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:

Titus

Titus

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.

Wood

Wood

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.

Hale

Hale

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

Overton

Overton

 

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?

The Crown Jewel: Black Civil War Pensions, Part 3

In this third and final post, I’d like to share a few more items illustrating the riches that can be found in civil war pension records.

I was surprised at the number of former slaveowners (and whites in general) that supplied testimony to assist their former slaves to gain a pension. I would have thought there’d be more widespread anger at slaves who enlisted in the war. I’m not sure exactly what conclusion to draw from this; perhaps after the war was over, they decided to eventually “let bygones be bygones”.

  •  For the pension of Henry Davy, a request to find his birthdate was sent to the daughter of his former owner, who was now married and living in Atlanta, GA. In trying to confirm his age, Mrs. Smith responded that “the family bible has no record of the colored people.” However, another local white man named G.W. Bryant submitted: “I have seen several men that knowed the pensioner all the way from boyhood. One man is now ninety some odd years and one collard man that was raised with him is now 100 years old. These men will all testify that he is over 80 years old. I will ask you to further consider the old darkies case.”
  •  David G. Taylor, of Roane County, Tenn.,  testified for his former slave Frances Sevier. “I bought her at Kingston, Tenn., about 1862, can’t give the date, I bought her from Paul and McGuinn Traders. She had a former husband named Marsh Sevier, a slave on the Sevier farm just outside of Kingston…He asked me to let him have her for his wife and after talking with him on the subject I consented.” [Frances was 13 years old].
  •  Three children of the former owner of Martha Harbour testified as to her marriage and children with soldier Isaac Harbour. James G. and Elisha Harbour testified they were “sons of Elisha Harbour [her former owner] , who died in the year 1863…” They “do not know what record of birth was kept, but their sister Mrs. Gant was present at the births.” Mrs. Gant testified that she “was living at home with her father [and present] when the children were born and the dates of birth [provided] are correct.”

Finding details about family relationships among enslaved people is difficult to obtain. Civil war pensions do not disappoint in this area:

  •  Eleanor Waters testified during her pension application for husband Harrison Waters’ service. Her cousin Tom was living in her home & an accusation had been made that she had broken up Tom’s marriage and was having a love relationship with him. That claim could have derailed her application, so she tried to clarify the relationship. “My owner in slavery was Mr. James Lucas of Annapolis Pike…and my mother Maria Johnson was a sister of Tom’s mother, Emily Johnson and we are about all of the Johnson family left and we don’t like to separate.” Tom himself reiterated that both their “mothers are dead now. Eleanor and I…are from a family which is mighty nigh extinct as I have only one living brother, Nicholas Johnson and no sisters.”
  •  Martha Davy, during her deposition for her husband Henry’s service, revealed details of her family: “My maiden name was Martha Ann Doran. All my fellow slaves are dead or gone. I have no brothers or sisters living. I have a half sister Ellen Benton living here.
  • Lucinda Jones, testifying for a pension for her father Alfred Suggs stated: “[My] parents were Sallie Ann and Alfred Suggs. [They were] married before the war when no record of any kind was kept of the marriages of the colored people.” 
  •  Henny Rideout of Talbot County, MD, testified for a pension under her son John’s service. During her testimony, she provided names and birth dates of her husband, their 4 children, as well as her husband’s mother. She stated: “…these dates are taken from my bible. In 1864 my husband and I were both free. I was freed about 1850 and my husband in 1848. Our old master leaving in his will that we were to be freed at the age of 31 years.”
  •  Carpenter Eskridge, testifying on behalf of Frances Brown, stated: “The present husband[Winston Brown] of claimant is my nephew. His father was my brother, he was named Jesse Eskridge. The mother of Winston Brown was Malinda Brown.”

And finally, Carpenter Eskridge’s testimony also tells a story too good to leave out: “I was formerly a slave to Sam Eskridge who lived 4 miles below Kingston, Tenn. I was hired to James Sevier when the war broke out and continued to live on the Sevier Place…until General [Nathan Bedford] Forest came in here about Aug. or Sep. 1863 and carried me and some others off with him…we were put in the Confederate service. I cooked for a Capt. Higgins, Marsh drove a baggage wagon and Frank drove a forge wagon. We remained with the Confederates 2 or 3 months…we got a chance to run away together and did so. I got back to Kingston by Christmas in cold weather; said Marsh and I went back to the Sevier Place.” 

I hope these three posts on civil war pensions have suggested new ways to use the information they hold. Whether you find an ancestor who served or not, pulling these records for enslaved people from a specific county or community can open a door into lives of all the slaves living there. These records shed light on everything from post-civil war work, migrations, slaveowners, migrations, family relationships, births and deaths, marriages and children, military service and injuries, as well as the relationship with former owners and other whites after the war.

If you have amazing information you discovered inside a pension file, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

The Schomburg and Black Migrations

My maternal ancestors lived in Tennessee. How the state was formed was illustrative of the westward movement of white conquerors, as they removed the indigenous populations (notice I do not say white settlers). The Shomburg website is one of the most detailed, fact filled and visually beautifully black migration websites online today and I encourage you to take some time examining it. You could spend hours pouring over the histories, pictures and maps. I’m going to highlight just a few of my favorites.

This one shows the African-American enslaved population in the original 13 colonies and its rapid change in the late 17th and early 18th century. Not surprisingly, Virginia and Maryland had the highest numbers:

Slavery in the Colonies

Slavery in the Colonies

The next map reminds us that as this conquest was occurring, whites were bringing slaves they already owned and buying slaves via the domestic slave trade. With the official close of the African Slave Trade in 1808, enslaved families were torn apart as they were sold south and west, many of these people who were by now 2nd or 3rd generation American born. One shows relative numbers while the next shows the transportation routes used–notice that states in green had net gains while states in red had net losses in numbers of slaves:

Domestic Slave Trade

Domestic Slave Trade

Domestic Trade Routes

Domestic Trade Routes

We often focus on the southern states with regard to slavery and forget that it was in the Chesapeake that slavery was born in North America. It was old and tired there by the time of the rise of cotton and the newfound wealth that would later happen in the deeper South in the mid-1800s. It’s a point worth remembering: southern and western slave states and territories were filled primarily with slaves bought or sold from the Chesapeake.

Other maps of interest include this one illustrating concentrations of freed blacks:

Freed Blacks

Freed Blacks

And I really enjoyed seeing these maps of African Kingdoms:

African Kingdoms

African Kingdoms

And Africa before European domination:

Islamic Africa

Islamic Africa

Notice how almost the entire northern hemisphere is Islamic, which is what was shown in the TV series Roots with Kunte Kinta.

Lately, I’ve been reading books by Frank Snowden, Cheikh Anta Diop, John Henrik Clarke and others to gain a better understanding of Mother Africa herself. None of this information is taught in US schools.

I think it’s important for us as we research our ancestors, to place them into the broader context of these migratory experiences. As I mentioned above, many of our ancestors who in 1865 were living in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, etc. had their roots in Virginia or Maryland–we can see that by the 1870 census birthdates in many cases. We should also understand that the Domestic Slave Trade, which transported over 1 million people deeper South and west wrought devastating seperation of families as much as the African Slave Trade had a century earlier.

Check out the website and (if you can pull yourself away) let me know what you think.

PS: I also want to give you all a heads up that NARA has released a new Freedmens Bureau finding aid that is probably the most detailed I’ve seen, and also mention the roll-out some months ago of the online genealogy magazine, The In-Depth Genealogist. It’s got good articles and a sleek appearance. Take a look at them both.

Records of Antebellum Southern Plantations

I remain convinced that there are still hundreds of thousands of documents that contain information on our enslaved ancestors that aren’t being widely used. Sometimes it’s because we can’t easily get access to the information, and sometimes it’s because the information itself is difficult to peruse and understand (court records and freedmen’s bureau records come to mind).

One of the best sources on enslaved families can be found within the manuscripts that are stored in research libraries, historical societies, state archives and local libraries. Families in many cases donated personal papers, letters, business papers, receipts, diaries, account books, reports and many other types of documentation and ephemera. Many of these families owned slaves, and historians have long relied on these sources to understand “the political, economic and cultural life of the South as a whole.” These Plantation Records (as they are collectively called) give readers an inside view of almost every aspect of plantation life.

In this post I want to highlight the collection known as Records of Antebellum Southern Plantations. In the many years of my own research,  although they are often highlighted in lectures and books on African-American genealogy, I have yet to run across someone who has used them for slave research. This historic effort to compile a selection of plantation records from all over the country in one microfilm publication was undertaken by Kenneth Stampp, one of our foremost slavery historians. Though the original purpose was more scholarly in nature, this microfilm series is a boon to genealogists. Still, you’ll have to locate a major research library in your area to find one that houses this enormous microfilm collection.

The records included in this collection were created in “Series” from A-N, with each letter mostly representing a particular archives or library, for example, Series D covers the Maryland Historical Society while Series E covers the University of Virginia Library. Start your research in these records by utilizing the detailed Series Guides that are available online. A convenient webpage hosted by the University of Virginia Library website includes links to each one:

UVA Website

I’ve downloaded them all, Series A-N, and yes, they are pretty large PDF files. I have scoured each and every one for data not just about my specific family, but also any in the county where they lived. Finding information about what was happening in the county, whether it concerned your family specifically or not, is a great way to add more detail to any narrative about your genealogical research.  Also, most of the guides contain biographies about the particular individual or family that is covered in that set of papers. For the Ruffin Plantation in Marengo County, Alabama (which is covered in Series J, Part 7) a brief biography is included about Thomas Ruffin:

Alabama Records

Ruffin

As another example, there is a “Slave Birth Record, 1801-1861” contained within the Thompson Family Papers, housed at the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The detail in Series J, Part 7 covers the State of Alabama, and it says that this Slave Birth Record covers Russell (now Lee) County, Alabama. Because that is one of my research areas, you can believe I want to see this record:

Slave Births

Author Jean L. Cooper, created a wonderful printed index to this material titled “Index to Records to Ante-bellum Southern Plantations: Locations, Plantations, Surnames and Collections,” ( 2nd. ed). The printed index is expensive, but a quick search at Worldcat (add your zip code) will tell you what nearby library has it. Nearest to me is Georgetown University’s Law Library and the Library of Congress.

This book is an invaluable resource because Ms. Cooper created it specifically for family historians and the way that we research. The records themselves in the Series Guides for the collection are primarily listed in each Table of Contents by family surname, for example, “The Robert King Carter Papers.” It is not always obvious what county that family lived in until you go down to the Reel Index sections. Ms. Cooper’s book makes it easier to find records by county. The westward migration of families, as Ms. Cooper explains, also allows connection of papers from the same family, which are dispersed across more than one state and archives.

It goes without saying that most historical societies, archives or research libraries have their own guides to their manuscript collections. The Virginia Historical Society has a voluminous 200+-page guide specifically created for African-American-related manuscripts and the Tennessee State Archives has a similar Guide available. But, the amount of information available in these types of guides varies by institution. So another way to use these Series Guides is as pointers. I can use Series D, and run right up the road to the Maryland Historical Society. Even though they have their own manuscripts guides, it may or may not provide the detail about slaves and slaveowning families that I need.

Certainly, these records are not exhaustive, and the records chosen for compilation are often the larger, more prominent citizens and families—as the Introduction indicates, “mostly from the larger tobacco, cotton, sugar and rice plantations.” However, some smaller estate papers are represented in the collection.

My readers, how many of you have been successful finding information about your ancestors within these records? Please tell us where you viewed your collection and how you were able to find it. If you haven’t used these records yet, I hope this post will encourage you to peruse the Series Guides for information that may be useful.

Addendum: Please read the response to this post below by “4ourtrees.” The author’s success using these records speaks powerfully to the possibilities!