Slave Ancestor Found in Southern Claims Commission Records

Well, it’s been awhile since I posted and that’s because I had a bouncing baby boy in August who has been keeping me happily busy. I haven’t had much time to do genealogy, to say the least. But I think in the next few months I can start putting a toe back in the genealogy waters every now and then.

This was actually one of my major genealogical finds of 2010, but I didn’t get a chance to post it.  Back in July 2010, I was cleaning out my office (in typical nesting mode) and ran across some print outs I’d made years ago from one of the Southern Claims Commission Indexes. I had never found any relatives when I searched these before, but I’ve posted about the great finds that are possible . The particular indexed name I had was a white man who, oral history said, had fathered a child with my 4th great grandmother, Margaret Barnes in Hardin County, Tennessee. His name was Ben Rush Freeman. I had never found anything in many years of researching, so I didn’t think much of it, but I figured since Footnote had most of the Southern Claims Commission files online, I might as well look before I chuck that piece of paper.

I can’t adequately explain to you the utter astonishment and then rush of excitement as I pulled up Ben’s 45+ page file and found that Margaret was one of his witnesses!!! This was stunning first and foremost because I only have information about Margaret from one court case, oral history, and census records. She was born in the early 1800s, so I had sort of given up the hope that I would find anything significant about her.

The Southern Claims Commission was set up to repay loyal Southerners who had had property taken or destroyed by the Union Army during the Civil War. One had to have witnesses to attest to the damages, and many times, for slaveowners, they had former slaves as witnesses. Margaret testified to the fact that hogs were slaughtered, horses taken, and some other parts of the crop. It gave her age, and stated that she was not owned by Mr. Freeman but worked for Mrs. Barnes.

Margaret Roberts had been a freedwoman in Hardin County, or a “bonded slave” as they referred to her. She was “purchased” by John Barnes in 1838, and appeared on the census in his household in 1840 and 1850. By 1860, she had taken on the surname Barnes, John had died and she was living with his widow Elizabeth. Margaret was listed as a mulatto woman with several mulatto children. She last makes an appearance in the census in 1870.

Another thing that makes this file critical to my research is that her son, Campbell Barnes, also testifies! Campbell was listed on the census record with his mother in 1850, but I only could locate a “Cam Barnes” living in neighboring McNairy County in 1880. I thought this might be her son—and this file confirmed that it was, when it noted that he lived in McNairy County. His testimony also stated that he went away with and joined the Union Army, and returned after the war (I haven’t found him listed formally as a soldier). When asked who he had been owned by, he reiterates that he was never a slave, but that his mother had been a free woman and was purchased by John Barnes as a young girl. Again, this confirmed information I had already discovered. This find also, in my mind, greatly increases the chance that Ben Rush Freeman was indeed the father of at least one of her children. She states in her file that she was sent over frequently to help him by Mrs. Barnes. Having her in such continual close proximity makes sense.

Here is copy of the first page of Margaret’s testimony. You can see “col’d” is listed after her name, identifying her as a colored woman (click on the image to see it enlarged).

I never found Margaret here in the past because the Southern Claims Commission files weren’t online when I first looked at them and I didn’t think to pull Ben Freeman’s file at the time. But what I’ve learned, and hopefully you can benefit from, is to also search these files for neighbors, relatives and associates of your slaveowner. I thought it interesting that many of Ben’s close family members and friends also filed claims. Of course, there were just tidbits here about Margaret, as the primary purpose of the testimony was to ascertain the facts about the lost goods. But every bit counts. I kept wishfully thinking, “Why don’t they ask her parent’s names???!”

 

Slave Letters

Image From: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6726

I’ve been fascinated recently by the great things being digitized and put online by libraries, archives, museums and other repositories. Although as genealogists we are primarily concerned with the details of specific lives, I think it’s absolutely worthwhile to expand your vision and look at some of the larger themes that applied to and affected our ancestors: slavery, emancipation, jim crow, disenfranchisment, farming and sharcropping, the great migration, etc. To that end, I’m sharing some very interesting slave letters I’ve been reading.

Obviously, there aren’t as many of these available as other sources because so few slaves were able to read and write, or if they did, few survived for future generations to read. One good collection  is housed by Duke University, Special Collections.

Check out these slave letters. They make for fascinating reading:

Some excellent books that contain more slave letters and other types of primary source information from African Americans are:

  1. Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews and Autobiographies” by John Blassingame (portions are available on are Googlebooks)
  2. We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century” by Dorothy Sterling has a chapter on Slave letters (Googlebooks)
  3. Dear Master: Letters of a Slave Family” by Randall Miller (Googlebooks)

Take a look when you can, and enter the lives of our enslaved ancestors. Send me any more links you may know about.

Researching the Slaveowner in Online Books

The slavery period remains the one of the most difficult for African-Americans to research. Maybe this is why that period is a particular point of interest to me, and why I spend lots of time on this blog on that subject. Recently Family Tree Magazine did a very good article on another research tool I use often: Online Books (August 2010 issue).

I have found this to be very useful in researching slaveowners. The article points out 6 major sources:

  1. Ancestry.com (Stories, Memories and Histories)
  2. BYU Family History Archives (free)
  3. Google Books (free)
  4. HeritageQuest Online (only through subscribing libraries)
  5. Internet Archives (free)
  6. World Vital Records (paid subscription site)

I’ll show you a few examples.

I was researching possible slaveowners in Lawrence County, Alabama, specifically the Sherrod family. I went to Ancestry, their Stories, Memories and Histories Collection which I have marked as a Quick Link. Using their search template and searching on the name ‘Ben Sherrod’, I quickly pulled up the following book: “Recollections of the Early Settlers of North Alabama,” which was originally published in 1899:

Starting on page 233 was a fairly lengthy biographical sketch of the exact family of which I am interested in. The text doesn’t reproduce well here, but here is a page:

This gave me valuable clues and starting points; now I knew what dates to search for probate records. I was also able to understand the connections between the Sherrods and the other names I had seen on the 1870 census, especially the wive’s maiden names and father’s names which we all know also need to be checked as possible sources for slaves.

In the second example here, I used Google Books. I searched for the terms “Hyman” and “North Carolina” as that was the family of interest. This turned up the excellent book, “The Southern Debate Over Slavery: Petitions to Southern Legislatures, 1778-1864.” This book contained a petition from one of the slaves of the slaveowning family I was researching. He had a fascinating tale of his own, but he also provided details ( such as who he was owned by and sold to, when the person died, who the administrator was,  his master’s wishes for his freedom, etc.)that helped me reconstruct the family:

I searched World Vital Records (their Social, Regional and General Histories collection) on Michael Holt from North Carolina, voila, I found a 700+ page book entitled, “The Descendants of Michael Holt.” Keep in mind, however, that information for the family you need may be included in collateral lines covered in a book that is NOT in the title of the book, so be sure to do full-text searches when you can. The title of the book may just say “The Potters and Allied Families” and the surname focus of your search may be hidden in that ‘Allied Families’ referred to in the title.

Ancestry has a pretty good search function. I have to say both BYU and the Internet Archives websites do not have very good search functions, and will take considerably longer to search, although Internet Archive has a beautiful interface for actually reading books online. HeritageQuest, although only accessible through some libraries, has an excellent search function and downloadable PDF files of the books. Google Books, as we all should know by now, does not always provide views of the entire book, and doesn’t always allow easy download (I basically do screen captures when this is the case.)

It is true that the larger and more prominent slaveowners will be the best represented when searching, but that doesn’t mean there is no useful information on smaller slaveowners. There is. In the difficult quest for the slaveowning family, we’ve got to make diligent use of all resources at our disposal, and I rarely find the search in online books discussed or mentioned. I hope to encourage you to add this to your arsenal when researching locations and possible slaveowners.


Published Slave Narratives

Lately I have been reading a lot of published slave narratives. These are not to be confused with the WPA slave narratives from the 1930s that many of us are familiar with. I am referring to slave narratives that were written and published from the mid 1800’s through the mid 1900s by slaves and former slaves, many of which who had fled slavery. These are books that were were popular during that timeframe, especially as a part of the burgeoning anti-slavery movement. We probably know about the most popular, like Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery and Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. But I think we forget—I know I did—that this is primary information out of the mouths of slaves, and also that there were hundreds more like this published.

The University of North Carolina has a wonderful online collection entitled “North American Slave Narratives.”   It is apart of the collection entitled “Documenting the American South.” In the Slave Narratives, they have collected and displayed all the known existing slave narratives, including pamphlets and articles through 1920. I had seen this collection many times over the years, but never dove in and explored it further. The other day I started reading them, and got so engrossed in the stories I stayed online for 3 hours! They are very detailed, and I realized that these could be a terrific resource for part of the write-up of my family.

My Prather family was from Montgomery County, MD (they are shown above in the picture on this blog). I have mentioned here before that I am focusing on writing up the various lines of my research, fully and properly sourced, and getting them out to the relevant repositories. So, I went to UNC’s collection and found the story of a man named Josiah Henson who was enslaved in Montgomery County.

 

Josiah Henson, from Wikipedia

His claim to fame is that he is credited as being the prototype for the lead character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s infamous book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Josiah escaped from slavery and later became an abolitionist and a minister. I was able to utilize the following descriptions from his narrative, published in 1849, “The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself” :

[My master was] coarse and vulgar in his habits, unprincipled and cruel in his general deportment, and especially addicted to the vice of licentiousness. His slaves had little opportunity for relaxation from wearying labor, were supplied with the scantiest means of sustaining their toil by necessary food, and had no security for personal rights… The principal food of those upon my master’s plantation consisted of corn meal, and salt herrings; to which was added in summer a little buttermilk, and the few vegetables which each might raise for himself and his family, on the little piece of ground which was assigned to him for the purpose, called a truck patch. The meals were two, daily…”

He continues with his description. Doesn’t this first-hand account make the experiences of my ancestors come alive just a little bit more?

I cannot believe I have not made better use of this resource in the past 13 years. When you have some time, peruse the UNC website and read through some of the pages of the various narratives. Perhaps you can find someone who grew up in your ancestor’s state, or better yet, their same county.

UNC’s entire collection is extraordinarily valuable, and a separate collection that I found useful was the one entitled “First Person Narratives of the American South”. This collection encompasses all Southerners, white and black, and I found some of the diaries of slaveowners and their wives to be very eye-opening. For example, Elizabeth Pringle, daughter of a prominent South Carolina planter had a book published about her life growing up on a southern rice plantation called A Woman Rice Planter. Here’s a tip for this collection: Browse by subject, and under the heading African-Americans, you’ll find a sorting of the narratives by state.) Other standouts in the online UNC DocSouth collections include:

The Church in the Southern Black Community
Oral Histories of the American South
North Carolina Maps

I am always on the lookout for ways to enrich the story of my ancestor’s lives, as well as educate myself on the topic even further. These narratives are rich reading, even as they relayed horrific realities. Kudos to UNC, and I hope visit and do research one day, as I’ve heard their library/archives is one of the best in the South.

New Finds and Acts of Kindness: Ada Seaman and Mattie Holt

I’ve got a few new discoveries to report. First, Familysearch.org has finally blessed us Tennessee researchers with a Tennessee death index (“Tennessee Deaths and Burials, 1874-1955“). I thought I’d lose my mind when I ran across it, and of course I stayed up until 2 in the morning with much success. I had watched for years as states like North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas got lots of love from Ancestry and Familysearch, and I was wondering when someone was going to post a database of deaths from my poor lil’ ol’ state! I found about 20 relevant people (direct and collateral) and have already sent off for the certificates.

Familysearch has a much more robust search engine, and even though it is rife with transcription errors, it will pull up data in those valuable ‘mother” and “father” fields. Because of that, I made an interesting discovery.

I finally found my great-great-grandmother’s death certificate–Ada Seaman. She died in 1918, and I know now that it’s her because her father was Baltimore Merriman, and the father’s field says “Baught Merriman.” I had seen this name indexed before, but never thought it was her. Why? Because she showed up on the 1920 census:

wife Ada Seaman

Wow. Gotta remember those darn censuses contain secondary information.

In other news, I got a wonderful act of genealogical kindness. One of my Holt ancestors, Mattie Holt, had been a mystery for many years. I found her on the TN census as a child and never was able to find her again. A few years, ago, I visited descendants of this family I had found  in Inkster, Michigan. One cousin remembered going to visit his Aunt Mattie in Texas. I wouldn’ t have thought to look there, but that’s where she was. I found her on the census, and I found her death certificate–she was running a funeral home, and the oral history was that she’d made a fortune in 1918 during the flu epidemic.

Her married name was May, and I found her husband George May’s death certificate and headstone, but after that, the trail went cold.

I had contacted the local genealogical society in search of an obituary to no avail. But this week I got an email from that researcher who just decided out of the blue to look for Mattie’s probate records since she was in the courthouse. Don’t you just love that?

Jackpot! She found Mattie’s very detailed will and emailed me all the goodies. Mattie in fact did have a daughter (I never knew that) and the will named her nephew as well. It also outlined her 3 marriages and gives dates and places–her first marriage was in Oklahoma.  Talk about doing the happy dance! Now I’ve got much more to follow up on. Sharon, thank you again for all your help with this.

Genealogists can be some of the best people!