Court Records are extremely valuable in genealogical research. For those researching enslaved ancestors, they are even more so. They can also help us with the difficult task of finding the slaveowner.
I’m helping my godmother Carole with her Hyman family research. Her enslaved ancestor was named Arden Hyman, and his roots were in Edgecombe County, North Carolina.
Arden’s father’s name was Zion. We discovered that from Arden’s 1900 marriage record. This illustrates the principle of searching far enough in time both before and after the period you are primarily interested in. With all associated people.
This was the marriage to a second wife–not the marriage to Carole’s ancestor. But that’s the record that held a key piece of evidence.
This gives us the name of two former slaves, instead of one. The uniqueness of their names also helps. Finding the owners of former slaves with names like John, Mary and Jane, is much more difficult, though not impossible.
There was a large white slaveowning Hyman family in Edgecombe and surrounding counties. I researched the wills of several Hyman slaveowners in the relevant North Carolina counties.
Enslaved people did not always carry the surname of their last enslaver, but with nearby slavewners of the same name, its an easy thing to rule out.
The 1834 will of Kenneth Hyman looked particularly promising because it named both a Zion and Arden.
Loose Court Records
While at the North Carolina State Archives (NCSA), I searched Hyman court records which included the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions as well as Superior Court.
It was the Loose Court Records provided more about Kenneth’s estate. These are all the papers associated with a court case that are usually not written into any bound book, but kept in a metal tin case or other container in the courthouse.
The Archives has the original records, so I ordered the boxes for the Hyman family to review.
When Kenneth Hyman died, he had a wife and several children. The critical phrase in his will stated that:
all the rest and residue of my property I wish to be held in common stock until my youngest child attains the age of eighteen years with the exception that each one as they arrive at the age of twenty-one years or get married shall have one thousand dollars in money or its equivalent in property at the time
Because Kenneth’s youngest daughter was only about a year old when he died, his estate did not go through final settlement until 1851!
The Division of Slaves
This is very common if a slaveowner dies with minor children. It’s important to have patience and read through all the records over the years until the children reach adulthood.
The guardians for the minors have to report to the court on a regular basis. Slaves are also often rented out for each year and their earnings reported to the court.
In fact, we can often trace the enslaved property through a family by carefully reading probate and court records through generations.
Court records show that Kenneth owned two enslaved men named Arden and Zion. They also include the final division of enslaved property into eight “lots.” That tells us there were eight heirs to Kenneth’s estate, in this case, his children.
There were two lots I was most interested in:
- Lot No. 5: to F[rancis] M. Hyman: Arden, Eliza and child Hannah, General, Turner and Elsy valued at $2370
- Lot No. 6: to Margaret E. Hyman: Zion, Adline, Daniel, Milly and Hilliard valued at $2200
The ensuing years before settlement were tumultuous. Kenneth’s executor, Theophilus, died, so an administrator had to be appointed.
Theophilus moved to Florida and died, but not before purchasing land that turned out to be a scam. His relatives spent years fighting a court case there about that land.
Before the settlement, one of Kenneth’s daughters married and her husband sold her interest in her father’s estate before she could even inherit it.
A brother Robert, who was ultimately named administrator, beat one of the slaves (Boston) so badly, his siblings sued for damages.
The allotment or division of enslaved property is one of the most difficult things to find when researching slaveowners. In many cases, it can’t be found.
If I stopped searching Kenneth’s records after reviewing just the will and court books, I would have missed that critical document.
Always research every available court record.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.