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Posts Tagged ‘slaveowner’

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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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I have been researching Giles Holt for 13 years now. He enslaved my ancestor, Malinda Holt. I was reading a blog post by my genea-buddies Luckie and Sandra about how long you should research an enslaved ancestor. I’d had this thought many times about Malinda Holt. I concluded about a year ago that I may never find out where and how Giles acquired her. There’s simply a limit to the written records, and at some point, accepting this and being happy about what I had discovered seemed the right thing to do. I am in the late 1700s, early 1800s, and for many locales (unless you’re lucky enough to be in one of the original colonies) that’s the end of the road for written records.

We can find so much about our ancestors through probate and land records, tax records and court records, and many others. But the reality is that because slaves were considered personal property, they could also be purchased with no surviving record of their purchase. Perhaps there’s an entry in a slave trader’s logbook (a logbook that is no longer extant). Perhaps they were purchased at a slave auction, with no surviving record. The nature of slavery was so colossal and tragic. That feeling never escapes my mind for long.

There’s always the possibility that some clerk searching in a dusty courthouse closet will uncover a trove of unprocessed records, or some person’s passing will result in their family papers being donated to a university archives. Or, that sometime in the future, records closed to the public now will become open. Barring that (which I’ll always hold out hope for) I can be proud of the job I’ve done fleshing out Giles’ very complicated life and part of Malinda’s. I thought I’d share some of the things I discovered about Giles, and in particular what documents helped me in those discoveries.

Giles was born ca. 1790 in Amelia County, VA to Jesse and Mary Holt. At some point in the early 1800s he migrated to Smith County, TN, a popular migration route for the times. Tennessee was still considered “frontierland” and many sons wanted to head south/west and start their own fortunes. Giles was married by 1820, with a large family in Smith County, and still there in 1830. By 1840, he had moved further westward to Hardin County, TN, where he died in 1876. Giles served in the Union army, at odds with many of his sons who served in the Confederacy. He had between 11-15 children.

Because of the spareness of data census records during this timeframe, it was county level records that provided critical details about Giles’ life.

Early on in my research, descendants of the slaveowner provided me the info about his migration and possible parents (who knows how long that would have taken me to find out?) I had to gather the evidence, though, which took years. The hardest part when talking about migration is proving that the Giles Holt in Amelia County, VA is in fact the same Giles Holt in Smith and Hardin County, TN. A power of attorney, recorded in a deed book, helped tie my Giles’ to both his mother and the VA roots. Chancery court and probate records also helped greatly. We need to always be conscious of not assuming identity just because the person has the same name & age. I wrote up a Proof Summary on this dilemma, which helps to organize your analysis as well as the evidence you’ve gathered.

The other problem was the fact that there are other Holt families living near the Giles Holt family both in VA and TN. Deconflicting families is important to show that you are tracking the correct people. I had to show and prove that the families were in fact separate lines. Chancery court records, probate records and tax records helped me to do this. When another Giles Holt appears on the 1820 US census of the same age and family makeup, but living in Connecticut, I had to prove it was not my Giles Holt. I did that because I could show who his parents were (different) and when he died (different).

During this time, my Giles Holt married at least 4 times, divorcing at least once, possibly twice. The wives were difficult to figure–his first wife is never directly named in any document. I had to prove her existence using indirect evidence. None of his marriages had surviving records. However, I uncovered a premarital agreement and a divorce and criminal complaint (along with post 1850 censuses) that helped sort them out.

Several bills of sale listing slaves in 1843 and 1845 were important pieces in identifying Giles’ ownership of my ancestor. Malinda is not living far from Giles in 1870, and she died in 1881. I proudly (and unexpectedly) located her headstone in the local cemetery.

It is obvious to me that the critical period for Giles’ acquiring slaves was his time as a young man in Smith County, TN  while he was presumably growing his large family. He moved there with one slave (whom he later sold along with her 4 children), and by 1840 when he moved to Hardin County, he had 10 slaves. Unfortunately, Smith County, TN is one of those counties with many missing records. If there was once thing I really needed to go back on Malinda, it would be more available records in this locality during the early 1800s.

It’ s been quite a journey and I’m working on a lengthy article on Giles Holt to submit to the genealogy journal in Hardin County, TN.  I always wanted to find a picture of him, and it doesn’t seem as though one exists. Although I may never find anything documenting how Giles came to own Malinda, I do find solace in the knowledge that I’ve gone this far and brought back the voice and at least some of the details of an enslaved ancestor. I think Malinda would be proud;)

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I’ve been having a wonderfully lively debate in recent weeks with another genealogist about ex-slaves’ surnames and how many used:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of 20 respondents quoting 65 enslaved ancestors:

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

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

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