Slave research can be frustrating, but yet and still there are an endless array of records in which to uncover the lives of our ancestors. Many are little known and uncommon, but still filled with possibilities. What I’m discussing today are the private records of local citizens. These are usually stored in university, state archive, genealogical or historical society collections: I did another post sometime ago on a subset of these records, referred to as Plantation Papers. However, I want to expand on that concept, so I’ll refer to these documents as Community Papers: these are records such as Account Books, Ledgers, Diaries, Receipts, Scrapbooks and Letters.
They are often found in Special Collections (like this one at the University of Delaware) or Manuscript divisions and can open up a whole new window into our research. These are important records for everyone, but especially for those of us researching enslaved ancestors. This is when it is crucial that you know the community in which your ancestor lived. Who were the prominent people? Who were the merchants, plantation owners, doctors, blacksmiths, lawyers, sawmill owners, etc.? The concept is that you may find your ancestor mentioned in the records of someone in his/her community.
As an example, I have been researching the roots of my freed black ancestor Louisa Simpson who in 1850 lived in the Howard District of Anne Arundel County. I researched her neighborhood to a tee, and I know exactly who her neighbors were—other freed blacks but also slaveowners. Louisa’s family was long associated with the Warfield family. She married and had children with Perry Simpson, who was a slave of Beale Warfield.
When I visited the Maryland Genealogical Society in Baltimore some months ago, I searched through their catalog for the types of records above, especially for the Warfield family. I found an Account book for Dr. Gustavus Warfield, with records dated 1816-1830. Obviously, doctors, as well as merchants, had to keep records of their customers. He saw whites and blacks, and made notations in many of the entries. Look at some of what I uncovered in his book:
Joe Anderson, freed by Charles Hammon, 1823, 1824.
Isaac Baker, free negro on R. Shipley’s place, 1821
Billy Carpenter, free negro, 1823, 1824, 1826.
Caty, free negro at R. Shipley’s, 1829
Samuel Clark, free negro at Joshua Warfields, 1824, 1827.
John Cook, free negro at Allen Dorsey’s, 1821, 1824 (wife)
Frank Snowden, freed by Levin Warfield, 1825.
Dennie, freed by R. Riggs, May 31, 1824
Dick Dorsey, freedmen at H. Hobbs, 1826
James Fossett, freedman at Lisbon, 1821, 1822 (vaccination)
Frank, freed by Levin Warfield, 1820, 1821
Isaac Dorsey, free negro living by Beckley, 1823
James Waters, free negro at Lisbon, wife and delivery, Feb. 5, 1819
Charles Wells, freedman, son of Daniel, 1821.
Billy Williams, free negro, son of Caspar, 1824.
This account book provides important information about Dr. Warfield’s neighborhood, and included entries about slaves and freed blacks. It provides the ever critical association of surnames with some of the freedmen, and sometimes the entries identified who they were freed by or where they were living. We can also see that he was called on to deliver babies as well as perform vaccinations.
I have read many slaveowner diaries, and also the diaries of their wives. I found the diary of George Cooke, a plantation owner who lived in the mid- 1800s. He mentioned his slaves and free blacks who worked for him, and his diary gave me a great view of what life was like in the county where my ancestors lived.
Some of the papers and letters you may find will include bills of sale and lists of slaves. The clip below is from a Maryland Historical Society catalog search, and shows an entry for the huge plantation estate of Edward Lloyd, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, who owned hundreds of slaves:
At the Library of Virginia some years ago, I viewed the ledger of a man named Joshua Chaffin. He was the sheriff in Amelia County during the early 1800s, and thus tasked many times with administering the estates of people who died. I knew who he was because he oversaw the distribution of one of my slaveowning families’ estates. The book was important because he kept records of enslaved people, some I assume he owned, but others who may have belonged to the various estates. I transcribed his records and posted them on my sister blog, Giving Back to Kin.
Just when you think you’ve researched everything possible—here I go giving you something else to look at! So go back to your county level research, and find out who the “key people” were. I’ll be heading back the Maryland Historical Society soon to view some scrapbooks and other ledgers I found in the catalog. And while yes, it’s true that many of the papers and records that eventually are denoted to institutions are those of wealthier or more prominent people, you just never know until you look. You may not be lucky enough to find something as detailed as Thomas Jefferson’s famous farm book (image below), but there may be something there that adds to the history of your ancestors.