I’ve been perusing Southern Claims Commissions records lately and rediscovering how fabulous they are. Footnote (now Fold3) has put up many (not all) of the original images. The Southern Claims Commission was established in 1871 to receive and adjudicate claims by loyal Southerners for reimbursement of property damaged or taken (animals, food, housing, etc) by Union soldiers. The Commission received over 20,000 claims applications. Claims fell into three categories: approved, barred, or disallowed.
The claimant had to present proof of ownership of the it and also prove they had always been loyal to the Union cause. This proof was often in the form of depositions giving eyewitness accounts. These depositions include, many times, depositions from former slaves. Content of the files vary. Some have just a few pages and some run 20 or more pages long. Here are a few examples of what I’ve found interesting lately:
Cupid Hamilton, Beaufort County, SC
My name is Cupid Hamilton. [I am] 45 years old. I live at Wm Heyward’s plantation near Pocotaligo, Beaufort County, SC. I have lived here all my life. My business is farming…I was the slave of Mr. William Heyward. I became free at the end of the war. I carry on farming—plant principally rice. I owned the property charged in this claim before the war. I got the property after Hilton Head was taken by the United States. My master Mr. William Heyward gave me two horses and a wagon to make a living for myself and family as he could not afford us any longer. He said I could keep them my lifetime as he did not intend to carry on planting any longer. He is dead now. He died in Charleston of yellow fever in 1872. His grandson Mr. William Hankel was not present when he gave me the horses and the wagon, but he lives on the plantation now and I believe knows all about it…I was the waiting man of Mr. Wm Heyward on the plantation and when he left the place after Hilton Head was taken he gave me the two horses and the wagon and gave me [and] Moses Washington, the driver, also one horses and gave Alleck Wilson [?] the head carpenter one horse also for faithful services.
Coleman Sherrod, Lawrence County, AL
At the beginning of the war, I was a slave and belonged to Mrs. Tabitha Sherrod. I became free when Lincoln set us free by his Proclamation. I worked on the farm after I became free. I rented land from Mr. Shackelford. I bought the mule when I was slave. My owner allowed me to own a horse. Mr. Sam Shackelford allowed me the privilege to own a mule. I was with him under his control. I bought the mule from Mr. Gallahan a year or two before the war commenced. I gave him $164 or $165. Mr. Jack Harris and Oakley Bynum went with me to see me righted in the trade…they saw me pay the money. It passed through their hands to him, Mr. Gallahan. I got the money by trading. I was [a] carriage driver and [had] the privilege of trading.I paid $60 in gold which I got from Mr. John Houston for a horse I sold him….
Primus Everett, Halifax County, VA
During the war, I was the slave of Wm Everett, but lived with Mr. Alex Thompson to whom my wife belonged about seven miles east of the courthouse. For more than six months in the last year of the war I went off to North Carolina for fear of being put to work on the breastworks–I went of my own accord. I said nothing about it to my master…I was always a Union man. My simple reason was that I wanted to be free all the time & I belived the Yankees would set us free, and they did….I was hired to Mr. Thompson–he allowed me to keep all I could make over a certain fixed sum. I bought the horse with the proceeds of my own labor and raised the bacon.
Look all all the wonderful details about slave life that can be gathered from just these few examples. I think one of the biggest myths that need to be dispelled is this image of slavery as a monolithic enterprise. As evidenced here, some slaves worked on the task system and were allowed to keep their own money. There are also details given about the slaveowner’s family. I hope these examples will inspire you to look at these records if you haven’t already. Be sure to all categories–allowed, disallowed, and barred. Also, Ancestry. com has an index to these records on their website, while Footnote, as I mentioned before, has many of the original files. This website is a terrrific resource for more details about these records and how to research them.
You may not find your ancestor, but you may find other slaves owned by the same person. If not, research claims by others in the county. All this can give you more detail for a hard-to-research time period.