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For those doing African-American research, antebellum estate inventories are a common resource used to find enslaved ancestors. But we should also get into the habit of looking at the other items on that inventory list, that help us visualize not just the slaveowner’s life, but also our ancestors. Even after the Civil War, scrutinizing our ancestor’s inventories can often provide those interesting little details to make a family history come alive.

The first thing I realized a few years ago when I started doing this regularly was that I had no idea what many of the items were! Especially all the animals and agricultural items. What’s the difference between a bay horse and a sorrel horse? (its the colors) What’s a shoat? (it’s a baby pig) What exactly is fodder? (feed for farm animals). Luckily, for most everything, you can just use good old fashioned Google and quickly get a good definition and even pictures. Or you can use a book like “From A to Zax: A Complete Dictionary for Genealogist and Historians.”

I smile when I think about the future and how our descendants will wrangle over what an Ipad or a cell phone was. I also found it a challenge  to go back mentally a century or two in terms of remembering when there was no electricity, no running water, no refrigerators, etc. I am such a child of technology;)

Let’s look at Alfred Reeds estate inventory in 1858, from Russell County, AL:

Reed 1

Reed 1

I notice:

–How the appraisers are “walking through the property” room by room.
–The appraisers have started outside on the farm. There are plenty of animals, 29 heard of cattle may imply that he was selling meat.
–Horses and mules were sometimes given names.
–Alfred has not just a buggy and harness, but also a rockaway and harness, a much fancier carriage that would imply his higher status, as opposed to  the average farmers who may only have buggies or oxcarts.
–The slaves are listed by name, but no ages or statements are given about their relationships.

Let’s look at the next set of items:

Reed 2

Reed 2

–Now the appraisers are moving through the bedroom or living quarters.
–A piano and accordion would also be signs of his status and musical talent.
–The ability to own a gold watch would again signal a higher status.
–The number of guns (2 pistols, 3 double-barrel shotguns) remind us that we’re in an era where almost everyone owned guns.

The last set of items shown are key:

Reed 3

Reed 3

A glance at the titles tells us Alfred Reed was clearly a lawyer. Book titles are not always listed, so it’s nice that here they were.
Now, Let’s look at the inventory of Caroline Sibley of Richmond County, GA, in 1859:

Sibley 1

Sibley 1

–Her status immediately jumps out—she owned paintings and valuable portraits.
–She owned a bible and hymn book, which tells us she was probably a member of a local church.
–Her estate is notable for what is missing—no agricultural items or animals. She lived in Augusta, GA, but obviously did not farm. I would be interested in how she obtained a living. Let’s look at the last page of her inventory:

georgia2_clip2

–I spoke too soon: she owned $33,000 in bonds and notes! According to one online value calculator, that would be $940,000,000 today. Ms. Sibley clearly does not need to farm!
–We also see she owned a pew in the Presbyterian Church—a great clue of where to go to search more records.
–There’s a piano again, as well as jewelry, and silver.
–She has four female slaves, listed without ages or relation, but we can discern that they were likely working in her home as domestics or rented out.

 William Bryant, also of Richmond County in the same year, owned some bee hives and was making honey along with his other agricultural ventures:

Beehive

Bryant 1

Lastly, let’s look at Mrs. Dudley White’s estate in Halifax, NC in 1934. Some nice court clerk has typed this volume up for us:

1

White 1

She clearly was involved in peanut farming—look at all the peanut equipment.
She also owned 2 cars—both a Star and a Chrysler, as well as a Ford truck.In the following section of her inventory, the rooms are spelled out for us, and we can kinda envision the house:

White 2

White 2

This section is revealing:

White 3

White 3

– Now this is the kitchenware of someone who probably entertains alot.
–She owned a grand piano and a violin.
–She also had the latest technology—a Victrola record player as well as 30 records. She clearly was into music.
–She also owned a sewing machine and table, so someone in the house liked to sew.
–She even had a “mounted hawk”—which I assume is one of the stuffed versions popular at that time.

Here are a few general tips as you are perusing estate inventories:

1. Compare your ancestor’s inventory with his neighbors to assess his or her relative economic standing.
2. Books are typically indicators of literacy, which was less common the further back in time we go. Many homes only owned a bible, or perhaps one of the classics.
3. We can often make generalizations about slave ages from their monetary values. The most highly valued males will be in their late teens and twenties, with many working years ahead of them. The most highly valued women will be in their prime childbearing years, also late teens-twenties, maybe early thirties. Children and elderly people will  have lower values.
4. Some inventories enumerate whips and other slave torture (yes, I believe it was torture) tools. These may indicate the relative violence involved in slaveownership.
5. Wealthier people will obviously have more “luxury” items—carriages, silver and gold jewelry, more books and furniture and as we’ve seen lots of china and large serving platters may indicate lots of socializing which was associated with the planter class.

 Tell me—what interesting items have you come across in estate inventories? What do those items tell you about the person’s life?

Census Manual

Census Manual

Censuses provide the framework for much of the family history research that we do. Every once in a while, it is useful to consult the actual instructions that were given to enumerators for that particular census year. The University of Minnesota has posted them online to the eternal gratification of all genealogists. Of course, we all know that not every enumerator followed the instructions to the letter, but I’ve also found that what we think was meant by a census question is not always that simple. As a good example, let’s look at how the instructions for defining “black” (colored, negro, etc.) evolved over time:

In 1860 and 1870, a blank space under Color implied “White”:

Color.– Under heading 6, entitled “Color,” in all cases where the person is white leave the space blank; in all cases where the person is black without admixture insert the letter “B”; if a mulatto, or of mixed blood, write “M”;if an Indian, write “Ind.” It is very desirable to have these directions carefully observed.

By 1880 that was no longer the case:

Color–It must not be assumed that, where nothing is written in this column, “white” is to be understood. The column is always to be filled. Be particularly careful in reporting the class mulatto. The word is here generic, and includes quadroons, octoroons, and all persons having any perceptible trace of African blood. Important scientific results depend upon the correct determination of this class in schedules 1 and 5.

(What scientific results depended on this?)

 By 1900, there was no “Mulatto” category anymore:

Color- Write “W” for white; “B” for black (negro or of negro descent); “Ch” for Chinese; “JP” for Japanese, and “In” for Indian, as the case may be.

 By 1910, “Mulatto” was back, with a new definition for “black”:

Color or race.-Write “W” for white; “B” for black; “Mu” for mulatto; “Ch” for Chinese; “Jp” for Japanese; “In” for Indian. For all persons not falling within one of these classes, write “Ot” (for other), and write on the left-hand margin of the schedule the race of the person so indicated. For census purposes, the term “black” (B) includes all persons who are evidently full-blooded negroes, while the term “mulatto” (Mu) includes all other persons having some proportion or perceptible trace of negro blood.

By 1920, there was a slew of other color/race choices:

Color or race.-Write “W” for white, “B” for black; “Mu” for mulatto; “In” for Indian; “Ch” for Chinese; “Jp” for Japanese; “Fil” for Filipino; “Hin” for Hindu; “Kor” for Korean. for all persons not falling within one of these classes, write “Ot” (for other), and write on the left-hand margin of the schedule the race of the person so indicated. For census purposes the term “black” (B) includes all Negroes of full blood, while the term “mulatto” (Mu) includes all Negroes having some proportion of white blood.

 For both 1930 and 1940, the new word “Negro” got detailed (although with conflicting guidelines), and notice the ‘Other Mixed Races’:

Color or race.-Write “W” for white, “B” for black; “Mus” for mulatto; “In” for Indian; “Ch” for Chinese; “Jp” for Japanese; “Fil” for Filipino; “Hin” for Hindu; “Kor” for Korean. For a person of any other race, write the race in full. Negroes.-A person of mixed white and Negro blood should be returned as a Negro, no matter how small the percentage of Negro blood. Both black and mulatto persons are to be returned as Negroes, without distinction. A person of mixed Indian and Negro blood should be returned a Negro, unless the Indian blood predominates and the status as an Indian is generally accepted in the community.

Other mixed races.-Any mixture of white and nonwhite should be reported according to the nonwhite parent. Mixtures of colored races should be reported according to the race of the father, except Negro-Indian (see par. 151).

 This nation’s preoccupation with color, especially when that color was black, is evident. It is also apparent that centuries of miscegenation had forever changed what the definition of that would include.

 Take a look at some of the enumerator instructions and tell me what surprises you. I got a real kick out of how detailed the instructions were for Occupation, as well as this note about getting information on certain classes of people in 1880:

The law requires a return in the case of each blind, deaf and dumb, insane or idiotic, or crippled person. It not infrequently happens that fathers and mothers, especially the latter, are disposed to conceal, or even deny, the existence of such infirmities on the part of children. In such cases, if the fact is personally known to the enumerator, or shall be ascertained by inquiry from neighbors, it should be entered on the schedules equally as if obtained from the head of the family.

Elizabeth Shown-Mills, on her Evidence Explained website, has an excellent QuickLesson about the importance of knowing census instructions.

I have been having some tremendous breakthroughs in this past year. I am grateful for that. With every new name, a piece of me and and my history slides into place. Into memory.

It is a rule of thumb in good genealogy practice to pull every record related to an ancestor, to perform “exhaustive research” in the language of the Genealogical Proof Standard. This discovery illustrates the value of that principal. This discovery was made even sweeter by the fact that it was so unexpected.

My search for my great-grandmother Matilda’s roots has gone full steam ahead this year and last. Matilda married four times but only appears on the census with one husband, and she gets married in at least three different cities so cracking that case was probably one of the hardest things I have ever done in my family research. I found her marriage dates in online indexes and databases so, as part of my due diligence, I began the necessary task of ordering the actual marriage records and death records of her husbands from the proper state and county offices. As the records came in, I scanned them and put them in the proper folders. I wasn’t expecting to find anything new.

From Matilda’s death certificate, “VINEY NEELY” was listed as her mother, no name of father.

From Matilda’s first marriage record, her surname is given as “MATILDA MEELY.”  Neither of those names enabled me to find Matilda as a child in her parent’s household in 1880. I had her back to the 1900 census, but she was already on husband number two. I also checked “VIRGINIA NEELY” thinking Viney might be short for that. Those nicknames will get you every time.

A few weeks ago, I received a copy of Matilda’s marriage record from Philadelphia to husband number three, Peter Vickers. Now keep in mind, only her first husband is my actual ancestor. To my surprise, the record included a copy of the marriage application, and Philadelphia, at that time, was one of the places that asked people the names of their parents, where they were from, and whether they were alive. It’s hard to read, but her father’s name was given as “CHARLES” (no surname) and her mother’s name was “LAVINA NELLIE” (Viney was short for Lavina!):

Matilda's Parents

Matilda’s Parents

Now that I had the correct names of her parents, I finally, 15 years later, was able to locate Matilda NEELY living  in Taylor County, Florida with her father “CHARLES NEELY” on the 1880 census! His wife’s name in 1880 is shown as “NETTA” (maybe another wife? or is Lavina’s name just mangled?) and there is MATILDA, 8 years old, right where she should be. Charles Nealy is also in the county in 1870 before Matilda’s birth, but the mother’s name is a closer match and shown as “NELVINA”:

1870 Charles Neely

1870 Charles Neely

1880 Charles Nealy

1880 Charles Nealy

This was so exciting!!!! I have siblings for Matilda I can now go on a crazy manhunt to find and I can also start the tough work of uncovering the likely enslaved roots of Charles and Lavina. I guess I have just added another 10 years of research to my life;)

If this doesn’t illustrate why we need to pull every marriage record, even those for other spouses, I don’t know what would. The names are all over the place, but THIS IS HER. Another branch back on my tree;)

P.S.—Now I want to know if I am related to the Neelys on the cooking show, so I can get some discount barbeque!

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

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

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

1870 Patience

1870 Patience

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

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

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

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

Tobias Powell

Tobias Powell

These people had been enslaved together and those ties continued.

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

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

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

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

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

Mattie_bsuit2Today I celebrate the life of my maternal grandmother, Mattie Mae (Springer) Holt. She would have been 92 years old on May 17 had she lived. Although my family has had to do without her physical presence for 13 years now, her influence and spirit lives on in us all.

Mattie was born in 1921 in rural southwestern Tennessee, and she had 7 siblings who survived to adulthood. Her parents worked hard to provide a good life for their family. Her father sharecropped, worked on steamboats and eventually landed what would have been considered a good government job at the Oak Ridge, TN plant, site of the infamous Manhattan Project. Her mother, Effie, was a caring homemaker. My grandmother was the only one of my grandparents I was fortunate to have interviewed and she shared wonderful memories of her childhood. Those interviews, especially looking back today, were a real gift: you don’t think of your grandparents as having once been children themselves. She talked about her father telling the kids ghost stories at nighttime, about attending camp meeting at church, and how although her older siblings picked cotton, she never did. She was proud of that.;) She explained how families wouldn’t have meat for the winter unless they had a hog to kill, and hog-killing was a big celebration in Tennessee that brought the whole community together.

My grandmother finished about 2 years at Tennessee State University, which was quite an opportunity for her generation. She would go on to marry my grandfather, Luther Holt and move to Dayton, Ohio. True to the patterns of the Great Migration, three of her siblings and eventually her mother Effie were all brought to Dayton to live, many working in the Delco factories of the GM plant. Whatever its shortcomings, in Dayton my mother and aunt were able to grow up free of the legalized segregation that was the experience of most African-Americans during this era.

In Ohio, trailblazer that she was, Mattie earned her real estate license and excelled at this male dominated occupation that required charisma, intellect and tenaciousness. I remember thinking my grandmother was a glamorous celebrity because she had an endless array of fur coats, wigs, jewelry and fabulous clothes for me to play in. She fiercely protected and loved her daughters, and she and my grandfather were able to provide all of their girls with college educations. She had a gleaming black Cadillac (her sister had a silver one) and I would ride around with her to collect rent from various properties she owned–I felt so important! She was a businesswoman way back even then. I’ve heard that she enabled many blacks at that time to buy their first homes and also connected them with a Jewish friend of hers who owned a store and would let them to buy furniture and appliances on credit. That may seem like a small thing, but it was a necessary step on the march towards blacks living the American Dream.

Mattie Holt

Mattie Holt

We all called her “Mama”, grandchildren as well. She was smart and funny and loved to keep up with the news and issues of the day–I have this memory of her always listening to the Joe “The Black Eagle” Madison show, on the AM dial here in Maryland. She enjoyed politics. She had a confidence and independence that allowed her to live life on her own terms no matter what “society” thought about it–very ahead of where women were in those days. I’m pretty sure I inherited this trait. She wore the most outrageous wigs in every color and mini-skirts, bikinis–her clothing was entirely out of sync with typical more conservative older women from the South! Everyone you’d interview today will still remember Mattie Holt and her clothes. I think for her it really was an expression of her truest self.

She divorced after 20-some odd years of marriage, a rare thing for a woman of her era to do. And went happily about her life. She and my grandfather later in life became very good friends and she was buried beside him. That kind of bravery and courageousness left a powerful impact on my consciousness as I grew into a young woman. Today, of her three youngest grandchildren, one is in college and the other two will be graduating high school soon. My son Sebastian would have been her first great grandchild. She left a long trail of love in this family and we remember all the gifts she left us. I hope she is looking down with a smile.

 Mama, I am missing you & thinking about you on your 92nd birthday~

Your granddaughter Robyn

November 2012

November 2012

It’s that time again! I will be teaching my “Advanced African-American Genealogy Class” at Howard Community College in Columbia, MD. The class is 4 weeks, one night a week (Tuesday) May 21-June 11 from 7-9pm, and I hope those in the local DC/MD Metro area will consider coming.

The class is geared for those who have gone past census and vital records, and perhaps are at a stalemate in their research. In the class I cover:

Evidence Analysis
Source Citation
Land and Probate Records
Slave Research
Inferential and Cluster Research

The class is $79 and you can register online here under the Non-Credit link. The class code is XE-131-6655. Directiosn to the Gateway Campus building can also be found on the HCC website. Please register soon–they cancel the class if they don’t get enough students before the class is scheduled. We have a great time in the class and I enjoy teaching it.

On another exciting note, I recently got to meet the wonderful Isabel Wilkerson, author of one of my favorite books, The Warmth of Other Suns. I told her–and this is true–I am her NUMBER ONE fan! She gave a lively talk to a room of about 400 people, and I stood in line until 10pm to get my books signed! She was gracious and kind and took her time to speak with everyone. If you still haven’t read the book that everyone is raving about, RUN and get it. Both the story and her writing of the story combine for a glorious read. I’m trying to learn how to write like that!

With Isabel Wilkerson

With Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns

The Warmth of Other Suns

I am in a state of genealogic shock.

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

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

Bible Page

Bible Page

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

1860 Martha

1860 Martha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martha Simpson Prather

Martha Simpson Prather

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