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Posts Tagged ‘Tennessee’

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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All of us know about the horrid history in this country of slavery, racism, white supremacy, Jim Crow and the types of discrimination that persist to this very day. Violence was at the core of those systems. Without violence, those systems couldn’t exist. Far from being passive or willing subjects, African peoples and their descendants fought back in myriad ways (so did Native Americans). That’s why slave rebellion plots were often dealt with by using ever-increasing levels of depravity, such as burning bodies and cutting off heads.

The practice of lynching is what I call the original American brand of terrorism. I see a clear difference in these types of murders; they were meant to send a message to the community and to elicit a set of behaviors that maintain white rule. This is evident in the detailed files on  lynching that the NAACP kept (and their subsequent push for legislation), as well as the efforts of brave journalists like Ida B. Wells-Barnett. It must have been a frightening time in general, but especially to our ancestors who risked their lives to try to vote, buy land, educate blacks or any of the other things that whites believed looked too much like being an actual citizen. I am glad I live in a time and place where I can have friends and family of all colors, ethnicities, religious beliefs and pretty much anything else.

Early in my research, oral history from Tennessee ancestors noted the lynching of one of my Holt ancestors. Never did I think I would find documented proof, but I did. The local paper, which in the 1880s and 1890s was replete with mentions of race riots and lynchings in other parts of the country wrote the following in May, 1887:

“George Holt, col., who lived near Sibley met his fate by the rope route last Friday.”

George Holt

I was shocked by the sarcasm and  brevity of it, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. They had the audacity to write “Suicide” as the header, which of course it was not. George, I later discovered, was the brother of my gggrandfather John W. Holt. He owned hundreds of acres of land at the time of his death, and he had a young wife and children. This was a  rural West Tennessee community that never had a large black population. Though slavery and racism existed, this small African-American community must have been rocked and terrified y the act of terror. The reasons for the lynching are lost to time, although some of George Holt’s descendants believe it had to do with a dispute over his land.

Did he know his assailants? How did his family go on after that? I don’t know how. Do you leave the area? How do you rebuild? Is revenge ever an option? His brother John W. became one of the most prominent blacks in the county– land wealthy, a merchant and former Postmaster. But even his own brother was not untouchable. How did John react? I am in awe of their strength and endurance.

These are questions for which I’ll never know the answer. Our ancestors take many of their secrets with them, never to be discovered. Years ago, while searching through the local black cemetery in the community, I dug through the bushes and came face-to-face with George Holt’s headstone. I remember the vines and roots had come out of the ground and were wrapped around the headstone, eerily reminiscent of the way he died. I got chills up my spine. When I find that picture (one of those prehistoric pre-digital pictures) I will post it here.

Today, I am remembering George Holt and all the others, named and unnamed, who met their fate “at the hands of persons unknown.” May they rest in eternal peace.

PS—Check out the Project HAL database—Historical American Lynchings

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I finally got back to Tennessee after 5 long years! And what a trip it was. I just have to share some of the major highlights with you.

I flew into Memphis, TN and met in person not one but two cousins I had talked to on the phone a few years ago. Both Dianne and Leatha were kind and generous, and shared their family photos and funeral programs, which I handily scanned with my portable scanner & laptop. Here is a picture of me and my new cousins, after they treated me to a fabulous meal at the world famous Rendezvous bar-b-que restaurant:

Robyn and new Cousins

My cousin Leatha’s late husband was one of my Holt ancestors, and she shared many family documents that he saved. One of the most incredible was a Bible record of deaths (the bible was owned by his grandfather) that for the first time, listed my enslaved ancestor Malinda’s death! WOW.

Another Holt Bible

Later during my trip, I took pictures and video at the cemetery (Cawthon Cemetery in Hardin County, TN) where Malinda is buried along with many of her descendants:

Robyn with gggrandmother

Robyn with gggrandmother

After a night in Memphis, I drove the next day the two hours to Hardin County, and spent the rest of the day at the courthouse, where I would have one of the most mind-blowing discoveries of my entire 13 years of research. While perusing Chancery Court original loose files, I found a case where my two enslaved ggggrandparents, Mason and Rachel Garrett/Garrard, both gave depositions. This 200+ page file also included the names of their slaveowner and where he got them from (his wife’s father)! It had the slaveowner’s will and inventory (listing them and their children) and many, many many relevant details about that time and place.

Did I mention this had been one of my brick walls where I had been unable to find the slaveowners? Two other important points: they actually lived in the neighboring Decatur County,  but the plaintiff lived in Hardin so that was where the case was filed (thus, always look in neighboring counties!) And, although this file was started in 1870, it had information going back to 1854 (thus, researching post-emancipation files can lead you to the slaveowner).

The file involved a lawsuit between the daughter of the slaveowner and the administrator of her father and uncle’s estate. The suit lasted about 5 years. I’ve posted before about the value of court records, and yesterday I gave a well-received lecture at a local genealogy group about using court records to uncover the lives of slaves. Although these are not beginner records, when you’re ready, please do dive in!!! There are so many jewels to be found.

I spent two days in the ancestral birth town of my maternal grandparents, Hooker’s Bend, Tennessee (which is in Hardin County). I stayed with my lovely cousin Evelyn, and enjoyed the treat of her southern home cooking and charm. I visited several other cousins while I was there, and one even had a photo of my grandfather that I’d never seen before:

Luther Holt

Saturday I spent a few hours at the public library, where a kind courthouse worker allowed me to peruse old circuit court records (Thank you soooo much, Tammy) Then I headed 45 minutes away to Decatur County, TN to meet–yes, you guessed it–another new cousin, Emaline. We ate and laughed and shared information and I have to tell you again how gracious all of my extended family members are.

The trip closed out with me heading back to Memphis for one final evening with cousin Gloria. This was an A+-Super research trip and I came back enthusiastic, exhausted, but feeling blessed beyond belief.

I am still riding on the ancestor’s wings.

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