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Archive for the ‘Slaveowner Research’ Category

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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The Garrard saga continues, as I have now extended Mason’s history even further. I discovered that Daniel Garrard was the father of the slaveowner William Garrard, who I discussed in the previous post. In Daniel’s will, written March 1812 in Bourbon County, KY (and images lovingly posted on Familysearch.org), he included the following bequest:

Daniel Garrard will

Daniel Garrard will

My 4th great-grandfather Mason was willed to first Daniel’s wife then to his son William. Finding this record made me sadder than usual. I think it was the realization that Mason served 3 generations (so far)  of this family—first through Daniel and then to his son and grandson. I don’t know the name of Mason’s mother and father, but perhaps they were enslaved by this family as well.  Daniel’s inventory is typical of one of the biggest brick walls we hit while researching slaves; there are no family groupings:

Slave Inventory

Slave Inventory

We can only hint at approximate ages according to value. At $500 and the highest value, Cyrus and Mason are probably teenagers or in their early 20s. Jane at $400 and the highest valuation for the women, is probably in prime childbearing years. I want to believe that Jane perhaps is the mother of Cyrus and Mason, and that at least in going to Daniel’s son William there was some attempt to keep her with some of her children. But I have no evidence for that other than heartfelt desire. I see these wills and the breaking up of enslaved families becomes real; so tangible. I think deeply about these people’s lives. I look at the list of names continually, hoping to see an inkling of connection. It does appear that Daniel’s children are left land where their father Daniel lived, so hopefully the slaves were all at least nearby and able to see one another.

I also discovered that this was a famous family, as Daniel’s brother James was the 2nd Governor of Kentucky from 1796-1804. He was involved in some of the early political conventions to create the state of Kentucky and interestingly enough, was anti-slavery. He tried unsuccessfully to get gradual emancipation written into Kentucky’s constitution. This family’s prominence helps me in that the Garrards are a very well documented family.

Because of that, I easily found Daniel Garrard’s father, Col. William Garrard of Stafford County, VA (yes, maybe not all, but many roads do lead to Virginia). He served in the Revolutionary War, and left a will written 7 September 1787. In it he bequeathed 24 slaves to his children and grandchildren. Of particular interest is his bequest to his son Robert:

“the following negroes Doll, Troy and Mason with their increase.”

Now, the 26 year time span means this is not my Mason, but I wonder if it was his father? Mason is not a common name. I’ll now include that Stafford County location in my crosshairs for further examination. I would love to discover Garrard family bibles or papers that further describe the slaves relationships, but I know that’s probably fantasy land talk. I’m happy to have gotten back this far, although  seeing bits and pieces of the reality of enslaved life continues to be a permanent thorn in my soul.

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Mary Garrett

Mary Garrett

My great-grandmother Mary Garrett married John Wesley Holt and they settled in Hardin County, TN and raised a large family. Mary was from neighboring Decatur County, and her mother’s death certificate (whose name was also Mary) indentified her parents as Mason and Rachel Garrett (thus, my Mary’s grandparents).

Mason and Rachel Garrett were easily found on the 1870 and 1880 Decatur County census but the usual strategies for locating their former slaveowner did not work. I noted Mason’s birthplace of Kentucky and his wife’s in South Carolina, as well as the fact that Mason and Rachel both were quite old by 1870. His 70-year old age in that year placed his birthdate around 1800, but other documents provide evidence that he was older than that and likely born in the late 1700s.

1870MasonGarrett_clip

1870 Mason and Rachel Garrett

In 2010, I lucked upon a court case that included testimony from Mason and Rachel. I say luck (or perhaps the spirits guiding?) because I was not looking for them in Hardin County, since they resided in Decatur, and because the title of the court case was “NC Davis vs John A. Smith, et al” which would not have garnered even a partial glance. It was luck because an index had been created that named every person in the chancery court records, which is where I first saw their names.

There were over 100 pages of court papers in that file with documents from at least 3 states. The court case was absolutely crucial to my research on this family; it described in detail Mason and Rachel’s lives on the property called Bath Springs and the circumstances of its various owners.

The documents named Mason and Rachel’s former owner as Thomas Jeff Johnson who had died about 1854. The slaves were then owned by his brother, William Johnson, who was killed by “guerillas” in Decatur County in 1863 or 64 during the Civil War. That explained why I could not find any owner in 1870.

There was also the jewel of testimony stating that Thomas Johnson got the slaves from his wife and stepfather. The file included a copy of Thomas Johnson’s will and inventory which was probated 20 March 1854. In it, he named his slaves: Mason, 80, Rachel, 49, Alexander, 22, Mary, 18, Franklin, 16, George, 14, Anna, 5 and William, 12.

Recently, I have peeled back another layer of this onion. Researching family trees at Ancestry.com gave me a prospective family for Thomas Jeff Johnson. He married a woman named Sarah Garrard, whose family was from Kentucky. Now that KY birthplace made sense.  I discovered a book (thank you Google Books) that had been recently published entitled, “James Welborn of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky and His Descendants,” by Gail Jackson Miller. I was able to get copies of the pages that described Sarah’s family and thankfully, they were beautifully footnoted so I could follow where the author got her information. I knew this had to be the genesis of my family—so “Garrett” really started out as “Garrard.” I ordered microfilm reels from the Family History Center and dug in.

If Thomas Johnson’s slaves came from his wife Sarah, it made sense to start the search for Mason and Rachel with William W. Garrard, Sarah’s father, who was from Muhlenberg County, KY. William migrated to Lauderdale County, AL where his family resided for some years. Later, William moved to Hardin County, TN where he died sometime before 1851. His estate inventory, unfortunately, has not been found. However, Ms. Jackson’s footnote led me to something even more valuable: a June 1838 mortgage in Alabama on slaves by William W. Garrard:

6/1838-William W. Garrard to secure a debt to Arnett and Dillahunty, the following slaves: Rachel (black), and her children Daniel, Andrew, Clayton, and an infant, Mason, age 45, and his wife Rachel, age 30, and her children Lucy, Alexander, Mary & Franklin, and boy Cyrus, age 45, and girl Harriett

This was valuable because it included the important phrases, “…and her children” as well as “and his wife,” providing relationships for enslaved people that are almost impossible to find. Even at age 45, Cyrus is still called a “boy.”

When William Garrard came to Hardin County, he generated more deed records– two in 1850 again naming his slaves. After his death, tracts of land were sold in order to pay some of his debts, and it appears some of those slaves were sold as well:

5/8/1850-Power of Attorney to Telemachus Jones to recover slaves in possession of Harrison Stephens of Hardin County… they were purchased from Thomas Lassiter as trustee of William W. Garrard: Rachel, 22 and her son Clayton, Yellow Rachel, abt 22 and her children Alexander, 5, Mary, 8, Franklin, 3, Ellen and Lucy.

5/13/1850-Telemachus Jones of Hardin County, attorney for Henry Dillahunty of Lawrence County, paid $3000 for Alexander, 15, Franklin, 13, Clayton, 13, George, son of yellow Rachel, 9, William, son of yellow Rachel, 7, Joseph, son of black Rachel, 7, yellow Rachel abt 32 and her child Anna, black Rachel, abt. 32 and her child Felix, Mary, 18, Lucy, 22, and Ellen, 12

Notice one Rachel is described as “black” and the other as “yellow” Rachel. Dillahunty was the party to the mortgage in 1838 which means I’ve got to research him thoroughly as well. But these three deeds together effectively identify the children of both Rachels. Also notice the widely varying ages for both Rachels and their children, especially on these last two deeds which are both dated in 1850. By the 1870 census, several of these names are not found living in or near Mason and Rachel’s household, which implies some of their children may well have been sold or died by that time. Part of their family may still be in Lauderdale County, AL. I did however, find the “other” Rachel living in Decatur County in 1870 with the surname “Choat.”

Rachel "Choat"

Rachel “Choat”

I’m going to search every deed transaction William Garrard made, and along with probate, census and tax records, and I hope to paint a clearer picture of Mason and Rachel and their family while they moved from Kentucky through Alabama and finally to Tennessee.  Some members of their family also show birthplaces in Alabama on the census, which again, matches the path of their slaveowner’s movement. Always notice and use those census birthplaces when you see that they are different. I recently gave two lectures on using land records, and this blog post illustrates one way they can be used effectively for slave research.

Stay tuned for more on the Garrard family. I’m hot on their trail!

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I gave a lecture last Saturday on researching the enslaved at the Montgomery County Historical Society. I had a great time. My relatives
seen in the picture that heads this blog are Prathers and they are from Montgomery County, Maryland. During the research for that lecture, I
reviewed some of my research and found new information as well.

I found a lot of Montgomery County Runaway Ads online through the Maryland State Archives’ Legacy of Slavery webpage. This database is jam packed. One night I stayed up until 1 am just looking at Runaway Ads, which I’ve discussed here before and have a particular fascination with. Here are some of my observations from perusing the various ads:

1) Slaveowners knew a surprising amount of information about their slaves’ families. These also speak to the extended kinship communities that slaves formed:

William Belt

William Belt

Robert Clagett

Robert Clagett

This one even names the slave’s father:

Roberts

Roberts

Some of the ads demonstrate that slaves had surnames they were known by, although certainly many didn’t print them in the ads. I think it’s interesting that they say “he calls himself”:

Basil Burgess

Basil Burgess

Richard Wms

Richard Wms

There are also common themes of the slaveowner’s belief that the escaped slaves were headed to Philadelphia and also that they were aided or had free papers from a free negro. Maryland had over 83, 000 freed blacks by 1860 and these show the slaveowners high level of distrust of them:

Nathan Magruder

Nathan Magruder

This one must have been the most popular slave in Maryland!:

Thomas

Thomas Rawlins

Evidence abounds of the violence slaveowners exerted to hold slavery in place. This man received a burn on his face “for his villainy”:

William

William

This one’s back is “very much cut for his rogueness”:

Sam Magruder

Sam Magruder

In this one (like the others), I felt myself rooting for the “gang of six.” They made it all the Pennsylvania, and the slaveholder derisively mentions the “abolition magistrate” that let them go:

Gang of Six

Gang of Six

Runaway Ads all by themselves explode several myths of the slaveowner’s mind, such as:

1) the slaves did not form the emotional attachments to their family in the same way that whites did. This was the one they often used to defend the buying and selling of human beings. If that were so, why is it that so many slaves escape and are headed back to their wives, parents, etc.?

2) that the natural state for negroes was slavery; they needed white caretakers; that they were happiest this way. If so, why do so many run away again and again, even when the odds were overwhelmingly against them? Why do they run away even when they already wore the marks of painful physical punishment?

I’ll end with one that took my breath away. It’s a little harder to read than the others, but it describes Susan, a runaway who was”far advanced in pregnancy”:

Thomas

Thomas

What must have happened to Susan to take off on a journey that would almost certainly fail, especially in her state? I imagine it must have been something horrific.

This was what slavery was everyday, and I never forget that.

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Inventoried Slaves

I talk alot on this blog about slave and slaveowner research because it’s one of my primary areas of interest. For those of us descended from enslaved ancestors, probate records are one of the first record sets we are taught to explore. If we’re lucky enough to discover that the slaveowner died before 1865, we may find our ancestors named in their will or listed in their inventories. As we advance in our skills, however, we’ve got to look even closer at probate records beyond just the will or inventory, not to mention the need to search beyond the slaveowner himself.

In this post, I want to show a recent example of how careful tracing through and understanding of those “other” probate records may provide a more complete picture of our ancestor’s path through the family. Familysearch has now posted probate record series for many states making this technique possible to do from home. Many Maryland counties are now up, which is what enabled me to explore this more fully.

First, I created a family tree of the slaveowner’s family. I encourage my students to use Rootsmagic or Family Tree Maker (or whatever software you have) and to create a separate file for the slaveowner’s family. This will be invaluable to your research. Many slaveowners married their first cousins, which makes keeping the names straight difficult (this is one practice Africans in general never imitated). It is imperative that you know at a minimum the parents of the couple, when/where the parents lived and died, all of the couple’s children, when and where they died, and especially who the daughters married.

As long as they died before 1865, start probate tracing with the slaveowner, then trace his wife if she outlived him, then their children if necessary. In a previous post, I talked about the various steps in the process, both for dying with a will (testate) or dying without a will (intestate).

Those who follow this blog know I’m a fool for charting. Take a look at the chart I made for Martha Willson, who died in 1837:

Magruder chart

Martha left a will (unlike the majority of people). I started with her date of death, and went to the probate book that covered those years. I went to the index, and easily found “Martha Willson, Will” on Page 164 of Volume V. Keep in mind that I am using the term “probate” to refer to these records in general. What they are actually called varies by state and locality—in the case of Maryland, these volumes are actually “Will Books [that also contain] Inventories and Accounts,” and are kept by the Register of Wills.

Back to Martha: my chart started with her Will, and noted any relevant phrases about her slaves. She specified that “Dick and Nelly” have their choice of going with either her son Robert or her son John. Dick and Nelly (from Martha’s inventory) are elderly slaves and were probably unable to do much if any work at ages 60 and 64. Martha specified that the rest of her slaves be sold at private auction.

The next important document in her estate probate is the Bond. Executors (in the case of a will) or Administrators (in the case of no will) must post bond with the State that they will faithfully execute their duties. It is important to know who is posting bond. They are usually family members. For example, Otho Magruder is Martha’s son-in-law. Also, a $20K bond told me this was a relatively wealthy estate.

Martha’s Inventory named 9 slaves. The next step after the Inventory were the Sales of her estatethis is where slaves can be missed! In these pages, the other 7 slaves are sold, but (because I know Martha’s family tree) they are all sold to her children. It seems that it was important to keep them “in the family.”

The next steps in Martha’s estate probate include a listing of Debts and periodic Accounting of the Estate. The number of Accountings (1st Acct, 2nd Acct, 3rd Acct, Final Acct, etc.) depends upon alot of things, like the size of the estate and whether or not minor children are involved. Those Accountings can also contain information about slaves, especially slaves being “hired out” for that year, so peruse them carefully. If minor children are involved, Guardianship records should also be traced, but may be handled in a different court.

Two other things I want to point out about Martha: Her estate probate spanned across 10 years. In the beginning of my genealogy research, I didn’t understand the need to trace forward decades after a death, but it is entirely not uncommon to find probates spanning large periods of time. I now trace at least 20 years forward after a death. As I mentioned, Martha was wealthy by standards of her time. Her final estate value of $11,098 in 1847 was roughly the equivalent of $303,000 today according to standard of living worth calculators.

I had already charted Martha’s husband, Zadock Magruder, who predeceased her in 1809:

Magruder Cooke Admin Slave Data_Page_3

As you can see, Zadock died without a will (intestate) in 1809. His estate probate spanned 11 years. Notice also that in his 1st Acct the value of his estate was calculated in pounds, not yet American dollars.

Zadock had 16 slaves in 1810 at the date of his inventory (The child Rezin, age 7, is likely my gggrandfather). It was clear that 27 years later, in his widow Martha’s estate in 1837, 6 of the slaves she then owned had originally belonged to her husband in 1810. Most likely, the rest of the slaves were split up and given to one or more of their 8 children. Trying to find who went where is why I started this whole exercise to begin with. Who got Mariah and Lucy and Beck and the others? Why was Jerry to be set free? Sadly, I still don’t have enough information from these listings to put together definitive family groupings.

Zadock Slaves, 1810

Another important point is this: the actual division of slaves, and to which children they went, is not always written in the official probate books. I have found them many times in original case files or loose papers (i.e., the papers that are apart of the probate proceedings but not necessary recorded in the official books). Always try to find that slave division. You can see from Zadock’s chart above that he owned 16 slaves. His wife Martha kept at least 6, so we know the others were likely divided amongst his children, but, that division is not recorded in the probate books.

This blog post was probably too long, but, hopefully I’ve highlighted a strategy you can use to get the most value out of probate records. Try it out on your slaveowning families, and see what you come up with. I’d love to hear about your finds!

(If you want to catch up on some of my previous posts on slave/slaveowner research, click on those topics in the right -hand “What I Talk About” box.)

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I remain convinced that there are still hundreds of thousands of documents that contain information on our enslaved ancestors that aren’t being widely used. Sometimes it’s because we can’t easily get access to the information, and sometimes it’s because the information itself is difficult to peruse and understand (court records and freedmen’s bureau records come to mind).

One of the best sources on enslaved families can be found within the manuscripts that are stored in research libraries, historical societies, state archives and local libraries. Families in many cases donated personal papers, letters, business papers, receipts, diaries, account books, reports and many other types of documentation and ephemera. Many of these families owned slaves, and historians have long relied on these sources to understand “the political, economic and cultural life of the South as a whole.” These Plantation Records (as they are collectively called) give readers an inside view of almost every aspect of plantation life.

In this post I want to highlight the collection known as Records of Antebellum Southern Plantations. In the many years of my own research,  although they are often highlighted in lectures and books on African-American genealogy, I have yet to run across someone who has used them for slave research. This historic effort to compile a selection of plantation records from all over the country in one microfilm publication was undertaken by Kenneth Stampp, one of our foremost slavery historians. Though the original purpose was more scholarly in nature, this microfilm series is a boon to genealogists. Still, you’ll have to locate a major research library in your area to find one that houses this enormous microfilm collection.

The records included in this collection were created in “Series” from A-N, with each letter mostly representing a particular archives or library, for example, Series D covers the Maryland Historical Society while Series E covers the University of Virginia Library. Start your research in these records by utilizing the detailed Series Guides that are available online. A convenient webpage hosted by the University of Virginia Library website includes links to each one:

UVA Website

I’ve downloaded them all, Series A-N, and yes, they are pretty large PDF files. I have scoured each and every one for data not just about my specific family, but also any in the county where they lived. Finding information about what was happening in the county, whether it concerned your family specifically or not, is a great way to add more detail to any narrative about your genealogical research.  Also, most of the guides contain biographies about the particular individual or family that is covered in that set of papers. For the Ruffin Plantation in Marengo County, Alabama (which is covered in Series J, Part 7) a brief biography is included about Thomas Ruffin:

Alabama Records

Ruffin

As another example, there is a “Slave Birth Record, 1801-1861” contained within the Thompson Family Papers, housed at the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The detail in Series J, Part 7 covers the State of Alabama, and it says that this Slave Birth Record covers Russell (now Lee) County, Alabama. Because that is one of my research areas, you can believe I want to see this record:

Slave Births

Author Jean L. Cooper, created a wonderful printed index to this material titled “Index to Records to Ante-bellum Southern Plantations: Locations, Plantations, Surnames and Collections,” ( 2nd. ed). The printed index is expensive, but a quick search at Worldcat (add your zip code) will tell you what nearby library has it. Nearest to me is Georgetown University’s Law Library and the Library of Congress.

This book is an invaluable resource because Ms. Cooper created it specifically for family historians and the way that we research. The records themselves in the Series Guides for the collection are primarily listed in each Table of Contents by family surname, for example, “The Robert King Carter Papers.” It is not always obvious what county that family lived in until you go down to the Reel Index sections. Ms. Cooper’s book makes it easier to find records by county. The westward migration of families, as Ms. Cooper explains, also allows connection of papers from the same family, which are dispersed across more than one state and archives.

It goes without saying that most historical societies, archives or research libraries have their own guides to their manuscript collections. The Virginia Historical Society has a voluminous 200+-page guide specifically created for African-American-related manuscripts and the Tennessee State Archives has a similar Guide available. But, the amount of information available in these types of guides varies by institution. So another way to use these Series Guides is as pointers. I can use Series D, and run right up the road to the Maryland Historical Society. Even though they have their own manuscripts guides, it may or may not provide the detail about slaves and slaveowning families that I need.

Certainly, these records are not exhaustive, and the records chosen for compilation are often the larger, more prominent citizens and families—as the Introduction indicates, “mostly from the larger tobacco, cotton, sugar and rice plantations.” However, some smaller estate papers are represented in the collection.

My readers, how many of you have been successful finding information about your ancestors within these records? Please tell us where you viewed your collection and how you were able to find it. If you haven’t used these records yet, I hope this post will encourage you to peruse the Series Guides for information that may be useful.

Addendum: Please read the response to this post below by “4ourtrees.” The author’s success using these records speaks powerfully to the possibilities!

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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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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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Image from morninggloryjewelry.com

Slave and slaveowner research is not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure.

On top of all the genealogy methodology that you need to learn to do it well, there’s the emotional impact of simply looking at the documents that you have to deal with.

After 14 years, my heart still bleeds every time I see:

  • a will with “negro Sarah and her two children” in the same sentence with silverware
  • an older slave’s value being listed as “0” in an inventory after a lifetime of stolen service.
  • a slave being “divided” between heirs in a probate division, as if they can truly be split asunder,

I could list a hundred other examples that just make me sad for the human spirit.

But, we press on through all of this and keep reaching for each and every tidbit we can about our enslaved ancestors, or as I  like to think of it, ways to reclaim our kin. Every now and then, we inch forward. I’ve had quite a few interesting breakthroughs lately. I had to take a break because of my new son and I’m thinking maybe it’s because I’m able to look at some of my research with fresh eyes that I’ve had some recent successes.

I have been slowly (very slowly) working on finishing writing up all the research on all of my lines, and being sure to properly source cite them which is the most time-consuming part. It’s a good exercise because you can clearly see places where there are gaps in your research. While doing this for my Prather line, I noticed that I had not viewed all of the probate documents for the slaveowner’s family.

My Prather family is from Montgomery County, Maryland. We are descendants of Levi and Martha (Simpson) Prather; we had a reunion in 2009 of almost 200 people where we celebrated our heritage, laughed, ate & just had an all around great time. I had been frantically researching the line in preparation for the reunion, trying to research the enslaved roots of Levi. It was very, very difficult even with the terrific records available in Maryland and Montgomery County.

I found that Levi’s father was Rezin (Resin) Prather. You’d think both of those names would stick out in the records, but believe it or not, both names were popular in the area at that time and I found many African-Americans and whites with those same names. However, three things lead me to conclude that he is more likely than not Levi’s father:

1.       At age 70, Rezin is living in the household with Levi & Martha on the 1870 census.
2.       Levi and Martha named one of their sons Rezin.
3.       Rezin’s death in 1872 is noted in our Prather family bible.

1870 Census

Rezin was born around 1800, and writing the history had me thinking more and more about what his life had been like. At that point is when I discovered I had not researched all of the slaveowner’s family.

Rezin had been enslaved by Nathan Cooke prior to emancipation. Nathan was married to Elizabeth Magruder. Both of them died in 1869, but I finally pulled both their parent’s probate records. Sorting their families took forever–like many slaveowning families, they gave their children the same names and married first cousins and other close relatives. But once I did, I found gold: Elizabeth’s father was Zadock Magruder and he died intestate in 1809. In his inventory I found listed….a boy Resin, 7 years old!

Inventory clip

Many slaveowners gifted slaves to their daughters upon their marriages, or in their wills. Apparently, Rezin made his way to Zadock’s daughter’s household and was now the legal property of her husband, Nathan Cooke. Zadock’s inventory also contains the names of 2 young enslaved women, one of whom is likely Rezin’s mother (given his young age): Nelly or Milly. Zadock Magruder served in the Revolutionary War and there is a high school in Montgomery County today named after him.

This was a great find, just in time for my birthday. To just push it back that little bit further feels really, really good.

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