I am in a state of genealogic shock. I’ve found another family line of free blacks that no one knew about in our family.
My ancestor Martha Simpson was the wife of Levi Prather. I’ve been working hard to unravel the complicated slave relationships in the Prather family of Montgomery County, Maryland.
So, I hadn’t yet gotten around to researching Martha’s roots. Until now.
Clues to Freedom
Recently, I began thinking Martha may have been free before 1864, the year Maryland freed all slaves. I found her sister Leanna and brother James as freedpeople in the 1860 census. It was reasonable to think that Martha was free as well.
But there was a better reason for my suspicion: our family has several pages from a Prather family bible.
It provides exact dates births and deaths of some of the Simpson family:
It is unlikely that enslaved people would have known exact birthdates dating from the 1840s.
I found Martha living with the white William Warfield family in 1860. However, she was in neighboring Howard County instead of Montgomery County, where she later resided:
The Howard County location surprised me, although it shouldn’t have. Genealogists should always research neighboring counties.
However, I still wasn’t convinced this was MY Martha, even though the age matched. After all, we can’t just match names. We have to make sure it is the same person.
This is a good example of the benefits of cluster research. (Clustering is the strategy of looking for groups of people associated with your ancestors).
I studied Martha and Levi’s 1870 census neighborhood in Montgomery County for a long time. I knew they lived near other black families with the surname Warfield.
Where was Martha in 1850?
I looked in the census and there she was. Martha and her siblings. Living as free blacks in Howard County in 1850! Even better: they were with (presumably) their mother Louisa.
The actual image is bad, so I will transcribe the entry:
Louisa Simpson, 33
Harriet L [Leanna], 11
Mary E, 9
James W, 7
Joseph W, 5
Martha J, 4
Minta L, 3 [?]
Finding Louisa’s name extended my tree another generation. This family was unusual because we knew the name of their father only, Perry Simpson. (Later, I discovered that Perry was owned by the Warfield family.)
It was their mother’s name that had been lost to history. Perry was still enslaved in 1850, and perhaps that is why his name is not shown in the household.
Chills ran up my spine when I saw this census record for another reason: I live in Howard County! To think that my ancestors lived here over 150 years ago is just earth-shattering. It’s one of those moments where you feel like the ancestors are nudging us to find them.
It gets better. Howard County was formally organized in 1851 from Anne Arundel County. Freedom certificates, manumission and chattel records for both counties are available on the Archives of Maryland website. Just, WOW.
In these records, I discovered a manumission from Ann Dorsey dated August 1816, of the following enslaved people:
Lyd, age 30
Harriot, age 11
Eliza, age 3
**Louisa, 18 months
Gustavus Warfield and Humphrey Dorsey served as witnesses to this transaction. Could the baby Louisa be the same Louisa who was Martha Simpson’s mother? Maybe. Genealogy is all about making a hypothesis and then doing the research.
On a broader note, its clear that Martha’s 1870 community of mostly former slaves had roots in many of the “first families” of Anne Arundel and Howard Counties. These families include the surnames Dorsey, Worthington, Simpson, Warfield, Chase, and Hall.
Many former slaves carried those surnames. It was also the practice for many of these families to intermarry.
I was also fortunate to find at GoogleBooks a copy of The Founders of Anne Arundel and Howard Counties.” It was written by Joshua Dorsey Warfield in 1905.
This is such a rewarding and thrilling discovery. I haven’t been speechless in a long time.
Martha was here. She was right under my nose the whole time.
(Update 2018: Later, I found descendants of her sister Harriet).
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.