Everyone researching enslaved ancestors eventually reaches the last slave. They find their ancestor in an an inventory or will or other official document. Usually, that’s as far as it goes. My ancestor Martha provides a good example.
In the 1860 Howard County, Maryland household of William R. Warfield, my great-great-grandmother Martha Simpson was a servant. She was a free black. Slave Statistics, available in some Maryland counties, are a set of records that connects slaveholders with the names of their former slaves:
This document shows that Warfield owned Martha’s father, Perry Simpson. Perry married a free black woman named Louisa.
Free blacks often married enslaved people. We should remember this fact, especially in areas like Virginia and Maryland where there were large numbers of free blacks.
Using the basic methodology for researching slaves, I checked the probate records of William Warfield’s father and found Perry listed as a young boy:
I can’t say exactly who Perry’s mother is; there are three women of appropriate age to be his mother in the inventory. (Update, 2018: further analysis revealed his mother’s name was Minty!)
The Last One
This is the last relevant document I have on this branch of the family. For many of us researching enslaved ancestors, this is usually “the end of the road.” This is what I mean by finding the last slave. I’ve written about this on my blog before.
Most of the time, enslaved people are not listed by family. If you are lucky, you may find personal papers, bible or court records. You my find freedmen’s bank or pension records that name the parents or siblings of that enslaved individual. Mariann Regan’s blog, “Into the Briar Patch,” discusses the type of record a slaveowner might have that would be priceless for the descendants of slaves.
Nevertheless, the vast majority of us will hit a brick wall at that estate inventory.
I had a hard time coming to grips with that reality. There’s a sadness, a melancholy for me. I so badly want to know who Malinda’s mother was, who Harriet’s mother was. Margaret was alone at the age of 13–what happened to her mother?
Who were their fathers? It’s like the fathers never were, the tragic inevitability of a system built on sexual exploitation. Was Sarah, my earliest documented ancestor born ca. 1750, an African woman? She easily could have been. Was she Igbo, Mende or Angolan? I have so many unanswered questions.
People love to ask how far back you’ve gotten in your genealogy. That isn’t the most important thing to me. Most African-Americans are fortunate to trace roots back to the 1800s. A smaller number of us can trace back to the 1700s.
In some sense, everyone comes to end of the documented record. For many Europeans it may be much earlier, perhaps the 1500’s in Russia, Ireland, England or some other Old World country. But at least they know most times what country their ancestors were from, something erased from most African-Americans because of slavery.
Why We Do This
Someone asked me recently why I do genealogy. What makes it interesting or meaningful? I had to pause. What makes me continue to spend thousands of hours in courthouses, archives, libraries, in books and online? To spend endless weeks in meetings and blogging, learning about resources and methods, always digging for more, more and more? I realized it’s not just any one thing.
Initially, it is the new information, the puzzles we crack, the names we uncover that drives us. Discovery is always simply thrilling in and of itself. It’s an adrenaline rush. I would have never dreamed of finding free black ancestors in the early 1800s or that my Tennessee roots really started in Alabama.
But its also something much more. Because of the tragedy of slavery, I consider it a radical act to seek out and explore the lives of enslaved people. In that process I am truly “reclaiming” pieces of myself. This feels like a calling to me.
It is through researching my family that history has been made real for me.
It makes me look at my own life so very differently than I would have had I not known any of this.
So even though many roads will lead to and end with a name in an estate inventory, it still has tremendous meaning for me. I honor and celebrate the lives that could not be celebrated in their own time and believe their spirits are smiling at the remembrance of their name. The search continues.
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.