Week 8 of the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks writing challenge has the potential to be a bit heavier than some of my previous posts. The topic is, "I Can Identify." It is also significant that I am writing about this topic as we recognize February as African-American History Month.
As an European American with at least one significant lineage which predates the Civil War, it is not lost on me the possibility of slave owners in my family tree. This is hard to come to terms with, but I didn't get into genealogy to ignore or overlook the hard truths. A slave owner in your family tree does not mean you should feel guilty, but it's also okay if you do. For me, the best thing I can try to do, is identify and share the stories of those enslaved people.
My husband also has lineages which, based on era and location, were highly likely to include slave owners. While no direct evidence has yet been discovered in my own family tree, the same cannot be said for my husband's. With deep roots in Virginia and North Carolina, the discovery of multiple slave owners was inevitable.
One of the slave owners in my husband's family tree was his 4th great grandfather, Richard Bennett. He was a Private in the 8th Virginia Regiment during the American Revolution.¹ (Gabe Neville maintains a remarkable website about this unit in the Continental Army.) Richard purportedly died sometime in 1837.² His death would have predated the U.S. Census "Slave Schedules" in 1850 and 1860. These particular record sets are great tools which allow people to search whether their families claimed slaves as property in certain states including North Carolina during these periods. Fortunately, Richard's Last Will and Testament provides us with more information.³
Alongside a plantation containing two hundred and thirty two acres, additional tracts of land, a mill, farming utensils, furniture, a wagon, horses, cattle, sheep, hogs, and books, Richard bequeathed a dozen or more enslaved individuals, to his children and grandchildren, at the time of his death. To the best that I have been able to transcribe the old handwriting from this somewhat deteriorated document, the enslaved individuals identified by name were:
Hannah Clarisa Wiggins Lydon Maddison
Mary Jane Margaret Caroline Abnor
Wormley John Thornton Isemeade
In one instance, Richard actually specified that eight of these individuals were to be "hired out after my death until [one of his grandchildren] arrives at the age of twenty one years...to defray the expense of lawyers' fees and other expenses." Documentation has not been discovered to learn who they may have been hired out to or if they had ended up back with the grandchildren, as intended.
Richard died about 26 years before The Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Depending on the ages of some of these individuals, it is possible they never saw freedom. An incomplete but ongoing search for Richard's descendants has led to no further information about Hannah, Clarisa, Lydon, Mary, Jane, Margaret, Caroline, Abnor, Wormley, John, Thornton, or Isemeade.
Without additional information, it still remains important, both ethically and morally, that family historians and genealogists record each of the enslaved into our family trees. These relationships can be complicated. While there may or may not be a genetic connection between slave owners and their enslaved, especially in the instance of rape, many of the relationships between slave owners and the enslaved do not fall under the umbrella of family (i.e. mother, father, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, cousin, grandparent, etc.). Genealogist Crista Cowen has a great video about how to record enslaved individuals in your Ancestry.com family tree. Similar methods can be used with other genealogical software and platforms.
Research brickwalls can be broken from many directions. Identifying and recording the enslaved in our own family trees is just one way we can all work together to preserve their stories and possibly help another to discover their ancestors.
1. Richard Bennett (8th Regiment, Capt. Abraham Kirkpatrick, Culpeper County, Virginia), Muster Roll, Capt. Kirkpatrick Company: 1778-1779, 17 April 1778; database with images, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/4282/images/miusa1775a_113654-00391 : accessed 19 February 2023), image 392 of 847; citing Record Group 93, War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records, The National Archives in Washington, D.C., Microfilm Publication M246.
2. Find A Grave (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/116529300/richard-bennett : accessed 19 February 2023), memorial page 116529300, Richard Bennett (1757–1837), created by "joan," maintained by "Andrea Bennett Kiser;" citing Pisgah United Methodist Church Cemetery, Iredell County, North Carolina, USA.
3. Richard Bennett Will, 6 April 1837, Iredell County, North Carolina; database with images, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/532918:9061 : accessed 19 February 2023), image 56 of 1771; citing North Carolina County, District and Probate Courts.
Disclaimer: Each blog post is created and presented for marketing and entertainment purposes only but are based on larger research which adheres to the standards of The Board of Certification of Genealogists® as set forth in Genealogical Standards (Nashville, Tenn.: Ancestry Imprint, Turner Publishing, 2014).