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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, the Bureau field office records for all southern states  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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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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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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