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?


There Were No “Good” Slaveowners

A Slave's Back

A Slave’s Back

I’m convinced that slave research and the research of slaveowners is one of the toughest kinds of genealogy research the field will ever see. This is a long post, because this has been on my mind for awhile, and I hope you’ll read it all. I don’t usually do “opinion” pieces, but I will because it is the result of all my research on the enslaved that has formed the opinion.

A new book has come out that I’m reading called, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” by Edward Baptist that I highly recommend. The book places the brutality of slavery front and center along with its emergence as the economic driver of our nation’s founding. Those of us researching African-Americans frequently come face to face with the horrors of slavery in the documents we review.

This is why I don’t believe in the concept of a “good slaveowner.” (Caveat: I am not talking about freed blacks who became “slaveowners” when laws forced them to buy their loved ones and keep them in that status or have them thrown out of the state. Thanks, Debra!)

I am amazed how many times a slaveowner is described as “good” to his slaves–usually by well-meaning but misguided descendants of slaveowners. It has happened to me often and I cringe inside when I hear that term. We all know that slaveowners differed in their treatment of their slaves–that there was a spectrum of treatment as wide and diverse as humans are.  And I know there’s a visceral desire to distance oneself and one’s family from the institution.  But what people need to understand is that at a certain point what individuals slaveowners did is beside the point.

The system of slavery was held in place by violence. It was force– ever-increasing and sadistic means of force that made the system of slavery work. It could not survive without the force of the whip, the gun, the patrollers, the overseer and the physical and psychological torture mechanisms designed to subdue a people. They were forcibly held captive. Otherwise, how else could an entire life of labor be stolen from millions of people?  Without force, slavery could not exist. The Civil War caused much of that system of violent force to breakdown as white Southerners went off to war. It is that breakdown which allowed slaves to escape successfully behind Union lines and force the issue of their freedom. Without the enforcement mechanisms to hold it in place, slavery collapsed.

Enslaved people resisted slavery at all times from the very beginning; it is only the overwhelming use of violence and the wealth created that made the system of slavery successful. Enslaved people also feigned illness, broke tools, laid out in the woods for weeks and months at a time, and sometimes, like Frederick Douglass, physically confronted their oppressors (see the book Runaway Slaves: Rebels of the Plantation for more on this). I’ve heard people actually ask “why did slaves stay?”  That anyone could ask this is only proof of their woeful ignorance about the most powerful slave society the world had ever seen. It is an ignorance that haunts us as a country to this very day.

Viewed from this lens, it is clear to me that that truly “good” people could not willingly participate in that system–a system that was optional, not mandatory. Some people think somehow that “because of the times,” slavery was excusable/understandable/justified. I wholeheartedly disagree. Slaveowners witnessed the atrocities of whippings and sales and as human beings no different than you or I, were thus completely capable of being moved and changed by those experiences.   Robert “King” Carter and John Randolph  both freed about 500 slaves (although the latter did so in in his will). Before you claim that those were isolated and rare incidents, know that thousands of slaveowners came to see slavery as morally despicable and freed their slaves during their lifetimes, especially after the American Revolution. Many others were changed by religious conversions during the Great Awakening, especially Quakers and Methodists. In my own family, Susanna Waters, who owned my 3nd ggrandfather Joshua Waters, freed him and over 20 other slaves well before her death. In her will, she materially provided for the enslaved people she had freed.

Although I recognize how difficult it would have been to have a transformative view of slavery if one was born into that life, that is not the same as saying it did not and could not happen. There are thousands of examples of it happening. A good slaveowner to me sounds as ridiculous as referring to a good child-molester–we would never use that phrase for obvious reasons. For those who think they know an example of a  “good” slaveowner, I ask you to consider this: what would they do if one of their slaves did not feel like working one day? Or if one decided he didn’t want to be there at all and wanted to leave?  Confronting those questions will lead you to the fact that violence and force had to be at the root of any successful slave enterprise.  Coercion was a necessary part of this equation.

Some of the most monstrous descriptions of the system of slavery can be found in the many diaries of slaveowners and their wives that exist. Senator James Henry Hammond, of South Carolina, was one of slavery’s biggest proponents. His diary reveals his vicious appetites. “Dear Henry,” he writes to his son about one of his slaves. “In the last will I left to you…Sally Johnson the mother of Louisa and all the children of both. Sally says Henderson is my child…it is possible, but I do not believe it. Louisa’s first child may be mine. Her second I believe is mine.” He had sex with 18- year old Louisa and later began having sex with her then 12-year old daughter Louisa. Thomas Thistlewood’s 18th century diary of his time as overseer and slaveowner in Jamaica contains truly barbaric scenes. He noted every time he had sex (mostly with his slaves), and there were a lot of those entries. The mechanisms he designed to torture misbehaving slaves are incomprehensible and hard to read.

Now obviously, slaveowner descendants are not responsible for what their ancestors did any more than anybody else. I don’t hold any blame or anger towards them. But today, with easily accessible information about the degradation and horrors of slavery, I do believe people should stop trying to excuse/justify/lessen slavery by saying that their ancestors were “good to their slaves.” People might respond, “well, [this slaveowner] did not whip his slaves or allow them to be whipped.” Well, those owners sold slaves that became troublesome. Is that better? They certainly could not have a working farm or plantation if the slaves were not somehow disciplined. There was also tremendous emotional, psychological and sexual abuse which should not be discounted as any “less than” physical abuse. The permanent wounds resulting from seeing one’s parents or children sold, whipped or tortured are all over the slave interviews and narratives.

It is true that slaves themselves referred to having “good” slaveowners, which in the world in which they lived is understandable. If I had been enslaved, I would have hoped to have an owner who landed on the lesser scale of barbarism as well. But I’m going to guess that if slaves had a absolute choice–they’d have chosen to not be slaves at all.

The only silver lining we can hold on to is that the slaveowners were never able to fully crush the spirits and minds and hearts of their slaves. They never fully succeeded in that goal. Slaves formed kinship ties,and created their own communities, traditions, beliefs and practices in the small spaces they carved out of all that degradation.

I do realize others may disagree, and I’m fine with that; decent people can disagree. It is a subject fraught with emotion.  I hope we all can spend some time reading some of the narratives and interviews and diaries available and get a better understanding of their lives. And we all should remember that slavery was not just an economic system: it became the very basis of ALL social relationships in the South (which The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South,” by Bruce Levine brilliantly captures.)

I took a walk around the web and elsewhere and I’m asking readers to read some of the excerpts below that describe slavery by those who lived it and saw it. One of the best sources I recommend reading is American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. It was  taken from first-hand accounts and designed to show the horrors of slavery. The author’s wife, Angelina Grimke, came from a prominent family of slaveowners in South Carolina, but like others, she renounced slavery and became an ardent abolitionist. We can’t ever let people forget the horrors of the lives of the enslaved. I am in awe that any of them survived. I’ll start with a quote from an anonymous slave interview:

I have heard a heap of people say they wouldn’t take the treatment what the slaves took, but they woulda took it or died. If they had been there, they woulda took the very same treatment.

Here are some other excerpts. They will all make you cry a little bit inside.

Ole Missis Gullendin, she’d take a needle and stick it through one of the nigger woman’s lower lip and pin it to the bosom of her dress, and the woman would go roun’ all day with her head drew down that way, and slobberin’.Old Missus done her that way lots of times. There was knots on her lip where the needle had been stuck in it.

From: Testimony of Mrs. Thomas Johns

My marster had a barrel, with nails drove in it, that he would put you in when he couldn’t think of nothin’ else mean enough to do. He would put you in this barrel and roll it down a hill…Sometimes he rolled the barrel in the river and drowned his slaves.

From: Anonymous Slave Narrative

My marster…limited the lashes to 500. After whippin dem, he would rub salt and pepper on their backs, and lay dem before the fire until blistered. And den take a cat…and make him claw the blisters.

From: Slave Narrative of Robert Burns

Old Marster had an overseer that went round and whipped the niggers every morning, and they hadn’t done a thing. He went to my father one morning and said, “Bob, I’m going to whip you this morning.” Daddy said, “I aint done nothing.” And he said, “I know it. I’m going to whip you to keep you from doing anything.”..And Daddy was choppin cotton and just took up his hoe and chopped right down oin that man’s head and knocked his brains out…It killed him….When the nigger trader came along, they sold my Daddy to him.

From: Anonymous Slave Narrative

[My mistress’s] instruments of torture were ordinarily the raw hide, or a bunch of hickory- sprouts seasoned in the fire and tied together. But if these were not at hand, nothing came amiss. She could relish a beating with a chair, the broom, tongs, shovel, shears, knife- handle, the heavy heel of her slipper, or a bunch of keys; her zeal was so active in these barbarous inflictions, that her invention was wonderfully quick, and some way of inflicting the requisite torture was soon found. One instrument of torture is worthy of particular description. This was an oak club, a foot and a half in length, and an inch and a half square. With this delicate weapon she would beat us upon the hands and upon the feet until they were blistered. ..That club will always be a prominent object in the picture of horrors of my life of more than twenty years of bitter bondage….

From: Interesting Memoirs and Documents Relating to American Slavery, and the Glorious Struggle Now Making for Complete Emancipation

The ordinary mode of punishing the slaves is both cruel and barbarous. The masters seldom, if ever, try to govern their slaves by moral influence, but by whipping, kicking, beating, starving, branding, cat-hauling, loading with irons, imprisoning, or by some other cruel mode of torturing. They often boast of having invented some new mode of torture, by which they have “tamed the rascals…

To threaten them with death, with breaking in their teeth or jaws, or cracking their heads, is common talk, when scolding at the slaves.. If negroes could testify, they would tell you of instances of women being whipped until they have miscarried at the whipping-post. ..A large proportion of the blacks have their shoulders, backs, and arms all scarred up, and not a few of them have had their heads laid open with clubs, stones, and brick-bats, and with the butt-end of whips and canes–some have had their jaws broken, others their teeth knocked in or out; while others have had their ears cropped and the sides of their cheeks gashed out. Some of the poor creatures have lost the sight of one of their eyes by the careless blows of the whipper, or by some other violence.

From: American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, which was designed to show the horrors of slavery firsthand

Old Missus and young Missus told the little slave children that the stork brought the white babies to their mothers, but that the slave children were all hatched from buzzard’s eggs. And we believed it was true.

From: Slave Narrative of Katie Sutton

I recollect seein’ one biscuit crust, one mornin’. Dey throwed it out to the dogs, an’ I beat de dog to it.

From: Anonymous Slave Narrative

Scarcely a day passed while I was on the plantation, in which some of the slaves were not whipped; I do not mean that they were struck a few blows merely, but had a set flogging…To show the disgusting pollutions of slavery, and how it covers with moral filth every thing it touches, …A planter offered a white man of my acquaintance twenty dollars for every one of his female slaves, whom he would get in the family way. This offer was no doubt made for the purpose of improving the stock, on the same principle that farmers endeavour to improve their cattle by crossing the breed.

This same planter had a female slave who was a member of the Methodist Church; for a slave she was intelligent and conscientious. He proposed a criminal intercourse with her. She would not comply. He left her and sent for the overseer, and told him to have her flogged. It was done. Not long after, he renewed his proposal. She again refused. She was again whipped. He then told her why she had been twice flogged, and told her he intended to whip her till she should yield. The girl, seeing that her case was hopeless, her back smarting with the scourging she had received, and dreading a repetition, gave herself up to be the victim of his brutal lusts.

Other [slaveowners] punish by fastening them down on a log, or something else, and strike them on the bare skin with a board paddle full of holes. This breaks the skin, I should presume, at every hole where it comes in contact with it. Others, when other modes of punishment will not subdue them,cat-haul them–that is, take a cat by the nape of the neck and tail, or by the hind legs, and drag the claws across the back until satisfied. This kind of punishment poisons the flesh much worse than the whip, and is more dreaded by the slave.

A punishment dreaded more by the slaves than whipping, ..was invented by a female acquaintance of mine in Charleston–I heard her say so with much satisfaction. It is standing on one foot and holding the other in the hand. Afterwards it was improved upon, and a strap was contrived to fasten around the ankle and pass around the neck; so that the least weight of the foot resting on the strap would choke the person. The pain occasioned by this unnatural position was great; and when continued, as it sometimes was, for an hour or more, produced intense agony.

A woman in Charleston with whom I was well acquainted, had starved a female slave to death. She was confined in a solitary apartment, kept constantly tied, and condemned to the slow and horrible death of starvation.

Benjamin James Harris, a wealthy tobacconist of Richmond, Virginia, whipped a slave girl fifteen years old to death. While he was whipping her, his wife heated a smoothing iron, put it on her body in various places, and burned her severely. The verdict of the coroner’s inquest was, “Died of excessive whipping.” He was tried in Richmond, and acquitted. I attended the trial.

From: American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses

Throughout the Southwest the Negroes, as a rule, appeared to be worked much harder than in the Eastern and Northern Slave States… They are constantly and steadily driven up to their work, and the stupid, plodding, machine-like manner in which they labor, is painful to witness. This was especially the case with the hoe-gangs. One of them numbered nearly two hundred hands (for the force of two plantations was working together), moving across the field in parallel lines, with a considerable degree of precision. I repeatedly rode through the lines at a canter, without producing the smallest change or interruption in the dogged action of the laborers, or causing one of them, so far as I could see, to lift an eye from the ground… I think it told a more painful story than any I had ever heard, of the cruelty of slavery.

…Slaves pass their lives, from the moment they are able to go afield in the picking season till they drop worn out in the grave, in incessant labor, in all sorts of weather, at all seasons of the year, without any other change or relaxation than is furnished by sickness, without the smallest hope of any improvement either in their condition, in their food, or in their clothing, which are of the plainest and coarsest kind, and indebted solely to the forbearance or good temper of the overseer for exception from terrible physical suffering.

Whipping was so common an occurrence on this plantation, that it would be too great a repetition to state the many and severe floggings I have seen inflicted on the slaves. They were flogged for not performing their tasks, for being careless, slow, or not in time, for going to the fire to warm, etc.; and it often seemed as if occasions were sought as an excuse for punishing them.

[The overseer] said, ‘That won’t do,’ said he; ‘get down.’ The girl knelt on the ground; he got off his horse, and holding him with his left hand, struck her thirty or forty blows across the shoulder with his tough, flexible, ‘raw-hide’ whip (a terrible instrument for the purpose). They were well laid on, at arm’s length, but with no appearance of angry excitement on the part of the overseer. At every stroke the girl winced and exclaimed, ”Yes, sir!’ or ‘Ah, sir!’ or ‘Please, sir!’ not groaning or screaming. At length he stopped and said, ‘Now tell me the truth.’ The girl repeated the same story. ”You have not got enough yet,’ said he; ‘pull up your clothes-lie down.’ The girl without any hesitation, without a word or look of remonstrance or entreaty, drew closely all her garments under her shoulders, and lay down upon the ground with her face toward the overseer, who continued to flog her with the raw-hide, across her naked loins with as much strength as before. She now shrunk away from him, not rising, but writing, groveling, and screaming’Oh, don’t, sir! Oh, please stop, master! Please, sir! Please, sir! Oh, that’s enough, master! Oh, Lord! Oh, master, master! Oh, God, master, do stop! Oh, God, master! Oh, God, master!’…The screaming yells and the whip strokes had ceased when I reached the top of the bank. Choking, sobbing, spasmodic groans only were heard. I rode on to where the road, coming diagonally up the ravine, ran out upon the cotton-field. My young companion met me there, and immediately afterward the overseer. He laughed as he joined us, and said: ‘She meant to cheat me out of a day’s work, and she has done it, too.’ “

From: Frederick Olmsted’s The Cotton Kingdom, 1850s

And finally, if you have any more stomach for this, read this first-hand account of Reverend Walsh in 1829 aboard an intercepted slave ship.

Slave Distributions

One of the most important pieces of information those of us researching enslaved ancestors need to know is how the slaves are distributed after the owner’s death. If we’re lucky, there’s a will that tells us to whom each slave is bequeathed. Most of the time, there’s not. There are many wills that simply say to my “wife, child, etc., I leave all of my estate both real and personal….” If luck is on our side, we’ll find at least an inventory, but that won’t tell us which child got which slaves. For that, we need to find the estate distribution. For an estate that includes slaves, that document might include slave distributions. Here’s a good example I recently found in Montgomery County, MD. This is the portion of the inventory showing the slaves of Nicholas Griffith, who died in 1814:

N. Griffith

N. Griffith

There are 20 slaves listed with monetary values and no indication of families, which is common. In the same probate book, I found the distribution of Nicholas’ estate between his wife, who by law is entitled to 1/3, and his 6 children (I have cropped just the entry showing the slaves):

GriffithSplit1_clip GriffithSplit1_clip2 GriffithSplit1_clip3 GriffithSplit2_clip1 GriffithSplit2_clip2 GriffithSplit2_clip3 GriffithSplit2_clip4 GriffithSplit2_last

Sadly, the primary goal was to make sure each child received approximately the same value in property. Most of Nicholas’ children inherited 2 young slave children. I’d like to believe Nicholas’ widow, who inherited 7 slaves, had at least taken 29 year old Milly with 4 of her kids, ages 8 months to 9 years.

I haven’t researched this family, but the hope is that they lived near one another such that the families of slaves were not entirely broken. But as the probate, land and other sources demonstrate over and over again, very young children were very often sold away from parents, and couples were very often split apart .

 Look for these estate distributions when you are researching enslaved ancestors. They are difficult to find. I personally have many more cases where this information could not be located in records. Sometimes they can be found in original probate loose papers, so be sure to examine those where they exist.

I’ll also share another interesting thing I’ve seen a few times in probate records. Where testators willed that slaves be freed at certain ages, the birthdates were sometimes copied into the probate records so the appropriate date of manumission could be established. Richard Thomas came from a prominent and wealthy Quaker family, and they founded the town of Brookville. They were famous for having freed their salves very early on, and creating an enclave of free blacks, churches and school long before the Civil War.

How fortunate any researcher connected to this family would be. Thomas recorded the birthdates of his slaves in the probate book:

ThomasWill1_volH_clip Slave research, as I’ve said before, is not for the faint of heart and often feels like a game of chicken. But be a diligent researcher and rest assured that you may uncover something, if only a name of an ancestor long silenced and whose memory was lost to time. Even if I can’t find a birthdate or a family group, I always feel a sublime satisfaction at uncovered the name of an enslaved ancestor.

Readers, tell me: have you uncovered any slave distributions, and if so, where did you locate them?

Note: If you are in the Metro DC area, don’t forget to check out my good friend Tim Pinnick tomorrow at 1:00 at the Suitland Family History Center. He will be speaking on “Finding African-Americans in Historic Newspapers,” a subject that he is an expert on.

Slave Research in Tennessee Bibles

I contend that the Tennessee State Archives and Library (TSLA) is one of the country’s best, and the service I have received over the years from its dedicated employees has been magnificent.

They just finished digitizing and uploading hundred of bibles in their collection. I spent some time perusing through the files, which are organized by surname. Any family that finds these records is a truly fortunate.

I hope that more African-Americans will submit copies from their family bibles. But consider that there is another valuable way we can use existing collections: researching the slaveowning family. Some slaveowners recorded the births and deaths of their slaves in their bible records. I was surprised as I perused these bibles just how many did just that.

The  Frazier Titus family recorded the births from slaves named Emaline, Ann and Julia, and recorded the death of Harriet:



In 1870, Frazier relocated from Nashville to Memphis; just a few doors away is a black woman named “Emaline”—perhaps his former slave?

Titus 1870

Titus 1870

The James Wood bible includes entries noting the birth of three children of Judy. There is also a faintly visible message, called “Relative to the origins of our servants”. That section includes bible verses in Genesis and also about Hagar. This is a reminder that whites often used the Bible to support the idea that blacks were inferior and that slavery was ordained by God.



The George Hale (and Henry) family of Blount County, TN, included two pages (with the quaint title of “Servants”) of at least 3 generations of their enslaved people.



Lastly, the Overton family tracked the births of “Negro Mary’s” 3 children:




Seek out bibles at other state archives, and also in historical and genealogical societies as well as library and university manuscript collections. I know that NGS has a large collection of family bibles accessible by members. Readers, tell me, have you used bible records in your own research?

Freedmens Bureau Labor Contracts

Figure11Familysearch is rolling with Freedmens Bureau Records. They now have Field Office Records digitized for Alabama, Arkansas, District of Columbia, Maryland, Delaware, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia! I have been looking at Alabama, which is one of my research states, and I am struck by several things.

Labor Contracts are one of the first categories of records that researchers should browse within Freedmen’s Bureau records, if they exist for that particular location. I posted awhile ago a suggested process to follow while searching these exasperating records. I have been searching through contracts in the city of Tuscumbia, Alabama. Most were for the calendar year of 1866. Contracts are very valuable because they were most often made between slaveowners and their former enslaved laborers.

After reviewing about a hundred of these agreements, I realize they tell us something more about the experiences of our enslaved ancestors.

There was no standard labor agreement; some were brief and sparse where others went into great detail. What is apparent is that white planters were most interested in returning if not to slavery, than as close to slavery as possible. These agreements illuminate why it was so difficult for former slaves to achieve anything close to economic independence. Social equality was of course, off the table. What’s also clear is the devastation of freeing 4 million slaves who for the most part had no property of their own, were illiterate, and had no land when farming was the only skill most of them had. It was a recipe for disaster.

Slavery studies tell us also that freedmen wanted to get their wives out of the fields and refused to work as long and hard as they did during  slavery. Most agreements spell out that planters would provide the land, tools, animals, and seed, while freedmen would cultivate and gin the crops. Some planters paid the freedmen in cash, but most paid freedmen by giving them ½ or 1/3 of the crop. Agreements vary on who would provide clothing, medicine, and food. The restrictions on their behavior was what struck me most, as well as the ability of the planter to unilaterally cancel the agreement for supposed bad behavior.

Most added that freedmen were not allowed to either leave the plantation or have visitors without consent of their employer. What kind of freedom was that about? While freedmen tried to get more flexibility, planters all but forced them into year-long agreements instead of shorter timeframes. The language used in the agreements show the lengths some planters went to maintain not only their workforce but their absolute power and supremacy over that workforce:

  • Fred Sherrod, in addition to providing land, tools, animals, feed, cabins, meat and meal required the freedmen to  “commence work at daylight and work the entire day except for half hour for breakfast and dinner, to work six days out the week, and to work at night if necessary.”
  • D.W. Hicks added that freedmen would “abstain from all impudence, swearing or indecent and profane language to or in the presence of employer or his family.” Other planters added that freedmen had to be “respectful, obedient and submissive at all times.” That is a very interesting word choice…..submissive.
  • Kirk and Drake demanded in their contracts that there be “no general conversation to be carried on during work hours.”
  • Joseph Thompson wasn’t leaving any detail to chance. His lengthy agreements spelled out that freedmen would “do fair and faithful mowing, patching, hauling, plowing, howing, reaping, chopping, making rails, & boards, making and repairing fences, gates, houses, cribs, barns, shops, sheds, gin houses and all labor necessary for successful cultivation & management of plantation…Commence work at sunrise and stop at sunset reserving one hour in spring, fall and winter months and one and a half hours in summer for dinner…freedmen are not to leave the plantation w/o permission and they labor for Thompson at all times except the afternoon of  Saturday which is reserved to them for working their own patches…but…when the crop is behind or when any extraordinary occasions occur which requires their services on the afternoon of Saturdays it is to be rendered faithfully and cheerfully.” Thompson’s view of the freedmen is evident when he further states “anyone failing to work for any cause will be charged 50 cents/day and if any freedmen shall become habitually idle, worthless and troublesome then he or she will be discharged and sent from the plantation never to return.” He also noted that a journal would be kept of all start and finish times, quality and quality of work.
  • William Hooks may have been more progressive than other planters as he added in his agreements that he would see to it that “peace, harmony and good feelings prevail and equal rights are given.’ That was a rarity.

My guess is that these agreements reflect what the former slaves’ lives were like with that particular owner. By 1870, many of these former slaves would be still living near their former owners. They had few choices. William Ricks is shown below, from the 1870 Colbert County, AL census. His high real estate value suggests prior slaveownership:

1870 Wm Ricks

1870 Wm Ricks

Here is a portion of his labor agreement with several freedmen:

Freedmens Bureau contract

Ricks Contract

Many of his contracted freedmen (Jack Ricks and William Fort) are still living near him in 1870:



This was about the control of labor, plain and simple. It was also about trying to enforce dependence, and continued racial subjugation. That the US Government choose to perpetuate servitude and dependence at that moment in time is one of the greatest, in my mind, tragedies of U.S. History. Let’s not forget that many of the planters broke these agreements: Bureau Complaints are filled with refusals to pay the freedmen when the crop came in, violence against them, or just plain kicking them off the plantation after the crops were in.

Take a look at these valuable records. Seeing original historical documents still has a powerful impact on me, a strong emotional impact. They tell us much about our ancestor’s plight and the hardships that “freedom” brought.