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Posts Tagged ‘land records’

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 recently got around to transcribing my gggrandfather John W. Holt’s will. John lived in Hardin County, TN, and spent his childhood enslaved by Giles Holt, along with his mother Malinda and siblings. By the early 20th century, John W. Holt was said to be the wealthiest black in the county, owning hundreds of acres of land. At one point, he was Postmaster at the town bearing his name (Holtville), had a school named Holtville, and he was a merchant who owned a country store. This is a photo of John and his wife Mary Garrett:

John and Mary Garrett

His standing in the community is also evident by the number of times he was named in other wills as executor, and served as security in numerous land records. He first purchased over 200 acres of land with a brother and possible cousin only six years after the end of the Civil War. I suspect, but have no evidence, that his father was a white man.

His will, written in 1911, is one of the most detailed I have ever seen in all the years of my research. John died in 1925 and his will had 15 individual items and ran over six written pages. The level of specificity is what is most notable. He clearly had been well-schooled in estate and land matters, although where and how he attained that knowledge remains a mystery.

He names his son Troy as executor but wisely places his vast estate within a trust that is set to last for twenty years:

“Out of the rents and income of the estate, the trustee will,
 during the said period of twenty years, pay all taxes assessed
against the estate, will keep the real estate in reason-
able repair…”

Troy was also the trustee, and was to use the proceeds from the trust to care for his mother Mary and other siblings, all who were named. John even detailed the meaning of his words, so there would be no doubt as to the purpose of his trust:

“…My object being to provide first, from the
income of my estate, a support for my widow and
minor children, that is for my widow as long as she
lives and my minor children as long as they or any
one of them are minors (whenever the word support is
used it is intended to embrace and include all necessary
food and clothing)…”

John W. Holt had a bout with infidelity, which produced a son named Hundley. Hundley is mentioned throughout the will, his inheritance being only one half of what the other siblings would receive:

“…the remainder of said rents, profits and
income in his hands be distributed by him annually
amongst all of my children, equally, except that Hundley
Holt shall be paid only one half of a child’s share in
said annual disbursements during said period of twenty
years…”

John also directed that the trustee was not empowered to:

“sell, mortgage or otherwise dispose of any of the real estate for any purpose, and any such attempted disposition shall be void.”

The repercussions were clear for disobeying this directive:

“…None of the beneficiaries under this will shall
possess the power or authority to dispose of any part
of my estate, herein willed and devised within said
period of twenty years. No deed or bargain and sale
can be made by either of them, no mortgage deed
of trust or other transfer can be made, and no
conveyance or alienation of any kind in anticipation
can be made by either, but such power is expressly
withheld, and any attempt on the part of
either to so dispose of the same will operate as an
immediate forfeiture of the interest in my estate.”

Oral history when I first started researching this line was that the land was in fact, quickly sold out of the family. I’d like to research whether or not his son Troy followed the letter of the will, which would mean that no sale or mortgage could take place until 1945.

Whatever the case, this remains an extraordinary example of the heights some of our formerly enslaved ancestors were able to reach because of education, industry and their own will to succeed.

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I was at the Reginald Lewis Museum in Baltimore this past September, presenting my first lecture on using land records effectively. Because it’s  a museum dedicated to African-American history, I wanted to focus not just on genealogical use of the records, but also the unique history between land and African-Americans and its relevance to our family histories.

I started with the failure of Reconstruction to provide former enslaved laborers with  land ownership, dooming most to decades of sharecropping and tenant farming. In spite of that, by 1910, African-Americans had amassed 15 million acres of land, a figure that astonishes me even still today. The great migration north, along with continual discrimination in agricultural subsidies and loans have decimated those numbers today. Obama signed the law in December 2010 that fully funded the landmark Pigman vs. Glickman case, which we should all know about. The Department of Agriculture admitted to historical discrimination, and black farmers were awarded billions in the largest class action settlement ever.

The subject fascinated me more and more as I researched in preparation for this lecture. As an agricultural nation, land was central to our experience. Heck, it’s why we were brought here to begin with. In some of my slavery studies, I have found that some former slaves felt emotionally tied to the land they worked; some determined that it was as much theirs as their owners.

Think about how it wasn’t enough to just buy the land: who was going to provide seed & fertilizer? How were you going to get animals and tools? Like everywhere else, the South moved on credit.  These things lead you to see how hard a proposition it was  to even approach independence. Never mind the racism and violence and illiteracy on top of all that.

I think about my 3rd great grandfather, John W. Holt, who was the largest black landowner in Hardin County, TN in the early 20th century. His first land purchase (with his brothers) was only 6 years out of slavery. All of this and at his death, his son sold most of that land out of the family. Also, consider that many families who later migrated North were simply not as connected to the land as their parents, and many lost it to tax sales or simply sold it because of that.

One thing that particularly struck me was the use of partition sales by speculators and developers to wrest control of inherited land from heirs. The majority of black farmers who owned land did not leave wills, so their land was inherited by spouses and children. All someone had to do was buy one share from one of those parties, and they could now force a sale of all the land. Some of these sad stories will take your breath away.

I don’t think I’ll ever think about land the same way again. Take a look at some of the links below, but more importantly, think about the history of land as it relates to your family lines. In what ways did it make or break their fortunes? Did some choose to stay on land owned by previous owners? For how long? Which lines were able to eventually purchase land, and did they end up losing it? Do you have pictures of the old homeplaces that no longer stand? What crop did your ancestors grow?

Black Farmers Win Settlement; Congress passes legislation

Black Farmers Losing Land

Homecoming: Black Farming and Land loss

Timeline of Black Land Loss

A Vanishing Breed, Black Farm Owners in the South, 1651-1982

Tell me, what stories about your ancestors relationship to the land have you discovered in your research? If you haven’t searched the records fully yet, what has been your biggest obstacle?

In Part 2 of this blog post, I’ll provide some basic definitions and examples of deed types that we can build upon in future posts.

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