I have been researching Giles Holt for 13 years now. He enslaved my ancestor, Malinda Holt.

I’d had this thought many times about Malinda Holt. I concluded about a year ago that I may never find out where and how Giles acquired her.

There’s simply a limit to the written records. At some point, accepting this and being happy about what I had discovered seemed the right thing to do.

Unable to Find the Purchase of Slaves

For Giles life, I am now back to the timeframe of the early 1800s. For many locales (unless you’re lucky enough to be in one of the original colonies) that’s the end of the road for written records.

Because slaves were considered personal property, they could also be purchased with no surviving record of their purchase.

Perhaps they were purchased at a slave auction, with no surviving record. Or maybe they were purchased in the Upper South and marched overland deeper South. Maybe they were brought from a neighbor. They could have been gained through a court order, due to debt.

There’s always the possibility that some clerk searching in a dusty courthouse closet will uncover a trove of unprocessed records. Maybe some person’s passing will result in their family papers being donated to a university archives.

Or, that sometime in the future, records closed to the public now will become open. Barring that (which I’ll always hold out hope for) I can be proud of the job I’ve done fleshing out Giles’ very complicated life and part of Malinda’s.

I thought I’d share some of the things I discovered about Giles, and in particular what documents helped me in those discoveries.

Life of Giles Holt

Giles was born ca. 1790 in Amelia County, VA to Jesse and Mary Holt. In the early 1800s he migrated to Smith County, TN, a popular migration route at the time.

Tennessee was still considered “frontierland” and many sons wanted to head south/west and start their own fortunes. Giles was married by 1820, with a large family in Smith County, TN, and he was still there in 1830.

By 1840, he moved further westward to Hardin County, TN, where he died in 1876. Giles served in the Union army, at odds with many of his sons who served in the Confederacy. He had between 11-15 children.

Because of the spareness of census records during this timeframe, it was county level records that provided critical details about Giles’ life.

Early on in my research, descendants of the slaveowner provided me the info about his migration and possible parents. I still had to gather the evidence myself, which took years.


One complicating factor with any migration is proving that the Giles Holt in Amelia County, VA is the same Giles Holt in Smith and Hardin County, TN.

A power of attorney, recorded in a deed book, helped tie my Giles’ to both his mother and his VA roots. Chancery court and probate records also helped.

Never assume two people are one identity based on age and name solely. Identity is more than name. 

The other problem was the existence of other Holt families living near the Giles Holt family both in VA and TN. Chancery court records, probate records and tax records helped me to distinguish the families.

Giles Holt married at least 4 times, divorcing at least once, possibly twice. The wives were difficult to determine; Giles’ first wife is never directly named in any document.

None of his marriages had surviving records. However, I uncovered a premarital agreement and a divorce and criminal complaint (along with post 1850 censuses) that helped sort them out.

Several bills of sale listing slaves in 1843 and 1845 were important pieces in identifying Giles’ ownership of my ancestor.

Malinda lived near Giles in 1870. She died in 1881, though she does not appear on the 1880 census. I proudly (and unexpectedly) located her headstone in the local cemetery.

The critical period for Giles’ acquiring slaves was his time as a young man in Smith County, TN  while he was presumably growing his large family.

He moved there with one slave (whom he later sold along with her 4 children), and by 1840 when he moved to Hardin County, he had 10 slaves.

Closing Thoughts

The nature of slavery was so colossal and tragic. That feeling never escapes my mind for long.

Unfortunately, Smith County, TN is has missing records. If there was once thing I really needed to discover more about Malinda’s roots, it would be more available records in this county during the early 1800s.

Although I may never find anything documenting how Giles came to own Malinda, I do find solace in the knowledge that I’ve gone this far.

I rediscovered Malinda’s life and voice and at least some of the details of an enslaved ancestor.

I think Malinda would be proud;)

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