Taking Back What Was Once Lost

Effie Fendricks and Building a Case for the Slaveowner

Effie Blanche Fendricks

Effie Blanche Fendricks

This is my great-grandmother, Effie Blanche Fendricks, who was born in Hardin County, TN, ca. 1891. She was one of 13 children (8 who survived).

Effie married Walter Springer and birthed 9 children, 7 of whom survived to adulthood. She was a homemaker  and when I interviewed my grandmother Mattie before her death she shared many fond memories of her mother. Effie’s husband Walter farmed, worked on the Tennessee steamboats and eventually landed what would have been considered a good “government” job at a factory making munitions for the war.

Walter Springer

Walter Springer

My grandmother Mattie eventually migrated to Dayton, Ohio when she married in the mid-1940s. Later, her widowed mother Effie joined them as well as several other siblings. Sadly, Effie suffered a stroke and died in 1959, likely about 67 years old.

I am  thinking about Effie today because of Luckie’s discussion going on over at Our Georgia Roots in search of one of her ancestor’s slaveowners. Luckie, you are such an inspiration! I’m also finally also getting some traction this year on Effie’s family after a 12 year brick wall. These brick walls really do bother me on an emotional level…just the thought that the basics of someones life is LOST, even to their descendants, makes me sad. I think that’s why I have such a passion to try to snatch back that lost memory.

Effie’s “Fendricks” line has been a challenge, number one because the name has been rendered in every way imaginable (and unimaginable). Her parents, Mike and Jane Eliza, migrated to Hardin County, Tennessee by 1880 and all I knew was that they were from Alabama. My journey to find out what county in Alabama was very similar to Luckies–it was more about using my skills now to reassess information I’ve had for years.

I’ve tentatively finally traced back to Effie’s grandfather, John Mike Fendricks living in Lawrence Cty, AL in 1870. Once there, I put together a chart of neighbors and potential slaveowners. I ordered 6 rolls of Lawrence Cty Probate records and deeds and I’ve been spending the last 2 weeks pouring over them. It’s slow work as I’m tracking 3 families (Sherrod, Shackelford and Bynum) who intermarried and had large land and slaveholdings. I’m putting each probate entry into a table for analysis and I’ve also done census baselines for each family from 1860 back.

I know I’m hot on the trail, but there is always the chance that that “smoking gun”  we want won’t be found. There are some missing records for Lawrence County and one specific book that I know has the slave distribution for one of these families is in one of them. So I was thinking about what are some of the ways that we can make the case connecting our ancestors to a slaveowner when we are missing some of those critical traditional documents? Here are a few thoughts, and I’d love to hear more from my genius genea-bloggers (that means you Luckie, Angela, Renate, Michael, Mavis, Sandra, George and others):

  • Proximity is always a clue. Most slaves in 1870 still lived near their former slaveowner. Not all, but proximity is a good clue. Some may be living on a former slaveowner’s land.
  • Use of slaveowner’s surname. We all know all slaves did not take the last name of the most recent slaveowner, but many did. Check those slaveowner’s wives maiden names, because some have that surname if they came from her family.
  • First names in the enslaved individuals family matching first names in the slaveowner’s family. I’ve seen alot of that.
  • Interactions with the slaveowner’s family. I’ve seen slaveowner’s act as witnesses for marriages as well as posting bond/acting as sureties. Another big clue is found in deeds. Many slaves purchased their first land from a former slaveowner so always find that first land record. Check the slaveowner’s probate records even if they died after 1865–your ancestor may be purchasing items from the estate indicating a connection.
  • Interactions of generations of both families into the early 20th century. It is not uncommon to have descendants of the slave/slaveowner still interacting or living in close proximity even in the 1900, 1910, 1920 census.
  • Freedmen’s Bureau labor contracts between your ancestor and an individual is another good clue. Most of these aren’t indexed and don’t exist for every locality, but be sure to check.

Remember, I am talking about when you can’t find that document that actually names your ancestor. I am certainly not suggesting that any of these things in isolation would be a good basis for making the claim of a particular slaveowner.But,  I do believe that there are still ways to build a strong case from circumstantial evidence that your ancestor was owned by an individual. Of course, you may still be more comfortable adding a caveat to your family history with the word “likely” or “probable”, and then presenting your reasoning.

I think thats the way we should approach this quest. For some of our lines, we’ll find the definitive evidence, but for others we won’t.

My search for Effie’s enslaved roots continues. And if I don’t find that bill of sale or inventory that lists her grandfather (or any of the things where a slave names his ex-owner), I’ll still be working on building my case. Let me hear your thoughts, family.


  1. September 21, 2009    

    First of all, thanks for including me in your circle. I feel honored!

    Now, ma’am – I think you’ve just about covered all of the basis I can think of right off the top of my head for finding our ancestors former owners. Just a couple of other things come to mind right now:

    *Try to find the ancestors’ cohabitation record. It was from this that I got my great-grandmother’s “maiden” name, Shaw, which I presume to be the surname of her last owner.

    * This might not find the owners, but I want to mention something that I did in an attempt to identify former slaves who may have been siblings or family to my ggfather, Calvin. I had the names of all of the slaves as they were divided into lots after his owner, Chloe Neal died. I meticulously matched those names with some of Calvin’s post-emancipation neighbors (who’d taken the surname Neal) and found several of them. I don’t yet know for sure, but I think some of them may have been his family members, and one, possibly his mother.

    * Also, a lot of times in the estate records I’ve records of payments made between slaveholders for the “hiring out” of their slaves, so this could also be helpful in establishing ownership.

    That’s about all I can add right now, but if I think of something else, I’ll come back!


    • September 23, 2009    

      These are great, Renate. That second bullet I think is especially critical. Rebuilding that post-emancipation neighborhood. And while uncovering those slavery names in cohabitation records, I often see them matching up with nearby slaveowners, so that is another excellent point. Thanks for these and yes, you are definitely part of the “crew”!

  2. September 22, 2009    


    As Renate stated, you’ve hit most of the resources that come to mind. However, after some thought I have two more to add to the list.

    **Historic Newspapers. I think this is a valuable resource that African American researchers often overlook. But, you can sometimes find the unexpected. I discovered a legal notice in the Atlanta Constitution in which residents of the district where my ancestors lived had filed a petition for a new voting district. Included in the list of signers were former slave owner Edward Taliaferro and his son Samuel Taliaferro as well as my gg grandfather Miles Taliaferro and his son, my great grandfather, John Wesley Taliaferro.

    **Freedmen’s Bank Records. Another overlooked resourse. These records can contain the name of the former slave owner or even the plantation where an ancestors lived during slavery. Even if you don’t get a clue to a former slave owner there are lot’s of gems in these records. I was able to put together almost a complete family from one single record. Amazing.

    Robyn, thanks for starting this discussion. My eyes are open to new possibilities.


    • September 23, 2009    

      Sandra, you are right on the money. I love your first idea because that’s entirely new to me–a list of names for a new voting district. You never know what you might find in newspapers. You are fortunate to have found something like you found in Freedmens Bank records as well. They are a great source. Thanks for chiming in.

  3. September 22, 2009    

    Robyn –

    You have created a great list here of sources of “indirect evidence” that will help you to identify a slave’s last owner. Unfortunately, without that corroborating “direct evidence,” it may be impossible to know 100%.

    But, on the other hand, there are so many sources — many of which no one even knows about — that DO provide this direct evidence. What we all need to do is continue to blog, and provide information on different sources that we have located. Spread the word! Another idea would be to start publishing books of abstracts and indexes to these records, the way more “traditional” records have all been published. Why not make it easier for future generations to conduct research in these records?

    • September 23, 2009    

      The beauty of indirect evidence is that is can be as strong as, if not stronger than, direct evidence. Dr. Thomas Jones is a big believer in this concept (He really opened my eyes to it). Indirect evidence, properly correlated, and especially when you have it from several independent sources, can be powerful. Tons of examples in NGS Quarterly.

      I love your idea of putting together a “master slavery” source list. Let’s do it. And I second you big time on the need for us to publish more abstracts and indexes. Here here!;)

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About Me

I blog, teach, write and lecture about family history research and it's just as rewarding today as it was when I began 18 years ago. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my past and I've taken back--reclaimed- my kin and some of that lost memory.  

Post History

What I Talk About

Locations and Surnames

Hardin, Chester and Lawrence Counties, TN
Holt, Barnes, Harbour, Bradley Springer and Fendricks
Lawrence County, AL
Springer and Fendricks
Montgomery County, MD
Prather, Simpson
Somerset County, MD
Waters, Fountain, Curtis
Duval and Madison County, FL
Smith, Harris, Garner

Favorite Family History Quotes

"The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."
-William Faulkner

"Call it a clan, call it a network, all it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one"
- Jane Howard

"Friends are God's apologies for relations."
-Hugh Kingsmill

"No matter what you've done for yourself or for humanity, if you can't look back on having given love and attention to your own family, what have you really accomplished?"
-Elbert Hubbard

"Families are like fudge; mostly sweet with a few nuts."

"If you can't get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you might as well make it dance!"

"Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city;)"
-George Burns

"Where does the family start? It starts with a young man falling in love with a girl. No superior alternative has yet been found."
-Winston Churchill

"The great gift of family life is to be intimately acquainted with people you might never ever introduce yourself to had life not done it for you."
-Kendall Hailey

"If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all the generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people."
-Thich Nhat Hanh