I’ve written before about the information that can be found in what I call Community Papers: account books, diaries, ledgers, loose papers, family records, etc. These are the papers of (usually) men in the communities we are researching, such as doctors, merchants. Almost every library and archives has these kinds of papers housed in their Manuscript or Special Collections.
I recommend viewing these records for what they can tell us about the lives our ancestors lived; slaves and free blacks are often mentioned in these records since they were a critical part of every community. Capturing that social history, I believe, is just as important as reclaiming the names and lineages of our ancestors.
I recently got a chance to view the Thomas Seon Sudler Account Book at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, Maryland. Thomas lived in the community where my ancestors lived in Somerset County, Maryland in the early 1800s, an area known as “Back Creek,” near the Great Annemessex River. He owned more than 400 acres of land called “Sudler’s Conclusion,” and in 1820 he owned 15 slaves. His home still survives (shown above), along with some of its outbuildings and is one of the most important historic homes in the county, and is included in Maryland’s Inventory of Historic Homes. I have collateral ancestors who were enslaved by Thomas and my direct ancestors were enslaved by his neighbor William Waters and other members of the Waters family.
Thomas was a meticulous record-keeper (though not a neat writer) and his book recorded many things we would expect to see from someone who owned a farm: he noted what crops were planted, what the weather was like, and other activities like hog killing and shearing sheep. He planted primarily tobacco, wheat and some cotton, but other entries mention a variety of foods probably for consumption by his family and his slaves like watermelon, red peppers, corn, sweet potatoes, apple orchard and beehives for honey:
Began to heap the plant bed before the door Friday Feb 12, 1819
Note: I lent Emory S Sudler one cow and calf to give him milk Friday Feb 12, 1819
Tubman W Sudler was to see me Thursday Feb 11, 1819 and helpt the people to worm the plant and fence in the Neck..[?] It took 26 pannels of fence ‘round[?] the bed
Began to Burn the plant bed before the door Monday Feby 22 & finished burning Tuesday 23 and sewed it on Tuesday..
He writes about births and deaths, visitors to his homes and things like making candles. Surprisingly, at times he includes poetry and scripture, and many entries record his feelings in the way of a diary:
Note January 4th Poor old Nish Departed this Life being Friday Night and on Saturday morning January 3rd, 1819 Tubman W Sudler and his wife went away from me by perswasion which was a sorrowful day to poor me I don’t know what is to become of me, I see nothing but trouble and want both to me and my family what to do. I cant tell for the best I sent Caleb up for my poor son Tubman W Sudler, whether he will be too good as to come and see me
That’s not all–this book offers all sorts of other interesting tidbits. The image is hard to see, but in this entry, Thomas paid several free black men for harvesting wheat. They likely worked alongside his slaves as well as alongside other white men:
To John Tull 1/2 day work harvest, $1.50
To Levin Tull 1/2 day work harvest, $1.50
To Negroe Nathan Turpin one day, $1.50
June the 27, 1826 Harvest Wheat
To Negroe Harry Waters half day, $.50
To Negroe Peter Waters half day, $.50
To Negroe Levin Waters, half day $.50
One page simply provides a list of names, but I am almost certain these are Thomas’ enslaved people. They appear throughout the account book performing various tasks:
One entry shows a man named Daniel making shoes for Thomas’ slaves:
Daniel made 5 pair viz Nan, Ben,Tobe, Job and Cesar….13 pair in all
Here’s and entry showing a purchase of “stockings” for his “black people”:
Note all our black people new stockings in the fall 1815, except 4 as follows Tobe, Ben, ?, Lucey
Another page notes the death of a slave owned by one his neighbors, William Waters:
Note Negroe Stephen the property of Capt William H Waters got drowned on Friday December 23, 1825
The story of Arnold’s runaway is recounted on one page. It is unclear whether Arnold is Thomas’ slave:
Arnold ran away on Sunday May 21, 1825 and taken up in the Delaware State on Monday 23 by Mr Peter Stewart. Tubman W Sudler went up after Arnold on Thursday the 26..
But Arnold paid the ultimate price. He was sold at the slave market located in nearby Princess Anne:
William L Wynn Petersburge who bought Arnold May Saturday 28, 1825 at PAnn Town
I hope this post shows you that even items with benign titles like “Account Book,” can convey the wealth of information in this book. This book had often short entries, but they give us a glimpse into the early 1800s and therefore a glimpse into our ancestor’s lives, things like the care of enslaved people, what work they performed, what punishments were given, what kind of food they ate, and how they were viewed by the
This post also illustrates how important it is to study the neighborhood. It is only because I knew Thomas Sudler was a neighbor that I knew to take a look at this record. Many of the free black Waters men he mentions are men whose families I know. And while the 1820 census does not include slaves’ names, Thomas’ book uncovers the names of many of those people.
Readers, have you looked at any Community Papers yet that have given you a closer look at your ancestors’ lives?