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.