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Posts Tagged ‘freed blacks’

MP900390424Sometimes—well, probably a lot of times—our research veers off into an unexpected direction. Usually its because we come across a person or a circumstance that is of interest.

My 3rd great-grandfather, Perry Simpson, married a woman named Margaret Fleet. I found her family quite interesting, even though she technically is not a blood relative.

After their marriage, they lived in Montgomery County, MD, but Margaret was originally from Washington, D.C, which is my own birthplace. Margaret can be found on the 1850, 1860, and 1870 census records in the 1st Ward of Washington D.C., a freed black woman before general emancipation came. By 1860 she had 7 children: Robert, Annett, Cora, Edward, Augustus, Willy and Mary. After those years, Margaret appeared in Montgomery County, MD with her new husband Perry Simpson.

This is the record that made me “turn left” (click image to enlarge):

1880UnitedStatesFederalCensusForEdwardFleet

1880 Census

  I was fascinated by the fact that Mary’s father’s birthplace was “Mexico.” Was this a fluke? Was he really Mexican? I started tracking this family through the available records. Although Margaret birthed many children before her marriage to Perry –9 according to the 1900 census—no known record documents a marriage to any other man.

In 1850, Margaret was a freed black woman in a city bursting with contradictions. Amid thousands of freed blacks living and working in the city, were enslaved “quasi-free” people, many of whom were working and living on their own while paying their masters monthly fees. Washington had been the site of an active slave trade, and a notorious slave pen making it an easy target for abolitionists looking to shame the young nation. In 1850, the slave trade was finally outlawed in D.C. During the next decade, events would continue to escalate around slavery, finally culminating in Civil War. In 1862, slavery itself was outlawed in the district creating a haven for thousands of enslaved people from the surrounding states. “First Freed: Washington D.C. in the Emancipation Era,” edited by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis is a good book to read to understand what life was like for African-Americans in D.C. at that time.

Margaret had been fortunate; she came from a family of skilled artisans. Her father was Henry Fleet Jr., a freed black shoemaker from Georgetown, who learned the trade from his father, the senior Henry Fleet. Today, Georgetown is a mecca of white wealth and privilege, but it had historically been home to a thriving freed black community. Henry Fleet Sr. purchased his wife Ann and “5 or 6 children” and later freed them, something many skilled blacks were able to do if allowed by the slaveowner. Henry Fleet Sr. was doing well enough that several boys were apprenticed to him in the early 1800s to learn the trade of shoemaking. An 1803 apprenticeship document notes that “He purchased his son Henry Jr. in 1812 and he is also a shoemaker.

In 1864, while living at K Street and 21st street, Margaret was assessed $25 in the brand new federal tax system as a “Retail Liquor Dealer”. In 1870, Margaret is still in D.C., and her daughters Annie (living with her) and Cora living next door are both dressmakers. This would have been one of the best occupations for a freed blackwoman of that era. I wonder if they would have known Elizabeth Keckley, the freed black dressmaker for Mrs. Lincoln?

In that same 1870 census, Sarah Carter, Margaret’s mother, is living with her and is 100 years old! Margaret also owns $1000 worth of real estate, no small feat for a black woman.

U.S.IRSTaxAssessmentLists1862-1918ForMargaretFleet

1864 Tax Assessment

1870 Fleet

1870 Fleet

In 1873, Margaret opened an account with the Washington D.C. branch of the Freedmen’s Bank, naming her new husband Perry and her children:

Freedmans Bank

Freedmans Bank

Her sons Robert (a policeman) and Edward also opened accounts. Most of Margaret’s children can be tracked through their marriages, vital and land records and city directories in D.C. The death certificate of her daughter Annett names a “Greg Jarvis” as her father. That man, Greg Jarvis, appears in the 1850 and 1860 Washington D.C. census also living in the 1st Ward. By 1860 he is married with children:

1850 Jarvis

1850 Jarvis

1860 Jarvis

1860 Jarvis

In these records, Jarvis is shown as being from Mexico and also New Mexico–it was probably the Territory of New Mexico (it was not a state yet). The Mexican War had just been ended by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the country was also reeling from the recent Compromise of 1850. I wonder what would have brought him East?

Jarvis also went from being a “mulatto” in 1850 to being “white” with an Irish wife in 1860. So what his racial background is exactly we can’t quite tell. This man appears to be heading two families, at least for awhile: one black, one white. It is unknown whether he fathered all of the children of Margaret Fleet, but documents tie him to at least 3 of her children.

A mortgage executed in Montgomery County in 1911 noted Margaret’s date of death and listed all of her heirs living at the time, who had inherited her land:

“Edward G. Fleet, Sr. & wife Lucinda William Fleet & his wife Blossie, Mary Fleet, widow Harry Fleet, unmarried, Anna Grant, widow Cora Lemos, widow Augustus Fleet & his wife Sarah, Mary Lemos & her husband Beverly”

Margaret, amazingly, lived into her early 90s, long enough to leave a death certificate:

Death Cert

Death Cert

Margaret’s life was pretty interesting and only goes to prove that sometimes veering off-course is absolutely well worth it.

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There is a good probability that many of us researching our African-American lines will find at least one line that was freed before 1865. In 1860, there were over 400,000 freed blacks in the U.S.. I like this map from the Schomburg migrations website:

freed blacks

Although Northern cities like Philadelphia and Boston had large black populations, over half of all freed blacks lived in the South in cities like Charleston, New Orleans, Savannah, Baltimore and Petersburg. Escaping blacks would often aim for these cities, as they’d have a better chance of blending in with other freed blacks.

map by Columbia University

map by Columbia University

I had freed black ancestors living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland which was not surprising since Maryland had over 60,000 freed blacks by the time the Civil War began—the most of any state. More surprising was that I discovered a freed black ancestor living in south west Tennessee in Hardin County. She was one of only 37 freed blacks living there in 1850. That was truly unexpected.

berlinOne of the core texts about freed blacks is “Slaves Without Masters: the Free Negro in the Antebellum South” by Ira Berlin. Their lives were only a little bit better than the lives of enslaved people. They worked alongside and many times married enslaved people. They were widely perceived by the white community with suspicion and regarded as an enticement to insurrection among slaves. Some of the most famous slave revolts were planned by freed blacks such as Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner. There have been several very interesting books written about freed blacks who attained great success and wealth, such as in “Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the South” .

As the number of freed blacks grew in states like Virginia and Maryland, state laws also increased drastically limiting their movement and actions. Examples of some of the laws against freed blacks in various states include the inability to vote or testify against whites in court, the need to register movements in and out of state, the inability to own a dog or gun, and the inability to assemble in large numbers without a white person present. Eventually, several states simply legislated that if a black was freed, he or she had to leave the state.

How do you research freed blacks? First, you’d want to find them by looking for your ancestors on census records before 1870. Before that year, only freed blacks would have been included. Sometimes, we assume our ancestors were enslaved before 1870 without first actually checking.

If you discover an ancestor who was freed before 1865, next you’ll want to attempt to discover how they gained their freedom. Slaves could be freed in 5 general ways:

  1. Born Free (legal status came from the mother, so a freedwoman’s children would be free)
  2. Manumitted (freed by their slaveowner)
  3. Purchased their freedom (slaveowner must allow this possibility)
  4. Runaway
  5. Military Service (Revolutionary War or the Civil War)

It’s not always easy ascertaining the method by which an ancestor became free. Many states required freed blacks to register their freedom with the county court to prevent escaping slaves from claiming they were free. The Maryland Assembly put it this way in 1805:

“great mischiefs have arisen from  slaves coming into possession of certificates of free Negroes, by running away and passing as free  under the faith of such certificates”

Therefore, county court minutes are a good place in general to search. That is where I found a reference to my ancestor in Hardin County. The court would grant the person a “freedom certificate” that a freed black was expected to carry on their person at all times and submit it to any white when questioned. Some localities also kept separate sets of these “Freedom Certificates”. If you’re lucky, it will state how the person became free. Here’s an example of one from Anne Arundel County, MD:

Freedom Certificate

Freedom Certificate

Depending on the state and county, there may be separate books of Manumissions (the legal document through which a master frees a slave). A separate book will often contain an index of the slaves’ names. However, the manumission may also be mixed in with the Land Records, or could have been made through the owner’s Will, both records that can be harder to search in the beginning because they are typically  indexed by the name of the slaveowner. Here is a portion of a transcribed Manumission:

man
I haven’t mentioned the fact that in many of the records, there will just be a first name, such as “Negro Sarah”. That complicates the process by forcing us to make sure we are connecting the right “Sarah” with the “Sarah” that we’ve found in the census with a surname attached.

If  you have no luck in finding Freedom Certificates or Manumissions, check to see if your ancestor owned land and if so, from whom did he or she purchase that land? Check Indentures, as many freed black children were indentured to whites. They also may be living near the white person who freed them, so use Cluster Research principles. Freed blacks often had a white person who served as “protector”, someone to vouch for and support them when they were challenged or cheated by whites. You may be able to identify that person by evaluating enough documents. Also,  try to find out what the laws were regarding freed blacks, for example, this book about the black laws in Virginia. and this blog that discusses laws regarding freed blacks in North Carolina.

This was only the briefest introduction to yet another endlessly fascinating topic. There’s a good discussion of researching freed blacks on the University of South Florida’s website and I also recommend this more scholarly discussion of the topic by James Horton who is one of my favorite historians. If you found an ancestor living as a freed black before 1870, let me know in the comments.

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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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