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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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OK, I confess that blog title is a little sensationalized. Truth be told, much of this information becomes well-known to researchers within a few years of their African-American genealogical journey. Family research turns many of us into walking, talking, beacons of black history. It certainly turned my life around; probably 90% of what I read now is non-fiction and slave/slavery/black history related. It is an endlessly fascinating subject, epic, tragic and but often inspiring.

Nevertheless, here are a few tidbits to keep in mind as you do your research.

1.       Slavery was vastly different at different times, in different places. A slave’s life in 1780 in Virginia would likely not look much like a Georgia slave’s life in 1850. A city slave’s experience was vastly different than a rural or country slave’s experience. Different crops had different labor demands (cotton, rice, tobacco, indigo, sugar). Learn what crop your ancestor worked.

2.       South America (mainly Brazil) and the West Indian Caribbean islands took in the lion’s share of slaves from Africa. Of those who came to the North American colonies, most were imported here by 1795. That means many of us have very long histories in this country.

3.       Most slaves had surnames that were known amongst themselves, even though the white planters did not record those surnames. Check out the WPA narratives, civil war pensions, and freedman’s bank as three types of records where you’ll find slaves mentioning their parent’s entire names.

4.       There will be many instances where the enslaved father is owned by someone other than the owner of his wife and child. Don’t expect to always find entire family units owned by one owner. Check those neighbors; many slaves found mates on neighboring farms. Young children (under 10), however, were often allowed to stay with their mothers.

5.     Slaves were employed in every conceivable occupation: they worked in shipyards and wharves, railroads and steamboats, coal mines, iron works, gristmills and sawmills; as maids, seamstresses, tailors, masons, butchers, barbers, and so on. Especially for urban slaves, think of all the ways other than farming they worked.

6.       Understand the dynamics of the interstate slave trade. The rise of cotton in the early 1800’s and waning need for year-round slaves in the North caused hundreds of thousands of slaves to be sold into the deep south and expanding southwest. This had a devastating impact on black families. Note the prevalence of the birthplace of “Virginia” or “Maryland” in the 1870 southern states. Consider that your southern slave ancestor may have been sold south at some point.

7.       Slaves were often sold or bought through slave traders or others who had businesses in slaves. Many of these auction –style purchases will not have any existing records or receipts, as these were private organizations. There are a few localities, however, which have records of former slave traders.

8.       Researching slavery will expand your vision of what it meant to be a slave. Many slaves in cities were allowed to live as virtual freedmen, work for pay and give their owners a monthly fee; others were allowed to earn wages to buy themselves or family members. Some planters worked their slaves on the “task” system, which meant they were responsible for a certain amount of work every day & when they finished they were free to do other things, like work their own garden plot or hunt for more food.

9. Looking at original sources will broaden your mind as to how the local whites interacted with their enslaved population. Criminal court records are replete with people being charged with playing cards with slaves and selling them things. This really surprised me. Slaves were plied with liquor by their masters and others. I have a court record detailing the local practice of allowing the slaves to work for pay on their holiday off-days. All these things expanded my view of slave life.

10. It took me awhile to agree with this idea, but slavery was still a negotiated relationship. Yes, the masters had the final and violent upper hand, but you’ll be amazed at how many times the master’s actions were altered by a slave’s threatening to run away, refusing to do work, refusing to be sold to someone, etc. These are shown in numerous entries in planter’s diaries and other documents:
“Salley won’t go without her husband so I’ll have to sell him too.”
“Joe if you come back home, you may have your choice of master.”
“I had to whip Bill today because he would not go with me.”

Our ancestors used every tool at their disposal and sometimes were able to influence the master’s decisions.

Tell me, what things have you learned during your research about slavery that surprised you?

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I haven’t been posting because I’ve been enjoying and entertaining family and friends over the Thanksgiving holiday. That’s at the heart of why we are all genealogists, right? I had a wonderful time and hope all of you did too. But, I missed my blog! And my good genea-buddy has been reminding me for days I need to post so I am back with just a short snippet. But a good one.

I have a website that I’ve had bookmarked forever but only tonight did I start digging around in it and now, an hour later, I am changing my original blog topic to post this. I can always use the other one another night.

The website is called, “The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record.”

As the website describes, the project contains approximately 1,235 images of mostly enslaved laborers in the Americas and the New World. This is a joint project of the Virginia Foundation and the Digital Media Lab at the University of Virginia Library.  There are 18 categories of pictures, some of which are:

  • Capture of Slaves and Coffles in Africa
  • European Forts and Trading Posts in Africa
  • Plantation Scenes, Slave Settlements and Houses
  • Physical Punishment, Rebellion and Running Away
  • Music, Dance and Recreational Activities
  • Emancipation and Post Slavery Life

I had some interesting thoughts while perusing this collection.  Because many of us are focused on uncovering our specific ancestors in Virginia in 1870 or South Carolina in 1849, we forget the scope and scale and reach of slavery—the path through the West Indies, the tearing apart of custom and tradition. How it formed the economic backbone of entire countries and forced redefinitions of family & manhood, womanhood and faith.  I think also because of modern photography, we all are drawn to the more common images from the 20th century, and late 19th.  I think I even was guilty of “poo-pooing” illustrations–but if you want to try to envision a plantation in Jamaica or Cuba in 1759 or 1810, you’re going to have to look at illustrations. I found that as I looked at these  (many of which were from books published in England), it made me recall the length and depth of the tragedy of slavery. The extraordinary expanse of the crime. My my. And remember that most slaves in the Caribbean from this era did not live to significantly reproduce other generations as in mainland North America–most died and planters simply purchased more.

Here are a few pictures from the database, but please do go and spend a little time looking around when you can.

In the category “Slave Sales and Auctions: African Coast and the Americas”:

Metal Branding Irons With Owner's Initials, Image Ref: H019

Slaves Awaiting Sale, New Orleans, 1861, Image Ref: NW0028

I have never seen nor thought of slaves being sold in top hats.

In the category, “Religion and Mortuary Practices“:

Baptism in a Catholic Church, Brazil, 1816, Image Ref: JCB-07385-18

I was struck by how ornately the enslaved were dressed.

Funeral, Paramaribo, Surinam 1839, Image Ref: BEN15a

The caption says that the people with their faces covered were the mourners.

In the category “Marketing and Urban Scenes“:

Clothing Styles, Paramaribo, Surinam, 1839, Image Ref: BEN7b

The caption says that they are not wearing shoes because only freed blacks could wear shoes!

In the category “Domestic Slaves and Free People of Color“:

House Servant, Baltimore, 1861, Image Ref: iln307

House Servant, Baltimore, 1861, Image Ref: iln307

Clothing Style, Female Servant, Lima, Peru, 1865, Image Ref: JCB-05677-13

Coachman with Horse and Carriage, Havana, Cuba, ca 1850 Image Ref: Album-12

They make it all look just so delightful, don’t they? Hmfph.

And last, but not least:

Extracting a Chigger, Brazil, 1820, Image Ref: IMG01

I can’t fathom that someone felt this image was worthy of remembrance !

I hope that last picture doesn’t dissuade you from viewing this fascinating and eye-opening collection.

This database reminded me of a plantation visit. I was in St.Croix last year & visited an 18th-century sugar plantation called “The Whim Plantation”. It was fascinating….the docent was extremely knowledgeable. Here are a few pictures:

Plantation "Greathouse"

Plantation Equipment

For Pressing Sugar Cane

List of Slaves Working Plantation

I also found some pictures from sugar plantation ruins on the Virgin Island that are much larger.

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