Unk13The World War I draft registration is one of the earliest records I remember writing to the Atlanta National Archives to order. Their easy access on Ancestry.com today, along with part of the draft registration for World War II, remain some of the best resources for our research. They are especially helpful for the men born in the late 1870s or 1880s, as the lack of a 1890 census record makes that 20-year-gap hard to cross.

It’s important to read all of the data that Ancestry.com offers on each of its databases. That gives us the necessary information we will need to evaluate the evidence and we miss clues when we don’t know as much as we can about Ancestry’s source for each record. The records they have may be incomplete, or missing certain states or years. Both draft databases have important information we need to understand. For example, the World War I draft cards are pulled from three separate sets of registration, and each card was slightly different. There are blank examples of each card on Ancestry. This was the first registration card which asked 12 questions:

Blank First Draft

Blank First Draft

Be aware of the cards you have for your family and which registration it came from. Two big differences in the 3 sets of registration cards is that the 1st set does not request names of dependents, while the other two ask the names of the nearest relative, and the 3rd set does not ask for the place of birth while the others do. Also notice that for all African-American applicants, the left corner of the 1st draft card above was to be torn. Oh, the ugly vestiges of segregation.

I have also noticed as I have been analyzing many of these draft cards that there are quite a few men with discrepancies in their birthdates. Now, these cards are original records with primary information–the person filling out the card is getting the information from the applicant sitting in front of him. While most of the discrepancies are a year or two, some are  four or five years, and I’ve seen an 8-year difference. Two examples are shown below (both WWI and II cards are combined in the pictures):


Mathews, 4 year difference

Mathews, 4 year difference

And while we might expect the birthdates to make the person too young or too old to be drafted, the cards don’t always show that to be the case. Some of the discrepancies are probably just memory and others may be just that having to know one’s exact birthdate was really a new phenomena predicated by the new Social Security program.

Now, you need to know that for the World War II draft, only one set of the four draft cards are publicly available. And, unfortunately cards for the states below were destroyed before being microfilmed:

  • Alabama
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Kentucky
  • Mississippi
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee

But, if you are lucky enough to have ancestors in the other states, they are a rich source. They specifically ask for middle names, which is helpful when people use both their first and middle names on various documents. Hamilton Riggs, shown on the 1900 census below, was revealed to be “William Hamilton Riggs” on his draft card:

1900 Hamilton Riggs

1900 Hamilton Riggs


Finally, I’m always interested in social history and since these cards capture migrations, I like to plug my research county in the “born” search box, and find out where people migrated and what kind of jobs they got. Here is an image from an article I wrote mapping migrations from Hardin County, Tennessee in the World War II draft cards:



I hope this post has given you new ways to use this resource, and as always, remember to correlate these with all of the other evidence you’ve gathered to verify accuracy.

Emancipation Celebration

Emancipation Celebration

Familysearch quietly released three more sets of Freedmens Bureau Field Office records: Kentucky, Georgia, and this month Louisiana. Now, all southern state’s FB records are online, free for viewing! That is : Alabama, Arkansas, Washington, D.C., Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Delaware, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Sign in at Familysearch.org, click on “Browse the records,” and then type in the word “Freedmen” in the search box and the links for each state will appear. I cannot state enough how valuable these records are for African-American research during the period of Reconstruction. Alot could and did happen in the chaos of those 5 years between the end of the war and 1870.

Because they are mostly unpaged and unindexed, these records are one of the few large collections that remain mostly untapped by genealogists. The fact that you can now sit home, in the comfort of your pajamas, at midnight, and walk page by page through these records is astounding. I urge everyone to read some of the material about how to use these records and to get started. I did a post in 2012 on getting started, Angela Walton-Raji has set up a new website with resources here, and one of my favorite National Archives finding aids on the records can be viewed here.

They are still what I call “needle in the haystack” records, but when you do find something on your family, it tends to be a very big needle. Just as important as information on individuals, are the many letters and reports that detail what is going on in the community. The building of churches and schools, crimes, and descriptions of the economic and racial climate provide the important social history that can add meat to the bones of our family research. For example, the Superintendent of the Rockville Freedmens Bureau, where my relatives lived,  had this to say about the community in 1867:

The difficulties encountered in obtaining justice for the Freedmen are those incident to the opposition of a large majority of the community as well as to that of all the civil officers of the county (with the exception of two magistrates) who will do no more for the Freedmen than they are forced to, and that with a very bad grace, they also use their influence to dissuade Freedmen from prosecuting cases against white men and endeavor to counteract my influence with them—intimidation and misrepresentation are resorted to by the people to prevent Freedmen from bringing their complaints to this office, and where complaints have already been entered, to prevent them from testifying.

Here are a few more samples of the riches waiting for use in these records:

In the Washington, D.C. marriage records, which is Roll 12, you find beautifully written registers of marriage, many from Virginia and Maryland couples. D.C. was inundated with escaped slaves during the war. The registers contain lots of information on each couple.

Register Clipping

Register Clipping

In addition to noting where the couple had come from, what year they were married and by whom, and number of children, this registrar wrote interesting little notes such as,

“Grantlin is very intelligent and industrious, and his children can read well.”
“Smith is a Baptist minister, Is intelligent and industrious. Owns house and lot.”
“Roswell is a Plasterer. Has steady employment and good wages.”

Some of the comments weren’t very flattering, such as:

“This man is sad to be very abusive to his wife.”

One couple was described as “A rather worthless couple.” That really makes you wonder about what behavior elicited that comment!

Another amazing notation was this one: “Scott was separated from his first wife 22 years ago, and having heard from her lately, wishes to leave the present one and live with the first, by whom he has several grown children, but none by the last.”

First wife

First wife

This cold weather gives us the perfect excuse to start digging through these records! Please write back here in the comments and tell me if you’re found any interesting information on your ancestors in the Freedmen’s Bureau records.

On another note, my “Advanced African-American Genealogy” class at Howard Community College in Columbia, MD starts on February 17 and runs for 4 weeks, one night a week, from 7-9pm. The class is $89. I hope those in the local metro area who are at least “intermediate” level researchers will come and join us. I discuss primarily how to evaluate the evidence you’ve collected, how to ease into source citations, and I discuss research techniques such as Cluster Research. I also talk about slave research. You can find out more information about how to register at their website. The class is listed on page 45 and is class number: XE 131 6554, #3651. Please register immediately if you can, as they tend to cancel these classes quickly if they don’t have their minimum numbers! I look forward to meeting you and hope I can help you get further along in your research.

Remembering Jim Crow

Before I start my post, I have a challenge I’d like to make to my readers. Plan to write a 2-3 page article of one of your family lines, and submit it for publication to that county’s genealogical journal or newsletter. Not enough of us are getting our research out there, and a local genealogical journal is a great place to start. They usually don’t have stringent source citation rules and you can include a bibliography of the sources you consulted at the end of the article. Reread some of my past ideas for writing here and here. Other bloggers have also recently posted about this topic that you can read at The Armchair Genealogist, and at Genealogy’s Star and one at Family HIstory Writing Challenge. Don’t wait until you “finish” your research, because you’ll never be finished! Make 2015 the year you start. Linda Crichlow published her mother’s memoirs, and I have to recommend it to you all as a beautiful example of a published family history. You can purchase “Back Then, There” from her website. Getting our research out there by publishing is one way to ensure it will survive for our own descendants to find. On to my post’s topic—I just finished reading the book Remembering Jim Crow, published in 2001. For those researching African-Americans, a lot of our efforts are eventually spent in the complexity of slavery, but I think we all need to pay better attention to the era of segregation. Most of us still remember this era or have parents alive who do. Reading the stories in this compilation, which included audio tapes, was heartbreaking for me. This was a caste system, and in many ways, being born black defined your place in the system. Richard Wright wrote a powerful piece abut his experiences with Jim Crow. I recently saw the film “Selma,” and cried nonstop through the film.

Separate Fountains

Separate Fountains

My father, who grew up in Jacksonville, Florida shared his recollections of Jim Crow with me during several interviews. “Jacksonville was a big city, and of course we lived on the East Side, in a black neighborhood. We never really encountered white people unless we had to go downtown.” He discussed how it didn’t seem odd or strange because that’s just how it always was. The year my father left Florida to attend Howard University, the city erupted in violent racial protests and riots, marked today with a historical marker. My father remembers leaving his father’s downtown pharmacy during the start of the riots, only to encounter an angry white policeman who barked at him to go home. Which of course, he did. But there were also many wonderful stories. My father shared precious memories of his segregated Matthew W. Gilbert Junior-Senior High School, school of the legendary Pro Football Hall of Famer, Bob Hayes. The bonds of friendship formed there are close to this day. He told me about the segregated beach where my grandparents owned a summer home, American Beach; it was a storied place of refuge for blacks of the era, who were shut out of other beaches and pools.

Smiths at American Beach beach house

Smiths at American Beach beach house

My mother on the other hand, had a very different experience. Her parents migrated from Tennessee when she was three years old to Dayton, Ohio. There was no de facto segregation in Ohio, so all of my mother’s school years were integrated and her Dayton neighborhood was one of blacks and mostly Eastern Europeans. Have you written down your recollections of this painful and shameful period of our history? Have you interviewed your parents and siblings and other relatives about their specific memories of school integration, Jim Crow laws and how it affected their lives? This is likely to be a topic that we can collect and record lots of memories for our descendants who like myself, were born after the worst of these times was over. I discovered that there was a horrific lynching in Salisbury, Maryland in 1931, where my paternal grandmother lived at the time, and I wish I had asked her about what that was like.

Another thing that I think about as I look at census records from 1900, 1910, 1920, etc. is how the vast majority of black people were relegated to the hardest, dirtiest, lowest paying jobs. Men were either farmers, laborers, janitors, drivers or factory workers with just a handful able to become skilled workers or businessmen, doctors or teachers. Women were maids and cooks and laundresses; a choice few became teachers or nurses. In other words, you were absolutely limited for the most part in what you could reasonably aspire to be if you were black. I can’t imagine that, thankfully in my own lifetime, living now in a country with a black President.

I have noticed also that the experiences differ depending on where people lived. Big cities were different from rural areas, like where my maternal grandmother grew up in Tennessee. They worked in concert with their white neighbors farming, although Jim Crow laws certainly applied when they went into the city. Some of the people I interviewed had relatively peaceful experiences with school integration, unlike what happened in places like Little Rock or Mississippi. Places that had larger populations of  black people tended to be the most committed to separation of the races, which makes sense in that the white community was more fearful and more likely to enforce the existing social structure.

Birmingham, 1963

Birmingham, 1963

Include interviews with local whites if you can. I like to ask them what their experience was, what their feelings were as children seeing all of this, how it affected them growing up, etc. Whites who joined in the battle to secure civil rights for black people earn some of my highest regard. They could see our shared humanity, even in the midst of all the hatred.

Rich resources exist for researching this painful period. Here are a few:

1) The excellent documentary  “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow”

2) Duke University’s powerful collection of oral histories of Jim Crow, called “Behind the Veil”

3) the University of Virginia contains links to similar databases

4) You Tube Video on Jim Crow Remembrances

5) The Jim Crow museum at Ferris University is a must-see full of painful remainders

6) “Living with Jim Crow: African-American Women and Memories of the Segregated South,” by Ann Valk and Leslie Brown

7) Michelle Alexander has a powerful book called “The New Jim Crow

8) Examples of Jim Crow laws can be found at: the National Park Service  the Smithsonian’s Brown v. Board exhibit  American Radio Works

9) The Southern Poverty Law Center has a resource on Teaching Tolerance

10) A brief history can be found at the Library of Congress on Jim Crow

The struggles continue as Ferguson and other recent events teach us. I hope that we can all learn the lessons of the past, and approach each other with more love, compassion and understanding.

Sorting “Rezins”

When I first discovered that my enslaved ancestor’s name was Rezin Prather, I thought, “What an odd name. I’ll easily be able to find him.” Guess what? Turns out it was a very popular name in Montgomery County, Maryland, for everybody. There were several African-American “Rezin Prathers” floating around the county and in Washington, D.C. This situation makes genealogical mistakes easier to make, since people are prone to connect ancestors when they share the same name and live in the same place. It was important for me to finally “sort out all the Rezins” in order to ensure that I was connecting identities properly.

I began with various census records, vital records, deed records and military records as evidence for the different men, and oh of course their names, first and last, were spelled in a million different ways. I will spell them all here as “Rezin,” for simplicity. I had documents I collected online, but I had done most off this research offline.

My ancestor Rezin Prather was born in about 1800-1803 and was found presumably living with his son Levi in 1870. He is most certainly the same Rezin Prather who “departed this life” on Jan. 8, 1872 as lovingly stated in the family bible. He is the only Rezin found with that birth date.

I believe that this “elder” Rezin Prather likely had at least three sons: Levi, Wesley and Tobias Prather, who all lived in the same community, and diligently passed their names down to their children. Looking at the assortment of records, I compiled a list of birthdate ranges. They describe at least 6 different men:

b. 1800-1803 (the elder)
b. 1840-1845
b. mid 1860s
b. 1866-68
b. 1876
b. 1881-1882

I found five marriage records in the area for men named Rezin Prather:

In Montgomery County:
Rezin Prather married Albina Riggs, 4 March 1867
Rezin Prather married Elizabeth Brown, 10 June 1886
Rezin Prather married Annie Simpson, 13 August 1889

In Washington, DC:
Rezin Prather married Rosetta Bowie, 18 April 1900
Rezin Prather married Ella M. Butcher, 26 May 1902
Rezin Prather married Annie D. Stewart, 19 April 1911

Here’s a summary of my analysis:

1) My great-grandmother’s brother Rezin Joseph was born ca. March 1881-1882. He never married nor had any children.  He must be the 19-year old “outlier” shown below in the 1900 census living in the Brown household and he can be tracked until his death in

Rezin Joseph

Rezin Joseph

2) From oral history, I knew that Wesley Prather’s son Rezin was the same 25-year old Resin Jr. already married to Albina Riggs and raising two children in 1880, living just one page over from his father. The two men can further be connected by their occupation as carpenters. This Rezin was born around 1845. He had the middle initial “R.”:

1880, Rezin "R"

1880, Rezin “R”

3) A 1900 census for an “R.R. Praither” in Camden, New Jersey sparked suspicion. He was born Nov. 1844 in Maryland, and was living with wife “Mary. E.” and three children. He was a minister. When he died in 1903, his body was shipped back to Maryland, and the death certificate verified his father’s name as “Wesley Praither.” That means he is the same man who had first married Albina. This Rezin secondly married Elizabeth Brown in 1886 in Washington, D.C. What about the wife called “Mary E.” in 1900? His wife’s name (as confirmed by city directories) was Mary Elizabeth Brown.

1900, Rezin "R"

1900, Rezin “R”

4) A World War I draft card identified a “Rezin Singleton Prather” born 1876. His name was garbled and transcribed incorrectly, but I found him living in Washington, D.C. I finally noticed that one of Rezin R. and Albina’s sons was called “Singleton” in the 1880 census (see above), born 1876. Thus, Rezin R. Praither, the preacher from Maryland who died in New Jersey, had a son he named Rezin Singleton who lived his life here in Washington D.C. That son married Ellen Butcher in DC (called Elnora below). He is further traced by his occupation as a waiter.

Rezin Singleton

Rezin Singleton

5) The last connection is where it gets tricky. The Rezin Prather who married Annie Simpson in 1889 is never found on any census. Annie was probably dead by 1900, when her two children –Ethel and Wilson –were living with their grandparents. Annie was also referred to in her father’s will as “Annie Simpson Prather.” What’s unclear is whether or not Rezin Prather survived his wife.

The Rezin who married Rosetta Bowie in 1889 was found in D.C. in 1900. His occupation was “sexton.” Rosetta Prather died on 28 May 1908.  Analysis revealed that the Rezin who married Annie and the Rezin who married Rosetta—both born 1860s– must be two different men. The first was already married to Rosetta at the time the second married Annie; Rosetta did not die until 1908.

1900, Rezin and Rosetta

1900, Rezin and Rosetta

A 1910 census intensified the mystery. A widowed 42 year old Rezin Prather was living in D.C, in a household with his sister “Hester Prather.” Ethel and Wilson Prather, who had been living with their grandparents, are in his household and called “lodgers.”

1910, widowed Rezin in DC

1910, widowed Rezin in DC

The only person who had a daughter named Hester who could have had a son born in mid 1860s is Tobias Prather. And I believe he is probably the same Rezin who had been first married to Rosetta. Had he been the one married to Annie, Ethel and Wilson should have been labeled as his children, not lodgers. Another clue was his occupation as a “janitor” in a church. That’s awful close to what a sexton does, which was the occupation of the man who was married to Rosetta. This man was still in DC in 1922, according to city directories, working as a janitor.

This “other” Rezin Prather, born in the mid 1860s–the one who first married Annie Simpson–went on to marry Annie D. Stewart in 1911. He was found on the 1920 and 1930 census records living as a farmer in Montgomery County. I do not know who this man’s father was, but I hope to find his death certificate, since he lived well into the mid-20th century. I think he was the 14-year-old “outlier” in 1880:

1880, Rezin age 14

1880, Rezin age 14

Is your head spinning yet? I hope that you too will consider trying to track identities if you have several people living in the same area with the same name. Here are some of the important takeaways I discovered from this exercise:

*Watch out for “outlier” children and teens, especially in 1880 and 1900. Black people are frequently living in other households as servants or lodgers and not in their parent’s households. It can easily cause you to miss children who should be in a family unit.

*Be aware of middle names and initials. I often find people using their middle name in one document and their first name in another.
I have posted before about the need to be on the lookout for multiple marriages. They can impede our ability to discern between one person and two.

*Use occupations, addresses, city directories and deed records to help properly merge identities. Sometimes city directories add spouses in parenthesis, which is extremely helpful.

My chart after analysis looks like this:
b. Born 1800-1803: “elder” Rezin Prather, d. 1872
b. Born 1840-1845: Rezin R., mrd Albina and Elizabeth, died in NJ, minister
b. Born early 1860’s: This Rezin married Rosetta only, worked as janitor in DC. Do not know who his parents were.
b. Born 1866-68: This Rezin mrd Annie Simpson and then Annie Stewart, his father was Tobias
b. Born 1876: Rezin Singleton, son of Rezin R., waitor, mrd Ellen
b. Born 1881-1882: Rezin Joseph, never married, his father was Levi

Smith-Waters wedding

Smith-Waters wedding

This summer I discussed the little known records usually called Petition for Letters. I discussed how this record, when found, often names all known heirs of a deceased individual.

A similarly useful record is the Application for a Marriage License. We all seek out marriage records for our ancestors, and I have previously talked about the various kinds of records created at marriage and the need to understand how each one is different. The granting of a Marriage License indicates that the individual meets the state laws with regard to marriage.

They are frequently  found among the form records created for marriage, as seen in the first part of the Arkansas record below:

Arkansas Record

Arkansas Record

However, be sure to check if the Application for a Marriage License survives for your research localities. Sometimes, states required more information to be provided in the application that does not appear in the license itself. The example below, from Pennsylvania, provides not just ages and birthdates for the bride and groom, but also their parent’s names, and even requests the *invaluable* maiden name of the mothers:

Pennsylvania application

Pennsylvania application

I know that Pennsylvania and Ohio both had periods of time where parental information was required for marriage. A Pennsylvania marriage record proved key for my research when it uncovered the name of my 3rd great-grandparents. That is probably the only surviving document that names the couple; their daughter’s death certificate did not.

As always, remember that some of the most valuable records are not available online. Check your local courthouse or state archives to see if any Applications for Marriage License survive and what information they held. They might just hold the answer to unlocking more of your ancestry.

P.S.: On an unrelated note, I want to highly recommend Drew at http://www.pixlfixl.com/ for any picture repairs you may need. I had a badly damaged photo that was repaired beautifully–it is a rare photo of my grandmother and many of her first cousins, but it had terrible water and mold stains, beyond my ability to repair. The website is easy to use—upload a picture and you’ll receive a quote of what it will take to repair. I will definitely be using his services again in the future. Here’s the before and after (there are more examples in the gallery of his website):

Badly Damaged

Badly Damaged

Beautifully Restored

Beautifully Restored

Thanks to everyone who commented on my previous post about slavery and slaveowners. If anything, it kicked off some great discussions and dialogue about the country’s worst and most contentious period of history. I’ll leave that topic with one quote from one of our greatest slavery historians, Ira Berlin:

No understanding of slavery can avoid these themes: violence, power, and the usurpation of labor for the purpose of aggrandizing a small minority . . . The murders, beatings, mutilations, and humiliations, both petty and great, were an essential, not incidental, part of the system. [emphasis is mine]



Today I want to talk about something that I constantly stress to researchers. I say it a lot: you’ve got to learn methodology. But what do I mean when I say that? What is methodology and how does it relate to genealogy? When I say it, I mean take the time to learn “how to use the records.” In genealogy, we use many different types of records, but there are are many ways to use each kind of record. And there are a set of best practices that optimize  your use of the records.

Let’s take a few simple examples. You may find your ancestor on a census, and gather relationships, marital status, occupation, ages, etc. That’s one way to “use” the census. But another way—another method—is to use it to recreate your family’s “FAN club”–their Family, Associates and Neighbors. This is the principle that cluster research utilizes. People usually married people who lived nearby, so if you refocus your efforts on the community at large, you stand a better chance of identifying spouses and parents of individuals. You can take also the census, which identifies landowners, and pull deed records for those landowners in order to plot the land on a modern map. This is again taking the information from the census a step further. You can look at migration patterns in the census—what states are people coming from? What states were the children in the family born in and what states does it say their parents were born in?

For probate records, you may look for a will and if none exists for an individual, you may think your work there is done. But what about looking for records of people who died intestate, without a will? What about looking for probate records of extended family members, neighbors and in-laws? What about looking at probate guardianship records to discover people’s ages? What about using estate distributions to discover the relationships of people where none is given?

Like the old adage says, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and some of my best discoveries have been made by using traditional records in multiple ways. I have used deed records to find out a married woman’s full name, and I have used them to find out when a man took a new wife when marriage records did not. I have used vital records to research cemeteries and I have used census records to show that a woman’s name on her marriage record was incorrect.

As mentioned above, I also use “methodology” to mean that you know and use genealogy best practices. That you know the importance of and use source citations and that you know the difference between an original and derivative source and the importance of examining all relevant evidence. That you know how to analyze evidence. That you understand that most genealogy research still takes place in person at archives, libraries and courthouses. Do you know how to pull every piece of evidence from every source? Do you use all those other columns on the census that can help you? Can you extract all the information possible from a probate or deed record? Do you check the instructions given to the enumerators so that you are clearly interpreting each census year? Do you have an artificial brick wall?

These are just a few examples, but I hope they hint at how important methodology will become to your research once you get past what I call the “low-hanging fruit” of easy discoveries. That’s usually the first year or two.

Learning genealogy methodology takes a conscious effort by reading genealogy how-to books and blogs, taking classes, on or offline, attending learning conferences and reading case studies of how others solve problems.  All of these expand your skills, give you new ideas on how to attack those real brick walls and enable you to notice bits and pieces of evidence that you may have previously overlooked. EVERYONE involved in serious research needs to have books like The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy by Val Greenwood, Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills, and The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy by Loretto Dennis Szucs in their personal libraries. These types of books (and others) will teach you good methodology. Some are huge books, but you can get used ones for great prices. *Absolutely everyone* should have the newest book out on Genealogy Standards. It’s easy to read and simplified and designed for everyone, not just professional genealogists.

I have a somewhat new philosophy that finding genealogical information for others does not really help them. It’s nice, and in some instances I will do it out of my own curiosity. The problem is, it doesn’t teach others how to research themselvesit doesn’t help them to develop their own skills. They often just return when they’re stuck again and ask someone to help them solve the next problem. Now, I try to give clues—to give hints—to encourage people to find the answer themselves. So instead of pulling a census record someone else couldn’t find, I might say, Have you tried alternate spellings? Have you searched the neighboring counties? Have you searched for just the names of the children?

I believe there is a much sweeter satisfaction to this research when you make discoveries independently. It also helps to belong to a group of others who are researching their families–it will keep you inspired.

Another word that comes up pretty often and is related to methodology is “strategy.” What is your approach to a particular problem? Do you have a research plan? Most of us can easily get lost in researching records, especially online, and then a few weeks later, we can’t remember what we already looked for. Write down a plan of attack–it doesn’t have to be complicated. For example, there are several well-known strategies for finding the last slaveowner  (LS) of a former slave. One is to search for any slaveowners nearby with the same surname. But we know that some slaves did and some did not carry the surname of the last LS. So, another strategy is to find landowning slaveowners living nearby of any surname. Yet another strategy is to research whites who had associations with the family in freedom, like those who sold the family land. And so on.

When I suggest to someone stop and they read a certain book or two if they are just starting, it sometimes takes all the excitement out of the research process. But taking the time to learn these things will save you time–years–that some of us only wish we could get back. It will make your research more efficient; you won’t spend time spinning your wheels in a direction that is unlikely to pay off. I wish these books had been available when I first started researching. I didn’t know a hoot about source citations, and I didn’t know didley about how to conduct an oral interview. I can’t get those people or that time back. I remember distinctly pulling pension records for men who ended up being white simply because I didn’t know that only those listed in the index cards as serving in the Colored Troops were likely to be African-American men. Oh the stories I could tell.

So, here’s a link to my list of recommended books. I’ve also posted a list of my favorite slavery-related journal articles. Start building your library.

A Slave's Back

A Slave’s Back

This is a super-long post, because this has been on my mind for awhile, and I hope you’ll read it all. I don’t usually do “opinion” pieces, but I will because it is the result of all my research on the enslaved that has formed the opinion.

A new book has come out that I’m reading called, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” by Edward Baptist that I highly recommend. The book places the brutality of slavery front and center along with its emergence as the economic driver of our nation’s founding. Those of us researching African-Americans frequently come face to face with the horrors of slavery in the documents we review.

This is why I don’t believe in the concept of a “good slaveowner.” (Caveat: I am not talking about freed blacks who became “slaveowners” when laws forced them to buy their loved ones and keep them in that status or have them thrown out of the state. Thanks, Debra!)

I am amazed how many times a slaveowner is described as “good” to his slaves–usually by well-meaning but misguided descendants of slaveowners. It has happened to me often and I cringe inside when I hear that term. We all know that slaveowners differed in their treatment of their slaves–that there was a spectrum of treatment as wide and diverse as humans are.  And I know there’s a visceral desire to distance oneself and one’s family from the institution.  But what people need to understand is that at a certain point what individuals slaveowners did is beside the point.

The system of slavery was held in place by violence. It was force– ever-increasing and sadistic means of force that made the system of slavery work. It could not survive without the force of the whip, the gun, the patrollers, the overseer and the physical and psychological torture mechanisms designed to subdue a people. They were forcibly held captive. Otherwise, how else could an entire life of labor be stolen from millions of people?  Without force, slavery could not exist. The Civil War caused much of that system of violent force to breakdown as white Southerners went off to war. It is that breakdown which allowed slaves to escape successfully behind Union lines and force the issue of their freedom. Without the enforcement mechanisms to hold it in place, slavery collapsed.

Enslaved people resisted slavery at all times from the very beginning; it is only the overwhelming use of violence and the wealth created that made the system of slavery successful. Enslaved people also feigned illness, broke tools, laid out in the woods for weeks and months at a time, and sometimes, like Frederick Douglass, physically confronted their oppressors (see the book Runaway Slaves: Rebels of the Plantation for more on this). I’ve heard people actually ask “why did slaves stay?”  That anyone could ask this is only proof of their woeful ignorance about the most powerful slave society the world had ever seen. It is an ignorance that haunts us as a country to this very day.

Viewed from this lens, it is clear to me that that truly “good” people could not willingly participate in that system–a system that was optional, not mandatory. Some people think somehow that “because of the times,” slavery was excusable/understandable/justified. I wholeheartedly disagree. Slaveowners witnessed the atrocities of whippings and sales and as human beings no different than you or I, were thus completely capable of being moved and changed by those experiences.   Robert “King” Carter and John Randolph  both freed about 500 slaves (although the latter did so in in his will). Before you claim that those were isolated and rare incidents, know that thousands of slaveowners came to see slavery as morally despicable and freed their slaves during their lifetimes, especially after the American Revolution. Many others were changed by religious conversions during the Great Awakening, especially Quakers and Methodists. In my own family, Susanna Waters, who owned my 3nd ggrandfather Joshua Waters, freed him and over 20 other slaves well before her death. In her will, she materially provided for the enslaved people she had freed.

Although I recognize how difficult it would have been to have a transformative view of slavery if one was born into that life, that is not the same as saying it did not and could not happen. There are thousands of examples of it happening. A good slaveowner to me sounds as ridiculous as referring to a good child-molester–we would never use that phrase for obvious reasons. For those who think they know an example of a  “good” slaveowner, I ask you to consider this: what would they do if one of their slaves did not feel like working one day? Or if one decided he didn’t want to be there at all and wanted to leave?  Confronting those questions will lead you to the fact that violence and force had to be at the root of any successful slave enterprise.  Coercion was a necessary part of this equation.

Some of the most monstrous descriptions of the system of slavery can be found in the many diaries of slaveowners and their wives that exist. Senator James Henry Hammond, of South Carolina, was one of slavery’s biggest proponents. His diary reveals his vicious appetites. “Dear Henry,” he writes to his son about one of his slaves. “In the last will I left to you…Sally Johnson the mother of Louisa and all the children of both. Sally says Henderson is my child…it is possible, but I do not believe it. Louisa’s first child may be mine. Her second I believe is mine.” He had sex with 18- year old Louisa and later began having sex with her then 12-year old daughter Louisa. Thomas Thistlewood’s 18th century diary of his time as overseer and slaveowner in Jamaica contains truly barbaric scenes. He noted every time he had sex (mostly with his slaves), and there were a lot of those entries. The mechanisms he designed to torture misbehaving slaves are incomprehensible and hard to read.

Now obviously, slaveowner descendants are not responsible for what their ancestors did any more than anybody else. I don’t hold any blame or anger towards them. But today, with easily accessible information about the degradation and horrors of slavery, I do believe people should stop trying to excuse/justify/lessen slavery by saying that their ancestors were “good to their slaves.” People might respond, “well, [this slaveowner] did not whip his slaves or allow them to be whipped.” Well, those owners sold slaves that became troublesome. Is that better? They certainly could not have a working farm or plantation if the slaves were not somehow disciplined. There was also tremendous emotional, psychological and sexual abuse which should not be discounted as any “less than” physical abuse. The permanent wounds resulting from seeing one’s parents or children sold, whipped or tortured are all over the slave interviews and narratives.

It is true that slaves themselves referred to having “good” slaveowners, which in the world in which they lived is understandable. If I had been enslaved, I would have hoped to have an owner who landed on the lesser scale of barbarism as well. But I’m going to guess that if slaves had a absolute choice–they’d have chosen to not be slaves at all.

The only silver lining we can hold on to is that the slaveowners were never able to fully crush the spirits and minds and hearts of their slaves. They never fully succeeded in that goal. Slaves formed kinship ties,and created their own communities, traditions, beliefs and practices in the small spaces they carved out of all that degradation.

I do realize others may disagree, and I’m fine with that; decent people can disagree. It is a subject fraught with emotion.  I hope we all can spend some time reading some of the narratives and interviews and diaries available and get a better understanding of their lives. And we all should remember that slavery was not just an economic system: it became the very basis of ALL social relationships in the South (which The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South,” by Bruce Levine brilliantly captures.)

I took a walk around the web and elsewhere and I’m asking readers to read some of the excerpts below that describe slavery by those who lived it and saw it. One of the best sources I recommend reading is American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. It was  taken from first-hand accounts and designed to show the horrors of slavery. The author’s wife, Angelina Grimke, came from a prominent family of slaveowners in South Carolina, but like others, she renounced slavery and became an ardent abolitionist. We can’t ever let people forget the horrors of the lives of the enslaved. I am in awe that any of them survived. I’ll start with a quote from an anonymous slave interview:

I have heard a heap of people say they wouldn’t take the treatment what the slaves took, but they woulda took it or died. If they had been there, they woulda took the very same treatment.

Here are some other excerpts. They will all make you cry a little bit inside.

Ole Missis Gullendin, she’d take a needle and stick it through one of the nigger woman’s lower lip and pin it to the bosom of her dress, and the woman would go roun’ all day with her head drew down that way, and slobberin’.Old Missus done her that way lots of times. There was knots on her lip where the needle had been stuck in it.

From: Testimony of Mrs. Thomas Johns

My marster had a barrel, with nails drove in it, that he would put you in when he couldn’t think of nothin’ else mean enough to do. He would put you in this barrel and roll it down a hill…Sometimes he rolled the barrel in the river and drowned his slaves.

From: Anonymous Slave Narrative

My marster…limited the lashes to 500. After whippin dem, he would rub salt and pepper on their backs, and lay dem before the fire until blistered. And den take a cat…and make him claw the blisters.

From: Slave Narrative of Robert Burns

Old Marster had an overseer that went round and whipped the niggers every morning, and they hadn’t done a thing. He went to my father one morning and said, “Bob, I’m going to whip you this morning.” Daddy said, “I aint done nothing.” And he said, “I know it. I’m going to whip you to keep you from doing anything.”..And Daddy was choppin cotton and just took up his hoe and chopped right down oin that man’s head and knocked his brains out…It killed him….When the nigger trader came along, they sold my Daddy to him.

From: Anonymous Slave Narrative

[My mistress’s] instruments of torture were ordinarily the raw hide, or a bunch of hickory- sprouts seasoned in the fire and tied together. But if these were not at hand, nothing came amiss. She could relish a beating with a chair, the broom, tongs, shovel, shears, knife- handle, the heavy heel of her slipper, or a bunch of keys; her zeal was so active in these barbarous inflictions, that her invention was wonderfully quick, and some way of inflicting the requisite torture was soon found. One instrument of torture is worthy of particular description. This was an oak club, a foot and a half in length, and an inch and a half square. With this delicate weapon she would beat us upon the hands and upon the feet until they were blistered. ..That club will always be a prominent object in the picture of horrors of my life of more than twenty years of bitter bondage….

From: Interesting Memoirs and Documents Relating to American Slavery, and the Glorious Struggle Now Making for Complete Emancipation

The ordinary mode of punishing the slaves is both cruel and barbarous. The masters seldom, if ever, try to govern their slaves by moral influence, but by whipping, kicking, beating, starving, branding, cat-hauling, loading with irons, imprisoning, or by some other cruel mode of torturing. They often boast of having invented some new mode of torture, by which they have “tamed the rascals…

To threaten them with death, with breaking in their teeth or jaws, or cracking their heads, is common talk, when scolding at the slaves.. If negroes could testify, they would tell you of instances of women being whipped until they have miscarried at the whipping-post. ..A large proportion of the blacks have their shoulders, backs, and arms all scarred up, and not a few of them have had their heads laid open with clubs, stones, and brick-bats, and with the butt-end of whips and canes–some have had their jaws broken, others their teeth knocked in or out; while others have had their ears cropped and the sides of their cheeks gashed out. Some of the poor creatures have lost the sight of one of their eyes by the careless blows of the whipper, or by some other violence.

From: American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, which was designed to show the horrors of slavery firsthand

Old Missus and young Missus told the little slave children that the stork brought the white babies to their mothers, but that the slave children were all hatched from buzzard’s eggs. And we believed it was true.

From: Slave Narrative of Katie Sutton

I recollect seein’ one biscuit crust, one mornin’. Dey throwed it out to the dogs, an’ I beat de dog to it.

From: Anonymous Slave Narrative

Scarcely a day passed while I was on the plantation, in which some of the slaves were not whipped; I do not mean that they were struck a few blows merely, but had a set flogging…To show the disgusting pollutions of slavery, and how it covers with moral filth every thing it touches, …A planter offered a white man of my acquaintance twenty dollars for every one of his female slaves, whom he would get in the family way. This offer was no doubt made for the purpose of improving the stock, on the same principle that farmers endeavour to improve their cattle by crossing the breed.

This same planter had a female slave who was a member of the Methodist Church; for a slave she was intelligent and conscientious. He proposed a criminal intercourse with her. She would not comply. He left her and sent for the overseer, and told him to have her flogged. It was done. Not long after, he renewed his proposal. She again refused. She was again whipped. He then told her why she had been twice flogged, and told her he intended to whip her till she should yield. The girl, seeing that her case was hopeless, her back smarting with the scourging she had received, and dreading a repetition, gave herself up to be the victim of his brutal lusts.

Other [slaveowners] punish by fastening them down on a log, or something else, and strike them on the bare skin with a board paddle full of holes. This breaks the skin, I should presume, at every hole where it comes in contact with it. Others, when other modes of punishment will not subdue them,cat-haul them–that is, take a cat by the nape of the neck and tail, or by the hind legs, and drag the claws across the back until satisfied. This kind of punishment poisons the flesh much worse than the whip, and is more dreaded by the slave.

A punishment dreaded more by the slaves than whipping, ..was invented by a female acquaintance of mine in Charleston–I heard her say so with much satisfaction. It is standing on one foot and holding the other in the hand. Afterwards it was improved upon, and a strap was contrived to fasten around the ankle and pass around the neck; so that the least weight of the foot resting on the strap would choke the person. The pain occasioned by this unnatural position was great; and when continued, as it sometimes was, for an hour or more, produced intense agony.

A woman in Charleston with whom I was well acquainted, had starved a female slave to death. She was confined in a solitary apartment, kept constantly tied, and condemned to the slow and horrible death of starvation.

Benjamin James Harris, a wealthy tobacconist of Richmond, Virginia, whipped a slave girl fifteen years old to death. While he was whipping her, his wife heated a smoothing iron, put it on her body in various places, and burned her severely. The verdict of the coroner’s inquest was, “Died of excessive whipping.” He was tried in Richmond, and acquitted. I attended the trial.

From: American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses

Throughout the Southwest the Negroes, as a rule, appeared to be worked much harder than in the Eastern and Northern Slave States… They are constantly and steadily driven up to their work, and the stupid, plodding, machine-like manner in which they labor, is painful to witness. This was especially the case with the hoe-gangs. One of them numbered nearly two hundred hands (for the force of two plantations was working together), moving across the field in parallel lines, with a considerable degree of precision. I repeatedly rode through the lines at a canter, without producing the smallest change or interruption in the dogged action of the laborers, or causing one of them, so far as I could see, to lift an eye from the ground… I think it told a more painful story than any I had ever heard, of the cruelty of slavery.

…Slaves pass their lives, from the moment they are able to go afield in the picking season till they drop worn out in the grave, in incessant labor, in all sorts of weather, at all seasons of the year, without any other change or relaxation than is furnished by sickness, without the smallest hope of any improvement either in their condition, in their food, or in their clothing, which are of the plainest and coarsest kind, and indebted solely to the forbearance or good temper of the overseer for exception from terrible physical suffering.

Whipping was so common an occurrence on this plantation, that it would be too great a repetition to state the many and severe floggings I have seen inflicted on the slaves. They were flogged for not performing their tasks, for being careless, slow, or not in time, for going to the fire to warm, etc.; and it often seemed as if occasions were sought as an excuse for punishing them.

[The overseer] said, ‘That won’t do,’ said he; ‘get down.’ The girl knelt on the ground; he got off his horse, and holding him with his left hand, struck her thirty or forty blows across the shoulder with his tough, flexible, ‘raw-hide’ whip (a terrible instrument for the purpose). They were well laid on, at arm’s length, but with no appearance of angry excitement on the part of the overseer. At every stroke the girl winced and exclaimed, ”Yes, sir!’ or ‘Ah, sir!’ or ‘Please, sir!’ not groaning or screaming. At length he stopped and said, ‘Now tell me the truth.’ The girl repeated the same story. ”You have not got enough yet,’ said he; ‘pull up your clothes-lie down.’ The girl without any hesitation, without a word or look of remonstrance or entreaty, drew closely all her garments under her shoulders, and lay down upon the ground with her face toward the overseer, who continued to flog her with the raw-hide, across her naked loins with as much strength as before. She now shrunk away from him, not rising, but writing, groveling, and screaming’Oh, don’t, sir! Oh, please stop, master! Please, sir! Please, sir! Oh, that’s enough, master! Oh, Lord! Oh, master, master! Oh, God, master, do stop! Oh, God, master! Oh, God, master!’…The screaming yells and the whip strokes had ceased when I reached the top of the bank. Choking, sobbing, spasmodic groans only were heard. I rode on to where the road, coming diagonally up the ravine, ran out upon the cotton-field. My young companion met me there, and immediately afterward the overseer. He laughed as he joined us, and said: ‘She meant to cheat me out of a day’s work, and she has done it, too.’ “

From: Frederick Olmsted’s The Cotton Kingdom, 1850s

And finally, if you have any more stomach for this, read this first-hand account of Reverend Walsh in 1829 aboard an intercepted slave ship.


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