Usually its because we come across a person or circumstance that is of interest.
My 3rd great-grandfather, Perry Simpson, married a woman named Margaret Fleet. Her family is fascinating, even though she technically is not a blood relative.
After Margaret and Perry married, they moved to Montgomery County, Maryland. But Margaret was originally from Washington, D.C.
She appears in the 1850, 1860, and 1870 census records in the 1st Ward of Washington D.C. She was a free black woman before general emancipation.
This is the record that made me take a closer look at the Fleets (click to enlarge):
I was fascinated by the fact that Mary’s father’s birthplace was Mexico. Was this a fluke? Was he really Mexican? I started tracking this family through the available records.
Margaret birthed many children before her marriage to Perry; nine according to the 1900 census. However, no known record documents a marriage to any other man.
Free Blacks in D.C.
In 1850, Margaret was a free black woman in a city bursting with contradictions. Enslaved but “quasi-free” people, lived alongside thousands of free blacks.
Quasi-free enslaved people had to pay their owner’s a monthly fee, but otherwise lived on their own.
In 1850, the slave trade was finally outlawed in D.C.
During the next decade, events would continue to escalate around slavery, culminating in Civil War. In 1862, slavery was outlawed in D.C., creating a haven for thousands of enslaved people from the surrounding states.
First Freed: Washington D.C. in the Emancipation Era, edited by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, describes the lives of African-Americans in D.C. at that time.
A Gifted Family
Margaret came from a family of skilled artisans. Her father was Henry Fleet Jr., a free black shoemaker from Georgetown.
He learned the trade from his father, Henry Fleet Sr. Today, Georgetown is a mecca of white wealth and privilege, but it was historically home to a thriving freed black community.
Henry Fleet Sr. purchased his wife Ann and 5 or 6 children, whom he later freed. Henry Fleet Sr. was doing well enough that several boys were apprenticed to him in the early 1800s to learn the trade of shoemaking.
An 1803 apprenticeship document noted that “he [Henry Sr.] purchased his son Henry Jr. in 1812.” It mentions that the son was also a shoemaker.
This family history obviously helped Margaret. She was assessed $25 in the brand new federal tax system as a Retail Liquor Dealer in 1864, while living at K Street and 21st street.
In 1870, Margaret’s daughters Annie and Cora were both dressmakers. Dressmaking was a skilled occupation, and one of the best for a free black woman of that era.
I wonder if they knew Elizabeth Keckley, the famous free black dressmaker for Mrs. Lincoln? My guess is yes.
In that same 1870 census, 100 year old Sarah Carter, Margaret’s mother, lived with her! Margaret also owned $1000 worth of real estate, no small feat for a black person, much less a black female.
In 1873, Margaret opened an account with the Washington D.C. branch of the Freedmen’s Bank. She named her new husband Perry and her children:
Margaret’s sons Robert and Edward also opened accounts.
Children Fathered By Whom?
Most of Margaret’s children can be tracked through their marriages, vital records, land records, burial records and city directories in D.C. The death certificate of her daughter Annett names “Greg Jarvis” as her father.
Greg Jarvis appeared in the 1850 and 1860 Washington D.C. census in the 1st ward. By 1860 he was married with children (though not to Margaret):
In these records, Jarvis is described as from Mexico (1850) and also New Mexico (1860). New Mexico was not yet a state; it was the Territory of New Mexico. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended The Mexican War.
It is unclear whether Gregory is from the Territory or the country. Either way, I wonder what would have brought him to the nation’s capitol?
Jarvis was described as a mulatto in 1850 and as white with an Irish wife in 1860. What his racial background is unknown, especially given the made-up and ever-changing racial categories.
This man apparently headed two families: one black, one white. Documents tie him to at least three of Margaret’s children.
A 1911 mortgage executed in Montgomery County noted Margaret’s date of death and listed all of her heirs living at the time:
Edward G. Fleet, Sr. & wife Lucinda William Fleet & his wife Blossie, Mary Fleet, widow Harry Fleet, unmarried, Anna Grant, widow Cora Lemos, widow Augustus Fleet & his wife Sarah, Mary Lemos & her husband Beverly
Margaret, amazingly, lived into her early 90s, long enough to leave a death certificate:
Margaret’s life was pretty interesting and only goes to prove that sometimes veering off-course is absolutely well worth it.
As an added bonus, two of Margaret’s daughters married two brothers, Charles and Beverly Lemos. Read about the amazing thing that happened to them.
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.