There have been only a few times in the 18 years of my research that have truly taken my breath away. I just had another one.
John Campbell Henry’s Inventory
I was researching the possible owners of a group of former slaves from Dorchester County, Maryland. John Campbell Henry died in 1857. A former governor of Maryland, he was a prominent person and a planter. I’ve reviewed hundreds of inventories, but boy was there a big surprise in store for me.
I have never seen–and would bet that I never will again–an estate inventory that lists surnames for all the slaves. Slave surnames are always a topic of debate. This is a powerful reminder that slaves had surnames. By custom and practice, their surnames were not usually recorded by slaveowners. Sometimes we find them recorded in runaway advertisements.
Although I’ve seen surnames attached to a few names in an estate inventory, never have I seen ALL the surnames recorded.
The inventory provides some relationships, noting the mothers of some of the children, and some married couples. Notice the number of different surnames, which speaks to the jumbled-up nature of enslaved people’s lives.
They were bought and sold and inherited such that over time it was not uncommon to find groups enslaved together with many different surnames.
A Powerful Statement
Emotionally, seeing this hit me powerfully. It was like a small admission of the humanity of enslaved people, which so much of slavery tried to destroy.
These were people with families; not animals, not farm equipment, not silverware.
This is a one in a million document. Had more individuals who recorded estate inventories taken this approach, genealogical research would be so much easier for those of us researching enslaved ancestors.
[UPDATE: I’ve gotten several requests for the source of this document. It has been digitized and is available at Familysearch.org. Within the probate records for Dorchester County, Maryland, this inventory is in Inventories 1857-1858, Volume THH, no.7, pp. 2-4. These are the pages that list the enslaved property; the estate inventory is larger.]
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.