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Archive for the ‘Slave research’ Category

From Schomburg Prints and Photographs

I’m happy to participate in the first Carnival of African-American Genealogy (CoAAG) hosted by the ever-fabulous Luckie Daniels of Our Georgia Roots fame. The subject is Slave Records and Genealogy Research and Luckie posed several questions from which we could choose to blog. I’ll address 3 of those questions.

1. Does it matter if (slave records) are related to your ancestral lines or not?

A big part of my love for this endeavor is the collaborative nature of most genealogists. I look for opportunities to reclaim all slaves from obscurity, and even if they are not related to me, I try to compile lists of names and disseminate them so that they might be found by their descendants one day. Thats what my sister blog, Giving Back to Kin, is all about.

2. As a descendant of slaves, have you been able to work with or even meet other researchers who are descendants of slave owners?

I was fortunate early in my research to contact several descendants of one of my slaveowners and find them to be ready and willing to share. They helped me figure out several critical pieces of information. I’ve only had success with that one line, but I’d jump at the opportunity to contact others.

3. Have you ever performed a Random Act of Genealogical Kindness involving slave ownership records? Or were you on the receiving end of such kindness?

I try to do this as much as possible. I shared a critical Freedmen’s Bureau labor contract with fellow genea-blogger Taneya that had her enslaved ancestors listed (She blogged about it here).  I truly enjoy that feeling, of helping someone. Personally, I’ve had too many acts of kindness bestowed upon me over the years to even try to document.

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I haven’t been posting because I’ve been enjoying and entertaining family and friends over the Thanksgiving holiday. That’s at the heart of why we are all genealogists, right? I had a wonderful time and hope all of you did too. But, I missed my blog! And my good genea-buddy has been reminding me for days I need to post so I am back with just a short snippet. But a good one.

I have a website that I’ve had bookmarked forever but only tonight did I start digging around in it and now, an hour later, I am changing my original blog topic to post this. I can always use the other one another night.

The website is called, “The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record.”

As the website describes, the project contains approximately 1,235 images of mostly enslaved laborers in the Americas and the New World. This is a joint project of the Virginia Foundation and the Digital Media Lab at the University of Virginia Library.  There are 18 categories of pictures, some of which are:

  • Capture of Slaves and Coffles in Africa
  • European Forts and Trading Posts in Africa
  • Plantation Scenes, Slave Settlements and Houses
  • Physical Punishment, Rebellion and Running Away
  • Music, Dance and Recreational Activities
  • Emancipation and Post Slavery Life

I had some interesting thoughts while perusing this collection.  Because many of us are focused on uncovering our specific ancestors in Virginia in 1870 or South Carolina in 1849, we forget the scope and scale and reach of slavery—the path through the West Indies, the tearing apart of custom and tradition. How it formed the economic backbone of entire countries and forced redefinitions of family & manhood, womanhood and faith.  I think also because of modern photography, we all are drawn to the more common images from the 20th century, and late 19th.  I think I even was guilty of “poo-pooing” illustrations–but if you want to try to envision a plantation in Jamaica or Cuba in 1759 or 1810, you’re going to have to look at illustrations. I found that as I looked at these  (many of which were from books published in England), it made me recall the length and depth of the tragedy of slavery. The extraordinary expanse of the crime. My my. And remember that most slaves in the Caribbean from this era did not live to significantly reproduce other generations as in mainland North America–most died and planters simply purchased more.

Here are a few pictures from the database, but please do go and spend a little time looking around when you can.

In the category “Slave Sales and Auctions: African Coast and the Americas”:

Metal Branding Irons With Owner's Initials, Image Ref: H019

Slaves Awaiting Sale, New Orleans, 1861, Image Ref: NW0028

I have never seen nor thought of slaves being sold in top hats.

In the category, “Religion and Mortuary Practices“:

Baptism in a Catholic Church, Brazil, 1816, Image Ref: JCB-07385-18

I was struck by how ornately the enslaved were dressed.

Funeral, Paramaribo, Surinam 1839, Image Ref: BEN15a

The caption says that the people with their faces covered were the mourners.

In the category “Marketing and Urban Scenes“:

Clothing Styles, Paramaribo, Surinam, 1839, Image Ref: BEN7b

The caption says that they are not wearing shoes because only freed blacks could wear shoes!

In the category “Domestic Slaves and Free People of Color“:

House Servant, Baltimore, 1861, Image Ref: iln307

House Servant, Baltimore, 1861, Image Ref: iln307

Clothing Style, Female Servant, Lima, Peru, 1865, Image Ref: JCB-05677-13

Coachman with Horse and Carriage, Havana, Cuba, ca 1850 Image Ref: Album-12

They make it all look just so delightful, don’t they? Hmfph.

And last, but not least:

Extracting a Chigger, Brazil, 1820, Image Ref: IMG01

I can’t fathom that someone felt this image was worthy of remembrance !

I hope that last picture doesn’t dissuade you from viewing this fascinating and eye-opening collection.

This database reminded me of a plantation visit. I was in St.Croix last year & visited an 18th-century sugar plantation called “The Whim Plantation”. It was fascinating….the docent was extremely knowledgeable. Here are a few pictures:

Plantation "Greathouse"

Plantation Equipment

For Pressing Sugar Cane

List of Slaves Working Plantation

I also found some pictures from sugar plantation ruins on the Virgin Island that are much larger.

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One of the things that has contributed greatly to my growth as a genealogist has been reading professional genealogical journals. The tendency when you begin genealogy is to think that if the article isn’t specifically on your family or your location, that it isn’t relevant. Oh contraire! What dawned on me after many years was that you read the journals to learn about new resources and new methodology–it doesn’t matter really what the subject matter itself is. You read to get a better sense of the professional genealogist’s though process. When I finally got that through my thick skull, I was off and running and learning in leaps and bounds.

For those of us researching enslaved ancestors, we know this is some of the most difficult research the field will ever see, for a multitude of reasons. I have a collection of slavery-related journal articles I’ve gathered through the years that have helped me over some pretty big stumbling blocks.  I’d like to share the list with you and encourage you to order copies and add them to your own collection of research “tools”. I walk through several of these articles as case studies in my genealogy class.

I tend to favor National Genealogical Society (NGS) Quarterly, but it’s not the only game in town. There are also publications like The American Genealogist, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register and state journals like The Virginia Genealogist. Find one (or a few that you like) and preferably can subscribe to. I also subscribe to historical journals, like the Maryland Historical Magazine, since that is one of my research states. Let me point out that these are scholarly journals, not for the faint of heart but for those who are looking to take their skills to the next level.

There are a couple of different ways you can get copies of these articles. If you are a member of NGS, you can download PDF files of NGS Quarterly from their website from 2002-present. Your regional National Archives or State Archives are likely to own a collection and you could copy them if so. You could also download the PERSI form from the Allen County Library and order the copies from them to be delivered to your home for a copying fee.

I consider these articles to be a part of my arsenal, and the brilliance of the authors continually amaze me. I hope you read a few–if you do, let me know which one(s) were your favorite and why.

African-American/Slave/Slavery-Related NGS Articles

  • Curtis Brasfield, “To My Daughter and the Heirs of her Body: Slave Passages as Illustrated by the Latham-Smithwick Family,” NGS Quarterly 81 (December 1993): 270-282.
  • Rudena Kramer Mallory, “An African-American Odyssey through Multiple Surnames: Mortons, Tapps, and Englishes of Kansas and Missouri,” NGS Quarterly 85 (March 1997)25-38.
  • Curtis Brasfield, “Tracing Slave Ancestors: Batchelor, Bradley, Branch and Wright of Desha County, Arkansas,” NGS Quarterly 92 (March 2004): 6-30.
  • Ruth Randall, “An Interracial Suit for Inheritance: Clues to Probable Paternity for a Georgia Freedmen, Henry Clay Heard Sherman,” NGS Quarterly 89 (June 2001): 85-97.
  • Ruth Randall, “Family Lore and Effects of Slavery on the Black Psyche: Rosa Grammar’s Choice,” NGS Quarterly 97 (June 2009): 85-96
  • Gary B. Mills, “Can Researchers ‘Prove’ the ‘Unproveable’? A Selective Bibliography of Efforts to Genealogically Document Children of Master-Slave Relationships,” NGS Quarterly 89 (September 2001): 234-237.
  • Douglas Shipley, “Teaming Oral History with Documentary Research: The Enslaved Austins of Missouri’s Little Dixie,” NGS Quarterly 90 (June 2002): 111-135.
  • Del E. Jupiter, “Matilda Madrid: One Woman’s Tale of Bondage and Freedom,” NGS Quarterly 91 (March 2003): 41-59
  • Christopher A. Nordmann, “Jumping Over the Broomstick: Resources for Documenting Slave Marriages,” NGS Quarterly 91 (September 2003): 196-216.
  • Gary B. Mills, “Tracing Free People of Color in the Antebellum South: Methods, Sources and Perspectives,” NGS Quarterly 78 (December 1990): 262-278
  • Del E. Jupiter, “From Augustina to Ester: Analyzing a Slave Household for Child-Parent Relationships,” NGS Quarterly 85 (December 1997): 245-275.
  • Elizabeth Shown Mills, “Which Marie Louise is ‘Mariotte’? Sorting Slaves with Common Names,” NGS Quarterly 94 (September 2006): 183-204.
  • C. Bernard Ruffin III, “In Search of the Unappreciated Past: The Ruffin-Cornick Family of Virginia,” NGS Quarterly 81 (June 1993): 126-138.
  • Katherine E. Flynn, “Jane Johnson, Found! But Is She ‘Hannah Crafts’? The Search for the Author of The Bondwoman’s Narrative,” NGS Quarterly 90 (September 2002): 165-190.
  • Donna R. Mills, “Racheal ‘Fanny’ Devereaux/Martin of Alabama and Florida, A Free Woman of Color,” The American Genealogist 70 (January 1995): 37-41.
  • Ruth Randall, “A Family for Suzanne,” NGS Quarterly 95 (December 2007): 281-302
  • Cameron Allen, “Lucinda Depp and Her Descendants: A Freed Black Family of Virginia and Ohio,” The Genealogist 17 (Spring 2003): 3-36.
  • Johni Cerny, “From Maria to Bill Cosby: A Case Study in Tracing Black Slave Ancestry,” NGS Quarterly 75 (March 1987): 5-14.
  • Rachel Mills Lennon, “Mother, Thy Name is Mystery! Finding the Slave Who Bore Philomene Daurat,” NGS Quarterly 88 (September 2000): 201-224.
  • Elizabeth Shown Mills, “Documenting a Slave’s Birth, Parentage and Origins: Marie Therese Coincoin, 1742-1816: A Test of Oral History”, NGS Quarterly 96 (December 2008); 245-266.
  • Daniela Moneta, “Virginia Pughs and North Carolina Wests: A Genetic Link from Slavery in Kentucky,” NGS Quarterly 97 (September 2009): 179-194.

My favorites are the articles by Ruth Randall, Curtis Brasfield and any of the Mills clan. This list is by no means all-inclusive, and if you know about some I haven’t included but should, please do submit them via comments.

We should all be working towards the goal of possibly publishing our own research in one of these esteemed journals. That’s one of my personal goals.

Until then, happy reading, family!

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tslaI am so fortunate to be researching in Tennessee. I have always felt their Archives website is one of the better ones and for 12 years the service they have provided me has been outstanding. Living in Maryland, I email them questions all the time & I always get a timely, detailed, courteous response.

Well, lo and behold, they have outdone themselves by recently posting a PDF file entitled, “A Guide to African-American Genealogy-Related Documents Prior to 1865 in the Collections of the Tennessee State Library and Archives”. I read this document in utter amazement last night.

In short, it’s sort of a manuscript finding aid, but includes more than just their manuscripts (You are searching archives, historical societies and universities for their manuscript collections, right?).It also includes their diaries, the Acts of Tennessee, Supreme Court cases, legislative petitions, etc. Sixty-eight (68) pages of great stuff.

What makes this guide outstanding, is the amount of detail provided. It tells you what county (when ascertainable) each entry is from! I cannot tell you how many guides I read from other repositories and wish that information alone was included. I’ll see “Jones Family Papers. Slave Inventory.” and I think…”The Jones Family in what county? When?” Arrgghhhhh. (Addendum: The Library of Virginia’s Afro-American manuscript guide is also pretty darn good.)

Tennessee’s new guide gives precious details about each entry. For example:

Claiborne Family Papers, 1846-1938. County, Davidson. Box 2, Folder 5:  Slavery–list of negroes owned by Mrs. Annie Armstrong (Maxwell) Overton, 1865″.

In some cases actual slaves’ names are listed. The document covers the Acts of Tennessee, which has information on many slaves and freedmen/women. For example:

“Benjamin (slave), Gibson County, Jacob Bradley is authorized to emancipate him, 1832.”

This represents a phenomenal effort and a huge leap forward in my eyes. This is what (in my dreams) I’d love to see other state archives & historical repositories do. Yes, I realize many are short-staffed and underfunded, but I can still dream right?

Today I had to send the Tennessee State Library an email of Kudos. Here’s a bit of what I wrote:

As a genealogist and instructor whose specialty is African-American research, I can tell you that what you’ve released is heads and tails above anything I’ve seen from other repositories…I can’t express to you how necessary this is, and how welcome and how wonderful…The process of African-American research is incredibly difficult because of slavery, but you have shown a respect and an understanding of the hurdles we face. You have provided a tool that we can really make use of. As the descendant of enslaved Tennessee ancestors, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

If you are from Tennessee, you’ll want to check this out as soon as possible. They also posted a Bibliography you won’t want to miss.


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slaveerysouthI just discovered another terrific resource, and you know I believe in sharing. The book shown at right, “Slavery in the South”, by Clayton Jewett and John Allen, was originally conceived as a textbook for seniors and college students working in the subject area. But it turns out to be a dream resource for African-American genealogists.

The book gives a history and timeline for each state, of slavery. I just purchased the book, and I am profoundly impressed. Each section provides that state’s unique history, including their laws re: slavery and freed blacks–that is such a critical piece of understanding your ancestor’s lives. It includes plenty of primary material from the enslaved, and I think the inclusion of that (as opposed to material created and written by slaveowners) is what pushes this book into the ‘exceptional’ category. Each section includes a bibliography, and there are a good dose of statistics (for example, numbers of slaves at various times) and Appendixes provide additional contextual information. Although this book was not conceived for genealogists, to have all this information in one place is quite phenomenal. Great information to add to the write-up of your family’s story.

The book is not cheap ( I bought a used one for $60) but GoogleBooks has it, and if you do an internet search, you could always just copy the information for your state of interest. That’s how I found out about it. But you know me–I’m always looking to add to my genealogy library;)

Check it out, family.

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The Digital Library on American Slavery is a web-based database that contains 18 years worth of research from the Race and Slavery Petitions Project. The site has been updated and anyone researching slaves and slavery should take some time to utilize this wonderful resource.

Here’s a little background from the site:

The Digital Library on American Slavery offers data on race and slavery extracted from eighteenth and nineteenth-century documents and processed over a period of eighteen years. The Digital Library contains detailed information on about 150,000 individuals, including slaves, free people of color, and whites. These data have been painstakingly extracted from 2,975 legislative petitions and 14,512 county court petitions, and from a wide range of related documents, including wills, inventories, deeds, bills of sale, depositions, court proceedings, amended petitions, among others. Buried in these documents are the names and other data on roughly 80,000 individual slaves, 8,000 free people of color, and 62,000 whites, both slave owners and non-slave owners…Established in 1991, the Race and Slavery Petitions Project was designed to locate, collect, organize, and publish all extant legislative petitions relevant to slavery, and a selected group of county court petitions from the fifteen former slaveholding states and the District of Columbia, during the period from the American Revolution through the Civil War. ..The Project now holds 2,975 legislative petitions and approximately 14,512 county court petitions.

Here’s a chart showing the states represented:

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You can search the site from the home screen using the basic search criteria or choose several other advanced searching options. You can also limit the searches using keywords, for example, you could put your county name in to pull up those entries only. I did a search for petitions from Maryland during the period of 1820-1850 and got 533 results:

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Each entry is numbered and summarized and the site explains how to order copies of the actual petitions for yourself if you find one relevant to your research. Here are two examples:

Claiborne County, TN, 1841
Abstract: Lewis, “a man of Color,” represents that “he was the property of William Graham Esquire … and was by him (amongst others of his slave property) [directed] in his will to be emancipated.” Noting that Graham’s executors “have performed the trust confided to them,” Lewis laments that “the act of assembly require for them to leave the State.” He further submits that “he is now getting old” and that “he has a wife & several children, from whom he feels a great hardship to be separated.” The petitioner therefore “prays that your Honorable body would … so modify the Law, that he might be permitted to remain in this State.”

TN, 1841
Abstract: Thirty-one petitioners, lamenting the deplorable condition of people of color and citing rights promised in the Constitution, seek a gradual end to slavery. The petitioners argue that slaveholders should be permitted to free their slaves on terms that will not involve their estates so long as the emancipated slaves can maintain themselves. They also argue that descendants of slaves born after the passage of an emancipation law should be freed when they reach a certain age. Black people to be freed should be taught a useful occupation and to read the Scriptures. Lastly, a law should be passed prohibiting within the state “the inhuman practice of separating husbands and wives.”

The website  is easy to use, beautifully organized, and a wealth of information. Take a look at some of the categories of entries, which you can also browse:

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Obviously, it does not contain every single record, but it does contain a very large (in fact huge) representative sample that is outstanding. Kudos to Loren Schweninger and his entire research team for making a tool that both historians and genealogists can utilize.

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I have been intrigued lately with the topic of runaway slaves. I research the Prather family in Montgomery County, Maryland and recently discovered that one of the Prathers I am tracking ran away and was picked up in DC in 1858. I guess that started it all. I pulled out my copy of “Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation” by John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, which is probably the most complete study to date. I also purchased a book recently called “Blacks Who Stole Themselves” (what a great title, right?) that I first saw at the Library of Congress. This book features advertisements from the Pennsylvania Gazette for runaways from 1728-1790. Many of the runaways are from Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey & Virginia. I have a good friend who has a doctorate in African-American History and we talk alot about this. He opened my eyes one day–we were talking about Lincoln “freeing” the slaves. And he said to me, “NO, the slaves freed themselves. They ran away in such large numbers during the Civil War that they forced the issue to be confronted.” I was (and still am) fascinated by this perspective.

I keep thinking about what it must have been like to run away and have no concept of where to go. No maps. To risk your life over and over again (many of the runaways have a history of running away). To go into the woods with your baby. To leave your children. To not be able to read or write, or have anything else  than the knowledge that you were born free and have a right to freedom, and will do anything to attain it. I wonder constantly if I could have done that. I think about how awful it must have been.  I don’t know how they survived. Nothing but the grace of God.

As I read over these runaway ads (which are a terrific source for finding slaveholders) I want to share some of the things that stood out to me. In general, in each ad,  there is a listing of where, when and who they ran away from,the slave’s age and name, a detailed description of their clothing, usually comments about their personality, physical looks and perhaps occupation. The ads are very telling on several levels, especially the view of the slaveholder or white majority society’s impression of blacks/slaves. Here’s a list of things and specific ads that resonated with me:

  • the large number of runaways who are described as having what are likely African  or African-inspired markings: holes in their ears and noses, scars on their faces and foreheads
  • the description of many that are “new to this country”, “country-born”, “lately arrived from Barbados”(or Angola, or Guinea, or Dominica) and many who  ” do not speak English”
  • many are described as “Spanish negroes” or “Spanish mulattoes”
  • the description of their personalities as: cunning, sly, complaisant, sour, impudent, bold, artful, smooth-tongued, surly, sour, sensible, talkative, shy, well-spoken, lusty (what in the world does that mean?)
  • many are described as having “been much cut” on their backs, by “often whipping”
  • some ran away in groups of 2-5 people, comprised of women and men, sometimes even with white indentured servants
  • several ads discuss the runaway having Indian blood, one even saying “he can talk Indian very well”.
  • many of the ads mention the slaves having brass or pewter buckles on their shoes, which I assume would have stood out because that was a rare commodity
  • several of the slaves could read and write, and the ads talked about how they are “pretending to be free” ,”will pretend to be searching for a master”,  “is almost white”, and could easily “write themselves a pass”
  • the fear of freed blacks (particularly in Philadelphia) is evident in that many ads purport that the runaway is “being hidden by freed blacks
  • “’tis’ supposed he is being harbored by some base white woman, as he has contracted intimacies with several of that sort”
  • “the said negroe is named Jupiter, but it is thought he may likely call himself by his negroe name, which is Mueyon, or Omtee”
  • “he is a short, thick fellow, limps with his right knee, and one of his buttocks is bigger than the other” (I’m just trying to picture that;))

There are a few websites which have undertaken the goal of documenting runaway slave ads. There’s Maryland’s Underground Railroad website, which includes runaway ads, and the University of Virginia’s project. There’s also a site for Baltimore County, MD and The Geography of Virginia website. Check them out if you get a chance. My friend Michael Hait did a good article on the genealogical value of runaway slave ads awhile ago.  I love this short article at Yale University about analyzing runaway slave ads, which was really interesting.

Let me know your thoughts, family, if you found any relatives you are researching in runaway ads, or if you just found something interesting worth sharing.

I am so proud of the fact that slaves constantly resisted the system of slavery, with dedication and perseverance. I dedicate this post to a slave who ran away in 1759: “…a negro man named Caesar, he has both his legs cutoff and walks on his knees.”

Can you imagine? That one took my breath away. Caesar demanded his freedom so badly he would run way with no legs. Simply astounding.

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Effie Blanche Fendricks

Effie Blanche Fendricks

This is my great-grandmother, Effie Blanche Fendricks, who was born in Hardin County, TN, ca. 1891. She was one of 13 children (8 who survived).

Effie married Walter Springer and birthed 9 children, 7 of whom survived to adulthood. She was a homemaker  and when I interviewed my grandmother Mattie before her death she shared many fond memories of her mother. Effie’s husband Walter farmed, worked on the Tennessee steamboats and eventually landed what would have been considered a good “government” job at a factory making munitions for the war.

Walter Springer

Walter Springer

My grandmother Mattie eventually migrated to Dayton, Ohio when she married in the mid-1940s. Later, her widowed mother Effie joined them as well as several other siblings. Sadly, Effie suffered a stroke and died in 1959, likely about 67 years old.

I am  thinking about Effie today because of Luckie’s discussion going on over at Our Georgia Roots in search of one of her ancestor’s slaveowners. Luckie, you are such an inspiration! I’m also finally also getting some traction this year on Effie’s family after a 12 year brick wall. These brick walls really do bother me on an emotional level…just the thought that the basics of someones life is LOST, even to their descendants, makes me sad. I think that’s why I have such a passion to try to snatch back that lost memory.

Effie’s “Fendricks” line has been a challenge, number one because the name has been rendered in every way imaginable (and unimaginable). Her parents, Mike and Jane Eliza, migrated to Hardin County, Tennessee by 1880 and all I knew was that they were from Alabama. My journey to find out what county in Alabama was very similar to Luckies–it was more about using my skills now to reassess information I’ve had for years.

I’ve tentatively finally traced back to Effie’s grandfather, John Mike Fendricks living in Lawrence Cty, AL in 1870. Once there, I put together a chart of neighbors and potential slaveowners. I ordered 6 rolls of Lawrence Cty Probate records and deeds and I’ve been spending the last 2 weeks pouring over them. It’s slow work as I’m tracking 3 families (Sherrod, Shackelford and Bynum) who intermarried and had large land and slaveholdings. I’m putting each probate entry into a table for analysis and I’ve also done census baselines for each family from 1860 back.

I know I’m hot on the trail, but there is always the chance that that “smoking gun”  we want won’t be found. There are some missing records for Lawrence County and one specific book that I know has the slave distribution for one of these families is in one of them. So I was thinking about what are some of the ways that we can make the case connecting our ancestors to a slaveowner when we are missing some of those critical traditional documents? Here are a few thoughts, and I’d love to hear more from my genius genea-bloggers (that means you Luckie, Angela, Renate, Michael, Mavis, Sandra, George and others):

  • Proximity is always a clue. Most slaves in 1870 still lived near their former slaveowner. Not all, but proximity is a good clue. Some may be living on a former slaveowner’s land.
  • Use of slaveowner’s surname. We all know all slaves did not take the last name of the most recent slaveowner, but many did. Check those slaveowner’s wives maiden names, because some have that surname if they came from her family.
  • First names in the enslaved individuals family matching first names in the slaveowner’s family. I’ve seen alot of that.
  • Interactions with the slaveowner’s family. I’ve seen slaveowner’s act as witnesses for marriages as well as posting bond/acting as sureties. Another big clue is found in deeds. Many slaves purchased their first land from a former slaveowner so always find that first land record. Check the slaveowner’s probate records even if they died after 1865–your ancestor may be purchasing items from the estate indicating a connection.
  • Interactions of generations of both families into the early 20th century. It is not uncommon to have descendants of the slave/slaveowner still interacting or living in close proximity even in the 1900, 1910, 1920 census.
  • Freedmen’s Bureau labor contracts between your ancestor and an individual is another good clue. Most of these aren’t indexed and don’t exist for every locality, but be sure to check.

Remember, I am talking about when you can’t find that document that actually names your ancestor. I am certainly not suggesting that any of these things in isolation would be a good basis for making the claim of a particular slaveowner.But,  I do believe that there are still ways to build a strong case from circumstantial evidence that your ancestor was owned by an individual. Of course, you may still be more comfortable adding a caveat to your family history with the word “likely” or “probable”, and then presenting your reasoning.

I think thats the way we should approach this quest. For some of our lines, we’ll find the definitive evidence, but for others we won’t.

My search for Effie’s enslaved roots continues. And if I don’t find that bill of sale or inventory that lists her grandfather (or any of the things where a slave names his ex-owner), I’ll still be working on building my case. Let me hear your thoughts, family.

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Brown University released a report back in 2006 entitled “Slavery and Justice.” I just read it and found it well worth the time–I encourage you to read it. A steering committee was formed at Brown whose purpose was twofold:

Our primary task was to examine the University’s historical entanglement with slavery and the slave trade and to report our findings openly and truthfully. But we were also asked to reflect on the meaning of this history in
the present, on the complex historical, political,
legal, and moral questions posed by any present day
confrontation with past injustice.

The little tiny state of Rhode Island (believe it or not) had a central role in the slave trade and the Brown brothers, for whom the school is named after, all played roles in the institution. The report goes into great detail using the school’s archives.

It provides a good overview of slavery in New England, and the website includes a database of all the historical documents used in the report. The report ends with several recommendations for the University in terms of moving forward, and the school responded by endorsing a set of initiatives based on the report. Earlier this year, they recommended building a memorial to acknowledge the slaves ties of the University.

I think this is a good thing. Too many institutions today want to forget their historical ties to slavery when the exact opposite is what should be happening: acknowledging the truth and continuing to educate the public. This is true moral leadership and I applaud Brown. The report stops short of offering apologies, but this was a bold and courageous move.

We are still, as a society, struggling with the effects of slavery–all of us. I hope other universities and institutions take heed.

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Everyone knows how much I love Annette Gordon-Reed and her award winning book on the Hemingses. I recently found a video of her speech at Monticello about the book, and it was incredible. It’s lengthy–there are 7 segments, but I watched every one. Although I had previously posted a link to the videos, the owner has decided to disable the embedment option. I do hope you will go to YouTube, put in “Annette Gordon-Reed” and take a look anyway.

Postscript: I was thrilled and excited to recently to meet and get to hear Mrs. Gordon-Reed talk about her book in D.C. at the Politics and Prose bookstore.
RobynGReed2

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