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For those doing African-American research, antebellum estate inventories are a common resource used to find enslaved ancestors. But we should also get into the habit of looking at the other items on that inventory list, that help us visualize not just the slaveowner’s life, but also our ancestors. Even after the Civil War, scrutinizing our ancestor’s inventories can often provide those interesting little details to make a family history come alive.

The first thing I realized a few years ago when I started doing this regularly was that I had no idea what many of the items were! Especially all the animals and agricultural items. What’s the difference between a bay horse and a sorrel horse? (its the colors) What’s a shoat? (it’s a baby pig) What exactly is fodder? (feed for farm animals). Luckily, for most everything, you can just use good old fashioned Google and quickly get a good definition and even pictures. Or you can use a book like “From A to Zax: A Complete Dictionary for Genealogist and Historians.”

I smile when I think about the future and how our descendants will wrangle over what an Ipad or a cell phone was. I also found it a challenge  to go back mentally a century or two in terms of remembering when there was no electricity, no running water, no refrigerators, etc. I am such a child of technology;)

Let’s look at Alfred Reeds estate inventory in 1858, from Russell County, AL:

Reed 1

Reed 1

I notice:

–How the appraisers are “walking through the property” room by room.
–The appraisers have started outside on the farm. There are plenty of animals, 29 heard of cattle may imply that he was selling meat.
–Horses and mules were sometimes given names.
–Alfred has not just a buggy and harness, but also a rockaway and harness, a much fancier carriage that would imply his higher status, as opposed to  the average farmers who may only have buggies or oxcarts.
–The slaves are listed by name, but no ages or statements are given about their relationships.

Let’s look at the next set of items:

Reed 2

Reed 2

–Now the appraisers are moving through the bedroom or living quarters.
–A piano and accordion would also be signs of his status and musical talent.
–The ability to own a gold watch would again signal a higher status.
–The number of guns (2 pistols, 3 double-barrel shotguns) remind us that we’re in an era where almost everyone owned guns.

The last set of items shown are key:

Reed 3

Reed 3

A glance at the titles tells us Alfred Reed was clearly a lawyer. Book titles are not always listed, so it’s nice that here they were.
Now, Let’s look at the inventory of Caroline Sibley of Richmond County, GA, in 1859:

Sibley 1

Sibley 1

–Her status immediately jumps out—she owned paintings and valuable portraits.
–She owned a bible and hymn book, which tells us she was probably a member of a local church.
–Her estate is notable for what is missing—no agricultural items or animals. She lived in Augusta, GA, but obviously did not farm. I would be interested in how she obtained a living. Let’s look at the last page of her inventory:

georgia2_clip2

–I spoke too soon: she owned $33,000 in bonds and notes! According to one online value calculator, that would be $940,000,000 today. Ms. Sibley clearly does not need to farm!
–We also see she owned a pew in the Presbyterian Church—a great clue of where to go to search more records.
–There’s a piano again, as well as jewelry, and silver.
–She has four female slaves, listed without ages or relation, but we can discern that they were likely working in her home as domestics or rented out.

 William Bryant, also of Richmond County in the same year, owned some bee hives and was making honey along with his other agricultural ventures:

Beehive

Bryant 1

Lastly, let’s look at Mrs. Dudley White’s estate in Halifax, NC in 1934. Some nice court clerk has typed this volume up for us:

1

White 1

She clearly was involved in peanut farming—look at all the peanut equipment.
She also owned 2 cars—both a Star and a Chrysler, as well as a Ford truck.In the following section of her inventory, the rooms are spelled out for us, and we can kinda envision the house:

White 2

White 2

This section is revealing:

White 3

White 3

– Now this is the kitchenware of someone who probably entertains alot.
–She owned a grand piano and a violin.
–She also had the latest technology—a Victrola record player as well as 30 records. She clearly was into music.
–She also owned a sewing machine and table, so someone in the house liked to sew.
–She even had a “mounted hawk”—which I assume is one of the stuffed versions popular at that time.

Here are a few general tips as you are perusing estate inventories:

1. Compare your ancestor’s inventory with his neighbors to assess his or her relative economic standing.
2. Books are typically indicators of literacy, which was less common the further back in time we go. Many homes only owned a bible, or perhaps one of the classics.
3. We can often make generalizations about slave ages from their monetary values. The most highly valued males will be in their late teens and twenties, with many working years ahead of them. The most highly valued women will be in their prime childbearing years, also late teens-twenties, maybe early thirties. Children and elderly people will  have lower values.
4. Some inventories enumerate whips and other slave torture (yes, I believe it was torture) tools. These may indicate the relative violence involved in slaveownership.
5. Wealthier people will obviously have more “luxury” items—carriages, silver and gold jewelry, more books and furniture and as we’ve seen lots of china and large serving platters may indicate lots of socializing which was associated with the planter class.

 Tell me—what interesting items have you come across in estate inventories? What do those items tell you about the person’s life?

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I am in a state of genealogic shock.

My ancestor Martha Simpson was the wife of Levi Prather. I’ve been working hard in past years trying to unravel the complicated slave relationships in the Prather family of Montgomery County, Maryland. Finding Levi’s slaveowner was hard work, so I hadn’t focused much on Martha yet. Just recently, I’d started thinking perhaps Martha was freed before 1864 (Maryland’s state constitution in that year freed its slaves).

I’d been able to locate a sister of Martha’s (Leanna) and a brother (James) as freedpeople in 1860, so it was logical to think that Martha perhaps had been freed as well. But there was a better reason for my suspicion: we are fortunate to have a few pages of the Prather family bible, noting exact dates births and deaths of some of the Simpson family:

Bible Page

Bible Page

When I started to really analyze these pages, it occurred to me that it would be unlikely that enslaved people would have known exact birthdates dating from the 1840s. So, I did a search for Martha Simpson in 1860, and voila, that name pulled up living in a white Warfield family—but in neighboring Howard County instead of Montgomery County:

1860 Martha

1860 Martha

The Howard County location surprised me, although it shouldn’t have. We are always supposed to examine neighboring counties. I still wasn’t sure this was MY Martha, even though the age matched. But here is yet another example of how use of the clustering technique can be helpful (i.e., looking for groups of people associated with your ancestors). I knew from studying Martha and Levi’s 1870 census neighborhood in Montgomery Cty that they lived right smack dab in the middle of a bunch of black people with the surname–can you guess?– Warfield. So Martha living with a family of that surname made me feel like I was onto something. I decided to see if Martha was there in 1850, and Oh My Goodness. There they were, Martha and several of the siblings listed in my bible page—nice and neat and living as freedpeople in Howard County in 1850! Even better—they are with (presumably) their mother Louisa. The actual image is bad, so I will transcribe the entry:

Louisa Simpson, 33
Harriet L [Leanna], 11
Mary E, 9
James W, 7
Joseph W, 5
Martha J, 4
Minta L, 3 [?]

I have just found another ancestor and extended my tree with the name of ‘Louisa.’ This was an odd case in that I knew the name of the father–Perry Simpson–and it was in fact the mother’s name who had been lost to history. He may have been still enslaved in 1850, and perhaps that is why his name is not shown in the household.

Chills ran up my spine when I saw this census record for another reason: I live in Howard County! To think that my ancestors lived near where I live now over 150 years ago is just earth-shattering for me. But wait—it gets better. Howard County was formally organized relatively late—1851—from Anne Arundel County. Both Anne Arundel and Howard County have some combination of freedom certificates, manumission and chattel records available on the Archives of Maryland website. Just, WOW. It almost gets no better than that.

Doing an online search of these records, I discovered a manumission from one Ann Dorsey dated August 1816, of the following enslaved people:

Lyd, age 30
Harriot, age 11
William, 10
Mary, 7
Belinda, 5
Eliza, age 3
**Louisa, 18 months

Witnesses to this transaction were Gustavus Warfield and Humphrey Dorsey. It is possible the “Louisa” in this list, who is a baby, could be the same Louisa found in the 1850 census who is the mother of my Martha Simpson. Of course, I’ve got alot of work to do onsite in repositories before I can conclude that because we all know nothing thorough can be done online. My first task is to figure out which Ann Dorsey this was, since this was a large, prominent Maryland family and there were Anns all over the place. For right now, I suspect it was the Ann whose maiden name was —Warfield.

I have also gathered that this enslaved community likely had roots in many of the “first families” of Anne Arundel and Howard County: Dorsey, Worthington, Simpson, Warfield, Chase, Hall, etc. Many former slaves with those surnames are living in the community near my Prathers in Montgomery County in the 1870s. I was also fortunate to find at GoogleBooks a downloadable copy of The Founders of Anne Arundel and Howard Counties” written by Joshua Dorsey Warfield in 1905. There is a phenomenal amount of information in this book, and I’m just beginning to sift through it.

This is such a rewarding and absolutely thrilling discovery. I haven’t been speechless in a long time. Martha was here–right under my nose the whole time.

Martha Simpson Prather

Martha Simpson Prather

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I remain convinced that there are still hundreds of thousands of documents that contain information on our enslaved ancestors that aren’t being widely used. Sometimes it’s because we can’t easily get access to the information, and sometimes it’s because the information itself is difficult to peruse and understand (court records and freedmen’s bureau records come to mind).

One of the best sources on enslaved families can be found within the manuscripts that are stored in research libraries, historical societies, state archives and local libraries. Families in many cases donated personal papers, letters, business papers, receipts, diaries, account books, reports and many other types of documentation and ephemera. Many of these families owned slaves, and historians have long relied on these sources to understand “the political, economic and cultural life of the South as a whole.” These Plantation Records (as they are collectively called) give readers an inside view of almost every aspect of plantation life.

In this post I want to highlight the collection known as Records of Antebellum Southern Plantations. In the many years of my own research,  although they are often highlighted in lectures and books on African-American genealogy, I have yet to run across someone who has used them for slave research. This historic effort to compile a selection of plantation records from all over the country in one microfilm publication was undertaken by Kenneth Stampp, one of our foremost slavery historians. Though the original purpose was more scholarly in nature, this microfilm series is a boon to genealogists. Still, you’ll have to locate a major research library in your area to find one that houses this enormous microfilm collection.

The records included in this collection were created in “Series” from A-N, with each letter mostly representing a particular archives or library, for example, Series D covers the Maryland Historical Society while Series E covers the University of Virginia Library. Start your research in these records by utilizing the detailed Series Guides that are available online. A convenient webpage hosted by the University of Virginia Library website includes links to each one:

UVA Website

I’ve downloaded them all, Series A-N, and yes, they are pretty large PDF files. I have scoured each and every one for data not just about my specific family, but also any in the county where they lived. Finding information about what was happening in the county, whether it concerned your family specifically or not, is a great way to add more detail to any narrative about your genealogical research.  Also, most of the guides contain biographies about the particular individual or family that is covered in that set of papers. For the Ruffin Plantation in Marengo County, Alabama (which is covered in Series J, Part 7) a brief biography is included about Thomas Ruffin:

Alabama Records

Ruffin

As another example, there is a “Slave Birth Record, 1801-1861” contained within the Thompson Family Papers, housed at the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The detail in Series J, Part 7 covers the State of Alabama, and it says that this Slave Birth Record covers Russell (now Lee) County, Alabama. Because that is one of my research areas, you can believe I want to see this record:

Slave Births

Author Jean L. Cooper, created a wonderful printed index to this material titled “Index to Records to Ante-bellum Southern Plantations: Locations, Plantations, Surnames and Collections,” ( 2nd. ed). The printed index is expensive, but a quick search at Worldcat (add your zip code) will tell you what nearby library has it. Nearest to me is Georgetown University’s Law Library and the Library of Congress.

This book is an invaluable resource because Ms. Cooper created it specifically for family historians and the way that we research. The records themselves in the Series Guides for the collection are primarily listed in each Table of Contents by family surname, for example, “The Robert King Carter Papers.” It is not always obvious what county that family lived in until you go down to the Reel Index sections. Ms. Cooper’s book makes it easier to find records by county. The westward migration of families, as Ms. Cooper explains, also allows connection of papers from the same family, which are dispersed across more than one state and archives.

It goes without saying that most historical societies, archives or research libraries have their own guides to their manuscript collections. The Virginia Historical Society has a voluminous 200+-page guide specifically created for African-American-related manuscripts and the Tennessee State Archives has a similar Guide available. But, the amount of information available in these types of guides varies by institution. So another way to use these Series Guides is as pointers. I can use Series D, and run right up the road to the Maryland Historical Society. Even though they have their own manuscripts guides, it may or may not provide the detail about slaves and slaveowning families that I need.

Certainly, these records are not exhaustive, and the records chosen for compilation are often the larger, more prominent citizens and families—as the Introduction indicates, “mostly from the larger tobacco, cotton, sugar and rice plantations.” However, some smaller estate papers are represented in the collection.

My readers, how many of you have been successful finding information about your ancestors within these records? Please tell us where you viewed your collection and how you were able to find it. If you haven’t used these records yet, I hope this post will encourage you to peruse the Series Guides for information that may be useful.

Addendum: Please read the response to this post below by “4ourtrees.” The author’s success using these records speaks powerfully to the possibilities!

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Image from morninggloryjewelry.com

Slave and slaveowner research is not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure.

On top of all the genealogy methodology that you need to learn to do it well, there’s the emotional impact of simply looking at the documents that you have to deal with.

After 14 years, my heart still bleeds every time I see:

  • a will with “negro Sarah and her two children” in the same sentence with silverware
  • an older slave’s value being listed as “0” in an inventory after a lifetime of stolen service.
  • a slave being “divided” between heirs in a probate division, as if they can truly be split asunder,

I could list a hundred other examples that just make me sad for the human spirit.

But, we press on through all of this and keep reaching for each and every tidbit we can about our enslaved ancestors, or as I  like to think of it, ways to reclaim our kin. Every now and then, we inch forward. I’ve had quite a few interesting breakthroughs lately. I had to take a break because of my new son and I’m thinking maybe it’s because I’m able to look at some of my research with fresh eyes that I’ve had some recent successes.

I have been slowly (very slowly) working on finishing writing up all the research on all of my lines, and being sure to properly source cite them which is the most time-consuming part. It’s a good exercise because you can clearly see places where there are gaps in your research. While doing this for my Prather line, I noticed that I had not viewed all of the probate documents for the slaveowner’s family.

My Prather family is from Montgomery County, Maryland. We are descendants of Levi and Martha (Simpson) Prather; we had a reunion in 2009 of almost 200 people where we celebrated our heritage, laughed, ate & just had an all around great time. I had been frantically researching the line in preparation for the reunion, trying to research the enslaved roots of Levi. It was very, very difficult even with the terrific records available in Maryland and Montgomery County.

I found that Levi’s father was Rezin (Resin) Prather. You’d think both of those names would stick out in the records, but believe it or not, both names were popular in the area at that time and I found many African-Americans and whites with those same names. However, three things lead me to conclude that he is more likely than not Levi’s father:

1.       At age 70, Rezin is living in the household with Levi & Martha on the 1870 census.
2.       Levi and Martha named one of their sons Rezin.
3.       Rezin’s death in 1872 is noted in our Prather family bible.

1870 Census

Rezin was born around 1800, and writing the history had me thinking more and more about what his life had been like. At that point is when I discovered I had not researched all of the slaveowner’s family.

Rezin had been enslaved by Nathan Cooke prior to emancipation. Nathan was married to Elizabeth Magruder. Both of them died in 1869, but I finally pulled both their parent’s probate records. Sorting their families took forever–like many slaveowning families, they gave their children the same names and married first cousins and other close relatives. But once I did, I found gold: Elizabeth’s father was Zadock Magruder and he died intestate in 1809. In his inventory I found listed….a boy Resin, 7 years old!

Inventory clip

Many slaveowners gifted slaves to their daughters upon their marriages, or in their wills. Apparently, Rezin made his way to Zadock’s daughter’s household and was now the legal property of her husband, Nathan Cooke. Zadock’s inventory also contains the names of 2 young enslaved women, one of whom is likely Rezin’s mother (given his young age): Nelly or Milly. Zadock Magruder served in the Revolutionary War and there is a high school in Montgomery County today named after him.

This was a great find, just in time for my birthday. To just push it back that little bit further feels really, really good.

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