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Archive for the ‘Slave research’ Category

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It provides a good overview of slavery in New England, and the website includes a database of all the historical documents used in the report.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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I’ve been having a wonderfully lively debate in recent weeks with another genealogist about ex-slaves’ surnames and how many used:

  • the name of the last slaveowner
  • the name of a previous/former slaveowner, or
  • surname origins undetermined.

Most books and classes that teach how to discover the slaveowner (once you’re back to the 1870 census) teach the strategy of starting by looking for white slaveowners in the area with that surname. If that doesn’t work, then you move on to other research strategies.

Many researchers who have spent time with this subject have opinions one way or the other about which naming convention was more prevelent, which strategy is more likely to work, etc. etc. You can see well written points of view at my friend Michael’s site (as well as a more in-depth survey) and also Dr. Barnetta McGee discussed this in her blog some time ago. I simply say this: some slaves took the name of the last slaveowner. Some used a surname from a previous slaveowner. And some we’ll never know where the name came from.

I personally have seen all outcomes, so I don’t believe in ruling anything out. In my own family, out of 5 known slaveowners discovered, 4 of my ancestors took the last slaveowner’s surname and 1 did not. If you peruse the tabs of my family history above, you can find more details on those individuals if you are interested.

One thing I will say–most slaves seem to have had surnames they knew and were known by amongst other slaves. They were not names the larger white culture respected enough to record for the most part–but that does not mean that the use of surnames “started” when they were out of slavery. When you read the Slave Narratives, you really get a sense that the slaves had coherent family structures, surnames and all, even in the midst of slavery’s frantic desire to stomp them out. Boy, our ancestors were strong.

I was curious about what my fellow genealogists have discovered in this respect, so I put a call out on the Afrigeneas mailing list asking the question above. Here are my most recent results:

Out of 20 respondents quoting 65 enslaved ancestors:

  • 57.0% took the name of the most recent slaveowner
  • 26.1% took the name of a previous slaveowner
  • 16.9% had a surname of unknown origin

Interesting. Let’s keep researching and Taking Back What WAs Once Lost.

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I wrote in an earlier post about how much value there is to be found in court records with reference to genealogical research. Now I’ll be thej0301302 first to tell you, they won’t be in the first wave of record types that a beginning genealogist should approach. They are far to complex to dive into without first having a pretty solid grasp of your target family. But once you’re past the oral interviews and the census and the vital records and the land records and probate and you’re left scratching your face, going, “Hmm……where to next?” then maybe, just maybe, you’re ready to wrestle with this 3000 pound elephant.

My favorite subject to research in court records is slavery. Probably because I’ve had so many “Aha” moments (as Oprah says) using them over the past few years. Slaves were the biggest, most valuable asset most folks had and turns out they fought alot about them. So if you’re at the point where you are targeting a family for potential ownership of your ancestor (or even if you know they owned them already) there’s much to be gained by checking these records. I want to point out something that I sort of “relearned” recently.

I’m helping my godmother Carole with her Hyman family from Martin and Edgecombe Counties, NC. If you are from the area, you’ll find there was a huge white slaveowning Hyman family and one of them likely owned her ancestor, Arden Hyman.  We do know, from a marriage record, that our Arden’s father’s name was Zion. You know how we know that? From a subsequent marriage of Arden in 1900 after his wife’s death. That’s 35 years after slavery’s end, but that’s where we found the name of his father while he was enslaved. This illustrates the principle of searching far enough in time both before and after the period you are primarily interested in–with all associated people.

marriage

So now we’ve got two slave names we’re looking for. I pulled all Hyman wills in the area, but the will of Kenneth Hyman looked particularly promising because I see he names Zion, and he also owns an Arden. Those aren’t common names like a Mary or a Tom. The will was proved in 1834 and was actually rather brief. While at the North Carolina State Archives (NCSA), I searched all the relevant court books which include the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions as well as Superior Court. The goal is to milk every detail from the Hyman court documents that I can.

The “relearned” lesson came from the Loose Court Records. Those are all the little sheets of paper associated with a court case that are usually not written into any bound book, but kept in a metal tin case or other container in the
courthouse.
The NCSA has the originals, so I ordered the entire box for the Hyman family. What a treasure trove. Each person has their own file folder, careful organized by year. Kenneth Hyman had a big ol’ fat file. Don’t we LOVE to see fat files? Anyway, because it was all 1800s handwriting and time was short, we paid for them to copy the entire file to be analyzed it later.

Kenneth died in 1834 with a wife and several children. The critical phrase in his will was that:

all the rest and residue of my property I wish to be held in common stock until my youngest child attains the age of eighteen years with the exception that each one as they arrive at the age of twenty-one years or get married shall have one thousand dollars in money or its equivalent in property at the time

And what the loose records reveal is that because his youngest daughter was only about a year old when he died, his estate did not go through settlement until 1851! The records then name each and every slave, including an Arden and a Zion, as well as the final division into eight lots and which child they went to.

  • Lot No. 5- to F[rancis] M. Hyman: Arden, Eliza and child Hannah, General, Turner and Elsy valued at $2370
  • Lot No. 6- to Margaret E. Hyman: Zion, Adline, Daniel, Milly and Hilliard valued at $2200

The ensuing years had been tumultuous: Kenneth’s named executor, Theophilus, had also died during that time so an administrator had to be appointed. Theophilus had moved to Florida and died there, but not before purchasing land that turned out to be a scam–his relatives spent years fighting a court case there about that land. One of Kenneth’s daughters had married and her husband had already sold away her interest in her father’s estate before she could even inherit it. A brother Robert, who was ultimately named administrator, had beaten one of the slaves named “Boston” so badly, his siblings sued for damages.

What a horror this institution was, on a trillion different levels.

I remember reading that sometimes an estate wasn’t settled until many years afterwards, but this is the first time I’ve seen that principle in action and the payoff in terms of slaves. The year 1851 brings me much closer in time than 1834. The settlement documents show the slaves being rented out for each year. Imagine if I had stopped searching Kenneth’s files after the will and court books? Wow. I still have alot of research to do to tie together some loose ends on this line but I’ll say it again: Court Records Rock.

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Sometimes I have two or three days where I am on a research high..there is no other phrase to really describe it. One day last week I went to the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis. I talked and laughed with my cousin Chris who works there, then I made copies of the agricultural and social statistics census records for several counties in Maryland. If you haven’t utilized the non-population census records, you’ll want to. These will really help to put flesh on the bones of your ancestors when you write your family history, as they say. I found one that showed my ancestor’s farm raised honeybees and sold honey. I wouldn’t ever have thought that. The social statistics don’t have individual names but give a snapshot of the entire community. In one community, I saw where they had few schools or newspapers, but over 20 churches. That gives you some insight into what was important in people’s lives at  a certain point in time.

But the centerpiece of my trip that day was looking at Slave Tax Assessments for Montgomery County, MD. I am lucky (at least in this case) that this county has these records for 1851-1864. And the beauty of them is that they list slave names and ages, by slaveowner. I live and breathe for records that actually name slaves..the revealing of those upon whose backs so much pain was inflicted still gives me chills. They are so often voiceless, and I think of this pursuit as trying to give them back that voice.

I correlated these tax assessments with:

I used all of these together and got a pretty good picture of the slaveowner’s family on this line: Nathan Cook. He enslaved my great-great-great grandfather  Rezin Prather of Montgomery County, MD. In fact, this exercise gives me a good picture of many of the slaveowners in that county. I’m going to try to get it written up in some fashion to share it with others who may researching slave ancestry in the county.

The very next day I went to the Montgomery County Historical Society, which is hands-down the best I’ve ever been to. The staff is knowledgeable and friendly (sadly, everyone I encounter while researching is not friendly) and their resources are endless. I finally joined the Society..I wanted to support them since they have helped me so much. I copied family files and obituaries and maps and tons of books unavailable anywhere else. I found a book on the community of Goshen that had an entire chapter on “Prathertown”, an area of Montgomery County founded by members of the Prather Family. A historical marker was placed at the site in a public ceremony in 2003. The photo in the header on this blog are many of Rezin Prather’s descendants.

prathertown

All this good information in two days. Nothing but a “genealogy high”.

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I absolutely, positively LOVE court records! OK, I guess I should caveat that: I don’t particularly like court records about myself, but historical court records in search of those ever-elusive ancestors are way, way cool. They are second on my “genealogical excitement” scale only to Civil War pension records. I have an entire brief I do on Court Records because they’re so incredible.

Hardin County, TN courthouse

Hardin County, TN Courthouse

Guess what I found tonight buried in the Hardin County Court Minutes that I ordered and viewed at my local Family History Center? Well, I had been wondering for years how this particular man, Felix Barnes, fit into the community. I have Barnes ancestors, but had never seen him in the household of any of my Barnes kinfolk. So tonight, I found a record of Felix being apprenticed out. But the good part was this phrase, one that we live for in genealogy:

“…the apprenticeship of Felix Barnes, minor child of Lou[isa] Barnes (now wife of Sam[uel] Holt) said boy being an illegitimate mulatto child.

WOW. I knew Samuel and Louisa Holt’s family well, but never guessed Felix was Louisa’s child. This record doesn’t name his father, but implies the father was white. What’s written here is the kind of stuff you hardly will ever find written anywhere else, or written period, and that’s why court records are a-rockin’-and- a-shockin’.;)

(more…)

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