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Archive for the ‘Slave research’ Category

Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-4574

Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-4574

One of the many reasons slaveowners conjured up to justify the buying and selling of people, especially when breaking up families, was that enslaved people did not form the same attachments to their children and spouses as whites did. Elizabeth Keckley was a former slave who later became famous as Mary Lincoln’s seamstress. In her autobiography, she recalled the

Keckley

Keckley

pain of her mother’s cries when her father was sold away. “Stop your nonsense,” her slaveowner’s wife said. “there is no necessity for you putting on airs. Your husband is not the only slave that has been sold from his family, and you are not the only one that has had to part. There are plenty more men about here, and if you want a husband so badly, stop your crying and go and find another.”

That same story of bitter parting can be found in most of the hundreds of narratives written by former slaves. Even slaveowner’s own runaway ads betray their rationale: frequent reference is made in those ads about the slave probably running away to where parents, children or siblings were. Slaveowners knew better.

Yet another sad part of the story is told in the ads placed in newspapers after emancipation by former slaves searching for spouses and children who were sold away. As the mother of a young child, I can’t imagine the horror of being torn away and literally never seeing that child again.

These ads can be found in African-American newspapers such as The Colored Tennessean, The Christian Recorder, The Appeal and others, though finding surviving copies can be a challenge. Many ads were placed in the earlier years after the war during reconstruction, but many people were still searching at the turn of the century. Almost 40 years later, they had still not given up hope of reuniting with their family. A 2012 book by historian Heather Williams called Help Me to Find My People: The African-American Search for Family Lost in Slavery discusses the topic.

The ads speak for themselves and for me, elicit a deep, deep sorrow, and a sense of the lingering pain and suffering that occurred long after the war was over.

Richmond Planet, August 1897

Richmond Planet, August 1897

The Appeal, August 1892

The Appeal, August 1892

The Atlanta Constitution, October 1892

The Atlanta Constitution, October 1892

The Appeal, August 1892

The Appeal, August 1892

The Times Picayune Sun,  January 1868

The Times Picayune Sun, January 1868

The Daily Standard, March 1867

The Daily Standard, March 1867

The Daily NewBernian, December 1880

The Daily NewBernian, December 1880

The Appeal, February 1891

The Appeal, February 1891

(As with anything on this blog, if you believe an image I post may relate to your family, please request via the comments and I will send you a source citation for the image.)

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There have been a few times in the 18 years of my research that have truly taken my breath away. I just had another one. Recently, I was researching the possible owners of some former slaves from Dorchester County, Maryland. John Campbell Henry died in 1857, and as a former governor of Maryland, was a prominent person and an important planter. I’ve reviewed hundreds of inventories, but boy was there a big surprise in store for me.

I have never seen–and would bet that I never will again–an estate inventory that lists surnames for all the slaves. Slave surnames are always a topic of debate, and I’ve discussed them here before, but this is a powerful reminder that slaves had surnames, if only that by custom and practice they were not usually recorded by slaveowners. Although I’ve seen surnames attached to a few names in an estate inventory, never have I seen all the surnames recorded. Emotionally it hit me very powerfully; it was like a small admission of their humanity, which so much of slavery tried to destroy. These were people with families; not animals, not farm equipment, not silverware.

The inventory even provides some relationships, noting the mothers of some of the children, and noting some married couples. It is really quite an amazing document. Notice the number of different surnames; that speaks to the hodge-podge nature of enslaved people’s lives. They were bought and sold and inherited such that over time (with marriages) it was not uncommon to find groups enslaved together with many different surnames.

This is a one in a million document. Had more individuals charged with recording estate inventories taken this approach,  genealogical research would be so much easier for those of us researching enslaved ancestors.

(Note: I show only two of the three pages).

Inventory A

Inventory A

Inventory Page B

Inventory Page B

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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.

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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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One of the most important pieces of information those of us researching enslaved ancestors need to know is how the slaves are distributed after the owner’s death. If we’re lucky, there’s a will that tells us to whom each slave is bequeathed. Most of the time, there’s not. There are many wills that simply say to my “wife, child, etc., I leave all of my estate both real and personal….” If luck is on our side, we’ll find at least an inventory, but that won’t tell us which child got which slaves. For that, we need to find the estate distribution. For an estate that includes slaves, that document should give us the information we need. Here’s a good example I recently found in Montgomery County, MD. This is the portion of the inventory showing the slaves of Nicholas Griffith, who died in 1814:

N. Griffith

N. Griffith

There are 20 slaves listed with monetary values and no indication of families, which is common. In the same probate book, I found the distribution of Nicholas’ estate between his wife, who by law is entitled to 1/3, and his 6 children (I have cropped just the entry showing the slaves):

GriffithSplit1_clip GriffithSplit1_clip2 GriffithSplit1_clip3 GriffithSplit2_clip1 GriffithSplit2_clip2 GriffithSplit2_clip3 GriffithSplit2_clip4 GriffithSplit2_last

Sadly, the primary goal was to make sure each child received approximately the same value in property. Most of Nicholas’ children inherited 2 young slave children. I’d like to believe Nicholas’ widow, who inherited 7 slaves, had at least taken 29 year old Milly with 4 of her kids, ages 8 months to 9 years.

I haven’t researched this family, but the hope is that they lived near one another such that the families of slaves were not entirely broken. But as the probate, land and other sources demonstrate over and over again, very young children were very often sold away from parents, and couples were very often split apart .

 Look for these estate distributions when you are researching enslaved ancestors. They are difficult to find. I personally have many more cases where this information could not be located in records. Sometimes they can be found in original probate loose papers, so be sure to examine those where they exist.

I’ll also share another interesting thing I’ve seen a few times in probate records. Where testators willed that slaves be freed at certain ages, the birthdates were sometimes copied into the probate records so the appropriate date of manumission could be established. Richard Thomas came from a prominent and wealthy Quaker family, and they founded the town of Brookville. They were famous for having freed their salves very early on, and creating an enclave of free blacks, churches and school long before the Civil War.

How fortunate any researcher connected to this family would be. Thomas recorded the birthdates of his slaves in the probate book:

ThomasWill1_volH_clip Slave research, as I’ve said before, is not for the faint of heart and often feels like a game of chicken. But be a diligent researcher and rest assured that you may uncover something, if only a name of an ancestor long silenced and whose memory was lost to time. Even if I can’t find a birthdate or a family group, I always feel a sublime satisfaction at uncovered the name of an enslaved ancestor.

Readers, tell me: have you uncovered any slave distributions, and if so, where did you locate them?

Note: If you are in the Metro DC area, don’t forget to check out my good friend Tim Pinnick tomorrow at 1:00 at the Suitland Family History Center. He will be speaking on “Finding African-Americans in Historic Newspapers,” a subject that he is an expert on.

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I am so lucky to be a Tennessee researcher. I think their Tennessee State Archives and Library (TSLA) is one of the country’s best, and the service I have received over the years from its dedicated employees has been magnificent.

They just finished digitizing and uploading hundred of bibles in their collection. I spent some time perusing through the files. They are organized by surname. Any family that finds these records is a truly fortunate.

I hope that more African-Americans will submit copies from their family bibles. But consider that there is another valuable way we can use existing collections: researching the slaveowning family. Some slaveowners recorded the births and deaths of their slaves into their bible records. I was surprised as I perused these bibles just how many did just that.

The  Frazier Titus family recorded the births from slaves named Emaline, Ann and Julia, and recorded the death of Harriet:

Titus

Titus

 

In 1870, Frazier has relocated from Nashville to Memphis; just a few doors away is a black woman named “Emaline”—perhaps his former slave?

Titus 1870

Titus 1870

 

The James Wood bible includes entries noting the birth of three children of Judy. There is also a faintly visible message, called “Relative to the origins of our servants”. That section includes bible verses in Genesis and also about Hagar. This is a reminder that whites often used the Bible to support the idea that blacks were inferior and that slavery was ordained by God.

Wood

Wood

 

The George Hale (and Henry) family of Blount County, TN, included two pages (with the quaint title of “Servants”) of at least 3 generations of their enslaved people.

Hale

Hale

Lastly, the Overton family tracked the births of “Negro Mary’s” 3 children:

Overton

Overton

 

Seek out bibles at other state archives, and also in historical and genealogical societies as well as library and university manuscript collections. I know that NGS has a large collection of family bibles accessible by members. Readers, tell me, have you used bible records in your own research?

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