Thomas S. Sudler Account Book


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:

Farming Info

Farming Info

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:

Free Blacks Working

Free Blacks Working

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:


Enslaved People

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:

Stephen's death

Stephen’s death

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's runaway

Arnold’s runaway

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:

Arnold sold

Arnold sold

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?


Perry Simpson Found in Freedmen’s Bureau Records

Freedmen's Bureau LOC (LC-USZ62-1055555)

Freedmen’s Bureau
LOC (LC-USZ62-1055555)

Finally- I found a needle in a haystack. I found my 4th great-grandfather, Perry Simpson, in Freedmen’s Bureau records! I have probably looked through thousands of pages of these records through the years and that is no exaggeration.

I found his name in a Register of Letters Received in the Field Office Records for Maryland and Delaware. A “register” is one of the formats the agents used to document the many letters that poured in, and each register entry provides a brief summary. Perry, who lived in Howard County, was launching a complaint against Delilah Duvall. She had agreed to split shares of the crop with him (presumably in 1866) and after the crop came in, she refused to give him his share of the crop. Sadly, this was very, very common in the years after emancipation:

Register of Letter, Jan 1867

Register of Letter, Jan 1867

I’m still searching for his original letter, but I also found his case referenced in the book of Endorsements, which shows his complaint traveling up the chain of command. Unfortunately, in the end, there was no justice for Perry. An excerpt from the Endorsement stated:

nothing more has been done in the case, except to call the attention of the State’s Atty Genl for Howard Co. to the matter who informs us with regret that nothing more can be done, Duvall is very worthless-a civil trial will only subject the man Simpson to more expense for nothing, as no Justice of the Peace in that county will give judgement on negro evidence. They do not refuse to take evidence, but allow him to testify in order to avoid the Civil Rights Bill, but do not allow the testimony to have any weight in making their decision, as reported by Mr. Lands [?] the attorney a true friend of the Bureau

I was surprised at how emotional this document made me. It took a lot of courage and moxie for a former slave to formally complain to the Bureau. Retribution from local whites, including acts of violence and even murder were common. The above outcome references the 1866 Civil Rights Bill passed by Congress. It came up quite  bit in Bureau records, because it was supposed to change one of the reasons why black people were always so vulnerable: their testimony alone could never be used in most states against any whites. When the law was passed, some local law enforcement officials still refused to take complaints from blacks without white witnesses, and the Bureau pressed for prosecution of those local officials. What is shown above is that this particular Howard County official would take Perry’s testimony and allow it in court in order to avoid prosecution under the law, but that essentially it wouldn’t be given any weight. Just like all those cases in the 1950s and 1960s.

I tell you, there is so much today that we simply take for granted. I can’t fathom what it must have been like to live with the fear that anything–ANYTHING–could be done to you with no redress.

I have been predicting that when the Freedmens Bureau Indexing Project is completed later this year, family historians are going to reclaim scores of their enslaved ancestors and lost histories. But we don’t have to wait until then. Many of the Freedmen’s Bureau Records have been digitized and are freely accessible on Though the records are difficult to navigate, I suggested a workable strategy to research them back in 2012.

I strongly suggest scrolling page by page through those records. That is the only way I found Perry’s letter. The truth is that the digitization of the Bureau records makes scrolling through a few hundred images pretty easy. Aside from possibly finding a family member, you will learn about the community where your ancestor lived during the transition from slavery to freedom. You will read the stories of former slaves striving:

–to find family members sold during slavery
–to reclaim children being held illegally by former owners
–to be paid for their labor, after employers throw them off the land
–to get legal redress for other crimes against them
–to build schools
–to get their bounty money and pensions
–to find work

…and more. I found myself engrossed in so many of these stories, whether or not they were my ancestors. Tell me in the comments if any of you have had any luck in these records yet. If not, keep looking. Use my find as inspiration;)


DNA Bombshell: John Smith Origins Uncovered

John Smith

John Smith

This story is actually several months old—I think I had to let the emotion wear off a little to think clearly enough for a post.

I’ve been aware for some time of the amazing discoveries that people have been having with DNA testing the past few years. I had taken a test about 10 years ago when it was all pretty new, and the results didn’t really provide much exciting or new in my research.

But last summer, my AAHGS chapter (shout-out to Central Maryland) had a series of introductory sessions on the topic. They also hosted a panel session a few months ago on DNA discoveries. Even though I’d taken the autosomal two years ago, I decided to push for other family members to take the test. Ever the willing soul, my dad jumped right in.

His grandfather, John Smith (shown left), had been the number one biggest brick wall in my 18 years of research. With a name like that, he is often the topic in my lectures and classes. He appeared in Jacksonville, FL in the early 20th century, married Georgia Harris, with whom he had at least three children. I have never been able to find him in any census before 1930, but multiple sources provide Georgia as his birthplace. HIs son William said he was born in Swainsboro, Georgia, while John’s own Social Security SS5 form said he was born in Tifton, Georgia to a father named Simon Smith. Still, I’d found nothing.

My father’s Autosomal DNA immediately matched numerous people from “Robeson County, North Carolina.” This was odd—nothing in my research suggested North Carolina. I suspected the matches were likely on his father’s side because his mother’s roots are well-documented in Maryland. One match was incredible: a calculated 2nd cousin! That means one of this individual’s grandparents was a sibling to my father’s grandfather. Unfortunately, this person never responded to my inquiries.

I soon discovered that Robeson County, NC is the historic home of the Lumbee Indians, who are descended from the Cherokee and Tuscarora, Anglo- and African-Americans. The community is comprised of many of the same surnames, such as Locklear, Oxendine, Lowry, and Dial. They are listed n early census records as free people of color. One of their forebears, Henry Berry Lowery, was a famous hero during the periods of the Civil War and Reconstruction whose story sounds like something right out of a movie. I also remember seeing the Lumbees at the opening of the Native-American Museum in Washington, D.C.

I spent about a month reading the DNA/genealogy blogs (like Kitty Cooper’s blog and Melvin Collier’s blog) and learning how to upload and examine my results at I also purchased and began to read an excellent book on Lumbee history and racial/tribal identity. Learning how to best utilize and understand DNA results is an uphill climb.  I also made contact with several of the other DNA close matches so we could try to find the relative we have in common.

I decided that since I had only evidence that John was born in Georgia, I thought about how North Carolina might have come into the picture. After reviewing the census neighborhood in Robeson County, NC in the 1920s,30s and 40s, I noticed many people had children who had been born in Georgia, although their parents were born in North Carolina. This is a census clue that screams “migration.” I began to document a list of the people in the community with children born in Georgia. Then I found World War II draft cards for many of those male children, in order to ascertain the cities of their births. Amazingly, the vast majority of these individuals reported births in “Claxton, Georgia,” “Bulloch, Georgia” or “Evans, Georgia.”

For example, see Vandy Locklear’s 1920 household in Robeson County, NC:

1920 Vandy Locklear

1920 Vandy Locklear

This is Vandy’s son Miller’s draft card (he is 14 years old in the image above):

Miller Locklear

Miller Locklear

Evans County, Georgia was created from Bulloch County, GA in 1914. Claxton was the capital of Bulloch County. So I headed to the 1900 and 1910 censuses in Bulloch and YES! There they are, these migrants from Robeson County, working in the brutal turpentine camps of Georgia.

By 1930 and 1940, many of these camps had left Georgia for Florida and its fresh supply of woodlands. Some laborers followed the camps to Florida. Many of the Robeson County migrants, older now, went back home. I traced at least 25 families. It took a long, LONG time, but it was worth it.

Simultaneously, my conversations with database matches finally yielded a feasible candidate: a man named Nelson Locklear was in the tree of several of the top matches. Now keep in mind this is a highly intermarried community and the same families show up in almost everyone’s tree—making finding the match more difficult to identify. So I focused on the top 3 matches. Several were kind enough to share their own trees and information on this family.

As I was working on matching these families from GA to NC, I was not surprised to find Nelson Locklear living in Bulloch County in the 1900 census, like his other kinsmen. I was COMPLETELY BLOWN AWAY when I saw who was living next door:

1900 Nelson Locklear

1900 Nelson Locklear

I knew it was my John Smith–the little hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up.
He was the right age. He’s in the right place.
He’s living next to a man whose DNA made it’s way into my dad, in large quantity.
My grandfather’s recollection of Swainsboro as his father’s birthplace was wrong.
But guess what city is in Bullock County, Georgia? Statesboro. Not Swainsboro, it was Statesboro. That would be an easy error to make. It makes sense.

In 1880, back in Robeson County, NC, Nelson Locklear had recently married and just started his family with his wife. Although John Smith’s mother is still unknown, I think it’s interesting to say the least that  several women of child-bearing age surnamed Smith were living right next door to Nelson:

1880 Nelson Locklear

1880 Nelson Locklear

This example shows how even original sources can contain inaccurate information. It also illustrates how human beings aren’t doing anything now that hasn’t been done for hundreds of years. People birthed children before and outside marriage, people lived and loved across the false boundaries of race. Why did John list Tifton, Georgia as his birthplace and Simon Smith as his father? Who knows. Did John even know that Nelson was his father? Maybe not.

But Autosomal DNA just blew apart the biggest brick wall I’ve ever had.

A Walk Through County Court Minutes


Old James City VA Courthouse, Library of Congress Photograph

Old James City VA Courthouse, Library of Congress Photograph

Have you ventured into the waters of county court records yet? Everyone who reads this blog regularly knows I am a big fan of court records. Today, I’d like to walk you through the kinds of things you can find in county court records.

As I’ve mentioned before, court records are an intermediate/advanced resource—I wouldn’t recommend them for beginners. Save them for later. Court records can be complex because (1) there are separate state and federal systems, (2) courts in each state often have different names (3) courts exist in a hierarchy, and (4) the names of various courts have changed over time. And, if that’s not bad enough, (5) court records exist in different formats, like dockets, minutes and loose papers. Yikes.

For example, here’s a (current day) hierarchy of the court in Delaware (courtesy of the National Center for State Courts website):

Delaware Courts

Delaware Courts

Take a look at how different the court structure is in Florida:

Florida State Courts

Florida State Courts

As you can see described inside the boxes, each different court hears specific types of cases (its “jurisdiction”).

When I say “County Court,” I am referring the lowest court in a state’s court hierarchy—the one in which most citizens would first file a cause of action. But beware—that court may not be named “County Court.”

Step number one would be to find out what the County Court was named in your state of research for the period of time you are researching. To do that, you’ll need to find  a history of the court system in that state. Some places to search for this information are: the state archives website, the website for the state’s current-day court website, Google, FamilySearch Wiki, and Ancestry’s Red Book, which is available for viewing on Ancestry. Here is an example of court history in Tennessee from the state archives, and there is a discussion of North Carolina court history at FamilySearch’s Wiki.

The Tennessee link tells me that after 1834, the lowest court in Tennessee was in fact called the “County Court.” (In North Carolina, by comparison, the lowest court was called the “Court of Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions”). If that were my research state, Step two would be to find out where you can access the records–it may be the local courthouse, the state archives, or maybe you can order microfilm from the Family History Library containing those records. Remember in all cases, to call first to find out what is available and what restrictions may be in place, if any. You probably won’t be among the lucky to find county court minutes online, like the ones transcribed online for Tyler County, TX, the images at Southhampton County, Va and the court order books for Amelia County, VA. But you never know unless you look. Genealogists are a generous people.

I’m going to show examples from County Court Minutes–these are the (usually) brief records of everyday business of the local court. Most are indexed, either in the front or back, but it’s not uncommon to come across some volumes that are not indexed.

The County Court was the place where a hodge podge of information was recorded, and what I enjoy most about these records is that you really get a good picture of the town; the prominent people, the paupers, the merchants and doctors, the lawyers, etc. Exact contents of each county court’s records will vary by state and time period, but here’s a list of things routinely recorded at the County Court:

  • appointment of road crews to maintain roads (road “overseers”)
  • appointment of tax collectors, sheriffs, constables and jurists
  • appointment of men to work on slave patrols

    slave patrol-Tyler Cty, TX

    slave patrol-Tyler Cty, TX

  • appointment of an estate administrator or executor
  • proving of wills and deeds

    deeds proved-Southhampton, VA

    deeds proved-Southhampton, VA

  • appointment of men to appraise an estate
  • providing a widow provisions or her dower after the death of her husband
  • appointment of guardians for orphans
  • payments to jailers for keeping runaway slaves and other functions
  • payments to tax collectors and road surveyors
  • payments for people to help the poor (paupers)
  • petitions for building new roads, bridges or mills
  • apprenticeships
  •  licensing of merchants (for taverns, ministers, lawyers, etc.)
  • taxes assessments and payments
  • people being released from paying taxes because of age

    release from taxes-Southampton Cty., VA

    release from taxes-Southampton Cty., VA

  • “illegitimate” children, often called “baseborn,” are usually apprenticed out, parents usually named (but remember, no DNA testing back then):
  • civil court cases, usually name claimant/defendant, jurors and outcome of case

There’s a very good chance that your ancestor shows up somewhere in these records. Of special interest to those researching African-American families is that free blacks are often found in these records, as in many places they had to register with the court as a free person:

free negro registration

free negro registration

I found mention of my 4th great-grandmother, Margaret Barnes, a free black in Hardin County, TN, in an 1838 entry in the county court minutes, describing how, at about the age of 12 she was taken for her previous “owner” for cruelty and “sold” to another. You may be able to find the name of the person who manumitted (freed) your ancestor or the name of a white person in the community who is vouching for their free status. This is one of the first types of records I suggest for those who have freed black ancestors, and are trying to discover who may have freed the individual (of course, they could have been born free.) Slaves charged with crimes are also mentioned in these records:

slave punishment

slave punishment

So take a walk through your county court records and let me know some of the interesting things you find there.

-Keep in mind that court minutes are dated: the date might be on the top of page 215, for example, and the minutes for that day’s activities might run through page 225. Be sure that when you find an entry of interest, you *go back* until you find the exact date that it was recorded, which may be several pages back. How do I know this? I had to go back several times when I did not copy this information, but it’s crucial for a proper source citation.

-The indexes are not always complete. So, if you really want to be sure someone in particular is not mentioned, you may want to read through each page for a span of time. And—sometimes the index is located in the back of the book. I found that out the hard way too;)

–In the case of counties with burned land records, court minutes, if they survive, can be used to show deed transactions and probate transactions, although they don’t include the details.

–Don’t forget there are plenty of published indexes and abstracts to court records, like the one below. See if any exist for your locality, but if you find something, be sure to request the original record for review.

Court Records Book

Court Records Book has a nice primer on Court Records from “The Source”-be sure to read through all of the sections.

U.S. Colored Troops

U.S. Colored Troop Unknown

Unidentified Soldier, LOC
Digital ID, ppmsca-26456

For many years now, I’ve been interested in researching U.S. Colored Troops who served in Union forces from the communities where my family lived. Most people know by now that almost 200,000 black people, slaves and free blacks, served in the Union Army and Navy. The Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 finally began the process of their large-scale recruitment into the service as soldiers. The racial ideology of the times believed that black people, especially slaves, did not have the mental capacity, bravery or intelligence necessary in a soldier. However, blacks served with valor and distinction as U.S. Colored Troops and proved everyone wrong. Although the impetus for their service was military necessity, their service no doubt contributed to Northern victory and provided proof of their equality as men, even if most whites of the times were not ready to hear that message.

U.S. Colored Troops service records are available on Ancestry and Fold3. We always search for our own ancestors, but I’d like to recommend that you also search for others in the same county. Particularly in the case of former slaves, the analysis of service (and pension) records can expand your understanding of the community and add valuable details about the slave community. One of the ways to do this is to enter a county in the birth search box for the U.S. Colored Troops Service Records, but do not enter any names. So, if I put “Montgomery County, Maryland” into the birth place box, and leave everything else blank, the database will return soldiers born in that community. Keep in mind that they may have since migrated from that community. Also, there will be others from the county who may not have their county of birth recorded in the official cards. But this process will catch plenty of people. After analyzing these records, I cross reference and attempt to find pension records for those soldiers.

From NARA’s description at the 150th anniversary of the digitization of these records, we find the following:

Researchers may be surprised to find that the USCT military service records hold not only muster rolls but also a huge array of personal papers that can include enlistment papers, correspondence, orders, prisoner-of-war memorandums, casualty reports, and final statements. Starting in October 1863, slave owners could enlist their slaves and receive up to $300 upon filing a “manumission” or deed of ownership. Unique to some of the records of the USCT are these deeds of manumission and bills of sale. For genealogists, these records may offer the only source of documentation of an enslaved ancestor in the absence of other vital records.

I’d like to share some of the personal papers that can be found within the USCT service records. Below are two documents you’ll see in the files to let you know there are “other” papers (click to enlarge):

U.S. Colored Troop William Abel

William Abel

Personal Papers Form

Personal Papers Form

In the four border states of Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware and Missouri, slaves could join with their owner’s permission (runaways also joined). They had to be freed and the owners were compensated. There will be documents indicating the slaveowner’s claim, title and loyalty, and possibly the manumission document:

U.S. Colored Troop Alfred Snowden

Slave Claim

U.S. Colored Troop Mortimer King

Ownership Note


U.S. Colored Troop Snowden manumission


When soldiers died in the service, some files included death certificates and other statements about their death:

U.S. Colored Troop Leonidas Gray Death Cert

The brief cards created during hospital stays could provide a valuable contact name in the area for “PO address of wife or nearest relative”:

U.S. Colored Troop Frank Posey Hospital Card

Hospital Card

Some files indicate that the person was substituting for another, although who that other person is only sometimes stated. A whole industry of people willing to join for pay arose, stoking class conflict as only those with money had that luxury:

U.S. Colored Troop Sam Abernathy Enlistment



Sometimes the “remarks” on the bottom of cards will mention whether a person was “free” or “slave.”

U.S. Colored Troop Campbell Harris status

Slave Status

By far my favorite document is the volunteer enlistment. If I had a direct ancestor who served, I would have this framed and up on the wall:

U.S. Colored Troop Uriah Perry declaration


Many former soldier’s opened accounts at the Freedman’s Bank, so be sure to cross-reference the soldiers you find with that database:

U.S. Colored Troop George Askins bank card

George Askins


There are many more interesting documents like medical examinations, documents indicating desertion and subsequent discipline, inventories if the soldier died in the service, letters, etc. Go back through your research and see what discoveries you can make by searching for others in the community. I’d love to hear in the comments what you’ve found.

For more detailed information, read NARA’s description of CMSR records, explore the National Park Service’s  Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database and visit the website of the African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum.