestor Malinda Holt was enslaved by Giles Holt of Hardin County, Tennessee. Giles enslaved her along with one other woman, named Judy (sometimes written Julia) Holt. Both woman had multiple children of around the same ages. Although I will probably never know whether or not Malinda and Judy were actually sisters, I have decided to track Judy’s children as my relatives because it is obvious that their children had close kinship ties and considered each other family. I did a post sometime ago about Judy’s son James and his amazing life story. This rough chart shows each woman and their children:

One (of the many) wretched things about slavery is that often we trace back to that elusive female, listed as head of household in 1870 and we find no hint of a man. Our climb through the tree stops—there is no other branch to trace. Particularly if the children have light complexions, we wonder whether our ancestor was one of the millions who conceived children by white men in the community. We all know that slaves formed families with enslaved neighbors, but this relationship can be difficult to uncover if they are not found living together in 1870.

As I tracked Judy Holt’s children, a delightful surprise emerged. Judy’s son Henry Holt died during the Civil War, while he was a member of the 55th US Colored regiment. His mother Judy’s subsequent application for a pension in 1887 provided me with details of her children’s names and (approximate) birthdates. One of the depositions, from fellow soldier Richard Kendall, also included this little gem:

Richard “was well-acquainted with Henry Holt and knew his family. I do not know whether his father is dead or alive. His name [was] Sam Dixon.”

At last I found evidence of Judy’s relationship with a (presumably) black man. But where was he? For years I couldn’t find him because of my utter inability to be very creative with name spelling variations. But looking through Hardin County probate records recently led me to the will of one Elizabeth Dickson (note the spelling). That rang a bell in my mind, and sure enough, among the legacies she left to her daughter Jane was this:

“and she is to have my black man Samuel while…she lives single”

Racing back to Ancestry, there he is: Samuel Dickson in 1870, in the town of Savannah, right where he should be, and the right age, although he appears to be married to Lucinda now. Or perhaps Lucinda is a daughter.

1870 Sam Dickson

I got even luckier (I think its all luck at this point) when Judy also included in her pension file the fact that her daughters Sarah and Frances were both now surnamed “Davy”. Using that surname, I found, Judy’s daughter Frances’ (nicknamed Fannie) death certificate in 1917. Guess who was listed as her father? Sam Dickson.

Fanny Davey

While there is no way to know exactly how many of Judy’s children were fathered by Sam, the fact that I was able to uncover evidence for two of her children is pretty amazing. This is also a good example of using the technique of cluster research, to expand your vision and research the group of people surrounding your direct ancestors. The hunt for elusive enslaved fathers continues.

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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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OK, I confess that blog title is a little sensationalized. Truth be told, much of this information becomes well-known to researchers within a few years of their African-American genealogical journey. Family research turns many of us into walking, talking, beacons of black history. It certainly turned my life around; probably 90% of what I read now is non-fiction and slave/slavery/black history related. It is an endlessly fascinating subject, epic, tragic and but often inspiring.

Nevertheless, here are a few tidbits to keep in mind as you do your research.

1.       Slavery was vastly different at different times, in different places. A slave’s life in 1780 in Virginia would likely not look much like a Georgia slave’s life in 1850. A city slave’s experience was vastly different than a rural or country slave’s experience. Different crops had different labor demands (cotton, rice, tobacco, indigo, sugar). Learn what crop your ancestor worked.

2.       South America (mainly Brazil) and the West Indian Caribbean islands took in the lion’s share of slaves from Africa. Of those who came to the North American colonies, most were imported here by 1795. That means many of us have very long histories in this country.

3.       Most slaves had surnames that were known amongst themselves, even though the white planters did not record those surnames. Check out the WPA narratives, civil war pensions, and freedman’s bank as three types of records where you’ll find slaves mentioning their parent’s entire names.

4.       There will be many instances where the enslaved father is owned by someone other than the owner of his wife and child. Don’t expect to always find entire family units owned by one owner. Check those neighbors; many slaves found mates on neighboring farms. Young children (under 10), however, were often allowed to stay with their mothers.

5.     Slaves were employed in every conceivable occupation: they worked in shipyards and wharves, railroads and steamboats, coal mines, iron works, gristmills and sawmills; as maids, seamstresses, tailors, masons, butchers, barbers, and so on. Especially for urban slaves, think of all the ways other than farming they worked.

6.       Understand the dynamics of the interstate slave trade. The rise of cotton in the early 1800’s and waning need for year-round slaves in the North caused hundreds of thousands of slaves to be sold into the deep south and expanding southwest. This had a devastating impact on black families. Note the prevalence of the birthplace of “Virginia” or “Maryland” in the 1870 southern states. Consider that your southern slave ancestor may have been sold south at some point.

7.       Slaves were often sold or bought through slave traders or others who had businesses in slaves. Many of these auction –style purchases will not have any existing records or receipts, as these were private organizations. There are a few localities, however, which have records of former slave traders.

8.       Researching slavery will expand your vision of what it meant to be a slave. Many slaves in cities were allowed to live as virtual freedmen, work for pay and give their owners a monthly fee; others were allowed to earn wages to buy themselves or family members. Some planters worked their slaves on the “task” system, which meant they were responsible for a certain amount of work every day & when they finished they were free to do other things, like work their own garden plot or hunt for more food.

9. Looking at original sources will broaden your mind as to how the local whites interacted with their enslaved population. Criminal court records are replete with people being charged with playing cards with slaves and selling them things. This really surprised me. Slaves were plied with liquor by their masters and others. I have a court record detailing the local practice of allowing the slaves to work for pay on their holiday off-days. All these things expanded my view of slave life.

10. It took me awhile to agree with this idea, but slavery was still a negotiated relationship. Yes, the masters had the final and violent upper hand, but you’ll be amazed at how many times the master’s actions were altered by a slave’s threatening to run away, refusing to do work, refusing to be sold to someone, etc. These are shown in numerous entries in planter’s diaries and other documents:
“Salley won’t go without her husband so I’ll have to sell him too.”
“Joe if you come back home, you may have your choice of master.”
“I had to whip Bill today because he would not go with me.”

Our ancestors used every tool at their disposal and sometimes were able to influence the master’s decisions.

Tell me, what things have you learned during your research about slavery that surprised you?

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I just finished reading a wonderful article on slave housing in Montgomery County, Maryland, where one of my branches is from. A small part of the article is posted here.

Boone Cty, SC

Boone Cty, SC

I’ve been pondering alot lately how we need to reconsider how our enslaved ancestors lived; the physical dimensions of that space and what it said about their lives. Not long ago I posted a recommendation for a book called “Back of the Big House”, and that book got me thinking about the topic much more deeply. It pains me that so many slave houses are no longer standing.

My mind, like so many others, had been imprinted with the more common images attached to the slave experience: large plantations, fields of slaves, whippings and slave cabins. My genealogy research has shown me that slavery was a dynamic institution, ever-changing, and different from farm to master to crop. There were enslaved people doing mining, and barbering, working on ships, in factories, and in stores. There were slaves hiring themselves out, and making their own money. The nature of rice farming was very different from tobacco which was different than cotton. Though whipping was common, there were other forms of punishment. We have to challenge all our assumptions about the institution. I know I did.

The slave’s physical housing could speak to how much privacy (or lack thereof) they were allowed. Were 2 large families sharing a space or given separate ones? It could speak to the largess of the owner; was the housing minimal but not decrepit? How far were they spaced from the overseer’s house? Many small farms housed slaves in the master’s same house, in the loft space above the kitchen or other outbuildings. What did that mean for how much control the master had over their lives? Was the master boastful, setting out rows of slave cabins out front for all to see, or hiding them in back, out of immediate view of visitors?

Mt. Vernon I remember taking this picture of a slave “dormitory” at Mt. Vernon (George Washington’s plantation). It had never occurred to me that slaves ever lived in anything like this.

I was equally surprised when I found pictures of stone and brick housing, duplex housing, and the myriad other forms that remove that “log cabin–field slave” image out of my mind. Yes, there were certainly log cabins, but many other types as well.

How did Malinda and her children live down in rural west Tennessee? What kind of housing did the slaveowner Nathan Cook provide in Maryland? How did they live in that space, and how did that affect the slave experience for them?

From cestsuzanne.com

Have you searched for pictures of surviving slave housing in the area where your ancestors lived? I found only a few websites that included images of slave housing: The Missouri State Park, a dig at Monticello, and a school resource site in the UK. A promising site for Virginia doesn’t seem yet to be complete.

As we tell the story of our enslaved ancestors, let’s not forget the physical aspect of their day-to-day lives.

Consider this sobering description from Booker T. Washington’s “Up From Slavery:”

The cabin was not only our living-place, but was also used as the kitchen for the plantation. My mother was the plantation cook. The cabin was without glass windows; it had only openings in the side which let in the light, and also the cold, chilly air of winter. There was a door to the cabin — that is, something that was called a door — but the uncertain hinges by which it was hung, and the large cracks in it, to say nothing of the fact that it was too small, made the room a very uncomfortable one. In addition to these openings there was, in the lower right-hand corner of the room, the “cat-hole,” — a contrivance which almost every mansion or cabin in Virginia possessed during the ante-bellum period. The “cat-hole” was a square opening, about seven by eight inches, provided for the purpose of letting the cat pass in and out of the house at will during the night. In the case of our particular cabin I could never understand the necessity for this convenience, since there were at least a half-dozen other places in the cabin that would have accommodated the cats. There was no wooden floor in our cabin, the naked earth being used as a floor. In the centre of the earthen floor there was a large, deep opening covered with boards, which was used as a place in which to store sweet potatoes during the winter. An impression of this potato- hole is very distinctly engraved upon my memory, because I recall that during the process of putting the potatoes in or taking them out I would often come into possession of one or two, which I roasted and thoroughly enjoyed. There was no cooking-stove on our plantation, and all the cooking for the whites and slaves my mother had to do over an open fireplace, mostly in pots and “skillets.” While the poorly built cabin caused us to suffer with cold in the winter, the heat from the open fireplace in summer was equally trying.

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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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